Who Was Barabbas?


Barabbas, by James Lissot (Wikicommons)

In a couple weeks, I’m preaching at a church in Texas. It’s Baptist church and, believe it or not, they’re using the lectionary! But, since they’re Baptists, they’re not totally wedded to the lectionary. So when I looked at the Gospel text for that week, and found it uninteresting, I asked them if I could jump a week ahead and use part of the passage from Palm/Passion Sunday. They agreed.

So I’m going to preach about Barabbas, the thief/insurrectionist (depending on which Gospel you use) who was released on the Passover. The crowd was given the choice: Pilate would release either Jesus or Barabbas. The crowd chose Barabbas. (For a heart-wrenching version of this scene, listen to Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, Movement 44. Here’s a version:

So, I’m thinking a lot about Barabbas this Lent.

What are your impressions of Barabbas?

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  • Buck Eschaton

    I think it’s interesting that Barabbas means Son of Father or Son of the Father.

  • In some manuscripts of Matthew, they say Barabbas’ first name is Jesus (27.16-17).

    Given your appreciation for a Girardian understanding of atonement, I’d be interested to hear you connect this particular scene of Jesus Barabbas and Jesus who is called Christ in Matthew with the Day of Atonement/scapegoating scene from Leviticus 16. There seems to be an important/intentional parallel and twist.

    • I totally agree, David. And I think it’s interesting that Barabbas is the first person that Jesus died for — the first person in whose place Jesus died. Yet, did he “accept” Jesus?

  • Stephen Cornell

    So, my choice between two human beings, two sons. Think of how badly folks have chosen in the past. Joseph Kony of the Lord’s Resistance Army, Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin, all somebody’s son who offered the crowds options instead of the “Son of the Blessed”.
    I want to make sure I am not enamoured of someone who is merely mortal, merely temporary.
    Which do I choose?
    When it came to the Crux-where did the crowds go?

  • kathy

    Stephen’s comment also makes me think of
    the movie “Sophie’s Choice.”

    I wonder how both the crowds and Barabbbas lived with the choice made that day. Would he have been welcomed into the new community of Jesus” followers post resurrection/ascension? Would he have wanted to be?

  • Jon G

    As some of the previous commenters pointed out, there might be something to the name of Barabbas that parrallels Jesus. I once heard Tony Campolo reference church history (although I was never able to confirm where it was) that claimed his name was Jesus Barabbas (Jesus son of Abbas), as opposed to Jesus Barjoseph, and that both men may have come from the same small town and, if so, they likely knew each other.

    The main point being theological…that the people chose the wrong Jesus.

    I’d love to find out if this were actually the case and if so…doesn’t that open up a whole new way to view the story than just saying that he was a theif/murderer in whose place Jesus died? Rather it is a commentary on where we place our trust…

    • Jon, I’ve never heard that take, that you heard from Campolo. But many commentators think that Barabbas is a literary gloss — that he is Jesus’ alter ego. That he is Jesus.

      • Dan Hauge

        That’s an interesting one. What exactly is the theological point being made by Luke on this reading, if the crowd is choosing ‘the same Jesus’ to be both released, and crucified?

        • Buck Eschaton

          On the Day of Atonement there were 2 identical goats. One which was sacrificed as Azazel and was loaded up with the sins the priests had absorbed and collected from the people (think of Jesus going around collecting and healing the sicknesses). The High Priest placed the sins on the goat which was Azazel and sent it into the wilderness bearing the sin. Then the High Priest killed the goat which was Yahweh, and was a substitute for the High Priest, the High Priest then went into the temple with the blood and came out resurrected bearing the Name. Somewhere in here the high priest is splattering the blood everywhere (in a whip-like motion, so says the Mishnah, and also think of Jesus in the temple with a whip cleansing the temple), repairing the bonds of creation that had been damaged by sin, and the people would say something along the lines of let the blood be upon us because the blood was life.
          Then in the Epistle to Barnabas there’s this about the scapegoat/the Azazel goat ‘They shall see him on that Day, clad to the ankles in his red woollen robe, and will say, ‘Is this not he whom we once crucified and mocked and pierced and spat upon?’ (Barn.7).
          That was a lot. Sorry

          • Dear Buck Eschaton,

            You never need to apologize for dropping mishnic goodness on this blog.


          • Thank you, Buck E. for all the incredible allusions/textual echoes. Barabbas’ story becomes a part of the turning of the page when we see it within the great sweep of the story of God. It is too bad Leviticus 16 has not been a part of the conversations we have had over the crucifixion.

            Tom Wright (in Simply Jesus) has a section where he puts one layer on another — no either this or that narrow theory of atonement. I have long suspected that much of what we newer covenant types argue over would fall away if we had not long ago assumed the older covenant was irrelevant to the discussion. Here I find myself with Phyllis Tickle when she hopes (prophesies?) that the emerging Christianity will be not only more communal and mystical but also more Jewish.

            Tony! Did you see the Barabbas movie with Anthony Quinn? Most of what I ever thought I knew about Jesus the Son of the Father comes from that 3-B (beards, bedsheets and bathrobes) movie. Which means, I guess, I do not know much but neither does anyone else I am guessing. Let us know what you put together for the baptists!

  • Kenton

    So where are you going to be, Tony? (I don’t see your speaking schedule online. Am I missing something?)

  • Carla

    Since you have nothing else to read, consider Per Lagerkvist’s “Barrabas.” I have a copy if you want it. It’s a fascinating novel about how Barrabas might have changed as the result of being let go–his guilt and inner turmoil are heart wrenching.

    • I thought I had a copy, but I can’t find it. I’d love to see yours.

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