Believe it or not, Jesus and Barabbas actually share more than one similarity. Not only did they both get convicted and sentenced with a capital punishment, but they both share similar names.
Barabbas’ full name was most likely Jesus Barabbas, in which the church father Origen took major issue, going as far to say that heretics put in the holy name of Jesus in front of Barabbas’ name. Dirk Jongkind explains this issue more in his article here.
Similar to the Yom Kippur tradition, one sacrifice is set free and one dies, which happens to Jesus and Jesus Barabbas in Matthew 27.
Barabbas, a criminal on the brink of receiving his execution, gets set free by the Jewish people when they are given a choice between releasing either Barabbas or Jesus from their penalty, a customary pardon as part of the Passover Feast (think about the American pardoning of a turkey by the President on Thanksgiving).
In this article, we’ll explore the personhood of Barabbas, what he did to earn a capital offense, and why the Jewish people chose to set him free instead of Jesus.
Where Does Barabbas Appear in the Bible?
Barabbas makes an appearance throughout the Gospels, and receives even an implied mention in Acts. Let’s highlight some of these verses.
Matthew 27:16 “At that time they were holding a notorious prisoner, called Barabbas.”
Mark 15:7 “The man named Barabbas had been imprisoned with the insurrectionists who had committed murder in the insurrection.”
Luke 23:18 “But they cried out all together, saying, ‘Away with this man, and release for us Barabbas!’”
John 18:40 “So they cried out again, saying, ‘Not this Man, but Barabbas.’ Now Barabbas was a robber.”
Acts 3:14 “But you disowned the Holy and Righteous One and asked for a murderer to be granted to you.”
From these verses alone, we can get a bigger picture of who Barabbas was. We’ll discuss his crimes in a moment, but all four Gospels deemed it necessary to not only mention him, but to mention him by name. Even the rich young ruler does not get this privilege.
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain Image/Antonio Ciseri
Was Barabbas a Real Historical Figure?
Outside of the Bible do we have any historical evidence that Barabbas existed? We do know from the historian Josephus that many Jews had rebelled similarly through insurrections, earning a great deal of these zealots a crucifixion punishment by the Romans.
We do, after all, have historical evidence of Pilate.
Pilate, a Roman prefect, had Jesus tortured and tried to get the Jews to release him. Instead they chose Barabbas, and Pilate washes his hands of the deed of Jesus’ crucifixion (in which he passively allows it to happen).
As far as Barabbas goes, considering the Romans dominated the historical records at the time, and that they really weren’t incredibly concerned with Jewish affairs and Jewish insurrections, we don’t have any historical evidence outside of the Bible for his existence.
The Bible is, of course, a historical book. Tradition states that after his release, Barabbas either watches Jesus’ crucifixion, or that he gets killed in another insurrection.
In either case, a lack of physical manuscripts outside of the Bible does not negate his existence. The authors most likely included his name because people at the time would’ve recognized it due to Barabbas’ notoriety, or Barabbas was still alive and could attest to these events.
What Was Barabbas' Crime and Why Was He Freed?
As we see in the Gospel accounts above, they seem to conflict in Barabbas’ crime. Some indicate he’d murdered someone, others said he robbed, and others say he participated in a revolt of some kind. Perhaps he’d done all three.
From contextual clues, we know that he somehow had rebelled against the Roman Empire, because crucifixions only went to those who committed crimes against Rome, writes Joe Allotta for the Crossroads Church.
We also know he had received a certain notoriety or popularity with the Jewish people. This most likely indicates he was a freedom fighter of some kind, similar to many of the zealot uprisings that occurred during that time. He likely represented what the people wanted Jesus to be.
The Jews, spurred on by the religious leaders in the crowd, ask for Barabbas to be released as per the Jewish tradition of pardoning one criminal during Passover. We don’t really get many hints of this throughout the Old Testament, so perhaps the custom had woven its way into Jewish tradition later on.
In either case, Pilate seems well aware of this tradition, and trying to please the Jewish people, and trying to free Jesus, gives them a choice of which prisoner to release.
The Jewish people choose Barabbas.
Photo credit: ©Getty Images Boonyachoat
Why Did the People Choose Barabbas over Jesus?
Scripture makes it clear that the religious leaders had kneaded their way through the crowds, convincing people to choose Barabbas over Jesus. Jesus’ experience of a “trial” that night (a kangaroo court, really) involved religious leaders trying to dodge their own rules, just to get him convicted. They brought in false witnesses who gave conflicting accounts and held his trial during the evening and early morning, certainly not protocol.
In other words, they were trying everything in their power to get Jesus convicted, through illegal means, because Jesus had not truly committed a crime.
The people, swayed by the religious leaders, end up choosing Barabbas.
We ought to analyze some of the reasons for their doing this. After all, a week prior, they waved palm branches and sang “Hosanna” (“Save us, now!”) to Jesus. What changed?
Most likely, Barabbas represented what they wanted for salvation. They loved this Jesus guy, but Jesus’ message didn’t really align with their insurrectionist ideas to topple Rome. Jesus had preached on turning the other cheek and going the extra mile. They didn’t like that Jesus’ message didn’t involve destroying the Romans. Instead, it involved obliterating sin.
Jesus and Barabbas both were popular, but Jesus had fallen in his poll numbers. This may have also swayed the Jews to swing to Barabbas, whom they had more of a hope in overthrowing the Romans.
As Christians now, we may feel far removed from this passage. After all, we would never call for Jesus’ death over Barabbas (sarcasm heavily implied). In reality, we often choose a Jesus alternative (a Jesus bar Abbas) over Jesus on a daily basis. How often do we prioritize something we think will save us, when we need true salvation and redemption through Jesus?
If we truly are honest with ourselves, we may realize how often we call upon Jesus Barabbas, idols and solutions that don’t last, instead of the true solution: Jesus himself.
A Temporary Solution
Barabbas was most likely a freedom fighter who had taken his zealous actions too far. He shared a name with Jesus, but the similarities stopped there. Instead of receiving the punishment he ought due to his actions, Jesus takes his place and receives Barabbas’ warranted punishment.
The Jewish people saw Barabbas as the solution to his problems. Besides traditional accounts, where Barabbas dies in another insurrection, we don’t hear much else about this freedom fighter.
Perhaps because he only provided a temporary solution and not a lasting one, like Jesus had. He fought against Rome, and Jesus fought against sin.
Photo credit: ©Getty Images/masterzphotois
Hope Bolinger is a literary agent at C.Y.L.E. and a graduate of Taylor University's professional writing program. More than 1,000 of her works have been featured in various publications ranging from Writer's Digest to Keys for Kids. She has worked for various publishing companies, magazines, newspapers, and literary agencies and has edited the work of authors such as Jerry B. Jenkins and Michelle Medlock Adams. Her modern-day Daniel trilogy released its first two installments with IlluminateYA, and the final one, Vision, releases in August of 2021. She is also the co-author of the Dear Hero duology, which was published by INtense Publications. Find out more about her at her website.
This article is part of our People from the Bible Series featuring the most well-known historical names and figures from Scripture. We have compiled these articles to help you study those whom God chose to set before us as examples in His Word. May their lives and walks with God strengthen your faith and encourage your soul.