Mob hysteria

Back in the 70s, before my wife and I moved to Pasadena for seminary, we were choir members together in a small church in northern California.  One year, the choir performed an Easter cantata accompanied by a multimedia presentation (translation: two slide projectors instead of one).  Like the Wizard of Oz, I operated the equipment and narrated the program unseen from behind the rear-projection screens (which I fabricated from white shower curtain liners!) while the choir sang out front.

At one point, I put up an image of Jesus hanging on the cross.  The script called for the choir to turn around to face him, then taunt and jeer, shaking their fists and calling for his crucifixion.  Because of my vantage point, I could see them–they were facing me.  And at that moment, the actions of the Jerusalem mob struck me in a way they never had before; I felt confused and crushed.  How could such a thing happen?

Here’s the set-up in Matthew:

Now it was the governor’s custom at the festival to release a prisoner chosen by the crowd.  At that time they had a well-known prisoner whose name was Jesus Barabbas.  So when the crowd had gathered, Pilate asked them, “Which one do you want me to release to you: Jesus Barabbas, or Jesus who is called the Messiah?”  For he knew it was out of self-interest that they had handed Jesus over to him.  (Matt 27:15-18, NIV)

Outside of the gospels, we know little about Barabbas or, for that matter, the custom to which Matthew refers.  The way Matthew describes the event, it seems that Pilate deliberately chose Barabbas as a strategic ploy to get Jesus released.  By reputation, Barabbas was a terrorist in Roman custody for murder.  Pilate placed a stark choice before the people: whom do you want?  Jesus Barabbas or Jesus Messiah?  Surely reminding people that Jesus was thought by some to be the Messiah would put things in proper perspective.

It didn’t.

Reading between the lines, we might guess that Pilate miscalculated on two fronts.  First, he underestimated the extent to which the crowd would actually consider Barabbas a nationalist hero, one who stood against the hated empire.  Many of the crowd who acclaimed Jesus on Palm Sunday were Galilean pilgrims cheering on their pick for Celebrity of the Year.  Absent these voices, the crowd may actually have preferred Barabbas to Jesus.

But Pilate also underestimated the lengths that the Jewish leaders would go to get their way:

But the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus executed.  “Which of the two do you want me to release to you?” asked the governor.  “Barabbas,” they answered.  “What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” Pilate asked.  They all answered, “Crucify him!”  “Why? What crime has he committed?” asked Pilate.  But they shouted all the louder, “Crucify him!”  (Matt 27:20-23, NIV)

We don’t know what they did to convince the crowd.  Again, no doubt they played on nationalist sentiments to portray Barabbas as a freedom-fighter.  And they may have used their own authority to insist that Jesus was a false messiah deserving of death.

But I also wonder if they didn’t go about inflaming people with anti-Roman invective.  “Listen to that pagan.  It’s obvious that he wants to get Jesus off.  Well, we’re not going to let him win, are we?  Let’s stand up to him together!”

This is, of course, pure speculation on my part.  But it’s just the kind of propaganda that would explain the crowd’s reaction.  Social psychologists remind us that it takes very little prompting for human beings to form in-group loyalties and out-group prejudices.  I can easily imagine Pilate’s disdainful attitude, treating the crowd as just so many cattle to be herded this way or that.  It would take no effort at all for the chief priests to play on the people’s hatred of Rome and its representative, turning a choice between Barabbas and Jesus into an us vs. them contest.

When the crowd began to clamor for Jesus’ destruction, an exasperated Pilate asked, “Why?  What crime has he committed?”  For an answer, the people only screamed louder: “Crucify him!”  The situation was getting out of control, and Pilate, who had the job of keeping order in the region, had to give in to the crowd’s demand.

As will be mentioned in the next post, this passage from Matthew has historically been misused to proclaim the sole guilt of the Jews in murdering God’s Messiah, and to justify their mistreatment and persecution as “Christ-killers.”  But what I see in the story is a group of people with strong ethnic loyalties whose emotions could be manipulated, normal people who could get caught up in the fever of the moment when gathered together as a mob to rail against a common enemy.

Just like many people who still appear in the headlines today.

Just like many of us, given the chance.

12 thoughts on “Mob hysteria

  1. A good observation. I’ve often thought about this same (and reoccurring) social phenomena when I see the level of mass deception at work today. There are well-meaning observers who, like Pilate, attempt to logically assess current conditions and predict their outcomes. But logic isn’t winning the day; instead, we continue in the spiritual struggle mentioned in Ephesians 6:12.

    1. And logic can only go so far when you play on people’s passions. I would also submit that Eph 6:12 encompasses the social evil embedded in structures of human power…

  2. In a more politically polite fashion…I see some similarities to when a vote was taken at the Democratic Convention as to whether God would be invited or uninvited into their platform…a group of people deciding if the Lord of Lords belongs in our world anymore.

    1. An interesting observation. I understand the desire in that context to do what is “politically correct”–it’s simply ironic that any god that has to be put to a vote ceases to be God.

  3. HI Cameron, I am one of your older bloggers and am having a hard time squinting through the black background of your email and white writing. I love all that I can read and thanks so much for the inspiration!

    Judy Bach

    1. Hi, Judy. Are you saying that the email notification is coming on a black background? That’s strange…I certainly haven’t set it up that way. The site itself is set up with a white background and black text…

  4. A sad ‘Blog’ or Post… disjointed ramblings of an ignoramus… with no focus or point whatsoever, -only a ‘parrot-like’ agenda bent upon fostering nonsense. Your own words belie your ignorance & contradictions… worse, you make no distinction between the Jesus’… -You speak of Two different men named “Jesus”, -nevertheless, you refer to ‘Jesus’ without any distinction. Then you refer to ‘Barabbas’ as though that was his name, -Barabbas is Not his name, -it is what ‘Jesus’ (his name) was called, -it is an Aramaic appellation, -the meaning of which is: Bar = Son + Abba = Father (hence, he was called (the) ‘Son of the Father’.

    As you unwittingly toy with the appellations i.e. Barabbas & Messiah… you, apparently have no clue about the meaning of the Jewish Mashiah… -rather, you would espouse the later-day Greek re-interpretation of the Jewish word.

    Ok… dream on.

    1. Thank you for your feedback. Yes, I am aware of the fact that “Barabbas” means “Son of the Father.” In bringing up the two men named “Jesus,” my intent was only to reflect the differences found in some more recent translations of Matthew, as “Jesus Barabbas” is not found in all ancient manuscripts. Thus, yes, I am guilty of using “Barabbas” as if it were his name, a habit that no doubt originates from working from texts/translations in which “Jesus” was missing. And yes, I am also guilty of using the name “Jesus” in the post without making a clear distinction as to which man I was referring. That, I assume, is my bias, writing as a Christian. I appear to have offended you in doing so, and for that I apologize.

      1. Thank you very much and God Bless you for your candor & honesty toward my seemingly negative response re. your Blog about Jesus (the Son of God) [Barabbas] v. ‘Saint Paul’s’ “Christ”, -it is truly refreshing and, I am honored that you take this opportunity to respond to my Post, -such as it is… you are a courageous man. That said, permit me to expound upon that which occasioned my seemingly negative comments that arose re. the above matter…, -that is to say that which I perceived from what appeared about your Blog that I found insulting to me (personally)… and worse, -that you would lead unsuspecting souls into the abyss of further unknowing than your own. (Indeed, should you ‘Teach’… Know what You are talking about.) That said, there is so very very much more to ‘glean’ from (in between the lines, -particularly as it concerns that which is ‘documented’ re. the ‘alleged’ Trial of the supposed ‘Jesus Christ’) than what is ‘apparent’ … -a herculean task to be sure… I know and, more than i can say here & now. Nevertheless, for me, although [Jesus] Barabbas was my life-long focus, I could not ‘know’ him within the back-drop of ‘Jesus Christ’, -even though I was born & raised as a staunch ‘believer’ in ‘Jesus Christ’ during my first twenty-something-odd years. [Jesus] Barabbas was a ‘thorn in my side’ since early childhood.

        It wasn’t until I began to look at Saul of Tarsus that I began to see & understand the where, when, what,who & why of that which actually took place… -it was, in reality, not a pretty (‘Christian’) picture… but, it is beautiful picture in & of itself anyway.

        Although Murphy’s Law it is true, widely known & recognized by all, -it wasn’t until Anonymous came along to explain (humorously) that it wasn’t Murphy that wrote the Law… but rather it was written by another man with the same name…,-such may very well be the case re. the actual author of ‘The Sermon on the Mount’… as I so believe…. -with all due respect to you & your ilk.

  5. Naamaste’ Cameron,

    Oh Yes indeed I have a story to tell… History, -iconoclastic to be sure but, in the last analysis, that can not be avoided. Originally, having a story to tell was not a part of any career goals or intentions, -among other things, I didn’t have an appropriate education whereby I could be regarded as an expert in any particular field, neither have I any demonstrable talent to write a story. Nevertheless, Barabbas was a thorn in my side since childhood and spurred me on and on to find this “notorious prisoner”. Looking back over fifty years of ‘on again-off again’ search for this strangely elusive but pivotal character, it became apparent that I had become an ‘expert’. But, merely knowing who Barabbas is i.e. the necessity of his being such as I do, in and of itself, was and is not nearly enough for me to ‘have a story to tell’. The long slow process of ‘enlightenment’ dawned upon me over the span of many years in short flickered spurts. I had as much to learn as I had to unlearn. Losing one’s religion is as healthy as is pruning plants. The internal conflict within, as it turned out, was and is equally necessary, -be damned and bless the pain. As fresh air comes to fire, I was comforted and granted great solace by reading: ‘The Essene Gospel of Peace’ (translated by Edmond Bordeaux Szekely). During the ensuing decades, -never thinking to gather relevant materials to even ‘have a story to tell’ (or write), absorbing an admixture of certain scattered bits & pieces from among various seemingly divergent disciplines, -temporal & spiritual, ancient & modern, -I blindly followed the path of my unknown fate, -identifying and rejecting foolish pontifications. Focusing upon questions that naturally arise from the declared ‘Holy Gospels’, -especially as it concerns the supposed ‘trial of Jesus Christ’, and not even knowing where to start, -except for the ignored and generally glossed-over reference as it concerns the ‘insurrection’ (that [Jesus] Barabbas is alleged to have been a principal participant), I was compelled to examine the anointment of Saul (the first King of the Jews)… down to the days Jeroboam… down further to the days of Judas the Galilean.

    To be continued…

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