DayeTime: Considering Pilate and Barabbas

Part of '8 Days in Jerusalem' Easter series

Some early manuscripts of the Gospels note Barabbas’ first name was “Jesus.”

There is debate among Biblical scholars as to whether Barabbas’ first name really was Jesus. Some contend later transcribers omitted the name because they believed it was disrespectful to Christ. Others say early transcriptionists mistakenly wrote down “Jesus” in front of Barabbas during those scenes of Christ’s Passion. There being no backspace/delete button, it stayed there.

The fact is, Jesus -- Yeshua in Hebrew and Joshua in our language -- was a common name then and still is.

It is the last name of this notorious criminal that, when combined with his first, shows a dark coincidence or some kind of life lesson to be learned.

Barabbas, which would have been Bar Abba in 1st Century Hebrew and Aramaic, means “son of the father.”

What that means is also debated.

Was it a sarcastic nickname given to a criminal/revolutionary who never knew who his father was, so he was just the “son of a father?”

Some believe the name indicates he was the “son of the Abba,” a term that often referred to a rabbi or teacher. Was this murderer, then, a preacher’s kid gone bad?

I was always taught that “Abba” is akin to our “Daddy,” and is often spoken in times of high emotion -- joy, love, fear, grief. Like most words, it probably has many meanings, depending on context.

I have to say at this point that I believe Barabbas was an actual person, that he was offered as an alternative prisoner to be released instead of Christ and that he was guilty of revolution and murder and deserved his death sentence. I have always been taught that and my reading and understanding of the Scriptures leads me to that conclusion.

However, while I was researching various aspects of Easter, an alternative narrative of that familiar scene popped into my mind, primarily due to the name of the notorious prisoner. While in conflict with the previously stated position, this alternative telling of the Pilate-Barabbas-Christ scene could make sense.

Even if it were correct, it would not diminish the sacrifice of Christ or change any other significant part of the Easter story. I present it here solely to provoke thought and contemplation on this important event in history.

Imagine the scene at the Praetorium, Pilate’s palace in Jerusalem. The Jewish religious leaders have decided Jesus of Nazareth poses a threat to their religion and their leadership with his teaching that “those who live by the Law are condemned by the Law” and by making comments that God is his Father.

Pilate was a powerful man in charge of maintaining order in a province that had proven difficult to control. Passover was the most volatile time of the year because the Jewish people were remembering when their nation escaped from slavery in Egypt. It also made them yearn to be free from the yoke of Rome. The result: riots.

So Pilate came from Caesarea -- his seat of government -- to Jerusalem, where the Passover crowd would gather. There needed to be a strong Roman presence in Jerusalem to deter problems.

Then a group of Jewish priests comes up to him and starts complaining about a troublemaker, Jesus of Nazareth, who they say is guilty of blasphemy against Jehovah God. He tells them, in so many words, “Not my problem. You deal with it.”

They say the Law demands death for blasphemy, but Roman law has taken that option away from the religious court. Rome and Rome alone has the authority to execute a wrongdoer. They want him to kill Jesus.

Blasphemy against a “false god,” in Rome’s eyes, is not a capital offense, so it’s a “no go” from Pontius P.

But, the priests say, there’s more. This Jesus once said he was the King of the Jews. Oh, and he also said Jews shouldn’t pay taxes to Caesar.

The fact that neither charge was true didn’t really matter. Others proclaimed him King of the Jews and he actually told the crowd they SHOULD pay their taxes to the government.

Fast forward to the prisoner release scene.

The Scriptures say it was the custom for a prisoner to be released at Passover. One Gospel account indicates the priests convinced Pilate to release a prisoner to make room for Christ on Golgotha that day. Historians say there are no historical records to support there was a Passover prisoner release tradition, although it is known that Roman rulers did free prisoners in observance of some of their pagan festivals.

Again, that is not crucial.

For purposes of this alternative theory, we will say it was the priest’s idea to start a “new tradition.” They whine and passively threaten Pilate to the point where he says “Fine, but I’m going to let the crowd decide who dies and who lives.”

At this point in the story I take poetic license to create a character of Pilate that is not unreasonable, but also not specifically borne out in the text.

Pilate says he will let the crowd choose one prisoner to execute and one prisoner to set free. The priests gloat because they have the crowd rigged. Jesus of Nazareth will die. The crowd will call for the other prisoner.

The prisoners are brought out to stand before the crowd. Something is wrong. There is only one man standing there.

“Who do I release to you? Jesus, the Son of the Father (the Son of God) or Jesus, the son of the father (the king of the Jews)?”

The answer: “We have no king but Caesar.”

Under this theory, Pilate demonstrates a keen wit and is not the moaning, hand-washing wimp we are used to seeing.

“Which Jesus Bar Abba do you want, and which one should I kill,” Pilate would be saying, probably with a sly smirk curling his lip, quite pleased with his cleverness at outfoxing the priests.

Pilate would be telling the priests, “I told you I don’t kill heretics. Traitors, on the other hand, I kill every day.” That might also be a personal message to the priests.

He would be forcing the crowd below to acknowledge Caesar’s authority or risk being rounded up by the always-present Roman guards and possibly finding themselves on Golgotha in a few days.

If that choice were given, only idiots would say, “We want the traitor. Kill the prophet.” However, in the Gospel account of an actual Barabbas, that is what they did.

We then must believe that Pilate was so intimidated by the priests’ threats to “tattle” on him that he just didn’t care that a known rebel murderer was let loose from his custody, probably to kill again.

Of course, the best argument against the one-man-with-two-titles Barabbas story is that the crimes attributed to Barabbas could not possibly have been committed by Christ.

Then again, there is that “he was made sin who knew no sin” thing that could be in play if the one-man theory were correct. That being the case, Christ was “guilty” of many more crimes than those committed by one man 2,000 years ago in ancient Jerusalem.

But back to the alternative theory.

Jesus, King of the Jews, is sentenced to be crucified. To “nail home,” so to speak, his message to the priests, Pilate puts a sign above Christ’s head identifying him as “King of the Jews,” so anyone looking at him would know why he was executed.

It was for treason against Rome, not blasphemy against God. It was for his politics, not his religious philosophy.

Again, I can’t erase -- nor would I want to erase -- over 50 years of Scriptural reading and learning. I think the alternative theory makes for a good story -- something I appreciate and for which I am always on the lookout.

It changes Pilate from a milktoast to a cruel, calculating and clever tactician -- something more becoming a Roman governor. It drives home the point that Christ was killed for the sins of man -- the charge of treason, in this case -- and not because of his divine nature.

Again, I prefer the traditional lesson in which Barabbas is the embodiment of man’s sin and Christ’s death is an example of man rejecting His divine nature.

That understanding of the event also shows that in most cases when mankind has the opportunity to choose the evil or the divine, most will call out, “Give us Barabbas.”


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