Ransom and Redemption: Jesus and Barabbas as Day of Atonement Symbols

This article seeks to uncover the layers of symbolism between the Day of Atonement and Pilate's offer to the Jewish priests of crucifying and releasing Jesus or Barabbas as described in Matthew's Gospel account.

The Day of Atonement stands as one of the most profound and spiritually charged observances in the Jewish faith. In Hebrew, it is called "Yom Kippur." The Day of Atonement is a significant and solemn observance in the Jewish faith. It falls on the tenth day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei (Leviticus 23:27a). This typically occurs in September or October on the Gregorian calendar. Yom Kippur is considered the holiest day in the Jewish calendar and holds great spiritual and religious importance.

The primary focus of Yom Kippur is repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation with God. It is a day of fasting, prayer, reflection, and self-examination. The core purpose of this annual holy day revolves around atoning for one's sins by seeking God's mercy and forgiveness through making repentance and offering sacrifice (Leviticus 23:27b-28).

Even though Yom Kippur occurred roughly six months after Passover and Unleavened Bread (which was when Jesus was arrested and crucified—Matthew 26:18-19, Luke 22:13-15, John 18:28), Matthew draws a remarkable connection for His Jewish audience by paralleling Pilate's presentation of Jesus and Barabbas with the main ceremony of Yom Kippur.

The main ceremony of Yom Kippur was the selection of two goats that symbolized the atonement and removal of sin from Israel. This ritual is described in Leviticus 16.

The high priest was to "take from the congregation…two male goats for a sin offering" (Leviticus 16:5). After offering a bull as a sacrifice for himself (Leviticus 16:6) the high priest would then "take the two goats and present them before the LORD at the doorway of the tent of meeting [and] cast lots for the two goats, one lot for the LORD and the other lot for the scapegoat" (Leviticus 16:7-8).

In Hebrew, the terms יְהֹוָה (H3068—pronounced: "Ye-hō-vâh") and עֲזָאזֵל (H5799—pronounced: "az-āw-zēl") were used to designate each goat. "Yehovah" is God's proper name and is translated as "the LORD" in this verse. "Az-āw-zēl" is the term translated as "scapegoat" in Leviticus 16. Azāwzēl' is derived from a root that means to "send away entirely." It means to completely remove or separate. The idea Leviticus 16 is portraying with these terms is that one of the goats is Yehovah's (the LORD's) goat; the other is Azāwzēl's goat.

The priest was to offer the LORD's goat as a sacrificial sin offering (Leviticus 16:9). This sin offering would be "for the people" (Leviticus 16:15). The LORD's goat would be sacrificed "because of the impurities of the sons of Israel and because of their transgressions in regard to all this sins" (Leviticus 16:16).

As for Azāwzēl's goat (translated as "scapegoat") the high priest:

"shall lay both of his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the sons of Israel and all their transgressions in regard to all their sins; and he shall lay them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who stands in readiness."
(Leviticus 16:21)

The image is that Azāwzēl's goat is allowed to live free and wild in the wilderness even as it bears on itself all the people's iniquities to a solitary land (Leviticus 16:22). In bearing Israel's sins away, the Azāwzēl-goat is a physical image of Psalm 103:12, which says, "As far as the east is from the west, So far has He removed our transgressions from us."

The person who released Azāwzēl's goat "shall wash his clothes and bathe his body with water" (Leviticus 16:26).

According to Rabbinic tradition these two goats were to be a perfect match and as identical as possible.

Into the tapestry of this sacred day, Matthew's Gospel weaves the figures of Jesus and Barabbas as symbols of redemption. But more than this, as Matthew describes Pilate's offer and the priests' and peoples' selection, he seems to suggest that Yom Kippur and its ceremony are the symbols that annually foreshadowed this moment where everlasting redemption was made.

Unlike the accounts of Mark and John, which describe the evolution of Pilate's offer to pardon Jesus from its inception (Mark 15:7-13, John 18:39-40), Matthew's Gospel account of this event is described thematically. Mark and John both reveal that when Pilate first made the offer, he only mentioned Jesus as a possible prisoner to be released. Barabbas is not mentioned in his offer (Mark 15:9, John 18:39). Moreover, Pilate appears to be surprised when the crowd demands that he release Barabbas (who was not originally offered) instead (Mark 15:10-11).

Matthew does not describe the development of Pilate's offer. Rather, he thematically presents Pilate's mature and final offer (Matthew 27:21) after the governor incorporated the crowd's reframing where both prisoners are presented as choices (Matthew 27:21) when he wrote: "Which of the two do you want me to release for you?"—Barabbas, or Jesus?

Matthew likely skipped those details describing the evolution of Pilate's offer to draw a clear and powerful connection with Yom Kippur and its ceremonial selection between the two goats.

Specifically, Matthew connects the chief priest's choice to liberate Barabbas and condemn Jesus with the priestly rituals on the annual Day of Atonement where they chose one goat to sacrifice and one goat to set free.

In this thematic parallel, Matthew reveals how Jesus is the LORD's goat that the priests chose for slaughter and how Barabbas is Azāwzēl's goat who is released to go free.

Consider how Jesus fulfills the role of the LORD's goat which is sacrificed on the Day of Atonement for the sins of Israel:

  • Jesus was from among the sons of Israel (Matthew 1:1-17).
  • Jesus was Yehovah—the LORD—who came "to give His life a ransom for many" (Matthew 20:28).
  • Isaiah prophesied that "the LORD caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him" (Isaiah 53:6)
  • Additionally, Isaiah prophesied that Messiah would:
    • suffer "like a lamb that is led to slaughter" (Isaiah 53:7)
    • be "cut off from the land of the living" (Isaiah 53:8)
    • "render Himself as a guilt offering" (Isaiah 53:10)
    • "justify the many as He will bear their iniquities" (Isaiah 53:11)
  • Caiaphas, the high priest the year Jesus was crucified, "prophesied that Jesus was going to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but in order that He might also gather together into one the children of God who are scattered abroad" (John 11:51b-52).
  • The priests chose Jesus as the LORD's goat to be killed when they directed the crowd to demand that Pilate "Crucify Him!" (Matthew 27:22).
  • Jesus would die for the ungodly (Roman 5:6) as the propitiation for our sins (1 John 2:2).
  • Jesus "who knew no sin [was made] to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him" (2 Corinthians 5:21).
  • "The blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, [is able to] cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God" (Hebrews 9:14).

Consider how Barabbas functions as "Azāwzēl's goat" ("scapegoat") in the Day of Atonement:

  • Barabbas is presumed to have been from among the sons of Israel.
  • Barabbas is set free.
  • The priests chose Barabbas to be set free by directing the crowds to yell "Barabbas!" when Pilate asked them "Which of the two shall I release for you?" (Matthew 27:21).
  • Insurrection was confessed upon Barabbas's head when he was convicted of his crimes (Luke 23:19). Azāwzēl's goat has the nation's sins confessed upon his head. Insurrection was Israel's basic sin against God, and insurrection would be the crime for which Rome would destroy Israel forty years later.
  • Unlike many of the named figures associated with Jesus's trial—Barabbas is never heard from again. Even the early church is silent as to what became of him. (It was not until a thousand years later when Medieval Christianity began retroactively creating various legends about Barabbas's life after his release.) In this sense Barabbas is like the Azāwzēl-goat who is banished into the wilderness of history.
  • The individual responsible for Barabbas's release (Pilate) washes with water (Matthew 27:24), in a similar fashion as the individual responsible for the Azāwzēl-goat washes with water after releasing it (Leviticus 16:26).

Moreover, per Jewish tradition, these two goats were supposed to be identical in likeness and appearance. Consider then, the similarities between "Jesus, who is called the Christ" (Matthew 27:17) with the "notorious prisoner, called Barabbas" (Matthew 27:16).

It is unclear whether Barabbas was this prisoner's actual name, his nickname, or simply what the Gospel writers called and used to refer to him.

The word "Barabbas" has Aramaic origins and it means "son of the father" (Bar = "son"; Abbas = "of the father"). If the Barabbas moniker was to be understood negatively, it could mean "son of nobody," "nobody's son," or "fatherless."

Thus, this notorious prisoner was called—Barabbas—the same title as Jesus, "Son of the Father," and in the same position as sinful, unredeemed, self-orphaned humanity—"fatherless." Jesus is "Barabbas, the Son of the Father." As lost sinners, separated from God, we were "Barabbas, son of nobody."

Interestingly, church tradition suggests that Barabbas was only a title, and that this notorious prisoner's given name was "Jesus." Early church leaders, such as Origen, was one such who claimed that Barabbas was named "Jesus." Some late Greek manuscripts of Matthew 27:16, 27:17 read: Ἰησοῦν Βαραββᾶν ("Jesus, Barabbas").

If this tradition is correct, the notorious prisoner and the Messiah each had the same name and the same title: "Jesus, son of the father."

And if Pilate's two prisoners (the notorious insurrectionist and the Messiah) both shared the same name—"Jesus"—then it makes sense why Matthew, in referring to Barabbas, wrote the "prisoner, called Barabbas." And it also makes sense why Pilate refers to Jesus when he is stating his mature offer to the people as "Jesus who is called the Christ" (Matthew 27:17).

In other words, Pilate may have been asking the people: "Which Jesus do you want me to release for you: Jesus, who is called Barabbas; or Jesus, who is called Messiah?"

Through their similar titles (Son of the Father) and per tradition, their shared names, Jesus Christ and Jesus Barabbas bear a near identical likeness—just as the two goats on the Day of Atonement must also bear.

In drawing these connections between Jesus and Barabbas and linking them to the main ceremony of Yom Kippur, Matthew is not so much demonstrating that Jesus and Barabbas are metaphorical symbols of the Day of Atonement. But rather, he is demonstrating that the Day of Atonement and the full weight of its meaning was an annual foreshadowing of the Messiah and how it came to be that He was chosen by the priests of Israel "like a lamb that is led to slaughter" (Isaiah 53:7). In other words, Pilate's offer of Jesus and Barabbas is not a reminiscent echo of Yom Kippur, but it is in many ways the event to which the rituals involving Yom Kippur's two goats pointed.

Jesus came to fulfill the law (Matthew 5:17).

And Matthew shows us how Pilate's offer of Jesus or Barabbas is one of the ways in which He fulfilled the Day of Atonement

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