The world of Barabbas was forged by centuries of tyranny and repression from foreign powers, fostering a revolutionary spirit among the Palestinian Jews. Back in the 2nd-century BC, under the leadership of Judas Maccabeus and his brothers, the Maccabean revolt led to the overthrow of Seleucid dominance and the restoration of Jewish sovereignty. While their independence was seemingly bolstered by a treaty formed with the Romans in 161 BC, the stage was set for future oppression and subjugation.General Pompey, while establishing Syria as a Roman province, was compelled to intervene in the Judean civil war in 63 BC, from which time Judea was regarded as a Roman protectorate. Antipater, a Judaized Idumean loyal to Rome, was set up as Judea’s governor, and in 37 BC his son, Herod the Great, was appointed by the Roman Senate as Judea’s king. After gaining control of the region by force of arms, he reigned as a friend of Rome for over three decades.1 Near the end of Herod’s authoritarian regime a census was ordered by Caesar Augustus (Luke 2:1-2), probably for statistical reasons. The population of this occupied territory had to be calculated to determine the number of troops needed to be stationed there.2
Jewish resentment and hostility finally reached breaking point in AD 6 when Judea was designated a Roman province and another census was taken for taxation purposes (Acts 5:37; cf. Josephus, Ant. 18.1; 2.1). Evidently the celebrated revolt of Judas Maccabeus was still fresh on their minds, with the ongoing popularity of the name "Judas"3 and the annual observances of Hanukkah and the Day of Nicanor.4 The Zealot movement, inciting rebellion against the Romans and culminating in the Jewish War of AD 66-70, was inevitable. This was the world of Barabbas. And it was within this politically turbulent environment that the conflicting paths of Barabbas and Jesus the Christ intersected.
The name Barabbas is the Graecized form of the Aramaic Bar-abbâ – a combination of bar ("son of") and abba ("father") – meaning "son of [the] father." There is an interesting variant in the text tradition of Matthew 27:16, wherein some manuscripts read Iēsoun Barabban ("Jesus Barabbas," cf. NRSV). While the name "Jesus" (Heb. "Joshua") was not uncommon among the Jews,5 whether or not it was original to Matthew’s text does not obscure this intriguing comparison. Jesus of Nazareth was clearly the Son of the heavenly Father (John 8:16-29), whereas [Jesus?] Barabbas manifested a very different spiritual paternity (cf. John 8:44).
Matthew describes Barabbas as a "notable" or "notorious" prisoner (27:16),6 indicative of his well-known status among the Jews, the Romans, or both. John says that he was a lēstēs (18:40), i.e. a violent criminal like "a bandit" or "a robber."7 There were at least two other criminals who had been arrested with him (Luke 23:32-39; John 19:18), also identified as lēstai, "bandits" or "robbers" (Matthew 27:38; Mark 15:27). Seeing that Barabbas and his cohorts were charged not only with murder but also "rebellion" (Mark 15:7; Luke 23:25), it is not insignificant that Josephus employs the term lēstēs with reference to revolutionaries (cf. War 2.13.5-6; Ant. 14.9.2). It would appear that Barabbas and his fellow rebels were Zealots or freedom fighters, engaged in the Jewish resistance against the Romans. This explains why Barabbas seems to have been so popular among the Jews and why it was so easy for them to be persuaded to plead for his release (Matthew 27:20, 21; Mark 15:11; Luke 23:18; John 18:40).
Prior to Jesus’ arrest, he too had been highly esteemed by the Jerusalem populace. Entering the city with multitudes lining the streets, he was hailed as "King," a direct descendent of the great military hero David, with cries of Hosanna, i.e., "please save" or "save now!" (Matthew 21:1-9; Mark 11:1-11; Luke 19:28-44; John 12:12-19). The Jews had long anticipated a messianic figure to "redeem Israel" from repression (Luke 24:21) and to "restore the kingdom to Israel" (Acts 1:6), supposedly by way of violent opposition (Matthew 11:12; cf. John 6:15). The shouts of "King" during Christ’s triumphal entry were within earshot of the Pharisees (Luke 19:38-39; cf. John 12:19), who went on to accuse Jesus of making this claim himself (Luke 23:2-3; John 19:21), as though he were challenging the authority of the Roman Emperor (John 19:12, 15).
Shortly before he was lumped together with Barabbas and the other outlaws, the Lord asked his captors, "Have you come out as against a lēstēs ['bandit,' 'robber,' 'revolutionary'] . . .?" (Luke 22:52). Presumably the particular application of this term would depend on whether it was from a Roman or a Jewish perspective. Jesus was accused of sedition, treason, and insurrection (Luke 23:2, 3, 5, 14; John 19:12).8 When Pontius Pilate gave the Jewish crowds the choice of which prisoner to be released – the humble Galilean preacher (Jesus) or the defiant patriotic militant (Barabbas) – their decision was no doubt influenced by their misconceived messianic expectations.9 Consequently, Barabbas’ death sentence was repealed, while the Lord Jesus was condemned to be crucified.
Before we are too hard on Barabbas, consider the following comparisons and what you and I share in common with him. (1) Barabbas was genuinely guilty, whereas Jesus was entirely innocent (Luke 23:14-19). "There is not a righteous person, not one . . . . for all have sinned and come short of God’s glory" (Romans 3:10, 23). (2) Justice demanded Barabbas’ punishment, but it was Jesus who was treated like a criminal (Mark 15:7, 14). "He made the one not knowing sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become righteousness of God in him" (2 Corinthians 5:21). (3) Barabbas was set free, while Jesus was held captive (Matthew 27:2, 26). "Truly, truly I say to you that everyone committing sin is a slave of sin . . . . If therefore the Son frees you, you will be free indeed" (John 8:34, 36). (4) The center cross was intended for Barabbas, yet Jesus took his place (John 19:18). "But God commends his own love unto us, that while we were still sinners Christ died on our behalf" (Romans 5:8). (5) Barabbas was permitted to live, while Jesus suffered death (Mark 15:15, 37). "But God being rich in mercy, because of his great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in sins, he made us alive with Christ – by grace you have been saved" (Ephesians 2:4-5).
We are all guilty of sin and well deserving of the just penalty. Instead we have been extended mercy and offered forgiveness because Jesus has taken our place, paying the price for our sins, so that we can live eternally as the redeemed. There is no reliable evidence that Barabbas ever capitalized on the second chance Jesus afforded him. May this be where our commonality with Barabbas ends!
–Kevin L. Moore
1 See Ancient Terrorists; also R. H. Gundry, A Survey of the NT (3rd ed.) 29-33; L. M. White, From Jesus to Christianity 22-34.
2 See Luke's Historical Blunder?; also M’Clintock and Strong, Cyclopedia 2:185-86; A. Plummer, The Gospel According to S. Luke 49-52.
3 Cf. Matthew 10:4; Mark 6:3; Luke 6:16; Acts 5:37; 9:11; 15:22.
4 Cf. 1 Maccabees 4.36-59; 7.39-50; 2 Maccabees 1.18; 15.1-36; Josephus, Ant. 12.5–13.7; War 1.3-6.
5 Cf. Acts 13:6; Colossians 4:11; Hebrews 4:8; Josephus, War 6.5.3.
6 The term used in Matthew 27:16 is episēmos (epi + sēma), descriptive of one who bears a distinctive mark, i.e. "noted" or "eminent" (cf. Romans 16:7). All scripture quotations in English are the author’s own translation.
7 Cf. Luke 10:30, 36; 2 Corinthians 11:26.
8 See also Matthew 27:11, 29, 37, 42; Mark 15:2, 9, 12, 18, 26, 32; Luke 23:37, 38; John 18:33, 39; 19:3, 14, 15.
9 It had become customary during the Passover feast for the Roman procurator in Judea to release to the Jews a prisoner of their choosing (Matthew 27:15; Mark 15:6, 8; Luke 23:17; John 18:39). This was neither a law nor a custom of the Romans or the Jews. While it may have been based on the Jewish tradition of Jubilee (cf. Leviticus 25:10) or perhaps connected to the Passover theme of deliverance (cf. Exodus 12:27), it appears to have been an attempt to placate the Jews in order to deter further civil unrest and maintain some level of peace (cf. Matthew 27:24; Mark 15:15; John 19:8, 12).