A Local Custom And The Accuracy Of The Gospels

It is written:

John 18:39-“But you have a custom that I should release someone to you at the Passover. Do you therefore want me to release to you the King of the Jews?”

Over the years, skeptics of the Bible have claimed that the New Testament Scriptures are inaccurate and do not tell the true facts of historical events.

Indeed, one popular claim is often heard regarding Barabbas, the man that was released instead of Jesus. All four Gospels recount that there was a certain custom among the people where a prisoner would be released, especially around the time of the Passover (Matthew 27:15-18; Mark 15:6-8; Luke 23:17-20; John 18:39). However, there are those who contend that such a custom did not, in fact, exist.

What shall we say to this?

First of all, let us consider the absurdity of this position. The Gospels were documents claiming to be historical fact of commonly known events in the first century world. If the Gospel writers had “made up” the releasing of a prisoner and then identified it as a commonly known custom (knowing full well that such were a deception), then what would be the response of the people who heard Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John?

They would have immediately rejected these Books as being untrustworthy and ridiculous!

In other words, if the Apostles were trying to deceive people, the last thing they would do would be to invent a story of releasing a prisoner and claim this was a well-known custom, if tit wasn’t!

Yet skeptics would have us believe that the Apostles were that ignorant, and that the people in the first century were too ignorant to not recognize such a bald-faced lie when they heard it.

This alone is evidence of the absurdity that this custom did not exist.

Second, the fact is: a great deal of archaeological evidence attests to the existence and prevalence of this custom!

“When Pilate is understood better-and this means that we not accept at face value the vilified presentations in Philo and Josephus-the objections sometimes lodged against the historicity of the governor’s Passover pardon are also answered. According to the New Testament Gospels, it was Pilate’s custom at Passover to release a prisoner: “Now at the feast he used to release for them one prisoner for whom they asked” (Mk 15:6; see Mt 27:15; Jn 18:39). Some critics argue that because nothing is said in other sources of Pilate’s offer of a pardon at Passover, the Gospels cannot be trusted. This is hardly good historical argumentation. On the contrary, it smacks of scholarly bias. All four Gospels know of Pilate’s custom, and other sources in fact do mention the release of prisoners on various occasions, including at Passover. The Mishnah (Jewish oral law and tradition committed to writing at the beginning of the third century) says that “they may slaughter [the Passover lamb] for one… whom they have promised to bring out of prison” on the Passover (m. Pesahim 8:6). Who the “they” are is not made clear (Jewish authorities? Roman authorities?), but it is interesting that the promised release from prison is for the express purpose of taking part in the Passover observance. A papyrus (PFlor 61 ,c.A.D. 85), quotes the words of the Roman governor of Egypt: “You were worthy of scourging… but I give you to the crowds.” In his letters Pliny the Younger (early second century) says, “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). An inscription from Ephesus relates the decision of the proconsul of Asia to release prisoners because of the outcries of the people of the city. Livy (writing early first century) speaks of special dispensations whereby chains were removed from the limbs of prisoners (History of Rome 5.13.8). Josephus tells us that when governor Albinus prepared to leave office (A.D. 64), he released all prisoners incarcerated for offenses other than murder (Antiquities 20.215). He did this hoping to gain a favorable review from the inhabitants of Jerusalem. And finally, years earlier Archelaus hoped to appease his countrymen, and so gain his late father’s kingdom, by acquiescing to their demands that those imprisoned be released (“Some demanded the release of the prisoners who had been put in chains by Herod” [Antiquities 17.204]). The evidence as a whole suggests that Roman rulers, as well as at least one Herodian prince, on occasion did release prisoners (so apparently did other rulers in the eastern Mediterranean). This was done for purely political reasons: to satisfy the demands of the crowds and to curry their favor. Another factor that supports the historicity of the Gospel narratives is the improbability of asserting such a custom if there had been none. If Pilate had not released prisoners on the Passover or on other holidays, or at least on one occasion, the Evangelists’ claim that he did so could have been quickly and easily shown to be false and would therefore have occasioned embarrassment for the early church. That all four of the Evangelists report this episode (and the Fourth Evangelist probably did so independent of the three Synoptic Gospels) argues that no such embarrassment clung to the story9” (Craig A. Evans, Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels, 2087-2106 (Kindle Edition); Downers Grove, Illinois; IVP Books)

Here we find yet another way that archaeology confirms the biblical narrative. Indeed, I am reminded of the words of Burrows from Yale University:

““The Bible is supported by archaeological evidence again and again. On the whole, there can be no question that the results of excavations have increased the respect of scholars for the Bible as a collection of historical documents. The confirmation is both general and specific. The fact that the record can be so often explained or illustrated by archaeological data shows that it fits into the framework of history as only a genuine product of ancient times could do. In addition to this general authentication, however, we find the record verified repeatedly at specific points. Names of places and persons turn up at the right places in the right periods.”” (Kevin McKinney, Bible Archaeology – The Top 75 Discoveries: Discover the Proof, 6 (Kindle Edition))

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with you all. Amen.

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