Verse 40. "Barabbas was a robber" - See Matt. xxvii. 16.
The later Syriac has in the margin, arcilhsthv, a chief robber, a captain of banditti, and it is probable that this was the case. He was not only a person who lived by plunder, but shed the blood of many of those whom he and his gang robbed, and rose up against the Roman government, as we learn from Luke xxiii. 19. There never existed a more perfidious, cruel, and murderous people than these Jews; and no wonder they preferred a murderer to the Prince of peace. Christ himself had said, If ye were of the world, the world would love its own. Like cleaves to like: hence we need not be surprised to find the vilest things still preferred to Christ, his kingdom, and his salvation.
1. IT is not easy to give the character of Pilate. From the manner of his conduct, we scarcely can tell when he is in jest or in earnest. He appears to have been fully convinced of the innocence of Christ; and that the Jews, through envy and malice, desired his destruction. On this ground he should have released him; but he was afraid to offend the Jews. He knew they were an uneasy, factious, and seditious people; and he was afraid to irritate them. Fiat justitia, ruat caelum! was no motto of his. For fear of the clamours of this bad people, he permitted all the forms and requisitions of justice to be outraged, and abandoned the most innocent Jesus to their rage and malice. In this case he knew what was truth, but did not follow its dictates; and he as hastily abandoned the author of it as he did the question he had asked concerning it. Pilate, it is true, was disposed to pity-the Jews were full of malice and cruelty. They both, however, joined in the murder of our Lord. The most that we can say for Pilate is, that he was disposed to justice, but was not inclined to hazard his comfort or safety in doing it.
He was an easy, pliable man, who had no objection to do a right thing if it should cost him no trouble; but he felt no disposition to make any sacrifice, even in behalf of innocence, righteousness, and truth. In all the business Pilate showed that he was not a good man; and the Jews proved that they were of their father, the devil. See chap. xix. 8.
2. As Dr. Lightfoot has entered into a regular examination of when and how the Jews lost the power of life and death in criminal cases, it may be necessary to lay before the reader a copious abstract of his researches on this subject, founded on chap. xviii. 31.
"It cannot be denied that all capital judgment, or sentence upon life, had been taken from the Jews for above forty years before the destruction of Jerusalem, as they oftentimes themselves confess. But how came this to pass? It is commonly received that the Romans, at this time the Jews' lords and masters, had taken from all their courts a power and capacity of judging the capital matters. Let us superadd a few things here. Rabh Cahna saith, When R. Ismael bar Jose lay sick, they sent to him, saying, Pray, sir, tell us two or three things which thou didst once tell us in the name of thy Father. He saith to them, A hundred and fourscore years before the destruction of the temple, the wicked kingdom (the Roman empire) reigned over Israel, fourscore years before the destruction of the temple, they (the fathers of the Sanhedrin) determined about the uncleanness of the heathen land, and about glass vessels. Forty years before the destruction of the temple, the Sanhedrin removed and sat in the Taberne. What is the meaning of this tradition? Rabbi Isaac bar Abdimi saith, They did not judge judgments of mulcts. The gloss is, Those are the judgments about fining any that offered violence, that entice a maid, and the price of a servant.
When, therefore, they did not sit in the room Gazith, they did not judge about these things, and so those judgments about mulcts or fines ceased.
Avodoh Zarah. fol. 82. Here we have one part of their judiciary power lost; not taken away from them by the Romans, but falling of itself, as it were, out of the hands of the Sanhedrin. Nor did the Rom. indeed take away their power of judging in capital matters; but they, by their own oscitancy, supine and unreasonable lenity, lost it themselves, for so the Gemara goes on: Rabh Hachman bar Isaac saith, Let him not say that they did not judge judgments of mulcts, for they did not judge capital judgments either. And whence comes this? When they saw that so many murders and homicides multiplied upon them that they could not well judge and call them to account, they said, It is better for us that we remove from place to place; for how can we otherwise (sitting here and not punishing them) not contract guilt upon ourselves? "They thought themselves obliged to punish murderers while they sat in the room Gazith, for the place itself engaged them to it. They are the words of the Gemarists, upon which the gloss. The room Gazith was half of it within, and half of it without, the holy place. The reason of which was, that it was requisite that the council should sit near the Divine Majesty. Hence it is that they say, Whoever constitutes an unfit judge is as if he planted a grove by the altar of the Lord, as it is written, Judges and officers shalt thou make thee; and it follows presently after, Thou shalt not plant thee a grove near the altar of the Lord thy God, Deut. xvi. 18, 21. They removed therefore from Gazith, and sat in the Taberne; now though the Taberne were upon the mountain of the temple, yet they did not sit so near the Divine Majesty there as they did when they sat in the room Gazith.
"Let us now in order put the whole matter together.
"I. The Sanhedrin were most stupidly and unreasonably remiss in their punishment of capital offenders; going upon this reason especially, that they counted it so horrible a thing to put an Israelite to death. Forsooth, he is of the seed of Abraham, of the blood and stock of Israel, and you must have a care how you touch such a one! "R. Eliezer bar Simeon had laid hold on some thieves. R. Joshua bar Korchah sent to him, saying, O thou vinegar, the son of good wine! (i.e. O thou wicked son of a good father!) how long wilt thou deliver the people of God to the slaughter! He answered and said, I root the thorns out of the vineyard. To whom the other: Let the Lord of the vineyard come and root them out himself. Bava Meziah, fol. 83, 2. It is worth noting, that the very thieves of Israel are the people of God; and they must not be touched by any man, but referred to the judgment of God himself! "When R. Ismael bar R. Jose was constituted a magistrate by the king, there happened some such thing to him; for Elias himself rebuked him, saying, How long wilt thou deliver over the people of God to slaughter! Ibid. fol. 64, 1. Hence that which we alleged elsewhere: The Sanhedrin that happens to sentence any one to death within the space of seven years, is termed a destroyer. R. Eliezer ben Azariah saith it is so, if they should but condemn one within seventy years. Maccoth, fol. 7, 1.
"II. It is obvious to any one how this foolish remissness, and letting loose the reins of judgment, would soon increase the numbers of robbers, murderers, and all kinds of wickedness; and indeed they did so abundantly multiply that the Sanhedrin neither could nor durst, as it ought, call the criminals to account. The law slept, while wickedness was in the height of its revels; and punitive justice was so out of countenance that as to uncertain murders they made no search, and against certain ones they framed no judgement. Since the time that homicides multiplied, the beheading the heifer ceased. Sotoh, fol. 47, 1. And in the place before quoted in Avodah: When they saw the numbers of murderers so greatly increase that they could not sit in judgment upon them, they said, Let us remove, &c., fol. 8, 2. So in the case of adultery, which we also observed in our notes on chap. viii. 3-11. Since the time that adultery so openly advanced, under the second temple, they left off trying the adultress by the bitter water, &c. Mainaon. in Sotoh, cap. 3.
"So that, we see, the liberty of judging in capital matters was no more taken from the Jews by the Romans than the beheading of the heifer, or the trial of the suspected wife by the bitter waters, was taken away by them, which no one will affirm. It is a tradition of R. Chaia, from the day wherein the temple was destroyed, though the Sanhedrin ceased, yet the four kinds of death (which were wont to be inflicted by the Sanhedrin) did not cease.
For he that had deserved to be stoned to death, either fell off from some house, or some wild beast tore and devoured him. He that had deserved burning, either fell into some fire, or some serpent bit him. He that had deserved to be slain (i.e. with the sword) was either delivered into the hands of some heathen king, or was murdered by robbers. He that had deserved strangling, was either drowned in some river, or choked by a squinancy.
"This must be observed from the evangelists, that when they had Christ in examination in the palace of the high priest all night, in the morning the whole Sanhedrin met that they might pass sentence of death upon him.
Where then was this that they met? Questionless in the room Gazith-at least if they adhered to their own rules and constitutions: Thither they betook themselves sometimes upon urgent necessity. The gloss before quoted excepts only the case of murder, with which, amongst all their false accusations, they never charged Christ.
"But, however, suppose it were granted that the great council met either in the Taberne, or some other place, (which yet agreed by no means with their own tradition,) did they deal truly, and as the matter really and indeed was, with Pilate, when they tell him, It is not lawful for us to put any man to death? He had said to them, Take ye him and judge him according to your laws. We have indeed judged and condemned him, but we cannot put any one to death. Was this that they said in fact true? How came they then to stone the proto- martyr Stephen? How came they to stone Ben Sarda at Lydda? Hieros. Sanhed. fol. 25, 4. How came they to burn the priest's daughter alive that was taken in adultery? Bab. Sanhed. fol. 52, 1, and 51, 1. It is probable that they had not put any one to death as yet, since the time that they had removed out of Gazith, and so might the easier persuade Pilate in that case. But their great design was to throw off the odium of Christ's death from themselves; at least among the vulgar crowd; fearing them, if the council should have decreed his execution. They seek this evasion, therefore, which did not altogether want some colour and pretext of truth; and it succeeded according to what they desired. Divine Providence so ordering it as the evangelist intimates, chap. xviii. 32, That the saying of Jesus might be fulfilled, which he spake signifying what death he should die: that is, be crucified according to the custom of the Romans.
While I am upon this thought, I cannot but reflect upon that passage, than which nothing is more worthy observation in the whole description of the Roman beast in the Revelation, Rev. xiii. 4. The dragon which gave power to the beast. We cannot say this of the Assyrian, Babylonish, or any other monarchy; for the Holy Scriptures do not say it. But reason dictates, and the event itself tells us, that there was something acted by the Roman empire in behalf of the dragon, which was not compatible with any other, that is, the putting of the Son of God to death. Which thing we must remember as often as we recite that article of our creed, 'He suffered under Pontius Pilate,' that is, was put to death by the Roman empire,"