All four gospels record that a policy existed by which a prisoner was released at Passover (Matthew 27:15; Mark 15:6; Luke 23:7; John 18:39). At Jesus’ hearing before governor Pontius Pilate, this Passover amnesty gives the spectators a presumably unbalanced choice of whose life to spare - Jesus or a prisoner named Barabbas (Matthew 27:17; Luke 23:18; John 18:40). Matthew records that the alternative was posed by Pilate (Matthew 27:17), Mark attributes it to the priests (Mark 15:11) and John to the mob (John 18:40). Pilate assumes that the crowd will prefer the popular (albeit controversial) young preacher, Jesus, to the bloodthirsty killer. Instead, the crowd chooses the insurrectionist and Jesus is sent to be crucified (Matthew 27:15-26; Mark 15:6-15; Luke 23:17-19; John 18:39-40).
Though Barabbas does not speak in the Bible, all four gospels name him (Matthew 27:16, 17, 20, 21, 26; Mark 15:7, 11, 15; Luke 23:18; John 18:40). While the descriptions of him vary, the gospels agree that Barabbas deserves to be on trial. Matthew calls him a “notorious prisoner” (Matthew 27:16 NASB). Mark states that he had “committed murder in the insurrection” (Mark 15:7 NASB). John notes that Barabbas was a “robber” (John 18:40). In one of his first sermons, Peter calls him a murderer (Acts 3:14). Barabbas is obviously a known commodity, but exactly who he is cannot be determined as the brief New Testament references do not provide the specifics of his crimes and he is not mentioned outside of the Bible.
John Shelby Spong (b. 1931) acknowledges:
Mystery surrounds Barabbas, who is never mentioned either before this moment or after. He is defined in Mark as one who “committed murder during the insurrection” (Mark 15:7). His evils seems to increase as the later gospels pick up his story. He is “notorious” in Matthew (Matthew 27:16), a bandit in John (John 18:40, NRSV). (Spong, Jesus for the Non-Religious, 168)The Greek provides little help in identifying his crimes. Allen Black (b. 1951) explains:
Barabbas...was one of several men imprisoned for committing murder in a riot. The nouns which the NIV translates “insurrectionists” and “uprising” [Mark 15:7] are cognate nouns (στασιαστής, stasiastes and στάσις, stasis) which could refer to a range of activities from general rioting to a major insurrection. (Black, Mark (The College Press NIV Commentary), 268)William L. Lane (1931-1999) adds:
The leader of this revolt seems to have been a popular hero, and may have been a leading Zealot, but little is known of him or his deeds...The fact that Barabbas is introduced prior to the reference to the petitioners in Mark 15:8 suggests that the latter were supporters of the insurgent who came to the forum specifically to ask for his release. (Lane, The Gospel according to Mark (The New International Commentary on the New Testament), 554)It has been assumed that Barabbas was a prominent figure in a movement resisting the Roman empire. It has even been posited that he belonged to the Sicarii (literally “dagger men”), a group of radical Jewish patriots who pledged to murder Roman rulers and their collaborators whenever possible. Barabbas’ supporters would have perceived him to be a freedom fighter.
Robert H. Gundy (b. 1932) suspects that knowing the specifics of Barabbas’ crimes would only distract from the narrative:
The placement of ἐν τη στάσει, “in the insurrection,” and φόνον, “murder,” before the verb calls attention to the criminality of Barabbas and his fellow prisoners. Against this foil Jesus’ innocence stands out in bold relief: Barabbas deserves to be bound and crucified; Jesus does not. Mark avoids obscuring this apologetic contrast with details concerning the insurrection. (Gundry, Mark: A Commentary on His Apology for the Cross, 926)As the text leaves his sins to the imagination, Barabbas becomes an abstract but more relatable figure - he is the one who deserves the punishment that Jesus receives.
The name Barabbas is also generic, meaning, “son of a father.” John R. Donahue (b. 1933) dissects:
The proper name here consists of two Aramaic elements: bar meaning “son” and ’abba’ meaning “father.” The derivation from Bar-Rabban (“son of the master”) is less likely. There were rabbis known as “Bar-Abba,” and the practice of using bar plus the father’s name is witnessed in the cases of Simon bar Jona (for Peter; see Matthew 16:17) and Simeon Bar Kokhba (or Kosiba) around 132-135 C.E. Some manuscripts supply Barabbas with the first name “Jesus” in Matthew 27:16. Since one would expect him to have a first name and since it is unlikely that early Christians would have created the name “Jesus” for him there may well be a historical basis for this tradition. In either case the choice presented to the crowd—between Jesus of Nazareth (the real “Son of the Father”) and (Jesus) Barabbas—is rich in irony and in theological significance. (Donahue, The Gospel of Mark (Sacra Pagina), 432)Gerrit Vos (1894-1968) declares, “Everyone in the world is in this Barabbas. The man born of a human father.”
As noted, Barabbas’ given name may have been Jesus. The New English Bible even translates his name as such, “Jesus Bar-Abbas” (Matthew 27:16, NEB).
Joel Marcus (b. 1951) analyzes:
Some texts of Matthew 27:16-17, mostly of a Caesarean type... read “Jesus Barabbas” rather than “Barabbas,” and Origen [184-253]acknowledges that some of the manuscripts known to him attest this reading (Commentary on Matthew 121 [on Matthew 27:16-18]). Many scholars think that “Jesus Barabbas” was the original reading in Matthew and that the forename was later suppressed by reverential scribes who felt, as Origen did, that no sinner should bear the name of Jesus...This theory is made more plausible by the observation that the forename has been erased from several manuscripts (see F. Crawford Burkitt [1864-1935], Evangelion da-Mepharreshe 2.277)...Some exegetes...even suggest that “Jesus Barabbas” may have been the original reading in Mark, since “the one called Barabbas” is awkward, and elsewhere ho legomenos is usually preceded by a personal name and followed by a descriptive title or nickname (Matthew 1:16, 4:18, 10:2, 27:17, 22; John 11:16, 20:24, 21:2; Colossians 4:11). There are instances, however, in which ho legomenos is not preceded by the personal name (Matthew 26:3, 14; Luke 22:47; John 4:25, 9:11, 19:17), and awkward expressions are common in Mark. (Marcus, Mark 8-16 (The Anchor Yale Bible Commentaries), 1028)Ben Witherington III (b. 1951) adds:
At Mark 15:7 we are introduced to Barabbas, whose name according to a textual variant at Matthew 27:16 was Jesus Barabbas. This, in turn, has led to the suggestion that Pilate misheard the crowd when they were shouting for the release of Jesus Barabbas, thinking they were asking for Jesus of Nazareth. But there is no clear evidence for such a conclusion here, and most of the earliest and best manuscripts do not have the name Jesus appended to Barabbas.(Witherington, The Gospel of Mark: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, 391)When Barabbas hears his name called, he likely thinks it is to be executed. Much to Barabbas’ surprise and Pilate’s chagrin, the crowd chooses to spare Barabbas instead of Jesus. While the gospels vary on who is most responsible for suggesting Barabbas as an alternative, they are unified in recounting the crowd’s unified decision to release the insurrectionist (Matthew 27:21; Mark 15:15; Luke 23:18; John 18:40). The people not only choose Barabbas, but reject Jesus, demanding his death (Matthew 27:22,23; Mark 15:13; Luke 23:21; John 19:15). The latter decision is more difficult to understand.
Mary Healy (b. 1964) questions:
Why would the crowd demand such a horrible fate for their fellow Jew? Mark does not explain, and leaves it as a question for the reader to contemplate. Perhaps the nationalists in the crowd regard Jesus a threat to the release of their man, Barabbas. Perhaps they regard the kingdom of God that he preached (Mark 1:14-15) as a futile pie-in-the-sky religious quest when what was really needed was violent, military action to liberate Israel. It is also possible that most people in the crowd did not know who Jesus was and were simply willing to go along with the chief priests’ agitation. In either case, they demonstrate chilling indifference to the torments to which they expose him. (Healy, The Gospel of Mark, (Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture), 309)There is a tragic irony in their shocking selection. Jesus is targeted because of his popularity and growing influence yet the crowds who are responsible for his influence are also behind his execution.
Pilate did not account for an extreme form of peer pressure, mob psychology. The crowd is incited by it religious leaders (Matthew 27:20; Mark 15:11). Lamar Williamson, Jr. (b. 1926) examines:
The explicit motivation..is that “the chief priests stirred up the crowd.” The mob is essentially mindless and subject to manipulation. For whatever motives, twice they reject Jesus as king (Mark 15:9, 12), and twice, by acclamation they call for his death: “Crucify him” (Mark 15:13-14). (Williamson, Mark (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching), 271)The crowd is stirred into a frenzy, willing to believe the worst about the best regardless of the facts. Passion overrides judgment. Psychology has demonstrated that it takes only a handful of people positioned in strategic places to start a riot.
Leslie J. Francis (b. 1947) determines:
Here is a narrative about crowd psychology. Consider how little responsibility each individual in the crowd took for the release of Barabbas, how little responsibility each individual in the crowd took for the crucifixion of Jesus, how the moral autonomy of the individual is eroded by the power of the crowd. (Francis, Personality Type and Scripture: Exploring Mark’s Gospel, 145)Barabbas became the popular choice and as is often the case, the popular choice was wrong.
When have you made a decision simply to follow the crowd? Why do the spectators choose Barabbas? When have you seen a popular choice proven wrong? Have you ever seen religious officials lead their followers astray? Is Barabbas’ inclusion in each gospel evidence of substitutionary atonement? Compare and contrast Jesus and Barabbas.
The two figures are intended to be contrasted. Not only are Jesus’ and Barabbas’ names similar, but they find themselves in very similar positions. Both wish to save their people, Barabbas from Rome; Jesus from sin and death.
Theodore W. Jennings (b. 1942) recognizes:
Jesus and Barabbas belong together in some odd way...It really doesn’t matter how far we seek to distinguish the strategy of Jesus from that of Barabbas. Jesus himself does not condemn Barabbas, even if he does seem to embody a different way of confronting the imperial authorities. Instead, he dies in his place. If Jesus’ death may be literally said to be a ransom for another, that other is first of all none other than Barabbas, the terrorist, the assassin. (Jennings, Transforming Atonement: A Political Theology of the Cross, 32)M. Eugene Boring (b. 1935) adds:
Many Gentile Christians could be expected to see “Barabbas” as an ironic counterpart to Jesus, the true Son of the Father. The parallel and contrast may go further: Barabbas has already been convicted of insurrection and sentenced to death, but will escape; Jesus is falsely accused of insurrection and will die in Barabbas’ place, although he is innocent and has not been convicted or sentenced. During the whole period from the Roman takeover of Palestine (63 BCE) to the actual revolt in 66 CE, the only people crucified in Palestine were those convicted of being revolutionaries and their followers. It is important for Mark and his readers to distinguish Jesus from revolutionaries such as Barabbas. The point will again be made at the cross, where those crucified as actual revolutionaries will dissociate themselves from Jesus (Mark 15:32). (Boring, Mark: A Commentary (New Testament Library), 420-21)Barabbas serves as a stark reminder of the grim reality of the situation - he should have been the one to die. Gary W. Charles (b. 1954) concludes:
Barabbas...is chiefly a Markan foil to advance the story by emphasizing the dramatic injustice being done to Jesus. The tragic irony is advanced when the same crowd that had shouted “Hosanna” at the entrance to Jerusalem (Mark 11:9) is now manipulated by the chief priests to shout “Crucify him!” (Mark 15:14). Ironically, Jesus, the one who can save lives (Hosanna means “Save now” in Hebrew) is rejected in favor of one who has taken life. (Brian K. Blount [b. 1955] and Charles, Preaching Mark in Two Voices, 235)The crowd’s choice is also indicative of a greater ideology. Barabbas represents the world’s way of doing things while Jesus presents a radical alternative. R. Kent Hughes (b. 1942) exclaims:
The crowd preferred Jesus Bar-Abbas to Jesus Bar-Joseph, the real son of the Father!...Why? Because Barabbas was a grotesque form of the Messiah Israel wanted! He was a leading Zealot, a political activist who had taken to the bandit trail. He was a man of action who would even murder to reach his own ends (cf. Acts 3:14; Matthew 27:16; Luke 23:19; John 18:40). In the twisted thinking of some, he was a patriot. His vitality and elan appealed to the mob. Jesus, however, had disappointed them with his inaction. The people chose lawlessness instead of righteousness, violence instead of love, war instead of peace. The world is still the same. (Hughes, Mark: Jesus, Servant and Savior, Volume Two (Preaching the Word), 193)David E. Garland (b. 1947) laments:
The choice of Barabbas represents the human preference for the one who represents our narrow personal hopes—in this particular case, a perverted nationalism. He appeals to our basic instinct to protect our interests, with violence if necessary. In contemporary culture, we have been indoctrinated to prefer the violent answer over the peaceful one...Our heroes become the Barbbases of the world, who take matters into their own hands and dispatch the enemy with brute force or clever trickery. If the vote came today, then, Barabbas would likely win again, hands down. (Garland, Mark (The NIV Application Commentary), 583)The contrast between Jesus and Barabbas is illustrated in the work of British artist George Tinworth (1843-1913). In 1882, Tinworth produced a terra cotta relief called “The Release of Barabbas” (pictured). There is perfect symmetry between the scene’s three principal figures - Barabbas, Pilate and Jesus. Pilate occupies the painting’s center, situated between a bound solemn Jesus and Barabbas whose hands are free. Inscribed beneath Barabbas are the words, “The World’s Choice” while the marker beneath Jesus reads, “The Good Shepherd” (John 10:11). Tinworth was correct. The world tends to choose poorly, continually favoring Barabbas over Jesus.
N.T. Wright (b. 1948) resolves:
The story of Barabbas invites us to see Jesus’ crucifixion in terms of a stark personal exchange. Barabbas deserves to die; Jesus dies instead, and he goes free. Barabbas was the archetypical Jewish rebel: quite probably what we today would call a fanatical right-wing zealot, determined to stop at nothing to bring in a version of God’s kingdom which consisted of defeating Roman power by Roman means – in other words, repaying pagan violence with holy violence. No doubt many Christians in Mark’s community, and others who would read his book, had at one stage at least flirted with such revolutionary movements. Reading the story of the guilty man freed and the innocent man crucified, it would not be hard for them to identify with Barabbas, and to view the rest of the story with the awestruck gaze of people who think, ‘There but for God’s grace go I.’ (Wright, Mark for Everyone, 209)Who will you choose, Jesus or Barabbas? What do you think became of Barababas, a man who was lived because Jesus died? How has this same phenomenon affected you?
“Pilate told the people that they could spare the life of either a murderer named Barabbas or Jesus of Nazareth, and they chose Barabbas. Given the same choice, Jesus, of course, would have chosen to spare Barabbas too.” - Frederick Buechner (b. 1926), Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who, p. 15