If there’s one person in history who has the most personal reason to declare, “Christ died for me,” it’s Barabbas. All four gospels relate how Pilate wanted to release Jesus and how the priests’ mob demanded that he release Barabbas instead.
It’s easy to read past Barabbas and not think much about him. The possibility that he, too, bore the name Jesus gives us an opportunity to take a closer look. He’s much more important than he might seem at first.
A textual variant encourages us to take a closer look. Matthew’s gospel, at least in some manuscripts, identifies him as “Jesus Barabbas.” Only a few translations follow that reading. Here are two:
At that time they had a well-known prisoner whose name was Jesus Barabbas. So when the crowd had gathered, Pilate asked them, “Which one do you want me to release to you: Jesus Barabbas, or Jesus who is called the Messiah?” Matthew 27:16-17 (NIV)
At that time they had in custody a notorious prisoner named Jesus Barabbas. So after they had assembled, Pilate said to them, “Whom do you want me to release for you, Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Christ?” Matthew 27:16-17 (NET)
An exploration of textual variants
If you aren’t interested in the details of the texts translators use, you can skip to the last section. If you want more detail than I provide, you can read an article in the Olive Tree blog.
Most English translations of Matthew 27:16-17 simply call the man Barabbas, just as all the other gospels do. The NIV, NET, and some other recent translations call him Jesus Barabbas. On what basis?
It’s important to realize that when we refer to “the Greek,” we can’t mean a single Greek text. Translators of the King James Version used a text called Textus Receptus. Archeologists have discovered numerous Greek manuscripts since then, many older than the ones behind the Textus Receptus.
Various teams of scholars have prepared several other Greek texts based on these findings. The first job of translation, then, is to decide which of these to use.
If you’ve used any translation that has footnotes, you have noticed some that point out variant readings the translators considered. Another translation of the same verse might easily choose differently which reading to put in the text and which in a note.
Some translators use the readings found in the majority of manuscripts. Other Greek texts carefully consider the less common readings.
Barabbas in Matthew 27:16-17
In an extensive footnote to Matthew 27:16, the editors of the NET wrote,
Matthew 27:16 tc Although the external evidence for the inclusion of “Jesus” before “Barabbas” (in vv. 16 and 17) is rather sparse, being restricted virtually to mss of what was formally labeled the “Caesarean” text (Θ ƒ1 700* sys arm geo2; Ormss), the omission of the Lord’s name in apposition to “Barabbas” is such a strongly motivated reading that it can hardly be original. There is no good explanation for a scribe unintentionally adding ᾿Ιησοῦν (Iēsoun) before Βαραββᾶν (Barabban), especially since Barabbas is mentioned first in each verse (thus dittography is ruled out). Further, the addition of τὸν λεγόμενον Χριστόν (ton legomenon Christon, “who is called Christ”) to ᾿Ιησοῦν in v. 17 makes better sense if Barabbas is also called “Jesus” (otherwise, a mere “Jesus” would have been a sufficient appellation to distinguish the two). Metzger notes that codex S, a tenth-century majuscule, along with a score of minuscules, have a marginal comment on this verse as follows: “In many ancient copies which I have met with I found Barabbas himself likewise called ‘Jesus.’” The attribution of this scholium is variously given as Anastasius, Chrysostom, or even Origen (TCGNT 56).
To express it in less academic terms, when manuscripts differ by presence or absence of a particular word, some scribe either added or omitted it. The difference could be accidental or deliberate.
The NET editors say no one could have accidentally added “Jesus” to Barabbas’ name here. But some scribes might have objected to this thug having the same name as the Lord and, therefore, chosen to omit it.
In Matthew, but not the other gospels, Pilate asks, “Which one do you want me to release to you, Jesus Barabbas, or Jesus who is called the Messiah?” Why would he add “who is called the Messiah” (or Christ) if he wasn’t using it to distinguish between two men named “Jesus”?
It’s a minor point and a minority view. But it gives us opportunity to look at Barabbas as more than the accidental beneficiary of Pilate’s decision.
Which Jesus do you want?
Both men stood trial for the same crime: sedition against Rome. On careful examination they have a lot more in common than it would appear at first glance.
The most important clue to Barabbas’ importance is his name. “Bar” means “son of.” “Abbas” means “father.” Perhaps called himself “son of father” to protect his family from Roman reprisal. The so-called Caesarean texts essentially call him Jesus, son of father.
The Lord Jesus, on the other hand, frequently referred to God as his Father. He could have chosen to refer to himself as “Jesus Barabbas” in the sense of Jesus, Son of the Father.
Pilate asked the crowd, in effect, which Jesus to release to them.
Jesus Barabbas intended to seize power by force and drive the Romans out of Israel. He was exactly the kind of Messiah many pious Jews expected.
Jesus Christ spent considerable energy teaching his disciples that God had a different kind of Messiah in mind. Satan, not Rome, was the enemy to drive out. And not just drive out of Israel but the whole world.
This Jesus intended to conquer not by a display of strength but of weakness. He will have plenty of opportunity to display overwhelming strength when he returns to claim final victory.
Pilate gave the crowd a choice. And they chose the Jesus who seemed to pose the most immediate threat to Rome and the least challenge to the Jewish priesthood.
Down through the ages, Pilate asks the same question of the church.
Do we want a Jesus who looks like a proper Messiah through the eyes of our flesh? The Jesus most comfortable to many religious professionals?
Or will we look closer and choose the Jesus God sent into the world as his Messiah?