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Barabbas and Jesus Bar Abbas

Depiction of Jesus and Pontius PIlate


"Matters become clear when we realize that the Greek name Barabbas comes from the Aramaic Bar Abbas, Son of the Father, and that according to early manuscripts of Matthew’s Gospel the first name of Barabbas was Jesus."

I grew up hearing horror stories about Good Friday: stories of faithful Christians enraged by the tale of Barabbas and taking to the streets to avenge the death of Jesus by attacking and murdering their Jewish neighbors. This is made all the more tragic when we learn that the real Barabbas, the Barabbas the Jews sought to rescue from Pilate’s prison, was none other than Jesus himself.

To quote Mr. Monk, “here’s what happened.”

First-century Roman-occupied Jerusalem was a hotbed of anti-Roman sentiment. At Passover time things often boiled over into anti-Roman riots as the city was swamped with Jews coming to the Temple to celebrate the fall of Pharaoh in the past and anticipate the fall of Rome in the present. It is not surprising that the leaders of the city, Roman and Jewish, feared crowds, especially the politically charged crowds gathered to welcome Jesus into Jerusalem waving palm branches and shouting, “King of the Israel” (John 12:13). As Caiaphas the High Priest put it, “Better one man die for the sake of the nation than the nation die for the sake of one man” (John 11:50).

Pilate imprisoned Jesus. Huge crowds gathered outside the prison. Pilate offered them a choice: he would free Jesus, whom they called Son of the Father (meaning God), or he would free a terrorist named Barabbas. Surprisingly, the people cried for the release of Barabbas (John 18:38-40).

Who was Barabbas? Barabbas was a léstés which many English Bibles translate as “bandit,” but which also means terrorist. According to Mark and Luke, Barabbas had murdered Roman soldiers during one of the very riots that Pilate and Caiaphas sought to prevent (Mark 15:7; Luke 23:19). Why would Pilate offer to release a convicted terrorist? He wouldn’t.

Matters become clear when we realize that the Greek name Barabbas comes from the Aramaic Bar Abbas, Son of the Father, and that according to early manuscripts of Matthew’s Gospel the first name of Barabbas was Jesus. When the Jews call for the release of Jesus Barabbas on Friday, they are calling for the release of the very same Jesus Bar Abbas they loved the previous Sunday.

The authors of the Gospels used their readers’ ignorance of Aramaic to create a fictional character named Barabbas to mask the truth that the Jews sought to free Jesus not crucify him. Why? Because blaming the Jews rather than the Romans for the death of Jesus Bar Abbas made the story more acceptable to Rome and those Gentiles they hoped to convert to Christianity.

What may have been good marketing, however, was bad history, and has led to the murder of thousands of Jews and poisoned Jewish-Christian relations for centuries. This year Good Friday and the first night of Passover both fall on April 19th. This could be a day for truth telling and community building. Urge your clergy to join together with their Jewish and Christian colleagues to reveal the true story of Barabbas. After all, the truth will set us free (John 8:32).

Rabbi Rami Shipiro

Rabbi Rami Shapiro is an award-winning author, essayist, poet, and teacher. In the print version of our magazine, he has an advice column, “Roadside Assistance for the Spiritual Traveler,” addressing reader questions pertaining to religion, spirituality, faith, family, God, social issues, and more. His latest book is Surrendered—The Sacred Art. Rabbi Rami hosts our podcast, “Essential Conversations.”

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