NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
Verses 17-18: When a crowd gathered, Pilate said to them, “I will free one man for you. Which one do you want me to free: Bar-Abbas or Jesus who is called the Messiah?” Pilate knew that they had handed Jesus over to him because they were envious of Him.
We might say that Pilate’s question was similar to that of Elijah on Mount Carmel, “You must decide what you are going to do. How long will you keep jumping from one side to the other? If the Lord is the true God, follow Him. But if Baal is the true God, then follow him!”1 It appears that Pilate asked this question with a bit of sarcasm because Matthew records that Pilate knew full well the Jewish leaders had brought Yeshua the Son of God to him out of envy.
The Greek word “phthonos” is translated here by the KJV as “envy,” the same word given in the Aramaic Version. Several English translations use the English term, “jealousy.” But there is a subtle difference between the two. Jealous means: “apprehensive or vengeful out of fear of being replaced by someone else.” It can also mean “watchful,” “anxiously suspicious,” “zealous,” or “expecting complete devotion.” Envy means: “to bear a grudge toward someone due to coveting what that person has or enjoys.” In a milder sense, it means “the longing for something someone else has with or without any ill will intended toward that person.” So we can clearly see that these religious leaders were envious of the adoration and praise the followers of Jesus gave Him as being a messenger sent from God.
When we add up all the things Jewish leaders were saying about Jesus we might be persuaded to combine the two into one, jealous-envy. Since Barabbas had been imprisoned because of his seditious acts against the Romans, Pontius Pilate could be seen here as playing a game of cat and mouse in order to free Jesus by order of the people, not by his order. He knew Barabbas would be popular with the Jews because of his anti-Roman activities. Naturally, Pilate must have jailed him to keep peace in Judea. But by offering Barabbas to the people, Pilate was really saying: If you chose Barabbas whom I have imprisoned as an insurrectionist against the power of Rome, that will be a slap against me. If, however, you chose to save Jesus, whom you hate, that may be a slap at you, but it will keep me in favor of you.
Yet, as we see, the Jews willingly took a swipe at Pilate by letting his enemy go free while getting rid of their own foe. By playing such a game, Pilate ended up twice a loser. The crowd chose a man who a man with a common name that did not lift any eyebrows because of its uniqueness but only because of his sordid reputation. Yet, these jealous-envious Jewish leaders were willing to overlook the spotless reputation of Yeshua the Messiah. Then Matthew’s account takes a twist.
Verse 19: While Pilate was sitting there in the place for judging, his wife sent a message to him. It said, “Don’t do anything with that man. He is not guilty. Last night I had a dream about Him, and it troubled me very much.”
For some reason, the attempted intervention by Pilate’s wife struck Matthew as being so heroic that he felt inspired to include it in his Gospel. Although no name for her is given here, according to one Jewish source her name was Abrokla.2 Some identify this as a Jewish name, which means she would be much like the wife of governor Felix.3 We find that Pilate’s wife is mentioned in the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus (probably written around the middle of the 4th century), which gives a more elaborate version of the wife’s dream than Matthew. It is said that she was referred to in the text as Procula, but this is not apparent in the English version.4
According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, she is called, Claudia Procula. Historical references suggest Claudia was the illegitimate daughter of Julia, Augustus Caesar’s only natural offspring. During her first two marriages, Julia had numerous lovers, and upon the death of her second husband she married Tiberius. Some psychologists suggest that this was the result of losing her father at a young age. Julia’s lewd and scandalous lifestyle continued, and so distressed her father Augustus that he banished her from Rome and allowed Tiberius to divorce her. While in exile she gave birth to Claudia and shortly thereafter died. After Tiberius became Emperor, he found favor in Claudia and adopted her as his own daughter.
Then, a document called “Claudia’s Scroll” was translated from an ancient Latin Manuscript first found in a Monastery in Bruges, Belgium where it had lain for centuries and is now referenced within the Vatican archives. A letter, purportedly written in Latin by Pilate’s wife from “a little Gallic mountain town” several years after Pilate left Jerusalem, was first published in English by Pictorial Review Magazine in April 1929. In the letter, it states that Pilate’s wife successfully sought Jesus’ aid to heal the crippled foot of her son Pilo.
Verse 20: Now the leading priests and older Jewish leaders told the people to ask for Barabbas to be set free and for Jesus to be killed.
Matthew wants his readers to know before he shares the record of what happened next, that the whole response of the crowd was a setup. It was orchestrated by the leading priests and elders to put pressure on Pilate in order to get their way. So we can certainly say that the cry that went up asking for crucifixion was not spontaneous, it was prearranged.
Early church scholar Origen also sees this collaboration of evil intent on the part of the Jewish leaders. He writes: “It is evident how the elders and the mentors of Jewish worship have stirred up the Jewish people and incited them against Jesus, that they might destroy Him and have Barabbas released. For the crowds put their belief in their leaders and priests. The crowd—a truly sizable crowd walking, as it were, on the ‘broad path that leads to destruction5 — sought and kept crying out to have Barabbas released to them.”6
Verses 21-22: Pilate said, “I have Barabbas and Jesus. Which one do you want me to set free for you?” The people yelled, ‘Barabbas!’ Pilate asked, “So what should I do with Jesus, the one called the Messiah?” All the people said, “Crucify Him on a cross!’”
We can see that the crowd was coached by the leading Jews to ask for Barabbas. So this was not a spontaneous decision by a majority, it was contrived and orchestrated. Even now, during political demonstrations, when participators are often asked why they are there they have less than a heartfelt response. It almost sounds rehearsed. I’m sure this was not lost on Pilate nor Jesus. Pilate was trying to arrange a political solution to avoid a riot, while Jesus was firmly committed to seeing His mission through to the end.
Also, in one book written in 1629 on the various types of instruments used in crucifixions, we see that the cross was a form of Roman punishment to be inflicted on the vilest and meanest and worst of men, such as seditionists, wicked servants, thieves, and murderers.7 It was intended to be not only a torturing and painful death, but a very shameful and ignominious one. So it makes you wonder why the leading priests and elders of the Jewish nation would contrive to have one of their own put to death in such a horrible way. From all that has been said up to this point, it appears that His loss was nothing to them compared to what they saw as their loss in status and demotion as spiritual leaders of God’s people. That’s what made them famous, respected, wealthy, and feared by the people and the occupation forces. But Pilate was having trouble with the same feelings. If a riot broke out, he could easily be accused of not keeping law and order under Roman rule and therefore easily replaceable. So he decided to compromise just enough to keep the Jewish religious leaders happy.
1 I Kings 18:21
2 Hiob Ludolph, op. cit., p. 554
3 Acts of the Apostles 24:24
4 The Gospel of Nicodemus, op. cit. Ch. 2:1
5 Matthew 7:13
6 Origen: Commentary on Matthew 123
7 De Cruce Liber Tres by Justus Lipsius