Tuesday, 25 March 2008


This post is for one of my best fiends, Luke, who returned from China recently to challenge me with his best unholy arguments. One thing he asked me was what is going on in the Gospels when Pilate offers to release either Jesus or Barabbas, and the people choose Barabbas. The name Barabbas translates to 'son of the father', (as in the hymn 'Abba, Father'). I had to be honest with Luke and just plead ignorance here; i don't know what was going on, and i hesitated to give an answer that would probably turn out to be incorrect.

Well, on Good Friday I stood through the Passion narrative, and was still none the wiser as to what was going on with the whole Barabbas thing. It wasn't until mid way through Easter Sunday that I came across this explanation from Papa Bene's 'Jesus of Nazareth':

...who was Barabbas? It is usually the words of John's Gospel that come to mind here: "Barabbas was a robber" (Jn 18:40). But the Greek word for "robber" had acquired a specific meaning in the political situation that obtained at the time in Palestine. It had become a synonym for "resistance fighter." Barabbas had taken part in an uprising (cf. Mk 15:7), and furthermore—in that context—had been accused of murder (cf. Lk 23:19, 25). When Matthew remarks that Barabbas was "a notorious prisoner" (Mt 27:16)1, this is evidence that he was one of the prominent resistance fighters, in fact probably the actual leader of that particular uprising.

In other words, Barabbas was a messianic figure. The choice of Jesus versus Barabbas is not accidental; two messiah figures, two forms of messianic belief stand in opposition. This becomes even clearer when we consider that the name Bar-Abbas means "son of the father." This is a typically messianic appellation, the cultic name of a prominent leader of the messianic movement. The last great Jewish messianic war was fought in the year 132 by Bar-Kokhba, "son of the star." The form of the name is the same, and it stands for the same intention.

Origen, a Father of the Church, provides us with another interesting detail. Up until the third century, many manuscripts of the Gospels referred to the man in question here as "Jesus Barabbas"—"Jesus son of the father." Barabbas figures here as a sort of alter ego of Jesus, who makes the same claim but understands it in a completely different way. So the choice is between a Messiah who leads an armed struggle, promises freedom and a kingdom of one's own, and this mysterious Jesus who proclaims that losing oneself is the way to life. Is it any wonder that the crowds prefer Barabbas?....

How's that then, Luke? An answer direct from the Pope himself!

(And no, that wasn't a typo in the first sentence.)

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