The Mocking of Carabas, and of Christ

The Mocking of Carabas, and of Christ March 28, 2024

A passage in the Alexandrian writer Philo casts a curious light on Christian origins, and specifically Easter, and I wish I understood it better. Let me put it out there for discussion. It’s particularly appropriate for precisely today – for Maundy Thursday, as we segue into Good Friday.

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, and rioting was always a risk. When King Herod Agrippa visited Alexandria in 38, 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 [Καραβᾶς]… 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.

When Flaccus heard, or rather when he saw this, he would have done right if he had apprehended the maniac and put him in prison, that he might not give to those who reviled him any opportunity or excuse for insulting their superiors, and if he had chastised those who dressed him up for having dared both openly and disguisedly, both with words and actions, to insult a king and a friend of Caesar, and one who had been honoured by the Roman senate with imperial authority; but he not only did not punish them, but he did not think fit even to check them, but gave complete license and impunity to all those who designed ill, and who were disposed to show their enmity and spite to the king, pretending not to see what he did see, and not to hear what he did hear.

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 Carabas/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, to the point of eerie. 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 Carabas? Mark’s actual word here translated as reed is κάλαμος, kalamos, and it implies a reed-pen, or possibly a measuring rod. In 3 John, for instance, the author says that “I have much to write you, but I do not want to do so with pen [καλάμου] and ink.” It is exactly the sort of thing that you might use to write on papyrus.

For what it is worth, the papyrus featured in many Egyptian myths associated with royalty, and especially the cult of Osiris and his divine family.

In both cases, the story has a Jewish/Semitic character, even though the Carabas tale is set in Alexandria: they are mocking a Jewish king, or pseudo-king. The Gentile Alexandrian crowd mockingly shouted “Maris!”, Lord or King; the Gentile soldiers in Jerusalem hailed the King of the Jews. If the Alexandrians were not explicitly reported as greeting Carabas with “Hail, King of the Jews,” they were an inch away from doing so. The word Mar or “Maris” is the Aramaic or Syriac term for Lord, which has a powerful Christian resonance. Think of the early Christian appeal Maranatha, Come Lord!

Although the names are linguistically unrelated, Carabas sounds rather like Barabbas, who features so notoriously in the crucifixion story. In fact, the Barabbas story leads directly into the account of Jesus’s mocking. You will note that the nineteenth century C. D. Yonge translation I use here actually calls the character Carabbas rather than Carabas, perhaps with a recollection of the Barabbas of the gospels, but the double B has no warrant in the Philo quote.

Most strikingly, the two events occur within only a few years of each other, and about three hundred miles apart. The Carabas incident definitely took place several years after the trial of Jesus, which likely occurred in 30.

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 Carabas tale regularly shows up on websites presenting the silly case that Jesus was a wholly mythical being, created by lying evangelists. There is no way whatever that Mark or the other evangelists would have appropriated that Philo story as it stood, as it would have drawn an embarrassing parallel between Jesus and a wandering madman.

Incidentally, Eusebius in the fourth century did discuss Philo’s account of these Alexandrian struggles, although he paid no attention to the Carabas 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. That kind of mocking ritual was just in the cultural air at the time.

We can argue what this custom might have been. I am almost embarrassed to note this, but in his famous (or notorious) book The Golden Bough, Sir James Frazer argued that early societies had very weighty reasons to choose pseudo-kings who would rule for a day or so to fill the position of the real king, because those impostors then became his substitutes in the rituals when otherwise the king himself would have been sacrificed. Whatever the origins of the custom, 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 suggested that Philo’s Carabas 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. At special times, many societies would declare periods when normal rules of behavior and social hierarchies were suspended, times of carnival and celebration. One famous example of these was the Dionysian mysteries that would have been so very familiar in Alexandria, during which all forms of ritual mockery, buffoonery, and obscenity (aischrologia) were permitted in ways that would never be tolerated normally. In Aristophanes’s play The Frogs, the god Dionysos himself becomes a prominent target of wild mockery. For what it is worth, in the late second century AD, the Christian theologian Clement of Alexandria devoted special attention to denouncing the Dionysiac religion and its mysteries in his Protreptikos, the Exhortation to the Greeks. Of course, that it was an Alexandria radically changed from Philo’s time.

Moreover, the idea of temporary pseudo-kingship is quite widespread around the world (and usually unrelated to any form of sacrifice). During the Roman Saturnalia, a mock king was chosen by lot to be the tyrannical master of ceremonies at the holiday feast, the Saturnalicus Princeps. That person might be a slave, a child, even a woman. I quote Wikipedia: “His capricious commands, such as “Sing naked!” or “Throw him into cold water!”, had to be obeyed by the other guests at the convivium [banquet]: he creates and (mis)rules a chaotic and absurd world.”

This has parallels to the medieval European Lord of Misrule. Victor Hugo’s novel that we know in English as The Hunchback of Notre Dame actually begins with the Feast of Fools as it existed in 1482, when Quasimodo is elected Pope of Fools and duly venerated. A very well read antiquary, Hugo recorded what came next:

In the meantime, all the beggars, all the lackeys, all the cutpurses, joined with the scholars, had gone in procession to seek, in the cupboard of the law clerks’ company, the cardboard tiara, and the derisive robe of the Pope of the Fools. Quasimodo allowed them to array him in them without wincing, and with a sort of proud docility. Then they made him seat himself on a motley litter. Twelve officers of the fraternity of fools raised him on their shoulders; and a sort of bitter and disdainful joy lighted up the morose face of the cyclops, when he beheld beneath his deformed feet all those heads of handsome, straight, well-made men. Then the ragged and howling procession set out on its march, according to custom, around the inner galleries of the Courts, before making the circuit of the streets and squares

This perfectly catches the mood of such celebrations

Very tentatively, I wonder if some such ritual – especially in its Dionysiac form – might have provided a format for both the ancient “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.


One of the vanishingly few pieces written specifically on the affair is Baudouin Decharneux, “The Carabas Affair (in Flacc 36-39): An Incident Emblematic of Philo’s Political Philosophy,” in Peter J. Tomson and Joshua J. Schwartz, eds., Jews and Christians in the First and Second Centuries : How to Write Their History (Brill 2014), 70-79.

On a slightly earlier period, Martin Goodman has a brand new, hot off the presses this month, study of Herod the Great: Jewish King in a Roman World (Yale University Press, 2024).

I am substantially expanding this post from an earlier offering of mine at this site several years ago.


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