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Author Topic: Regina's Exegetical Analysis of the New Testament  (Read 282 times)

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Offline Regina MinxTopic starter

Regina's Exegetical Analysis of the New Testament
« on: November 05, 2019, 10:12:18 AM »
Give us Barabbas


Who the hell is Barabbas?

Exegesis is a fancy-pants term for reading a text, usually a religious text, and attempting to critically interpret the meaning of the work. It’s “Bible study” but what is studied about the Bible is its literary and rhetorical composition. It’s not taking for granted the truth of the accounts, but the meaning the author is attempting to convey through the use of relevant cultural references, language, and literary techniques. Essentially, it involves the analysis of the stories and texts through the eyes of the literary critic or folklorist examining any other piece of ancient mythology.

Before I go on, I do want to take a moment to discuss what I mean when I say that something is a myth. There are countless definitions of myth across many different fields and I don’t mean to give a prescriptivist usage of the term here. What I will do is discuss how I shall use the term and then demonstrate why I feel that the certain narrative episodes in the New Testament align with that usage. In the simplest terms possible, I use the term myth to describe stories that are improbable in the events if they are meant to be taken seriously as truthful accounts of things that happened, yet contain a high amount of symbolic meaning, suggesting that an allegorical understanding of the text is what is intended by the author. And often, when based on an existing story or narrative structure, anything changed about the story is the point the author is trying to convey. With that said, I want to give an example of this kind of reading, this exegesis, from the Gospel of Mark. Along the way, I hope to show why I consider it to be a highly sophisticated and deeply meaningful piece of mythmaking.

In Mark 15:6-15, we read:

Now at the feast he used to release unto them one prisoner, whom they asked of him. And there was one called Barabbas, lying bound with them that had made insurrection, men who in the insurrection had committed murder. And the multitude went up and began to ask him to do as he was wont to do unto them. And Pilate answered them, saying, Will ye that I release unto you the King of the Jews? For he perceived that for envy the chief priests had delivered him up. But the chief priests stirred up the multitude, that he should rather release Barabbas unto them. And Pilate again answered and said unto them, What then shall I do unto him whom ye call the King of the Jews? And they cried out again, Crucify him. And Pilate said unto them, Why, what evil hath he done? But they cried out exceedingly, Crucify him. And Pilate, wishing to content the multitude, released unto them Barabbas, and delivered Jesus, when he had scourged him, to be crucified.

As a historical account, this is ludicrous. If you understand nothing else of Roman history, you should know that there is no Roman magistrate who would have ever let a murderous rebel go. As a matter of fact, there is no Roman ceremony such as Mark describes. Robert Merrit found something similar in ancient Babylonian royal cult. He describes a ceremony in which the king would be ritually ‘punished’ in the place of a pardoned prisoner, the king taking on the sins of the kingdom and symbolically freeing the land from sin. A key difference between this Babylonian ceremony and what Mark described for Pilate, though, is that the king himself would be the one selecting which prisoner receives the pardon, and thus is very unlikely that the king or magistrate would free a murderous insurrectionist. In addition, this was a ritual performed as part of religious ceremony in the role of a Babylonian god-king, so it can’t really be analogous to what Pilate is supposed to have done in his mere capacity as a governor.

But we’re going very far afield if we look at ancient Babylonian religious rituals that have no meaning in a Roman context because there’s another ritual, much closer to home, that can explain the allegorical meaning of Mark’s ahistorical account. The Jewish ritual of Yom Kippur.

Yom Kippur was an annual Levitical religious ritual performed at the Temple in Jerusalem, commanded under Torah law. It was an atonement sacrifice, procuring a general forgiveness of sins for the Jews. Two goats were chosen and lots were cast. Based on the outcome of the lots, one of the goats was chosen to carry the sins of Israel. It was driven into the wilderness. The other was the sacrificial atonement, its blood sprinkled on the altar to atone for the sins that the Jews had ritually rejected by driving away the first goat. This is, incidentally, the root of the notion of a scapegoat, an animal ritually burdened with the sins of others and then driven away. What Mark is doing is merging Yom Kippur with the other high holy day in the Jewish calendar, Passover, by by having Jesus be the Yom Kippur sacrifice performed during Passover.

Barabbas is an interesting name. It comes from the Aramaic meaning “Son of the Father,” and we also know that Jesus is frequently called the Son of the Father in the Gospels. So in the scene in Mark, we have two men called “Son of the Father.” Even more interesting, Barabbas originally had or acquired through manuscript tradition the name “Jesus Barabbas.” Thus we really had (very improbably) two men named “Jesus Son of the Father”...exactly the same name, in other words. An important part of the Yom Kippur ritual is to select goats that were as identical as possible...for human beings in a literary or oral tradition, how much more alike could two men be than to have literally the same name or appellation? And in Jesus and Barabbas, Mark depicts one man who represents and thus in a sense "contains" the sins of Israel (rebellion and murder) and is released into the wild mob. The other one is sacrificed so his blood may secure a larger atonement of sin, not just saving Israel for a single year, but everyone everywhere for all time. In this story, Mark is thus telling us in the form of a parable, to reject the sins of the Jews and embrace instead the eternal salvation of atonement offered in Christ.

As history, this event is improbable. As myth this makes perfect sense because of the symbolism and imagery of the Yom Kippur ritual. By my earlier definition of myth as a historically improbable event with symbolic meaning conveyed through relevant contextual memes, this story qualifies as a mythic invention by Mark. This is not a wild theory, by the way, that I’m spinning in the aether. The third-century Christian scholar Origen makes explicit the connection between Barabbas and the Yom Kippur ritual:

Then all the people cried out to release Barabbas but to hand Jesus over to be killed. Behold you have a he-goat who was sent "living into the wilderness," bearing with him the sins of the people who cried out and said, "Crucify, crucify." Therefore the former is a he-goat sent "living into the wilderness" and the latter is the he-goat which was offered to God as an offering to atone for sins and he made a true atonement for those people who believed in him.

In addition, the non-canonical Gospel of Barnabas again reinforces the aspects of allegorical meaning in Mark’s account:

Take two goats of goodly aspect, and similar to each other, and offer them. And let the priest take one as a burnt-offering for sins. And what should they do with the other? “Accursed,” says He, “is the one.” Mark how the type of Jesus now comes out. “And all of you spit upon it, and pierce it, and encircle its head with scarlet wool, and thus let it be driven into the wilderness.” And when all this has been done, he who bears the goat brings it into the desert, and takes the wool off from it, and places that upon a shrub which is called Rachia, of which also we are accustomed to eat the fruits when we find them in the field. Of this kind of shrub alone the fruits are sweet. Why then, again, is this? Give good heed. [You see] “one upon the altar, and the other accursed;” and why [do you behold] the one that is accursed crowned? Because they shall see Him then in that day having a scarlet robe about his body down to his feet; and they shall say, Is not this He whom we once despised, and pierced, and mocked, and crucified? Truly this is He who then declared Himself to be the Son of God. For how like is He to Him! With a view to this, [He required] the goats to be of goodly aspect, and similar, that, when they see Him then coming, they may be amazed by the likeness of the goat. Behold, then, the type of Jesus who was to suffer. But why is it that they place the wool in the midst of thorns? It is a type of Jesus set before the view of the Church. [They place the wool among thorns], that any one who wishes to bear it away may find it necessary to suffer much, because the thorn is formidable, and thus obtain it only as the result of suffering. Thus also, says He, “Those who wish to behold Me, and lay hold of My kingdom, must through tribulation and suffering obtain Me.”

In Mark’s story, the Jews treat Jesus exactly the same way they treat the Yom Kippur scapegoat (Jesus is not the scapegoat in the symbolic story, he is the sacrificial goat). They (through the Romans they browbeat into killing him) beat him, they spit on him, they ironically dress him in royal colors and put a crown on his head before piercing him. Yet Barabbas is actually the scapegoat in this story, not Jesus.  In the story, the Jews have not correctly discerned who the actual scapegoat is and who the actual sacrificial offering is. What Mark has changed (the Jews embrace the scapegoat instead of shunning him) is precisely the point he is trying to make. Of the four Gospel authors, Mark’s break with Temple cult and formal Judaism is the most explicit and pronounced. And in this story, he has thus created an allegory for Jewish blindness to what Jesus represents, the Jews choosing their sins over their salvation.

Not only does Mark have a preference for ironic reversal of expectations (“the least shall be first”) into which this story fits perfectly, but this is hugely symbolic of the choice the Jews had between two kinds of messiahs during the era of Roman annexation of Judea: one who brought military revolution and who would ultimately be defeated and one who brings spiritual victory whose death eliminated the need for military revolution in the first place. According to Daniel ben Ezra "Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah as God wants him to be, while Jesus Barabbas is the Messiah as the people want him to be." By not letting the choice fall to a lottery (and thus to God), "the people usurp the role of God on Yom Kippur in choosing between the two."

Thus on almost every level, this is a mythic construction. And a brilliant one. Mark is a genius writer, conveying everything he wants to say about the Gospel and how it is accepted and rejected through relevant cultural symbolism. As far as literary construction goes, it’s among the best I’ve ever read.