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The Search for the Historical Barabbas


by Jared L. Olar

The Roman centurion Lucius entered the cell in which Barabbas was imprisoned. ``Do you know the man named Jesus from Nazareth?'' Lucius asked.

``I know the man,'' Barabbas said.

``Does he deserve to die?''

``No more than I!'' Barabbas shouted in a near rage.

Lucius approached Barabbas and began to unlock his shackles. ``You compare yourself in the same breath . . . ?'' Lucius said, disgusted.

``We both seek the same thing-FREEDOM!!'' Barabbas bellowed defiantly. ``Only our methods differ!''

Lucius looked doubtfully upon Barabbas. ``The freedom he spoke of is not the same you kill for,'' he said.

After an uncomfortable silence as Lucius continued loosing the shackles, Barabbas asked, ``When is the man Jesus to die?''

``He carries his cross now,'' Lucius said.

Freed from his chains, Barabbas backed hastily away, and said in a tone partly defiant, partly fearful and accusing, ``Now why do you tell me all this? Why don't you take me with him-get it over with?''

``Go!'' Lucius ordered. ``You're free. The man Jesus is dying in your place. One prisoner is freed each year at this time. Pilate offered that mob a choice,'' he explained.

``Me? They chose me?'' Barabbas said, filling with a mix of gratitude, astonishment, and self-importance.

``Your followers yelled the loudest,'' Lucius said.

Such was the dramatisation of the freeing of Barabbas1 in Samuel Bronston's 1961 classic King of Kings, a movie in which Barabbas is almost as central to the plot as Jesus is. Indeed, at times the Barabbas of King of Kings overshadows Jesus, especially during the two lengthy scenes of dramatic battle between the forces of Barabbas the Freedom-Fighter and the Roman armies in Judaea and Jerusalem.

In stark contrast, Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ shows us a Barabbas who is thoroughly repugnant in appearance and demeanor, a wretched man perhaps suffering from a mental illness, perhaps a psychotic serial killer-a social outcast, certainly no rebel warrior struggling to liberate his people from Roman rule.

So, was Bronston's Barabbas the more accurate depiction, or was Gibson's? To find out, we must consult the only contemporary historical documents that have anything to say about Barabbas-the four Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament. To begin, let's examine the relevant biblical texts in a modern English version, the New American Bible:

``Now on the occasion of the feast the governor was accustomed to release to the crowd one prisoner whom they wished. And at that time they had a notorious prisoner called [Jesus] Barabbas. So when they had assembled, Pilate said to them, 'Which one do you want me to release to you, [Jesus] Barabbas, or Jesus called Messiah?' For he knew that it was out of envy that they had handed him over. . . . The chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas but to destroy Jesus. The governor said to them in reply, `Which of the two do you want me to release to you?' They answered, `Barabbas!' . . . . Then he released Barabbas to them, . . . .'' (Matt. 27:15-18, 20-21, 26)


``Now on the occasion of the feast he used to release to them one prisoner whom they requested. A man called Barabbas was then in prison along with the rebels who had committed murder in a rebellion. The crowd came forward and began to ask him to do for them as he was accustomed. Pilate answered, `Do you want me to release to you the king of the Jews?' For he knew that it was out of envy that the chief priests had handed him over. But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release Barabbas for them instead. . . . So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released Barabbas to them . . . .'' (Mark 15:6-11, 15)


``[He was obliged to release one prisoner for them at the festival.] But all together they shouted out, `Away with this man! Release Barabbas to us.' (Now Barabbas had been imprisoned for a rebellion that had taken place in the city and for murder.) . . . . So he released the man who had been imprisoned for rebellion and murder, for whom they asked . . . .'' (Luke 23:18, 25)


``When he had said this, he again went out to the Jews and said to them, `I find no guilt in him. But you have a custom that I release one prisoner to you at Passover. Do you want me to release to you the King of the Jews?' They cried out again, `Not this one but Barabbas!' Now Barabbas was a revolutionary.'' (John 18:38-40)


``You denied the Holy and Righteous One and asked that a murderer be released to you.'' (Acts 3:14)

Judging from the way the New American Bible renders these passages, Bronston's Barabbas would obviously be much more historically accurate than Gibson's-we find words such as ``a rebellion,'' ``the rebels,'' and ``a revolutionary.'' But when we look a little closer, serious problems arise with the picture of ``Barabbas as Freedom-Fighter.''

Perhaps the most serious problem is that it is virtually impossible that Pilate would agree to release a dangerous revolutionary and menace to Roman authority as Barabbas is supposed to have been. The Gospels say that Pilate gave the crowd a choice between Jesus and Barabbas. But what Roman procurator in his right mind would give such a choice? Were there no other notable prisoners that Pilate could have offered them? This consideration is especially important when we remember that Pilate wanted to release Jesus. The implication is that he offered them Barabbas because he believed that, if offered a choice, they would surely choose Jesus instead of Barabbas. That suggests Barabbas was not a well-liked man either among the Jews or the Roman authorities.

Indeed, the Gospels say Barabbas was guilty of murder, and St. Matthew calls him ``notorious''-not descriptions one would normally expect to find attached to a heroic Freedom-Fighter-at least not one who was popular. If Barabbas really was a dangerous revolutionary, we have every reason to believe that it was not in Pilate's interest to offer to release him. Something is seriously wrong with this picture.

To unravel this knot, we shall have to take another look at the biblical testimony. Let's begin with St. John's parenthetical statement identifying Barabbas. ``Now Barabbas was a revolutionary,'' the New American Bible has St. John say. The Greek word rendered ``revolutionary'' is leistes, which appears in three other important places in the Gospels. In Matt. 27:38 and Mark 15:27, it is the word used for the two men who were crucified with Jesus. In Luke 22:52, Jesus asks the men who had come to arrest Him, ``Have you come out as against a leistes, with swords and clubs?'' In Luke 10:30, in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, it is the word used for those who brutally attacked the man whom the Good Samaritan would help.

Interestingly enough, in Matt. 27:38 and Mark 15:27, the New American Bible says that the two men crucified with Jesus were not ``thieves'' or ``robbers'' as Christians have believed for centuries upon centuries, but ``revolutionaries,'' which agrees with the New American Bible's rendering of John 18:40. However, in Luke 10:30 and Luke 22:52, the New American Bible inconsistently refers to ``robbers,'' not ``revolutionaries''-but then perhaps the translators were sympathetic to leftist revolution, and didn't want to have Jesus talk of a man being robbed and nearly beaten to death by ``revolutionaries''?

Seriously though, Thayer's Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament says leistes comes from a Greek verb meaning ``to plunder,'' and says it means ``a robber; a plunderer, freebooter, brigand.'' Thayer's does not say anything about ``revolutionary'' as a possible meaning of leistes. 2 In the scripture passages under discussion, the King James Version translates leistes as either ``thief'' or ``robber,'' while the Douay-Rheims-Confraternity Version consistently renders it ``robber'' in these verses.

If Barabbas was a ``revolutionary'' as the New American Bible claims, then Bronston's Barabbas is the more historically accurate, but if he was a ``robber'' or ``brigand,'' as the original Greek indicates, then Gibson's Barabbas is probably closer to the real Barabbas.

Incidentally, even Bronston's King of Kings stuck with ancient tradition by identifying the criminals who were crucified with Jesus as ``thieves'' rather than revolutionaries: ``We are only thieves,'' one of them says to Barabbas. ``You're a murderer!'' (In fact they were ``robbers,'' not just ``thieves''-men who had committed murder as well as theft, hence their death sentences.)  But there seems to be little support for identifying either the two ``thieves'' or Barabbas as ``revolutionaries.'' 3

But what of the Gospels' references to that ``rebellion'' in Jerusalem in which Barabbas and others had participated, during which Barabbas had committed murder? Surely that would indicate that Barabbas was some sort of militant rebel against Rome?

The Greek word translated ``rebellion'' is stasis, which Thayer's says refers to ``an insurrection,'' and ``strife, dissension.'' Thus, ``rebellion'' is indeed a possible translation. However, another acceptable translation would be ``riot'' or ``civil disturbance'' or ``mob action,'' as the Douay-Rheims-Confraternity Version indicates. Similarly, the ``rebels'' who were arrested along with Barabbas may just have been ``rioters''-the Greek word just means someone who had participated in a stasis.

If the Gospels were referring to a ``rebellion'' in Jerusalem, then Barabbas could theoretically have been an outlaw Freedom-Fighter. However, the fact that the Bible calls Barabbas a ``robber'' and ``murderer'' makes that theory untenable. We simply have no good reason to believe that Barabbas had either instigated or participated in a formal rebellion in Jerusalem. Rather, it seems likely that he was a common thug and highway robber who became ``notorious'' when he murdered one or more persons during a riot or mob action in Jerusalem. When we consider Pilate's motive for offering the crowds a choice between Jesus and Barabbas, we are led to conclude that Pilate thought the people of Jerusalem would never want someone like Barabbas to be spared the death penalty, which is consistent with a Barabbas who was a violent criminal but not with a Barabbas who was a rebel against Rome. As stated above, Pilate would never consider amnesty for an enemy of Rome just to find a way t! o free a man he knew was not guilty of the accusations the chief priests had leveled against Him-but Pilate might consider amnesty for a notorious violent criminal in such circumstances.

So it turns out that Gibson's Barabbas is actually closer to the Barabbas of history than Bronston's Barabbas. Though recent biblical studies have done much to increase our understanding of the Holy Scriptures, the ``Barabbas as Freedom-Fighter'' theory is one of several examples of modern biblical scholarship that fails to stand up to scrutiny.


1Aramaic Bar-Abba, ``Abba's son,'' or ``son of father,'' or ``son of teacher'' (i.e. ``disciple''). The Evangelists and early Christians no doubt saw the irony of the sinless Son of God the Father being condemned to death while a murderer named ``son of father'' was spared the death penalty. The irony would be especially evident for those who read the small number of ancient copies of St. Matthew's Gospel which call him ``Jesus Barabbas,'' a variant reading not found in most copies of St. Matthew's Gospel nor in any copies of the other three Gospels. Some believe the variant was an error, others that it was removed from most copies either accidentally or because it was wrongly thought to be a textual error, or out of piety for the name of Jesus.

2In the Expositor's Bible Commentary, Donald A. Carson endorses the theory that Barabbas and the two men crucified with Christ were ``revolutionaries'' or ``insurrectionists.'' Carson says, ``Although lestes can refer to a robber (as perhaps in John 10:1), it more probably refers to insurrectionists (cf. 26:55; John 18:40); and Josephus constantly uses it of the Zealots.'' The evidence from Josephus is questionable, however, because he so obviously detested the Zealot terrorists whose activities had brought about the destruction of the Temple and terrible calamity upon the Jewish people. Josephus probably branded them ``brigands'' or ``bandits'' to express his opinion of them and their terrorism. Josephus also wrote a Roman-friendly history, so he would not be expected to speak well of rebels against Rome's power. These considerations show that Josephus' use of leistes to refer to Zealots d! oes not necessarily prove anything about what leistes means in the Gospels' passion accounts.

3Another reason to doubt the New American Bible on this question is the fact that all earlier English translations and virtually all modern English translations render leistes with the words ``thief,'' ``robber,'' ``bandit,'' ``brigand,'' or ``outlaw.'' See, for example, AMG Publishers' 26 Translations of the Holy Bible. There can be no doubt that ``revolutionary'' is a glaring mistranslation. (Thanks to Jeff Smith for this reference.)

Issue 16


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