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