Mark 15:1-20 – The Crowd Chooses Violent Revolution Rather than Jesus

Earlier in the Gospel, Jesus outlined that he would be “handed over” (“betrayed” in NIV) to the temple authorities but that they in turn would “hand him over” to the Romans (Mark 10:33). The Passion narrative has been a series of “hand overs” (paradidomi): Judas to the temple authorities (14:41), the authorities to Pilate (15:1) and, finally, Pilate to the soldiers for crucifixion (15:15). The drama is reaching its climax.

The Roman “trial” comes in three stages. First, Jesus appears before Pilate as the temple authorities accuse him (15:2-5). Second, Jesus appears before the crowds for a decision (15:6-15). Third, the soldiers prepare Jesus for crucifixion (15:16-20).

The temple authorities took Jesus to Pilate at the Praetorium (15:16) in Jerusalem. Pilate was the “prefect” of Palestine from 26-36 CE (an inscription at Caesarea verifies his presence in the region). His main residence was in Caesarea but he would come to Jerusalem during major festivals as those were times when tensions were high and the potential for insurrection was great (especially as Messianic expectations were heightened). When he came to town he could be found either at Herod’s Jerusalem palace or at the Antonia Fortress. Though uncertain, most tend to think that Pilate was at the palace rather than the fortress (the traditional beginning of the Via D0lorosa).

Pilate’s initial question is, “Are you the king of the Jews?” The question is significant for several reasons. It indicates that the charge the temple authorities stressed to Pilate was Jesus’ Messianic standing. This is a political claim since “Messiah,” in the first century, meant revolution and revolt. The Messiah, as king, would end Roman oppression. It was a title that meant violent overthrow of the Roman government, especially as it was heard by Roman ears—including Pilate. Roman authority had put down previous revolts by Messianic pretenders.

Pilate’s language, however, is pejorative and sarcastic. “King of the Jews” is not how rabbis would refer to the Messiah; this is the way Roman overloads refer to rulers within Palestine. They don’t rule an independent state but an ethnic group within the empire. Herod was “king of the Jews” (an ethnicity) but he was not Emperor, and his authority was subordinate to that of Rome. When the children of Abraham spoke of messianic rule, they used the phrase “King of Israel” (cf.15:32) where Israel refers to an independent nation rather than a Roman colony. “King of Jews,” used five times in Mark 15, always comes from the Romans and seems to appear as a sarcastic, demeaning characterization.

Jesus recognizes this sarcasm and returns in kind. “You say” (cf. NRSV) is a good literal translation. The response is terse, accommodative but non-committal. Jesus does not buy into Pilate’s understanding of kingship. And Jesus is silent from that point forward. He will not play the legal game. He makes no defense. This surprises Pilate and his amazement is not so much a determination to release him as it is his wonder about how indefatigable Jesus appears.

Mark does not portray Pilate as a Jewish patsy or an indecisive leader. Instead, Pilate is a shrewd politician who seeks to placate the people. Because he knows the envy of the temple authorities, he decides to leave the choice to the people. This is probably not something the authorities would have desired, but the “crowd” petitioned for it. The “crowd” might already have someone in mind, and it is not Jesus. The chief priests lobby the crowd even as Pilate taunts them—“are you sure you want me to crucify your king?”

Mark tells us that Pilate customarily released a prisoner at the Passover which probably mimics Israel’s release from Egyptian bondage. Pilate chose Barabbas whose name means “son of the father”–or perhaps the crowd was shouting for Barabbas.  Mark’s description identifies him as more than a mere thief but as an insurrectionist. Barabbas is a violent revolutionary who probably participated in guerilla activities against the Romans. That Pilate would even consider the release of Barabbas indicates how seriously  he took the title “King of the Jews” as a threat to Roman order.

Pilate’s offer becomes in Mark’s narrative a choice for the crowd. What kind of revolution do they support? What kind of kingdom do they value? Barabbas is a violent revolutionary but Jesus represents a nonviolent revolution. The crowd gathered is not the same crowd that welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem at his triumphal entry in Mark 11. Rather, this crowd is one that had gathered to seek the release of a prisoner when many would not even be aware that Jesus was one. This “crowd” wants Barabbas; they don’t care about Jesus. The temple authorities encourage their choice.

Why would the “crowd” want Barabbas rather than Jesus? More than likely, this crowd saw Barabbas as a revolutionary hero. He was part of a liberation movement which represented the deepest desires of many in Palestine. Jesus, to this crowd, was a messianic pretender, and if they knew anything about him, they knew he did not have the same goals as Barabbas. The want Barabbas released which meant that Jesus would suffer the crucifixion planned for Barabbas.

Pilate gives the crowd the choice. This is analogous to what happens in the gladiatorial games of the Colosseum (and elsewhere) where the crowd decides who lives and dies at the pleasure of the Emperor. Will the crowd give a “thumbs up” or “down” for Jesus? Pilate, it does not appear, was terribly interested in either result. His sarcastic “King of the Jews” increased their support for Barabbas and enraged them against Jesus (notice how he identifies Jesus with the crowd, that is, “whom you call the King of the Jews”). His question “what evil has he done?” is not so much an attempt to dissuade them as it is to confirm their decision. Just as Peter denied Jesus three times, so Pilate gives the crowd three opportunities to choose Jesus. They chose Barabbas….three times! Pilate played the crowd and ultimately “satisfied” them by giving them the power (an illusory power at that) to decide the fate of these two political prisoners.

The crowd chose violent revolution rather than the nonviolent revolution of Jesus.

Pilate then hands Jesus over to the soldiers who take him to the courtyard of the palace where the whole cohort gathered around him. Jesus becomes the object of their warrior derision. These soldiers, part of an occupying force, treat Jesus with a contempt that arises from their perception that he intended to lead (as a Messiah) a violent revolution. They treat him as defeated enemy.

Most significantly for Mark’s narrative, they mockingly treat Jesus as if he is the Emperor (Caesar). “Hail, Caesar” becomes “Hail, King of the Jews.” The imperial purple, Caesar’s wreath (a crown of thorns) and their mock prostration are used to enhance the parody. Mark deliberately draws a contrast between the imperial cult (where the Emperor is honored) and the mocking glory given to Jesus. The soldiers serve Caesar. Mark underscores the fundamental hostility between the Roman Emperor and the kingdom of God.

Jesus experiences violent degradation. He is stripped, flogged, mocked and ridiculed. The Messiah is humiliated. The one who will shortly rise with the clouds to sit at the right hand of the Father is, at this moment, a disgraced, bloodied, and dishonored “pretender.”

He is the acclaimed “King of the Jews” which means nothing to a Roman occupier. The Romans will execute Jesus for his pretensions.

What do we choose? We may choose Jesus but do we also choose to serve a kingdom of this world which employs violence to secure its way in the world? I wonder which revolution we would have preferred in 33 CE. Would we choose Jesus or Barabbas?

5 Responses to “Mark 15:1-20 – The Crowd Chooses Violent Revolution Rather than Jesus”

  1.   K. Rex Butts Says:

    This is a great post with a great question at the end, especially for an American Christian culture. It seems that far too many within American Christianity want to the Jesus narrative for the salvation part but not the moral/ethical part when it comes to violence and power. For that, the American narrative, which emerged in violence and has continued to value violence as it is deemed necessary, remains preferential to the kingdom of God.

    That is why we must insist that discipleship is not just believing in Jesus but believing and embracing the same beliefs and values that Jesus lived his life by. For it was Jesus’ eschatological belief in the kingdom-reign of his Father in heaven that allowed Jesus to trust his Father until the end (telos) and remain true to the values of the kingdom of God.

    Grace and Peace,


    •   riverwindfire Says:

      “The crowd gathered is not the same crowd that welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem at his triumphal entry in Mark 11. Rather, this crowd is one that had gathered to seek the release of a prisoner when many would not even be aware that Jesus was one.”

      One of many really helpful observations you’ve made in this post, JM. I like how you’ve accessed Pilate’s Romanitas, really enhances my reading of the text.

      “Which revolution in 33 AD?” Painful question, if you lived back then at that place – seems like ancient Judaeans suffered more under the Romans than the average (North) American does. Much of the dream of the Jewish patriots was more down-to-earth than mere religio-political ideology. To choose Jesus was to choose, at minimum, to accept the status quo under rather brutal and venal Roman rule. To side with Jesus was to side against the many patriots who had suffered and died in the Roman police actions against them. How would following Jesus in those terms play out in such a high-context, community-based society? I’m not disagreeing with you at all, JM – only highlighting more of how difficult that choice must have been.

      I know which revolution I should choose, if the question were to come to me. I agree with your observations and with K.Rex – I just hope that on whatever day I might have to face it, I’ll have been following Jesus enough every day to continue to follow His revolution into more serious uncertainty.

      •   John Mark Hicks Says:

        It is an extremely difficult choice. Jewish suffering from the Romans was immense and their “freedom fighters” were heroes. Thanks for illuminate that point.

    •   John Mark Hicks Says:

      Yes, too often this text is only used to talk about substitutionary atonement and not about the demand the text makes on our own choices.

  2.   David W Fletcher Says:

    Things were always tense in Jerusalem when the crowds gathered for Passover. Roman leaders like Pilate used their political savvy to keep peace as best they could and control the situation. If needed, they would not be reluctant to use “the power of the sword” to keep the masses in line. I doubt Pilate lost any sleep over his decisions of that day; he merely did what was necessary, in his mind, since he was the Roman authority in charge. The nuances in meaning that JM points out for us certainly are Mark’s (and the other two synoptic writers’) interpretations of the events of the day. I don’t know that I would go as far as “revolutionary movement” for the activities of Barabbas and others at that time. Maybe I draw a fine line between “revolt” and “revolution” and fail to comprehend a “classical” period uprising as measuring up to what I’ve studied about more modern revolutions. Regardless, the issue of power, and potential power of populace over the state (read here “kingdom” control) are very much in play in the text. Jesus, an unusual, spiritual figure, is caught inbetween, so to speak. His disciples, as Mark, Matthew, and Luke highlight, cannot fail to appreciate the very different approaches to kingship that Jesus advances, e.g., submission to dishonor, abuse, and extreme violence. Here is the stark contrast with the methods used by Pilate, Jewish authorities, and Barabbas! The question of application to modern-day U.S.A. is an appropriate one. Just keep in mind the many and varied forces as work in governments at federal, state, and local levels to ensure peace and civic order, to promote justice and fairness, and to make our way of life safe from enemies both foreign and domestic.


  1. this went thru my mind |

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