According to the gospels, Jesus was a charismatic figure who was constantly attracting crowds wherever he went. People wanted to be healed, see a miracle, or hear what Jesus had to say. Often there were so many people it was difficult to get close to Jesus, and people literally climbed trees (Luke 19:3-4) and cut holes in rooftops (Mark 2:4, Luke 5:19) just to get closer. The gospels are filled with stories like these:
Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat. Mark 3:20
Again Jesus began to teach by the lake. The crowd that gathered around him was so large that he got into a boat and sat in it out on the lake, while all the people were along the shore at the water’s edge. Mark 4:1
Soon afterward, Jesus went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went along with him. Luke 7:11
Now Jesus’ mother and brothers came to see him, but they were not able to get near him because of the crowd. Luke 8:19
Meanwhile, when a crowd of many thousands had gathered, so that they were trampling on one another… Luke 12:1
These crowds also traveled long distances and to remote locations just to see him.
Jesus withdrew with his disciples to the lake, and a large crowd from Galilee followed. When they heard about all he was doing, many people came to him from Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, and the regions across the Jordan and around Tyre and Sidon.
Late in the afternoon the Twelve came to him and said, “Send the crowd away so they can go to the surrounding villages and countryside and find food and lodging, because we are in a remote place here.” Luke 9:12
These lucky crowds got to witness some of the most amazing miracles in history. They saw Jesus feed 5,000, heal the lame and the blind, cast out demons, raise people from the dead, and perform so many other miracles that “even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written” (John 21:25). The Bible gives us a snapshot of what these crowds saw:
A large crowd followed him, and he healed all who were ill. Matthew 12:15
When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick. Matthew 14:14
…the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen. Luke 19:37
…and a great crowd of people followed him because they saw the signs he had performed by healing the sick. John 6:2
Now the crowd that was with him when he called Lazarus from the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to spread the word. John 12:17
Jesus vs. Barabbas
But when it came time for the public to choose between freeing Jesus “the miracle worker” or Barabbas “the murderer” — the choice should’ve been clear, and yet… they chose to free Barabbas.
This ancient public opinion poll tells us that Jesus’ approval rating was, somehow, even lower than that of Barabbas… who didn’t exactly set the bar very high. The crowd didn’t even free Barabbas because they liked him, but because of how much they disliked Jesus. Luke 23:23 says, “With loud shouts they insistently demanded that he be crucified.” That doesn’t sound like the actions of a crowd that were deeply impressed with the works and miracles of Jesus.
Where were all of Jesus’ supporters? Where were the crowds that traveled long distances to see him? Or even just the local fans? Where were the apostles? Where was the blind man saying, “Free Jesus, for I was blind and now I see!” Where was the deaf man? The lame man? Jesus’s mother and brothers? The centurion whose daughter was healed? The bleeding woman? Mary Magdalene? Where was the father whose son was possessed? Where was Lazarus saying, “Free Jesus! For I was dead and Jesus made me alive again!” Where was Zacchaeus saying, “Free Jesus! For I was a short, nerdy, tree-climber and Jesus hung out with me anyway!” Where were the large crowds that spread cloaks and palm branches and sang as he entered Jerusalem? Where were the droves that were healed? Or the thousands that were fed? Where were the legions of sick crying out, “Free Jesus so that we too may be healed!”? Where were all these people? If crowds always gathered wherever Jesus went, where were they now?
Unfortunately, there’s no way for us to go back in time and observe the miracles of Jesus, but thanks to this informal public opinion poll, we know that the people who were there at that time didn’t seem to think much of him. In fact, if this crowd could see all of the cathedrals and mega-churches dedicated to Jesus today, they might say, “What…? You mean that guy? The guy we passed over for Barabbas?! Well, I was there, and I saw what he did, and you’ve got the wrong idea.”
The Chief Priests: The reason for the crowd’s change of heart?
According to the Bible, the reason the crowd turned on Jesus was because the chief priests and the elders, “persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas” (Matt. 27:20, Mark 15:11).
The gospels paint the chief priests as the antagonists, and while I don’t doubt that some of them were corrupt, they seemed to be doing as God had instructed.
The scriptures clearly warned them that God would be testing the Jews by sending false prophets, who would try to impress them by accurately predicting the future and performing signs and wonders. God also instructed them to kill such prophets, if they ever tried to lead people away from the one true God:
If a prophet, or one who foretells by dreams, appears among you and announces to you a sign or wonder, and if the sign or wonder spoken of takes place, and the prophet says, “Let us follow other gods” (gods you have not known) “and let us worship them,” you must not listen to the words of that prophet or dreamer. The Lord your God is testing you to find out whether you love him with all your heart and with all your soul … That prophet or dreamer must be put to death for inciting rebellion against the Lord your God…
~ Deuteronomy 13:1-5
So along comes Jesus, making prophecies, performing signs and wonders, inciting rebellion, and leading Jews to follow an unfamiliar God (one with a son, who came from a human woman, who also claims to be God), and so the chief priests did exactly as God instructed them to do. If God didn’t want them to kill Jesus, perhaps he should’ve been more specific about what they should expect, to avoid any misunderstandings about who they should kill and who they should worship.
To add insult to injury, God presumably blinded the majority of Jews to prevent them from ever recognizing their own messiah. (Poor Jews.)
Why did the crowd listen to the chief priests?
If Jesus had healed me or my family, or raised me from the dead, I wouldn’t give a flying fig what the chief priests said about him. And strangely, according to the gospel of John, the crowds didn’t care. They recognized that these miracles meant that Jesus was something special, even if Jesus didn’t exactly fit their messianic expectations:
At this they tried to seize him, but no one laid a hand on him, because his hour had not yet come. Still, many in the crowd believed in him. They said, “When the Messiah comes, will he perform more signs than this man?”
~ John 7:30-31
So the crowds were (reportedly) impressed with the miracles of Jesus, and were willing to overlook a few inconsistencies. And really… who are you going to believe? The guy who can literally walk on water… or the chief priests?
Whatever may have happened, it’s clear by the story that the crowd was not impressed, and it’s difficult to imagine that the chief priests were so persuasive that they could’ve convinced eyewitnesses to vote for Barabbas: “Yes, yes, we know that Jesus healed you, and walked on water, and rose the dead… but Barabbas…”
As impressed as today’s Christians are with the miracles of Jesus, it seems incongruent that those who lived with him should not have been equally enamored. But if we allow for the possibility that Jesus’ biographers were guilty of exaggeration (in order to win converts), then it does make sense that they would’ve had some difficulty confronting the question of why their miracle-worker was ever killed. They would’ve had little choice but to insist the crowd was somehow deceived — deceived enough to ignore everything they knew about Jesus.