Tacitus mentions Pilate as being procurator over Judea. A procurator is a financial administrator. Because of his expanded judicial power and some archaeological found in Rome, most historians now believe Pilate to have been a prefect. After Herod the Great died in 4 BC, his Palestinian kingdom was divided among his sons. Herod Archelaus controlled Judea. He was a cruel and unthinking ruler whom Rome soon removed from office. The region then was made a prefecture over which a series of prefects governed, Pilate being the 5th.
Pilate cared little for the Jews and their laws, earning him a reputation as being a hard ruler. However, he did operate fairly, if not mercifully, interested in maintaining the favor of Rome. We learn from Matthew 27 that Pilate came to much the same judgment about the Hebrew religious leaders as did Jesus, seeing them as pompous and arrogant, jealous of their religious control. Pilate’s efforts to release Jesus, therefore, although certainly born of his judicial balance, were helped along by his dislike of the Jewish leaders.
Matthew does not include several of the incidents and conversation that we learn from other Gospels. In fact, the only thing that Matthew records of Jesus’ words to Pilate are his assent to being king. That Pilate was not too concerned about this fact is made clearer by the conversation of the other Gospels. In those Jesus tells Pilate that although he is a king, his kingdom is not of this world. Pilate, then, does not sense that Jesus is an insurrectionist against Roman rule. In fact, the accusations and conflict appear to Pilate as merely religious squabbling. He finds no fault in Jesus and would release him except that the Jewish leaders insist on Jesus’ anti-Rome declarations. Pilate could not simply let Jesus go, have him actually turn out to be an insurrectionist, and then face Rome’s questioning about why he would have let this insurrectionist escape when he had had him in his custody. So Pilate formulates another plan.
It appears (although there is little other historical support) that Pilate had released a prisoner at Passover in years past. Pilate decides to bypass the religious leaders and appeal to the people of Jerusalem. He would offer the release of either Jesus or a notorious outlaw who, although anti-Roman, was no real friend of the Jews either. He knew that the crowds had welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem only four days earlier with praise and honor. But when he offers the release of Jesus, he is surprised to hear the crowds call for the release of Barabbas. It appears that Jesus’ attack against the temple, coupled with his silencing of all three major Jewish parties (Herodians, Pharisees, and Sadducees), created enough doubt and rejection that the Jewish leaders had no trouble in completing the swing of the crowds’ sentiments to now cry out for the execution of the one for whom only days earlier they had cried out for salvation.
Matthew has been limiting the events of his record to those, which proclaim Jesus as Messiah, King, and God. The incident with Barabbas appears to be no exception. The name Barabbas is interesting. In Hebrew, the name ben was used as a designation of “son of.” Therefore, Jacob’s son Benjamin was so called because Jacob wanted him known as son of (ben) his right hand (yaman). Ben was used in many Hebrew names as a last name for us to identify more clearly what the first name could not. We know of the book and movie Ben Hur. The main character’s name is Judah ben Hur, meaning Judah, son of Hur.
The Hebrew ben is the same as the Aramaic bar. We read that Peter’s name is Simon Bar-Jonah in Matthew 16:17. That means Simon son of Jonah. This should clue us in to the meaning of the name Barabbas. Barabbas means son of Abbas. The name Abbas could also be a derivative of the word abba, which means father. In other words, Barabbas literally means son of father. That may also lead us to wonder what the first name of Barabbas was. As Bar-Jonah merely designated which Simon, Barabbas must designate which someone of his particular first name. We learn from some earlier Syriac manuscripts of the New Testament (of the Western and Caesarean families of NT manuscripts) that in this chapter, Barabbas is designated as Jesus Barabbas. This supports Pilate’s odd insistence on twice referring to Jesus as “Jesus who is called Christ” (27:17, 22). Pilate was differentiating between the two prisoners. He wanted to know whether they wanted Jesus Barabbas released or the Jesus who is called Christ.
Looking back at the event, we see a choice between son of father and the Son of God the Father. This should ring a bell for us with John 8:41-47, in which Jesus tells the Jews that they are not following God the Father. Instead, we read in verse 44, he tells them: “You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires.” This is the same choice that the Jews standing before Pilate have. They may choose the son of their father the devil (represented by Barabbas) and the Son of God the Father (Jesus the Savior). And, of course, they follow in their father’s footsteps and call for the death of Christ.
Without any clear way to release Jesus, Pilate calls for water and symbolically washes his hands of the affair. Although he acts as if the blame is all on the Jews, he still shares in it because he still orders the execution. Once the judgment is delivered, the soldiers take Christ and mistreat him cruelly in verses 27 through 31.
The two trials—before Caiaphas and before Pilate—were similar in a number of respects. First, the accusations were both based on who Jesus claimed to be—Messiah and King. Both included an act of innocence—Caiaphas tore his robes and Pilate washed his hands. Both condemned Jesus to death without clear guilt—Caiaphas judged blasphemous that which was technically not and Pilate admitted there was no fault. And in both cases, Jesus was treated with cruelty and mockery following the passing of judgment.
In 27:32 we are told that a man from Cyrene named Simon was compelled to carry the cross for Jesus. Cyrene was a Jewish community established in what is now Libya in north Africa. The community was established around 300 BC when Ptolemy Soter controlled Palestine. These Jews from Cyrene would come to Jerusalem for great festivals like the Passover. In Mark 15:21 we learn that the sons of Simon were named Alexander and Rufus. Many believe that the purpose for Mark including the names of his sons is that they were known to the 1st century Christian community. Romans 16:13 does mention a greeting to Rufus, but although likely, we can’t be sure it is the same one.
Verse 34 mentions that Jesus was offered wine with gall. Mark’s Gospel tells us that this gall was myrrh, which some claim to be a slight narcotic. Whether because of the myrrh or simply because of the wine, Jesus did not want his senses dulled in the suffering and paying for our sin, and he refused the drink.
Verses 35 through 54 relate the crucifixion. There are several significant parallels between this section and Psalm 22:
22:1 – “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? (Matthew 27:46)
22:6 – scorn and despising (Matthew 27:39, 44)
22:7-8 – “wag their heads: He trusts in the Lord; let him deliver him; let him rescue him, for he delights in him!” (Matthew 27:39, 43)
22:15 – “My tongue sticks to my jaws.” (Matthew 27:48)
22:16 – “A company of evildoers encircles me.” (Matthew 27:36)
22:16 – “They have pierced my hands and feet.” (Matthew 27:35)
22:18 – “They divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots.” (Matthew 27:35
Another significant element of the connection to this psalm is its structure. Both sections of Scripture begin with a description (Psalm 22:1-18 and Matthew 27:35-44). The central section of both is a proclamation (Psalm 22:19-22 and Matthew 27:45-50). And the last section provides the realization (Psalm 22:23-31 and Matthew 27:51-54).
Many scholars believe that the recording of Psalm 22’s first line—“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”—is not the only line from the psalm that Jesus spoke. In fact, they believe that he recited the entire psalm while on the cross. Although many at the scene may not have understood what he was doing (evidenced by the person running to provide him a drink when Christ recited the psalm’s verse 15), many of his followers probably did recognize this psalm. The psalm ends (in most of our English translations) with the words “that he has done it.” A strict translation of the Hebrew may be closer to John’s “It is finished” (John 19:30). Read the psalm carefully, and contemplate as you read the message that Christ is conveying about his suffering at that very moment of his recitation. Note that it is not just the description of agony that he relates in the first part of the psalm. After the middle section in which he addresses the Father, he directs his words to us. He calls on us to fear, praise, and glorify God (22:23). He tells us that his praise comes from us (22:25). And what poignancy to have in our minds’ view Christ hanging on the cross, suffering at that moment for our sin, and calling out to us, “May your hearts live forever!” (22:26).
Three great signs coincide with Christ’s death: the temple curtain is torn in two from top to bottom, a great earthquake splits rocks, and some who were dead are resurrected to life, entering Jerusalem three days later. These signs relate to Matthew’s purpose of showing Christ as Messiah, King, and God. He is Messiah who makes the way for us to enter the presence of God. He is God who controls all creation. And he is King whose kingdom people will be resurrected to live with him forever.
Joseph of Arimathea, a rich member of the Sanhedrin who is also a follower of Jesus, asks Pilate for the body, and places it in his own newly cut tomb.
Amid these scenes of great emotion and great consequence, Matthew throws in what appear to be sideline, offhand remarks that do not fit well with the action described. In verses 55 and 56 he pauses to tell us that many women were watching the crucifixion, including Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and Salome, the mother of the disciples James and John. In verse 61 Matthew also mentions that Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were sitting by watching the burial. Why the mention of these specific women? In fact, these same women are mentioned in Mark and John as well. (Luke mentions women watching but does not name them.) Matthew’s point in mentioning them is to tell his readers how he knows what transpired. Remember, Matthew and most of the other disciples had scattered the night before. Other than John, none seem to have come to the crucifixion. So Matthew’s account was not his own eyewitness testimony as most of the rest of the book. For the crucifixion and burial scenes he lets us know who it was that provided him the eyewitness account—the two Marys and Salome.
From our study of Matthew we have learned of several women who have prominently taken part in the witness and testimony of the gospel.
The testimony of Christ’s birth was delivered by a woman (Mary, mother of Jesus).
The testimony of the Messiah beyond the Jews was delivered first by a woman (Samaritan woman at the well).
The testimony of the gospel was first understood by a woman (Mary of Bethany).
The testimony of the crucifixion was delivered by women (the Marys and Salome).
The testimony of the burial was delivered by women (Mary Magdalene and the other Mary).
The testimony of the resurrection was delivered first by women (Mary Magdalene and the other Mary).
This is significant. Arguing that men also provided important firsts and other testimony misses the point. The twelve disciples were called specifically to provide witness and testimony of Christ in the Apostolic age. But their call did not mean that other men and women could not perform the same activity, the same tasks, the same function. Christ named only men as his twelve disciples not because men were the only ones able or qualified to deliver witness and testimony of the gospel and kingdom message. He named the men so as to infiltrate the culture, but he used women as well to break the cultural walls that had divided his people. His message of the kingdom was that no one was either to lord it over another or consider himself or herself greater than any other. And he gave to all the responsibility for testifying of him.
Although possibly not of any particular significance, the 6 above named women mentioned in the Gospels that provided significant witness and testimony can be listed alongside the 6 other women named specifically in the rest of the New Testament who were specifically involved in the ministry of witness and testimony. These other 6 (loosely balancing the 12 apostles) included the following:
Priscilla, a teacher (Acts 18:26)
Phoebe, a deacon at Cenchreae (Romans 16:1)
Junia, an apostle (Romans 16:7)
Euodia, Paul’s fellow laborer (Philippians 4:2)
Syntyche, Paul’s fellow laborer (Philippians 4:2)
Apphia, church leader (Philemon 1:2)
Chapter 28 of Matthew begins with the resurrection account. Again, Matthew condenses the account, eliminating some of the scenes that we see in the other Gospels. He chooses rather to emphasize simply that the tomb was empty and that Christ had arisen three days after his death just as he had prophesied.