As it is understood that Jesus occupied the cross that had been marked out for Barabbas, whom Mark describes as one “who had committed murder during an insurrection” (15:7b), it is not at all difficult to see that Jesus would have also been looked upon as an insurrectionist. In his description of Barabbas, Luke adds “This was a man who had been thrown in prison for an insurrection started in the city, and for murder” (23:19), along with “He released the man they asked for, who had been thrown in prison for insurrection and murder” (23:25a). To this portion of the Jesus tradition, John adds “Now Barabbas was a revolutionary” (18:40b). The word that is translated as “revolutionary” is “lestes,” which has as its root “lestai.” Matthew, for some reason, does not highlight Barabbas’ resume, merely reporting that he was “a notorious prisoner” (27:16). However, we understand that his notoriety is linked to the fact of his attempting to overthrow Roman rule through some type of demonstration in Jerusalem.
Jesus of Nazareth, the upstart from Galilee, now hangs on a cross. Presumably, those witnessing the event, and those who would hear about the event, have been disabused of their notions of His status as Messiah or His messianic pretensions. For above all, the fact that He was undergoing crucifixion flatly indicated that He was not the king and savior of Israel or the liberator of the people, but that He was an abject failure. Though the cross has been romanticized and forever transformed, because of the Resurrection, into a symbol of God’s grace, mercy, and love, such thoughts would have been more than out of place in Jesus’ day. For those watching, Jesus’ execution was like every other Roman crucifixion that had preceded it. It was not particularly unique, as many were scourged, endured a mock coronation, and enjoyed a crown of thorns. These things were familiar components of a crucifixion. It was not until the followers of Jesus became absolutely convinced that the person that had been put to bodily death was the very same person that had risen to new bodily life, which they and those that came after them and joined them could only describe as Resurrection (using the very specific Greek word “anastasis,” or “standing up”), that profound meaning related to God’s purposes in and for His world begins to be ascribed to the cross.
Until that point, it could only be said that crucifixions were grotesque scenes filled with horror and despair both for those undergoing it and for those observing. This is hinted at when the Gospel narratives avoid the specific details of the three hour crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth---a yawning chasm in the stories of the crucifixion that anyone living in the Roman Empire would have been able to quite easily fill in for themselves. The words of Cicero, a Roman philosopher, statesman, lawyer, orator, and political theorist, serve us quite well. He sums up the widespread and general opinion of crucifixion that would have been held by those who were Jesus’ contemporaries: “Even if we are sentenced to death, we may die free men. But the executioner, the veiling of the head, and the very word ‘cross’ should be far removed not only from the person of a Roman citizen but from his thoughts his eyes and his ears… indeed the very mention of them, that is unworthy of a Roman citizen and a free man.”
Before moving on, it is worthwhile to briefly revisit Luke’s previously mentioned “divergence” from the records of Mark and Matthew. Though Luke’s record of one of the criminals speaking to Jesus in the way that he records appears, on the surface, to be contradictory to Mark and Matthew, this does not necessarily have to be the case. We are not here attempting to provide a harmonization of the accounts so as to preserve the inerrancy and plenary inspiration of Scripture, but to simply note that the apparently divergent accounts do not necessarily stand in conflict. It is perfectly reasonable to accept the accounts of Mark and Matthew along with Luke, realizing that Luke provides a level of detail not to be found in Mark and Matthew (with the crucifixion scene not being an isolated occurrence of such), while also telling his story for a different purpose. It is possible that both Mark and Matthew knew of the tradition of one of the criminals speaking to Jesus, but chose not to mention it because it did not fit with their theological agenda. That is a perfectly reasonable position to which to ascribe. We do note that, with what he includes, Luke highlights the fact that Jesus was a revolutionary, but not at all in the common mold. This does not run counter to the basic fact that is preserved in Luke’s telling and is crucial to this study, which is that Jesus was mocked and derided by those suffering the same fate as Him. This is a fascinating and telling tidbit, especially as we better understand the common view of the cross.