There is a passage in the Alexandrian writer Philo that casts a curious light on Christian origins, and I wish I understood it better. Let me put it out there for discussion.

Philo reports on the violent and confrontational politics of the Egypt of his day, particularly the 30s AD. Alexandria was sharply divided between Jewish and anti-Jewish factions. When King Herod Agrippa visited Alexandria about 40, the Jews showed their vigorous support for him. The anti-Jewish party, though, staged a bizarre demonstration to mock the king.

Here is Philo’s report:

There was a certain madman named Carabbas … this man spent all this days and nights naked in the roads, minding neither cold nor heat, the sport of idle children and wanton youths; and they, driving the poor wretch as far as the public gymnasium, and setting him up there on high that he might be seen by everybody, flattened out a leaf of papyrus and put it on his head instead of a diadem, and clothed the rest of his body with a common door mat instead of a cloak and instead of a scepter they put in his hand a small stick of the native papyrus which they found lying by the way side and gave to him; and when, like actors in theatrical spectacles, he had received all the insignia of royal authority, and had been dressed and adorned like a king, the young men bearing sticks on their shoulders stood on each side of him instead of spear-bearers, in imitation of the bodyguards of the king, and then others came up, some as if to salute him, and others making as though they wished to plead their causes before him, and others pretending to wish to consult with him about the affairs of the state.

Then from the multitude of those who were standing around there arose a wonderful shout of men calling out “Maris”; and this is the name by which it is said that they call the kings among the Syrians; for they knew that Agrippa was by birth a Syrian, and also that he was possessed of a great district of Syria of which he was the sovereign.

The rest of the political conflict is not too relevant here, except to say that the mob then tried to erect imperial images in the synagogues, provoking riots and pogroms.

But to return to Carabbas. Can anyone familiar with the New Testament read this story without thinking of the mocking of Jesus, reported in all four gospels?

As Mark wrote,

And they clothed him with purple, and platted a crown of thorns, and put it about his head, And began to salute him, Hail, King of the Jews! And they smote him on the head with a reed, and did spit upon him, and bowing their knees worshipped him. And when they had mocked him, they took off the purple from him, and put his own clothes on him, and led him out to crucify him.

The stories are clearly different in many respects, and there are no obvious verbal resemblances in the original text. But the overall similarities are substantial. In both, we see the mocking of a pseudo-king, who is crowned with a pseudo-crown derived from a plant, and given the attributes of monarchy. Does Mark’s “reed” recall the “small stick of the native papyrus” given to Carabbas?

In both cases, the story has a Jewish-Semitic character, even though the Carabbas tale is set in Alexandria: they are mocking a Jewish king, or pseudo-king. The Alexandrian crowd shouted “Maris!”, Lord or King; the soldiers hailed the King of the Jews.

There is even a resemblance of sound. Although the names are linguistically unrelated, Carabbas sounds a lot like like Barabbas, who features so notoriously in the crucifixion story. In fact, the Barabbas story leads directly into the account of Jesus’s mocking.

Most strikingly, the two events occur within a decade of each other, and about three hundred miles apart.

Obviously, plenty of scholars have noted this parallel – I think of John Dominic Crossan, Vernon K. Robbins, Raymond Brown, and others – but it is still not widely known or discussed.

What is happening here? Philo assuredly does not know the gospels, which would not be written until many years after this. The Gospel writers show no dependence on Philo – although the Carabbas tale regularly shows up on websites presenting the silly case that Jesus was a wholly mythical being, created by lying evangelists.

Incidentally, Eusebius in the fourth century did discuss Philo’s account of these Alexandrian struggles, although he paid no attention to the Carabbas story.

I freely admit that I am speculating, but I offer two theories:

-One is that both events are strictly historical. However far-fetched it sounds, someone who had witnessed the death of Jesus happened to be in Alexandria a few years later, and suggested a near-identical parody as a means of discrediting Herod Agrippa, which the mob then adopted.

-Alternatively, both events, in Jerusalem and Alexandria, were wholly independent. In both cases, participants adapted a popular custom or ritual for the purposes of political satire.

We can argue what this custom might have been. I am almost embarrassed to note this, but in The Golden Bough, Sir James Frazer wrote about the creation of pseudo-kings who would fill the position of the real king for a day, before being sacrificed in his place. Such pseudo-kings were normally drawn from the most disposable sections of the population, beggars or criminals. Frazer argued, further, that the Jews practiced such mock-kingship, and that one of the king’s titles would have been Barabbas, “Son of the Father.” He also suggested that Philo’s Carabbas was a scribal misunderstanding of the real name.

Frazer is radically out of fashion, but we do know that the ancient world abounded in dramatized mysteries and rituals. Moreover, the idea of temporary pseudo-kingship is quite widespread around the world (and usually unrelated to any form of sacrifice). At special times, societies would declare periods when normal rules of behavior were suspended, and social hierarchies suspended, times of carnival and celebration like the Roman Saturnalia. These periods were placed under the symbolic rule of some kind of anti-king, like the medieval European Lord of Misrule.

Very tentatively, I wonder if some such ritual might have provided a format for both the “mocking” events I describe, in which a Jewish pseudo-king was held up to ridicule.

If that seems dubious, I really would be grateful for some other explanation of the truly odd parallels we see here.


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  • The two relevant passages from Raymond Brown shed some light on this issue:

    Another attempt to interpret Barabbas figuratively draws upon evidence found in Philo (Flaccus 6; #36–39) describing the events surrounding the visit of the Jewish King Herod Agrippa I to Alexandria in AD 38. AntiJewish rioters in Alexandria expressed their contempt for this visit by setting up for public display in the gymnasium a lunatic named Karabas. He had been the butt of many jokes since he wandered around the streets naked day and night. They dressed Karabas with a rug-robe, a mock diadem, and a papyrus-reed scepter; then they approached and hailed him as lord. We shall discuss this scene later in relation to the Roman mockery of Jesus as king, to which it has clear parallels. S. Reinach and others have suggested that the name of the figure hailed by the crowd as king has been brought over as Barabbas into the Jesus story. A variant of this proposal is that Karabas and Barabbas are forms of a title given to a role played in the mockery game. The basic objection, however, to all forms of the proposal is that there is little similarity (other than a partial likeness of name) between the figure/role at Alexandria and the Barabbas of the Gospel accounts. There is no mockery of Barabbas by the Jerusalem crowd, no reference to him as king—that is much closer to what happens to Jesus. Is it likely that something that happened in Alexandria in AD 38 would have become so massively confused that by AD 65–70 in Mark (or much earlier in the preGospel tradition underlying both Mark and John) Karabas had become Barabbas and what happened to him had been shifted to Jesus? Certainly none of the evangelists show any awareness of the supposed Karabas origins.


    “HISTORICAL INCIDENTS: (a) Mockery of Karabas. On p. 813 above I mentioned the incident in Alexandria in AD 38 mocking the Jewish king Herod Agrippa I. It involved an idiot named Karabas (Philo, In Flaccum 6; #36–40). Elevating him in the gymnasium, the antiJewish mobs put on his head a sheet of papyrus spread out as a diadem. They threw around his body a rug as a royal robe and gave him a papyrus reed as a scepter. And when “as in theatrical mimes” he had received the insignia of kingship, young men stood on either side as an imitation bodyguard. Others proceeded to salute him or to petition him for justice while the crowd hailed him in Aramaic as lord. Notice that there is no element of physical violence done to Karabas.”

    Brown, R. E. (1994). The death of the Messiah, Volume 1 and 2: From Gethsemane to the grave, a commentary on the Passion narratives in the four Gospels (874). New York; London: Yale University Press.

  • philipjenkins

    Yes, I mentioned Brown’s work (which I respect greatly). I do however think that he seriously understates the parallels. Also, I am not suggesting that Philo’s account influenced the gospels, rather that both stemmed from a common origin.

  • James Stagg

    Was there also a judgement scene, a scourging, and a painful crowning with thorns (the papyrus seems rather lightweight)?
    Do we not consider that both events are actual historical events?
    Then why the questioning of similar events…..would you also question the crucifixion of Peter and Andrew, simply because they were repetitive of Christ’s?
    Your purpose puzzles me……………..

  • philipjenkins

    My purpose is seeking why this event so closely mirrors the celebrated scene in the crucifixion, and to understand whether we might in both cases be seeing some underlying popular custom or ritual.

  • Dominick Garden

    Hi Phillip.

    Do you not think that the author of the gospel of Mark is alluding to this event in his Passion narrative. Philo is worth reading to understand the origin of Christianity.

    This is an extract from “On Abraham”:

    “for the first, who is named Abraham, is a symbol of that virtue which is
    derived from instruction; the intermediate Isaac is an emblem of natural virtue;
    the third, Jacob, of that virtue which is devoted to and derived from practice.

    It happens then that they are all three of one household and of one family …..
    and they are all lovers of God, and beloved by God loving the only God, and being loved in return by him who has chosen, as the holy scriptures tell us, by reason of the excess of their virtues in which they lived, to give them also a share of the same appellation as himself; for having added his own peculiar name to their names he has united them together, appropriating to himself an appellation composed of the three names: “For,” says God, “this is my everlasting name: I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob”.

    In Mark 12:26, he writes:

    Now about the dead rising—have you not read in the Book of Moses, in the account of the burning bush, how God said to him, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’ He is not the God of the dead, but of the living. You are badly mistaken!”

    Barabbas is an allusion to Carabbas (one who exemplifies natural virtue).

    Mark’s gospel is the earliest canonical Gospel and the only one where Barabbas is not described in a negative fashion. He is in prison WITH the rebels who committed murder during the uprising.

    The events are too similar to be be coincidental.


    Dominick Garden

  • philipjenkins

    Beyond doubt Philo sheds a lot of light on the setting of early Christianity. But I’m skeptical about any direct influence. Different readers will differ on this, but I honestly see no evidence that Mark knew any portion of Philo, and scholars have been looking for such traces for long centuries.

  • David Peters

    Mocking people who claimed to be King was common back in the day but this hardly rises to the level of popular custom or ritual. Not enough people made the claim (yah think!!!!) for it to become a popular custom. Philo seems more akin to riding them out of town on a rail which is different than crowning with thorns, scourging and crucifixion. The similarities do not impress. If anything, Philo supports the Gospel account by showing the mocking of Christ was consistent with 1st Century behavior.