Thursday, September 04, 2008

Jesus and Barabbas II

We see another depiction of the trial of Jesus in John 18:39-40, however this version of the story offers an interesting additional piece of information. Here we see the words of Pilate to the crowd in Jerusalem: "But ye have a custom, that I should release unto you one at the passover: will ye therefore that I release unto you the King of the Jews? Then cried they all again, saying, Not this man, but Barabbas. Now Barabbas was a robber."

To what 'custom' is Pilate here referring? There is no record of any such custom among the Israelites recorded in the books of the Law... Interestingly, the answer to this can be found in the religions of ancient Mesopotamia where the public execution of a prisoner in the role of a divine ruler was connected with the celebration of the new year.

The tradition is said to have begun with Nimrod and his wife Seramisis. Nimrod later came to be worshiped under the personage of Marduk, god of heaven. Essentially the ancients viewed the procession of the seasons as evidence of a 'war' between the forces of good (Marduk) and the forces of evil (Tiamatt). As the Summer months drew to an end leading up to the time of harvest the people rejoiced in the sustenance that their benevolent god had provided them with during the year; as Autumn ensued and lead into winter the people watched as everything seemingly 'died.' They feared that Tiamat the goddess of darkness and chaos would prevail permanently over Marduk, who would not be able to return the earth to its previous state of plentifulness.

As Spring crept in they feared that Marduk needed assistance in his war with the god of darkness so the king, (who was not only a representative of the god to the people, but also a representative of the people before the god) had to go into the underworld to assist him. Of course the only way for him to achieve this would be through his own death, but rather than sacrifice the actual King the people sought a substitute... a prisoner!

This prisoner was now the representative of the king and his people, this sacrifice on his part was viewed as an atonement not only for the sins of the entire population, but his own as well. It was looked upon as an honorable way to repay your debt to society. Now as the representative of both the Babylonian king and of a sinful people as well as the agent of the god, he now had to submit to ritual acts of humiliation: his symbols of power were removed, and the priest (urigallu) hit him in the face and enjoined him to pray for the forgiveness of his sins and the sins of his people.

He was then clothed in royal garb and crowned, paraded around the city (sometimes riding an ass) and eventually killed. His soul was then believed to descend into the underworld where he helped Marduk fight the powers of darkness and prevail. The Israelites would have become familiar with this custom during the Assyrian-Babylonian captivity.

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