Max Young writes

Barabbas—a Man of Mystery

In last month’s magazine, Peter Foot wrote, “seeing several films on the death and resurrection of Jesus, . . . apart from Jesus, two people, Pontius Pilate and Barabbas, stood out.”. Historians have found plenty of documentary evidence of Pilate and his life, but who was Barabbas?

There is a great deal of mystery about this man. There were some rather strange similarities between Barabbas and Jesus. It starts with their names. Early copies of Matthew’s gospel called the prisoner “Jesus bar Abbas”. The phrase “bar Abbas” can be translated as “son of the Father”, which we’ve heard of applied to Christ because he occasionally used the word “Abba” (father) in talking about or to God. So it’s quite a short step to the name Barabbas by dropping “Jesus” and joining the remaining names into one.

Evidence to support this name-changing involves the scholar, Origen, who felt that he didn’t want Christ’s name associated with a criminal for reverential reasons. He also suggested that the name could have been added in to Barabbas’ name by a heretic.

And another thing, one could say that they were both examples of rebel leaders. Mark has Barabbas imprisoned for taking part in a revolt, and his popularity with the crowd suggests that he had been one of its leaders. But if we look at these men through Roman eyes, Jesus could have looked like a rebel leader too. Plenty of people were calling him the Messiah. Surely this would involve the overthrow of the existing government, wouldn’t it? It wouldn’t take too much to get them to cause trouble, after all didn’t he stage a violent protest with his attack on the Temple merchants?

Are these similarities too close for comfort? Are there other explanations for these similarities? There is a theory that Jesus Christ was the imprisoned rebel leader with Barabbas invented so as to be a carbon-copy to cover the violent aspects. This could be to counter any story that Jesus Christ had tried to organise any anti-Roman activities for which he could have been crucified.

In my mind there’s a mite too much speculation in that theory to make it plausible. But Jesus was a common name in those days in Palestine and it could be quite likely to have two people of the same name arrested at the same time.

One of the strange things about the story of the Trial is what has been called the ‘Paschal Pardon; the ‘governor was accustomed to release a prisoner for the crowd, anyone whom they wanted’. Sadly, details of this pardon are only to be found in the four gospels with no supporting evidence in Jewish or Roman historical documents.

But what do the gospels say about this Barabbas? He is called a prisoner in all the gospels other than John who calls him a ‘bandit’. Was he: a convicted prisoner serving his sentence? Or: a criminal recently captured and bound awaiting trial? Matthew calls him a notorious prisoner. Mark and Luke say he was a prisoner who had committed murder during an insurrection. John’s ‘bandit’ is a term used at the time to cover revolutionaries.

There are a couple of points to note. First, if he had been convicted of being a murderer, insurrectionist or revolutionary he would have been summarily and swiftly executed after trial. Second, under Roman Law, the only person who could grant a pardon – a rare occurrence – was the Emperor. So, if Pilate reversed a court decision by pardoning Barabbas he would be, in effect, undermining the Emperor’s authority. From a Roman viewpoint, the whole story seems unlikely since it shows Roman authority (Pontius Pilate, backed by overwhelming military might) being bullied by a small crowd of unarmed civilians into releasing a prisoner condemned to death for insurrection against the Roman Empire. This would have made Pilate a candidate for execution. If Barabbas had merely been captured and was awaiting trial. Pilate could, technically, have released him without trial, but, in my opinion, the release of any murderous insurrectionist would have been considered by Rome as a fatal lack of good judgement.

Are we any farther forward in getting to know Barabbas? Possibly I’ve just muddied the water, anyway we’ve no idea about what happened to Barabbas after his release – I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that he had gone to watch Jesus’ crucifixion and there are apparently some sources to say he was killed later on in another revolt against the Romans.

Max Young

News from the Wisbeys

Dear Friends and Family.

Greetings from Gloucester, UK, where we continue to thank God for the place he has put us. In one of the courses I (Matt) teach as part of the Wycliffe training, I show a video about David Rudisha–the Kenyan long distance runner–and his (now ex) coach, an Irish Catholic priest. Towards the end of the documentary, reflecting on his life and the way he ended up training long distance runners when he originally intended to be a geography teacher, the coach shares this well known saying: “You bloom where you are planted.”

Many times I find myself coming back to this saying and reflecting on its depth, both as an encouragement and a challenge. It is an encouragement to me in the midst of the complex work we’re involved in, that ultimately we can only do what we can do. While at the same time it challenges me to make the most of the place that we’re in, and not waste the opportunities we have around us. I wonder what your reflections are?

Since our last newsletter, Matt has been very busy teaching two classes here in the UK and then travelling to Asia twice, once in May to help coordinate a community of practice workshop in Bangkok and then in June to the Philippines and Cambodia. There is so much we could say about any of these activities but we wanted to focus on the June trip to give a flavour of that time since it ended up being a real encouragement to us in our work.

The June trip had a different slant to usual Asia visits, mainly because on this occasion Matt (together with his colleagues) wasn’t primarily responsible for the activities taking place but instead was acting in much more of a supportive capacity. Firstly, in the Philippines, they were helping a group of NGOs and academic institutions to run a community of practice workshop on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (remember the event we also ran in 2016). It was such an honour to be invited to be a part of this exciting event, seeing such a range of participants come together from all over the country to learn together, building new relationships and strengthening existing ones. Coaching the team as they put on this event themselves, chipping in from our experiences last year, was a really rewarding experience and helped to cement some really special friendships in that context.

Then, after a week in Manila, Matt moved on to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. It has been nearly five years since Matt last visited Cambodia (which, interestingly, was one of the very first places he visited in Asia), and so it was lovely to be back and working again with the wonderful people there. This was made all the more special as he and a colleague were invited by a local NGO to deliver some training for their project management team, again on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Once again it was fantastic to be able to spend a couple of days with the team, exploring together how they might be able to benefit from engaging with the SDGs.

As we said, both these activities were a real encouragement in our work. While it is fantastic to see the way participants engage with the learning events we put on regularly in Thailand, one of the goals of these events has always been to see participants encouraged and equipped to take their knowledge back to their country of work and share it with others. We love to see ideas from the events in Bangkok localised into different contexts and our work multiplied and distributed further afield. Both the activities last month were examples of just this, and they encourage us that the work we are doing, while in many ways only a drop in the ocean of change that is needed, really is rippling out and having an impact. Please join us in giving thanks for this reminder.

In home news, we have been in our current house for almost a year and Levi is coming to the end of his first year of school! Where have the last 12 months gone? We are thankful that he has had a great year and generally loves going to school. Anya continues to love life, particularly when her big brother is around, and Liz is enjoying building new relationships through their various social activities.

We had a lovely week away with family over half term, with both kids LOVING the beach! In May Matt also attended some training with Citizens Advice, and has subsequently started volunteering a couple of days a month with the witness service at the Crown Court. It is great to be able to serve in the local community, even in a very small way. As a couple we have also stepped into a new responsibility with our church here in Gloucester, joining the leadership team. It is a real encouragement to us that despite only being in the city for a little over 3 years we’ve been able to be so involved with the life of the church, benefiting from and (hopefully) contributing to relationships in this place. We give thanks for this real privilege.

Of course, the trade-off for investing in one place is the lack of opportunities we’ve had to see many of you over the last few years. We think of you all often and love to hear your news when you get a chance to share .

Thank you for standing with us and supporting us in this work.

With much love,

Matt, Liz, Levi and Anya