In the New Testament, a prisoner or criminal freed to please the mob before the crucifixion of Jesus. Described as a thief or an insurrectionist, Barabbas is mentioned in all four Gospels. Following the custom of setting free one prisoner chosen by popular demand before Passover, Pontius Pilate suggested pardoning Jesus, but the crowd protested and demanded the release of Barabbas. Pilate gave in and sent Jesus to his death.

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("son of Abbas")

A prisoner released instead of Jesus. The evangelists called him a robber (John 18:40), a murderer (Luke 23:19), insurrectionist (Mark 15:7), and a notorious prisoner (Matt 27:16). Barabbas, a Jewish rioter, having participated in an act of terror in which a person was murdered, was caught by the Romans and imprisoned (Mark 15:7). He was released by Pontius Pilate on the choice of the multitude, persuaded by the chief priests and elders (Matt 27:20; Mark 15:11; Luke 23:18). Pilate did this in accordance with the custom "that I should release someone to you at the Passover" (John 18:39). Barabbas was due to be crucified together with two other prisoners, but as the impending Feast of Passover brought thousands of pilgrims to Jerusalem, the Roman authorities thought it circumspect to wait until after the Feast. Although the chief priests and elders were in favour of crucifying Barabbas, they knew that the multitudes admired him as a freedom fighter. Consequently Barabbas was released when Pilate heard the crowd shouting "Away with this man and release to us Barabbas" (Luke 23:18). Some scholars suppose that Barabbas belonged to the group of Zealots – patriots who fought against foreign rule. In some early versions his first name is given as Jesus.

Matt 27:16-17,20-21, 26. Mark 15:7, 11,15. Luke 23:18. John 18:40

Barabbas (bərăb'əs) [Aram.,=son of the father], bandit held in jail at the time of Jesus' arrest. Pontius Pilate, who, according to the Gospels, annually released a prisoner at Passover, offered to release Jesus, but the people demanded his death and Barabbas' delivery.

(bə-răb'əs) pronunciation

In the New Testament, the condemned thief whose release, instead of that of Jesus, was demanded of Pilate by the multitude.

"Give us Barabbas!", from The Bible and its Story Taught by One Thousand Picture Lessons, 1910

Barabbas or Jesus Barabbas (literally "son of the father" or "Jesus, son of the father" respectively) is a figure in the Christian narrative of the Passion of Christ, in which he is the insurrectionary whom Pontius Pilate freed at the Passover feast in Jerusalem.

The penalty for Barabbas' crime was death by crucifixion, but according to the four canonical gospels and the non-canonical Gospel of Peter there was a prevailing Passover custom in Jerusalem that allowed or required Pilate, the praefectus or governor of Judaea, to commute one prisoner's death sentence by popular acclaim, and the "crowd" (ochlos) — which has become "the Jews" and "the multitude" in some sources — were offered a choice of whether to have Barabbas or Jesus Christ released from Roman custody. According to the synoptic gospels of Matthew,[1] Mark,[2] and Luke,[3] and the accounts in John[4] and the Gospel of Peter, the crowd chose Barabbas to be released and Jesus of Nazareth to be crucified. A passage found only in the Gospel of Matthew has the crowd saying, "Let his blood be upon us and upon our children".[5]

The story of Barabbas has special social significances, because it has historically been used to lay the blame for the crucifixion of Jesus on the Jews, and to justify anti-Semitism—an interpretation, known as Jewish deicide, dismissed by Pope Benedict XVI in his 2011 book Jesus of Nazareth, in which he also questions the historicity of the passage in Matthew.[6][7]


Biblical record

Matthew refers to Barabbas only as a "notorious prisoner".[8] Mark and Luke further refer to Barabbas as one involved in a stasis, a riot.[9] John 18:40 refers to Barabbas as a lēstēs ("bandit"), "the word Josephus always employs when talking about Revolutionaries", Robert Eisenman observes.[10]

Three gospels state that there was a custom at Passover during which the Roman governor would release a prisoner of the crowd's choice: Mark 15:6; Matthew 27:15; and John 18:39. Later copies of Luke contain a corresponding verse (Luke 23:17), though it is not present in the earliest manuscripts, and may be a later gloss to bring Luke into conformity.[11] The gospels differ on whether the custom was a Roman one or a Jewish one, as part of the Jubilee.[12]

No custom of releasing prisoners in Jerusalem is recorded in any historical document other than the gospels. An Ancient Roman celebration called Lectisternium involved feasting and sometimes included a temporary removal of the chains from all prisoners.[13] However, J. Blinzler associates Barabbas' release with a passage in the Mishna Peshahim 8,6 which says that the Passover lamb may be offered 'for one whom they have promised to bring out of prison'. (J. Blinzler, The Trial of Jesus, 1959, pp218ff.)


Barabbas's name appears as bar-Abbas in the Greek texts. It is derived ultimately from the Aramaic בר-אבא, Bar-abbâ, "son of the father". According to early Greek texts, Barabbas' full name was Jesus Barabbas.[14] Later texts shorten his name to just Barabbas.

Portrait by James Tissot.

Abba has been found as a personal name in a 1st-century burial at Giv'at ha-Mivtar, and Abba also appears as a personal name frequently in the Gemara section of the Talmud, dating from AD 200–400.[15] These findings support "Barabbas" being used to indicate the son of a person named Abba or Abbas (a patronymic).

Abba means "father" in Aramaic, and appears both translated and untranslated in the Gospels. A translation of Bar-Abbas would be son of the father. Jesus often referred to God as "father", and Jesus' use of the Aramaic word Abba survives untranslated in Mark 14:36 (in most English translations). This has led some authors (named below) to speculate that "bar-Abbâ" could actually be a reference to Jesus himself as "son of the father".

In his novel All Who Came Before, Biblical Scholar Simon Perry takes Bar-Abbas as a title meaning 'son of the father'. The central character is also the son of a rabbi (leading to a word-play with "Bar-Rabbas"). Bar-Abbas is a well intentioned believer whose actions in a Jewish resistance movement make him a kind of Dietrich Bonhoeffer figure. His heroics, and the type of resistance he sought, are what led the crowds to call for his release over the more passive resistance offered by Yeshua of Nazareth.[16]

Other interpretations

Benjamin Urrutia, co-author of The Logia of Yeshua: The Sayings of Jesus, agrees with Maccoby[who?] and others who say that Yeshua Bar Abba or Jesus Barabbas must be none other than Jesus of Nazareth, and that the choice between two prisoners is a fiction. However, Urrutia opposes the notion that Jesus may have either led or planned a violent insurrection. Jesus was a strong advocate of "turning the other cheek" – which means not submission but strong and courageous, though nonviolent, defiance and resistance. Jesus, in this view, must have been the planner and leader of the Jewish nonviolent resistance to Pilate's plan to set up Roman Eagle standards on Jerusalem's Temple Mount. The story of this successful resistance is told by Josephus — who does not say who the leader was, but does tell of Pilate's crucifixion of Jesus just two paragraphs later in a passage whose authenticity is heavily disputed. [17]

Possible parable

This practice of releasing a prisoner is said by Magee[who?] and others to be an element in a literary creation of Mark, who needed to have a contrast to the true "son of the father" in order to set up an edifying contest, in a form of parable.

Dennis R. MacDonald, in The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark, notes that a similar episode to the one that occurs in Mark—of a crowd picking one figure over another figure similar to the other—occurred in The Odyssey, where Odysseus entered the palace disguised as a beggar and defeated his wife's suitors to reclaim his throne.[18] MacDonald suggests Mark borrowed from this section of The Odyssey and used it to pen the Barabbas tale, only this time Jesus- the protagonist- loses to highlight the cruelty of Jesus' persecutors.[18] However, this theory is rejected by other scholars.[19]

See also

In popular culture

  • Barabbas: A Dream of the World's Tragedy, a 1907 novel by Marie Corelli
  • Barabbas, a 1928 play by the Belgian dramatist Michel de Ghelderode
  • Barabbas, a 1946 novel by Emery Bekessy
  • Barabbas, a 1950 novel by Nobel Prize winner Pär Lagerkvist
  • Barabbas, a 1953 Swedish film adaptation of the 1950 novel directed by Alf Sjöberg
  • Barabbas, a 1961 film adaptation of the 1950 novel, directed by Richard Fleischer and starring Anthony Quinn as Barabbas
  • The Gospel According to Barabbas, a 1982 novel by Salvatore Grillo
  • Barabbas, a 1999 novel by Marvin Harris
  • All Who Came Before, a 2011 novel by Simon Perry
  • Barabbas and the Sword of Sacrifice, a 2012 novel by John Marcus Tompkins
  • Barabbas, a 2012 Italian TV adaptation of the 1950 novel, directed by Roger Young and starring Billy Zane as Barabbas.[20]
  • In Nikos Kazantzakis' book The Last Temptation of Christ, Barabbas is the leader of the Zealots. He later murders the resurrected Lazarus.
  • In The Thick of It, Series 4, Episode 5 Department of Social Affairs and Citizenship Minister Peter Mannion complains that he is being strung up like Barabbas - his media advisor Phil quibbles that actually Barabbas was the one they let go (“They shouldn’t have, though, he was a criminal”).
  • In the 1994 Christmas film The Santa Clause, Scott Calvin guesses Bernard the Elf's name by addressing him as "Barabbas".


  1. ^ "Matthew 27:15-26".;&version=TNIV;. Retrieved 2011-10-05.
  2. ^ "Mark 15:6-15".;&version=TNIV;. Retrieved 2011-10-05.
  3. ^ "Luke 23:13-25".;&version=TNIV;. Retrieved 2011-10-05.
  4. ^ "John 18:38-19:16".;&version=TNIV;. Retrieved 2011-10-05.
  5. ^ Matthew 27:25.
  6. ^ Pope Benedict XVI (2011). Jesus of Nazareth. Retrieved 2011-04-18.
  7. ^ "Pope Benedict XVI Points Fingers on Who Killed Jesus". March 2, 2011. Retrieved 2012-09-28. "While the charge of collective Jewish guilt has been an important catalyst of anti-Semitic persecution throughout history, the Catholic Church has consistently repudiated this teaching since the Second Vatican Council."
  8. ^ Matthew 27:16.
  9. ^ Mark 15:7; Luke 23:19.
  10. ^ Contemporaries combining insurrection and murder in this way were sicarii, members of a militant Jewish movement that sought to overthrow the Roman occupiers of their land by force (Eisenman 177-84, et passim).
  11. ^ Brown (1994), pp. 793–95.
  12. ^ Leviticus 25:9
  13. ^ Cunningham, Paul A.. "The Death of Jesus: Four Gospel Accounts". Center for Christian-Jewish Learning at Boston College.
  14. ^ "Textual Variants, Matthew 27:15-18".
  15. ^ Brown (1994), pp. 799-800.
  16. ^ Perry, Simon (2011). All Who Came Before. Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock.
  17. ^ Urrutia, Benjamin. "Pilgrimage", The Peaceable Table (October 2008)
  18. ^ a b Alward, Joseph F. "Jesus and Barabbas". Retrieved 2012-09-28.
  19. ^ Brown (1994), pp. 811–14
  20. ^ "BARABBAS". Palatin Media. Retrieved 2013-02-09.
  • Brown, Raymond E. (1994) The Death of the Messiah, Vol. 1. New York: Doubleday

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