Saturday, 7 April 2012

Would Pontius Pilate have Released a Prisoner at Passover?

This is a question I’ve heard raised from a few sceptics previously. It stems from a popular strain of thought that suggests the more sceptical of something you are the more critical you are being. However the problem is that if such a level of ‘hyper-scepticism’ were used for any other ancient events or figures we would know very little about anything in the past. This leaves people espousing radical scepticism no more critical than those whose credulity may lead them to the same or other conclusions, as vocal as they may be.

A type of informal logical fallacy known as an argument from silence is being used, what this means is someone draws a positive conclusion from the silence of a person or event. The argument from silence is unanimously recognised amongst historians to be one of the weaker weapons in the historians arsenal. Specifically here the argument used to deny that the gospels are correct in their recording of Pilates release of a prisoner at Passover (Mk 15:6, Mat 27:15, Luke 23:17 and John 18:39). It's argued that because there is no record of Pilate taking part in this custom outside of the New Testament it therefore is unlikely to have occurred. Now I may not be able to prove that this happened but it can be shown with a fair amount of certainty that it was most likely a historical event. All four Gospels record the practice of releasing a prisoner at Passover and its likely that Johns Gospel does so independently of the other three.

Although space doesn’t permit now, the gospel writers deserve the benefit of the doubt when it comes to ancient history and culture. They have proved to be accurate whenever they have commented on history, ancient customs or geography even when initially faced with unwarranted scepticism. The gospels are unanimously clear in their recording of Pilates pardoning and releasing of a prisoner at Passover.

Although there are no sources outside the New Testament specifically involving Pilate taking part in this practice, there are however sources that record examples of other Roman governors releasing prisoners, even at Passover. If other Roman governors had practised something similar at various times then such scepticism in the case of Pontius Pilate doing such is unwarranted.

1. Josephus records that when the Roman governor Albinus was preparing to leave office he released prisoners who had been incarcerated for crimes other than murder. 'he was desirous to appear to do somewhat that might be grateful to the people of Jerusalem; so he brought out all those prisoners who seemed to him to be most plainly worthy of death, and ordered them to be put to death accordingly. But as to those who had been put into prison on some trifling occasions, he took money of them, and dismissed them; by which means the prisons were indeed emptied, but the country was filled with robbers.' (Antiquities 20.9.3).

2. In the Mishnah (Jewish oral tradition, written in around AD 300) it records that “they may slaughter the passover lamb for one….whom they have promised to bring out of prison”. Now its not exactly clear but this certainly records a prisoner being released specifically at Passover.

3.A piece of papyrus also records a Roman governor of Egypt saying: “You were worthy of scourging but I gave you to the crowds.” (P.Flor 61, c. AD 85).

 4. Pliny the younger from one of his early second century letters also has something important to note on such practices and who had responsibility to do so, "It was asserted, however, that these people were released upon their petition to the proconsuls, or their lieutenants; which seems likely enough, as it is improbable any person should have dared to set them at liberty without authority" (Epistles 10.31).

 5. The author William Lane states ‘There is….. a parallel in Roman law which indicates that an imperial magistrate could pardon and acquit individual prisoners in response to the shouts of the populace’ (The Gospel according to Mark, p. 553).

Now although none of these examples are identical to the one in question, they do demonstrate to us that it is indeed plausible that Pontius Pilate took part in a custom that stipulated the release of a prisoner at Passover. Along with the Gospel accounts these ancient examples provide a strong case for the historicity of such a practice.

Three things sceptics assume and ignore when looking at this particular event:

1. They have made the unfounded assumption that the Gospels are untrustworthy and unreliable when recording things pertaining to history and culture, not only the miraculous.

2. They have to argue from silence rather than present positive evidence proving that such an event never occurred in the face of ancient documentation that does actually detail such a practice, backed up by corroboratory evidence as demonstrated above.

3. They have to ignore or reasonably explain away the recording of such a practice in the gospels which are types of Hellenistic biography that have proven to be reliable ancient documents.

One more issue that must be explained is that if such an event never took place, and could have been easily falsified by those who lived in Jerusalem at the time, why would the claims of Jesus’ disciples be taken so seriously and spread so quickly in the very place where it all allegedly took place? It's most likely because the disciples were not in the practice of reporting events that didn’t occur or describing people whom didn’t exist. It would have been highly embarrassing for the early church to have claimed such a public spectacle had occurred if it hadn't. Such an elaborate lie could have halted the first Christians in their tracks, yet in fact they went onto become a sociological phenomenon, showing that something of miraculous portions must have occurred. That Jesus lived, was crucified, died and rose bodily from the dead.


  1. Good post. Thank you for it!

  2. Continuation of previous comment:

    3. Papyrus: I found the text of the papyrus P. Flor 61 here ( but only in Greek! This is what the theologian Deissmann said about it in 1910 (

    "The papyrus, containing a report of judicial proceedings, quotes these words of the governor of Egypt, G. Septimius Vegetus, before whom the case was tried, to a certain Phibion : - "Thou hadst been worthy of scourging . . . but I will give thee to the people." Phibion's offence was that he had "of his own authority imprisoned a worthy man [his alleged debtor] and also women." The Florentine papyrus is thus a beautiful illustration of the parable of the wicked servant (Matt, xviii. 30) and the system, which it presupposes, of personal execution by imprisonment for debt. Numerous other papyri and inscriptions show that this was in Graeco-Roman Egypt, and elsewhere, a widespread legal custom. Probably the most interesting example for us is an inscription in the Great Oasis containing an edict of the governor of Egypt, Tib. Julius Alexander, 68 A.D. The technical expression here used has the same ring as in the gospel. "They delivered them into other prisons," says the Roman governor ; "he cast him into prison," says Jesus. "

    A google search suggests that Septimius Vegetus was praefectus Aegypti c 80-85 ( The thing described here as a widespread legal custom is imprisonment for debt, not pardoning. Presumably the quoted sentence refers to a pardon but it is rather vague and there is no indication of anything more than a single case, which was in Egypt well after the crucifixion and not connected with the Passover.

    4. Pliny: This quotation comes from the Letters of Pliny the Younger (, letter XL). Again, the quotation given on the website is abbreviated and a fuller quotation gives a somewhat different impression. Pliny is writing to the Emperor Trajan: "I find there are in several cities, particularly those of Nicomedia and Nicea, certain persons who take upon themselves to act as public slaves, and receive an annual stipend accordingly; notwithstanding they have been condemned either to the mines, the public games,or other punishments of the like nature" .... "You will be desirous, perhaps, to be informed how it happened that these persons escaped the punishments to which they were condemned. This enquiry I have also made, but cannot return you any satisfactory answer. The decrees against them were indeed produced; but no record appears of their having ever been reversed. It was asserted, however, that these people were pardoned upon their petition to the proconsuls, or their lieutenants; which seems likely to be the truth, as it is improbable any person would have dared to set them at liberty without authority."

    Notice that Pliny is writing about events in Turkey where he was propraetor in 103AD and governor in 110AD (according to Although he thinks a pardon is a likely possibility in this case, he says he has no satisfactory explanation and can find no record. He is not presenting any first-hand evidence of a pardon, let alone a tradition of them, and he is not talking about Jerusalem in the first century.

  3. I forwarded a link to this article to a sceptical but interested friend who raised this question during a study on Mark 15. His response is below. I would be interested to know how the author would respond to these objections.

    1. Josephus. The full paragraph from Antiquities Book 20 chapter 9 (which you can find at is this:
    "But when Albinus heard that Gessius Florus was coming to succeed him, he was desirous to appear to do somewhat that might be grateful to the people of Jerusalem; so he brought out all those prisoners who seemed to him to be most plainly worthy of death, and ordered them to be put to death accordingly. But as to those who had been put into prison on some trifling occasions, he took money of them, and dismissed them; by which means the prisons were indeed emptied, but the country was filled with robbers."

    The "apologeticsuk" website has omitted the first phrase of the paragraph, which suggests that Albinus empties prisons for a specific reason: because Florus will succeed him. Wikipedia has more on Albinus and Florus ( and, saying that Florus "was noted for his public greed and injustice to the Jewish population, and is credited by Josephus as being the primary cause of the Great Jewish Revolt". Perhaps Albinus has some knowledge of Florus and his likely conduct and this motivates his decision. This appears to be something very different from the release of a single prisoner at Passover as part of a tradition.

    2. Mishnah: quoted in the apologeticsuk website as "they may slaughter the passover lamb for one….whom they have promised to bring out of prison"

    Here is what the Mishnah says in Pesahim 8.6, taken from Google Books (

    "They may slaughter for one that mourns his near kindred, or for one that clears away a ruin; so, too, for one whom they have promised to bring out of prison, for a sick man, or for an aged man that is able to eat an olive's bulk. For none of these in particular may they slaughter, lest they cause the Passover-offering to become invalid. Therefore if aught befell any of them to make them ineligible, they are exempt from keeping the Second Passover, excepting him that clears away a ruin, since he was [liable to become] unclean from the first."

    I think that it is extremely misleading to say that this "certainly records a prisoner being released specifically at Passover" since it does nothing of the sort. It is in fact a general statement (one of many) about how Jews should deal with special situations at the Passover. Some commentary on this passage (from says: "The mishna states that if a Jew has been promised a release from prison in time for Pesach we may include him in a group with others for whom a sacrifice will be slaughtered. We cannot, however, slaughter one for him alone, since the promise may not be kept, and the sacrifice will be disqualified for lack of someone to eat its flesh."

    I don't understand how this could be considered as evidence for a tradition of pardon by Roman prefects at the time of the Passover.

    1. It was said that Jesus Barabbas was a leader of insurgents. If this is true, would the Roman governor release such a high profile terrorist. Probably not.

  4. It is said that it was customary at Passover to release one prisoner. If this were true, was there any record of whom was released in the years prior to Jesus Christ' crucifixion.

  5. I am surprised that no one brought up that Barabbas was called Jesus Barabbas and Barabbas means Bar = Son and Abbas = Father. So Jesus Barabbas = Jesus son of father. It was around 12 century, that theologians decided to delete his first name and he was referred to Barabbas.

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

  7. The Jews had no such a tradition or practice where human beings were concerned. Individual Roman Governors had the power to be extremely strict or quite liberal where punishment was concerned. All of the above examples exemplify one time acts involving persons, who were not considered murderers and insurrectionists. None of these acts were driven by laws, traditions, customs or otherwise required. Finally, where the Jews had no such customs, why would any Roman Governor initiate one, which, in any event, would be of no benefit to Rome or the Governor concerned? Indeed, where a murderer or an insurrectionist was involved, the Governor involved might very well, himself, have been on the road to being booted out of office and in route to exile somewhere.

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  9. No other event in ancient history has actual manuscripts, and an abundance of them, written within the lifetimes of individuals who lived during the time of the actual event(s), many of them eyewitnesses, . .specifically within a few years , but definitely before the conquest and destruction of Jerusalem in March, 70 AD. As aptly put, these events spawned something that grew to what it is today. All this from a small group of mostly Jewish fishermen, and a Jew with Roman citizenship. All of them, often and frequently described not as extraordinary in any way, but as being very weak and cowardly, who were all willing to eventually die for the beliefs they proclaimed. Their audience were familiar with them and the events, and all, . . all, knew the consequences of blasphemy, and rebellious or treasonous behaviour and how the power of the Sanhedrin and the might of Rome would deal with it. It all happened as described, regardless of our " enlightened " doubts, as people who are not even certain what happened to JFK some 60 years ago, 9/11 only twenty years ago, let alone an event 2,000 years ago!


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