Release Barabbas! Did the Gospel Writers Make That Up

By: Rev. Sam Harris; ©2000
What extra-biblical evidence supports the release of Barabbas by Pilate? Or, as some critics claim, was that strictly a “Gospel writer’s fabrication”?

“Release Barabbas!” Did the Gospel Writers Make That Up?


I was recently watching a TLC program about Jesus. Ostensibly, they were looking for the “real” or “historical” Jesus. Needless to say, I was highly skeptical about nearly everything they presented. According to one of the “scholars,” the notion of Pilate releasing a prisoner at Passover was strictly a Gospel writer’s fabrication. Is there any extra-biblical evidence to support the passage in Mark 15:6-15?


You watch a program like this and question many of the things said while others will “buy” into this without discerning any conflicts with the Bible. This only affirms how impor­tant it is to know, study, and discern God’s Word as revealed by the Holy Spirit Who leads us into all truth (John 16:13).

The particular passage you referenced concerning Pilate releasing a prisoner is found in all four of the Gospels which is significant: Matthew 27:15-26; Mark 15:6-15; Luke 23:17- 25; and John 18:39 & 40. If you do a parallel study of the Gospels, you will find that on a number of occasions, not all of the writers would report the same incident.

According to The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Frank E. Gaebelein, General Editor, c. 1984, Vol. 8, page 773f: “The custom referred to of releasing a prisoner at the Passover Feast is unknown outside the Gospels. It was, however, a Roman custom and could well have been a custom in Palestine. An example of a Roman official releasing a prisoner on the demands of the people occurs in the Papyrus Florentinus 61:59ff. There the Roman governor of Egypt, G. Septimus Vegetus, says to Phibion, the accused: ‘Thou has been worthy of scourging, but I will give thee to the people’.”

The evidence of this Roman custom is also confirmed in The Interpreter’s Bible, c. 1951, Vol. 7, page 594, where we read: “The custom of amnesties (a general pardon) at festival times is known the world over. It used to be said that there was no evidence for such a proceeding in Palestine at this time, but there is a Talmudical rule that a paschal lamb may be slaughtered for one who has been promised release from prison.” This can be found in an article by C. B. Chavel, “The Releasing of a Prisoner on the Eve of Pass­over in Ancient Jerusalem,” Journal of Biblical Literature, LX (1941), pp. 273-78.

As a Christian, I choose to believe that all of Scripture is the infallible Word of God, is uniquely and fully inspired by the Holy Spirit, and is the supreme and final authority on all matters on which it speaks. If I begin with this premise, then I fully accept Pilate’s releasing of Barabbas at the request of the crowd as I believe that the gospel writers were inspired by the Holy Spirit to convey this important part of fulfilling God’s plan for us.

The testimony of John was: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Jesus was the “paschal lamb” who set us free.


  1. […] Rev. Sam. “Release Barabbas! Did the Gospel Writers Make That Up?” John Ankerberg Show. Ankerberg Theological Research Institute, 15 Dec. 2015. Web. 10 Apr. […]

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