We all know of Barabbas, the notorious prisoner freed by Pilate instead of Jesus. Yet we know very little about him. Let’s see what we can surmise from the Bible and what an early church historian, Origen, had to say about him.
Barabbas is important enough to have been mentioned in all four of the Gospels. Even Mary, Mother of Jesus, did not get mention in all four. Why is Barabbas, the man, so important?
In Hebrew, bar abba means “son of the father.” Origen says that in early manuscripts his name was given as Jesus Barabbas, “savior, son of the father.” (It is possible that Barabbas was actually a title instead of a name.) Barabbas is described in the Bible as being a murderer, a thief and a leader of an insurrection. So, was Barabbas the villainous man most of us assume him to be or was he a hero?
That depends entirely on one’s point of view.
To the Romans he was the villain. He committed treason if indeed he was a Zealot. He was a killer if not a murderer. He was a man to be feared by the Romans. As governor of Judea, Pilate had two major responsibilities to Rome, keep the peace and collect the taxes. As a Zealot, Barabbas would have been a significant threat to both. Even more so if he was a Zealot leader.
The Jews, particularly the common Jew, may actually have seen Barabbas as a hero. The Jews expected the Messiah to rid them of Roman tyranny. They expected a conquering king, like David, or a strong military leader, like the Maccabees. Barabbas was exactly this sort of man.
Jesus, Son of God, was a very different Messiah from what the Jews expected. Actually, they should not have been surprised one bit by Jesus. Had they really understood the prophesies of the Old Testament they would have understood that Jesus the Messiah would be a man of love and peace, not of war.
In his Gospel, John is particularly adept at pointing out the contrasts and duplicity of the Sanhedrin (often referred to simply as “the Jews”). An example was their refusal to enter Pilate’s palace because it would make them ‘unclean’ and they would not be able to partake in the passover Feast. Nope, couldn’t break Jewish Law. Especially if it meant missing a grand feast. They simply ignored that during Jesus’ trial they had broken the Law at least eight times! What pious and righteous men these were.
So, when offered the alternative of Barabbas it was not out of reason that the Jews picked Barabbas over Jesus. To the common Jew, he was the hero they’d expected. To the Sanhedrin Barabbas gave an opportunity to remove a thorn from their purses (the Sadducees) or a threat to their power (the Pharisees). All they had to ignore was the truth, especially the miracles Jesus had performed.
Although there is some evidence in Jewish folklore, we don’t know anything more about Barabbas, either before or after Jesus’ trial before Pilate. In any event, once Jesus said that He was a king, Pilate would have never have let Him live. Although Jesus plainly said His Kingdom was not of this world, Pilate heard nothing beyond “king.” Pilate, like most of the Jews, didn’t understand… was incapable of understanding. But then, that was the plan, wasn’t it? Jesus had no intention of saving His human life. His mission was so much greater.
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