The Biblical figure of Barabbas (also known as Jesus Barabbas) is a mysterious character shrouded by conflicting accounts in the Gospels. As such, many theologians, historians, and biblical scholars have long been studying who Barabbas was and why his freedom from a death sentence was so crucial to the Bible narrative. Prior to delving into that, it is important to explore the background and context of the story of Barabbas in the Bible.
As found in all four Gospels of the New Testament – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – it is written that Pontius Pilate, the then-Roman prefect of Judea, gave the people of Jerusalem a choice to either save Jesus or Barabbas from execution. The people chose to save Barabbas and have Jesus be crucified.
Who was Barabbas and why did the people of Jerusalem choose him in a momentous decision that would shape history? Barabbas, according to the Bible, was a notorious criminal – a robber, insurrectionist and murderer – who was caught in an act of rebellion against the Romans. This jibes with the fact that at the time of Jesus, the Jewish sect of Zealots was actively engaged in guerrilla warfare against Roman rule.
The Gospels are not overly forthcoming as to why Barabbas was granted his freedom. The passages merely tell that he was given amnesty, with no clarifying details as to why his release was decreed. Some commentators suggest that Barabbas being set free symbolized political amnesty – a statement that the Romans would not always mercilessly punish anyone that opposed them.
Other accounts note that the nature of Barabbas’ crime mirrors the sin of proclaiming that Jesus himself is the King of the Jews. Even the name Barabbas can be translated to mean “son of the father,” which is believed to be symbolic of the crime of attributing a divine title to Jesus. This is mirrored in both Barabbas being freed from a death sentence, and Jesus being crucified for saying that he was the son of God.
Other theories as to why Barabbas was put forward for freedom rather than Jesus purport that he may have had a wife and children, which made it imperative for him to be released so that he could provide for them. Again, this mirrors a biblical narrative wherein Jesus is depicted as the divine provider. However, only Barabbas was given a second chance.
Cultural Reception of Barabbas
Though the Bible is slippery with regard to providing a full picture as to who Barabbas was, this didn’t stop him from taking a prominent role in Christian art and symbolism. Barabbas is sometimes linked to the symbolic figure of the “scapegoat.” By this, Barabbas is perceived as the human and sinful part of our nature that Jesus created freedom for, in a spiritual sense.
Barabbas is also reflected in a musical play called Barabbas, by Friedrich Dürrenmatt, where Jesus and Barabbas switch roles. Jesus serves time for Barabbas’ crime and is ultimately crucified, while Barabbas is set free. This is meant to represent an accusation that Jesus was forced to take on sins from the world – a notion which plays heavily in many Christian sects, who interpret the figure of Barabbas within this vein.
Beyond the Scriptures, Barabbas plays a role in other pseudepigraphal works, including the Syriac Apocalypse of Baruch. In this religious text, Barabbas is named as the leader of a revolt against the Jewish people, in order to help free Israel from Roman Rule. The book portrays Barabbas as a fallen angel-like figure who sought to redeem Israel and ultimately sacrificed himself to scourge almighty justice.
Barabbas in Modern Culture
The figure of Barabbas has also been given multiple reinterpretations in modern culture. Perhaps the most famous of these is the 1960 Biblical epic film Barrabas, starring Anthony Quinn, which retold the famous Barabbas narrative. It recast Barabbas as a freedom-fighter who sought to better his people and ultimately gave his own life so that Jesus could escape from prison. Other films like The King of Kings and Barabbas have further muddied the waters as to who Barabbas truly was, creating entirely new takes on the man’s possible motivations.
Barabbas is also given a unique and creative interpretation in the novel Paradise Lost, by John Milton. According to Milton, Barabbas’ freedom was only possible due to the intervention of Satan, who initially attempted to overthrow Jesus. Milton believes that Barabbas’ freedom from death was intended as a way to test Satan’s theories, while also serving to remind him of his present failure.
Either way, the story of Barabbas deserves continued study, due to the conflicting accounts found throughout the Bible. It has been dedicated to and discussed by countless theologians and scholars, who continue to analyze it in order to finetune their interpretations of the story and gain greater insight in to the nature of Barabbas’ characters and motivations.
Barabbas as a Historical Figure
Historically, Barabbas is not so much a person that can be pinned down with certainty, but rather a character that represents various ideas and opinions of his actions in the stories of the Bible. Ultimately, it is up to the reader to make up his or her own mind on why Barabbas was released, and the role that providence was playing in it.
At the same time, Barabbas has been studied more objectively as a historical figure. As mentioned, the context of the Roman occupation of Palestine and the Zealot sect can be used to further explain Barabbas’ actions. This puts the rebel in a light of a determined freedom fighter, a figure in history who was brave enough to risk his own death in order to bring justice to his people.
At the end of the day, the story of Barabbas is a difficult one to analyze, due to the fact that the Bible does not discuss him in overly furthering detail. However, the numerous interpretations of the narrative, from both theological and historical standpoints, gives insight into the character’s motivations and complexity.
Barabbas as a Symbol
A lot of modern cultural interpretation of the figure of Barabbas stems from how he is changingly viewed as a symbol, rather than a strictly literal person. He is seen as a scapegoat that is empowered to represent humanity’s sinful and rebellious nature in the face of divine law. He also symbolizes the freedom that Jesus promise to his followers, and the strength to stand up against oppressors.
Another way that Barabbas is seen symbolically is in the form of a cautionary figure, who represents the consequences of breaking the law. While Barabbas was ultimately granted freedom and pardoned, this does not necessarily make him a representation of entire impunity for one’s misdeeds. On the contrary, it implies the importance of accepting whatever might come with the consequences of a criminal action, or any negative life choices.
Ultimately, the Bible leaves us with the story of Barabbas in which we can draw many different interpretations from. That, ultimately, is the greatest aspect of the story – it is open to discussion and meaning, and can be viewed from different perspectives, whether it is a literal interpretation or a more figurative one.
The story of Barabbas has inspired many theological and philosophical discussions on the nature of free will and predestination, as well as justice and divine mercy. It serves as an interesting narrative that shows just how complex and varied the Bible’s stories can be viewed. Whether one interprets it on a literal level as concerning a certain person, or as a backstory meant to illustrate moral themes, one thing is certain – Barabbas deserves further study and contemplation, in order to peel away the layers of centuries of interpretation.