A recent Newsweek story began with an exhortation from the Reverend Dr. Kenneth L. Samuel, a preacher in a suburb of Atlanta, Georgia, who urged his congregation to vote in the upcoming midterm elections. He recalled the story in the gospels about Jesus and Barabbas. Each year, he noted, the people of Jerusalem got to release one prisoner. This particular year—the year of the crucifixion of Jesus—Pontius Pilate offered a choice to the public who gathered outside his palace. “Shall I release to you Jesus or Barabbas?” he said, according to Dr. Samuel, who added, “The people voted unanimously to free Barabbas and to crucify Jesus.”
It’s a great story, and one that is pulled out frequently to bolster one side or another of an argument. It seems as if the people, whoever they might be, always choose the wrong man.
In fact, the story of Barabbas is more interesting and complicated than most preachers seem willing to acknowledge.
In the gospels, we read that Pilate, the prefect of the Roman province of Judea, had been questioning Jesus rather pointedly, asking serious questions. “What is truth?” he famously wondered (John 18:38). Jesus didn’t respond, and Pilate went outside in some frustration to address the crowd, who didn’t want him to release Jesus. “Give us Barabbas!” they shouted (John 18:40).
So who was this man, Barabbas? As we hear in Mark 15:7, he was apparently an insurrectionist, an anti-Roman revolutionary, and had killed someone in a skirmish. Scholars from Hermann Reimarus in the 18th century through, most recently, Reza Aslan, have regarded Jesus himself as an insurrectionist, a forerunner of the Zealots—a political and religious movement that came into its own in the middle of the first century, just before the final battle for Jerusalem that saw Herod’s magnificent temple (and the center of Jewish worship) destroyed in 70 A.D. by the Roman army.
The name of Barabbas is worth looking at closely, as it makes the story more challenging as well puzzling. Barabbas contains the Aramaic word abba—which simply means “father.” Indeed, Jesus himself, when he prayed, addressed God as Abba. The prefix “Bar” means “son of.” In other words, the name Barabbas means ”son of the father” or “Son of God.” And what was the first name of Barabbas? In Matthew 27:17 we learn that his name was Jesus. (There are variants in the Greek texts of Matthew, and some of them have left out the first name. But his first name was, indeed, Jesus.)
Jesus was of course described as the Son of God, perhaps more obliquely than is often acknowledged, as in Luke 22:70, where his disciples ask him directly if he is really the Son of God. Jesus replies, “You say that I am.” Theologians have parsed the various versions and possible meanings of this appellation for centuries, but it seems clear that in the course of his ministry Jesus came to understand his destiny as the Son of God (as well as the Son of Man—another of those complicated phrases, with roots in the Book of Daniel in the Hebrew scriptures).
Pilate put before the Jewish mob a choice that doesn’t sound like an especially clear one: I’ll give you Jesus the Son of God or Jesus the Son of the Father— Jesus or Barabbas. Take your pick.
It’s difficult to know what to make of the obvious wordplay in this story. Perhaps the gospel writers wished to make a point: Jesus the political revolutionary could walk free, not Jesus the Prince of Peace, who must offer himself as the Lamb of God in a sacrificial way. The verbal irony in the story would have played well in the first century. Those early Christians who passed around the stories about Jesus that finally got put into the gospels (many decades after his crucifixion) would have grasped the meaning of this dramatic scene more vividly than modern readers, who are distanced by two millennia from the political turmoil in Judea at this time.
It’s perhaps important to see this choice as something ambiguous. The gospels ask us, Which version of the Messiah do you want? They are also teasing readers, suggesting that it’s not always easy to tell the rebel fighter from the Prince of Peace. Sometimes a choice is not, well, as clear a choice as it might seem.
As the midterm elections approach, we’re often given choices that seem bold and clear; but on reflection, it’s sometimes difficult to see what differences might exist between candidates—or whether the apparent choices are real. The novelist Gore Vidal once said, “We have one party in America, the Party of Business. It has two wings, Republicans and Democrats.” I doubt this is what the Reverend Dr. Samuel had in mind when putting the story of Jesus and Barabbas before his congregation, urging them to vote. But it might be worth thinking about.
Jay Parini, a poet and novelist, teaches at Middlebury College. His most recent book is Jesus: The Human Face of God.