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.

This article is about the biblical character Barabbas. For other uses, see Barabbas (disambiguation).
"Give us Barabbas!", from The Bible and its Story Taught by One Thousand Picture Lessons, 1910

Barabbas or Jesus Barabbas (a Hellenization of the Aramaic bar abba בר אבא, literally "son of the father" or "Jesus, son of the Father" respectively) is a figure in the accounts of the Passion of Christ, in which he is the insurrectionary whom Pontius Pilate freed at the Passover feast in Jerusalem, instead of Jesus.

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 Judea, to commute one prisoner's death sentence by popular acclaim, and the "crowd" (ochlos), "the Jews" and "the multitude" in some sources, were offered a choice of whether to have either Barabbas or Jesus 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. Pilate is portrayed as reluctantly yielding to the insistence of the crowd. 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 significance because it has historically been used to lay the blame for the crucifixion of Jesus on the Jews, and to justify antisemitism—an interpretation, known as Jewish deicide, dismissed by Pope Benedict XVI in his 2011 book Jesus of Nazareth, in which he changes the translation of "ochlos" in Matthew to mean the "crowd", rather than to mean the Jewish people.[6][7]

Biblical account[edit]

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] Robert Eisenman states that John 18:40 refers to Barabbas as a lēstēs ("bandit"), "the word Josephus always employs when talking about Revolutionaries".[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), although it is not present in the earliest manuscripts, and may be a later gloss to bring Luke into conformity.[11]

No custom of releasing prisoners in Jerusalem at Passover or any other time is recorded in any historical document other than the gospels.[12]


Portrait of Barabbas by James Tissot (1836–1902)

Barabbas's name appears as bar-Abbas in the Greek texts of the gospels. It is derived ultimately from the Aramaic בר-אבא, Bar-abbâ, "son of the father". Some ancient manuscripts of Matthew 27:16–17 have the full name of Barabbas as "Jesus Barabbas" and this was probably the name as originally written in the text.[13] Early church father Origen was troubled by the fact that his copies of the gospels gave Barabbas' name as "Jesus Barabbas" and declared that since it was impossible he could have had such a holy name, "Jesus" must have been added to Barabbas' name by a heretic.[14] It is highly likely that later scribes, copying the passage, removed the name "Jesus" from "Jesus Barabbas" to avoid dishonour to the name of Jesus the Messiah.[15]

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.[16] It could be argued that these findings support "Barabbas" being used to indicate the son of a person named Abba or Abbas (a patronymic).[original research?] But, ultimately, he is known as Barabbas, not Barabba.

Other interpretations[edit]

According to historian Max Dimont, the story of Barabbas as related in the gospels lacks credibility from the Roman standpoint, as it presents the Roman authority, Pontius Pilate, backed by overwhelming military might, being cowed by a small crowd of unarmed civilians into releasing a prisoner condemned to death for insurrection against the Roman empire. Any Roman governor who had done that would have swiftly faced execution himself, according to Dimont.[14] Benjamin Urrutia, co-author of The Logia of Yeshua: The Sayings of Jesus, agrees with a well known theory in biblical scholarship [14] as presented for instance by Hyam Maccoby, which says 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". 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[edit]

This practice of releasing a prisoner is said by Magee[18] 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.[19] 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.[19] However, this theory is rejected by other scholars.[20]

Depictions in fiction[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Matthew 27:15-26". Retrieved 2011-10-05. 
  2. ^ "Mark 15:6-15". Retrieved 2011-10-05. 
  3. ^ "Luke 23:13-25". Retrieved 2011-10-05. 
  4. ^ "John 18:38-19:16". 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. ^ Cunningham, Paul A. "The Death of Jesus: Four Gospel Accounts". Center for Christian-Jewish Learning at Boston College. 
  13. ^ Evans, Craig A. (2012). Matthew (New Cambridge Bible Commentary). Cambridge University Press. p. 453. ISBN 978-0521011068. 
  14. ^ a b c Dimont, Max I. (1992). Appointment in Jerusalem. ISBN 978-1585865468. 
  15. ^ Ehrman, Bart D. (2011). The Reliability of the New Testament: Bart Ehrman and Daniel Wallace in Dialogue. Fortress Press. p. 118. ISBN 978-0800697730. 
  16. ^ Brown (1994), pp. 799-800.
  17. ^ Urrutia, Benjamin. "Pilgrimage", The Peaceable Table (October 2008)
  18. ^
  19. ^ a b Alward, Joseph F. "Jesus and Barabbas". Retrieved 2012-09-28. 
  20. ^ Brown (1994), pp. 811–14
  21. ^ The Last Temptation of Christ. Simon and Schuster. 20 March 2012. p. 437. ISBN 978-1-4391-4458-9. 
  22. ^ Holland, Tom (6 September 2012). "The Liars' Gospel by Naomi Alderman – review". The Guardian. Retrieved 27 May 2014. 
  • Brown, Raymond E. (1994) The Death of the Messiah, Vol. 1. New York: Doubleday

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