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Did the Gospel Writers Invent Barabbas? Readers’ Mailbag

One of the familiar stories from the end of the Gospels — it’s in all the Jesus movies! — comes at Jesus’ trial.  Pontius Pilate is trying to avoid executing Jesus.  As it turns out, he has an custom during the annual Passover feast (when the crowds of pilgrims in Jerusalem were enormous) of releasing one Jewish prisoner as a way to appease the crowds and keep himself in their good graces.

And so when the Jewish leaders insist on Jesus’ death, Pilate makes a last ditch effort, offering Jesus up as the one who could possibly be released.  The crowd is given the choice: either Jesus or an insurrectionist who has committed murder, named Barabbas (why these are the only two choices is not clear: there were two others crucified with Jesus, so presumably they could have been on offer as well?).  The crowd chooses Barabbas, and Jesus is then taken off to be crucified.

Did this happen?  Or was Barabbas “made up”?  Could he be some kind of symbolic figure?  I get the question on occasion here on the blog.  Here is how one reader asked it recently, followed by my response.

 

QUESTION:

Is it true that “Barabbas” is a title which means son of God and the name of Barabbas in some of the ancient manuscripts of Mathew, was Jesus Barabbas (Jesus son of God)?  Can you please elaborate on this issue?

 

RESPONSE:

This was an issue I worked on while writing my book Jesus Before the Gospels.  After doing my research I came to a definite conclusion, that I state rather strongly in the book.  Here is what I say there (modified a bit for the blog):

***************************************************************************************

Mark’s Gospel indicates that it was Pilate’s custom to release a prisoner guilty of a capital crime to the Jewish crowd in honor of the Passover festival.  He asks if they would like him to release Jesus, but they urge him to release for them Barabbas instead, a man in prison for committing murder during an insurrection.  Pilate appears to feel that his hand is forced, and so he sets Barabbas free but orders Jesus to be crucified (Mark 15:6-15).

This Barabbas episode was firmly set in the early Christian memory of Jesus’ trial – it is found, with variations, in all four of the Gospels (Matthew 27:15-23; Luke 23:17-23; John 18:39-40).  I do not see how it can be historically right, however; it appears to be a distorted memory.

For starters, what evidence is there that …

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Did Jesus Favor Armed Rebellion Against Rome?
Yet Other Accounts Of the Death of Judas

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    RICHWEN90  June 12, 2020

    In other words, strong evidence that the gospel writers made things up. Since we KNOW they made things up, the reliability of the gospels is questionable. How much is truth? How much is fiction? If documents like the gospels were submitted as written testimony in any court, they would be tossed out. The attorney submitting the documents would be laughed at, maybe censured or disbarred. Maybe i’m too harsh?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 14, 2020

      Yes, that’s why we have scholars who devote their lives to the topic — to figure it out!

    • Avatar
      UncleAbee  June 18, 2020

      Was it common in the ancient world that writers “made up” things in their accounts. If so then how can we trust anything from the ancient world as historically accurate?

      • Bart
        Bart  June 19, 2020

        Yes it was. And that’s why we have to decide what was made up and what is historical. That’s partly why scholars devote their lives to studying these texts. (THere are ways to know)

  2. Avatar
    Stephen  June 12, 2020

    What do you think of the suggestion by some that Mark is using the story to comment on the Jewish Revolt?

    thx

    • Bart
      Bart  June 14, 2020

      I think it’s certainly possible. Look what happens when you choose the military option….

  3. Avatar
    Diane  June 12, 2020

    I feel like the story of Barabbas is incomplete without a discussion of the motivation of the Gospel writers to absolve (suck up to) the Romans and dissociate themselves from the Jews.

  4. Avatar
    moose  June 12, 2020

    An almost identical question is this: How likely is it that the Egyptian Pharaoh would release a prisoner just because it was his birthday?

    This is what happened to Pharaoh’s cupbearer according to Genesis 40:20, when Joseph still was as a prisoner.

    This Barabbas episode does not have to be a distorted memory, but rather an allegory over Joseph’s imprisonment.

    • Avatar
      moose  June 12, 2020

      And just to emphasize; The story of The cupbearer is probably not the whole reason for the Barabbas story. After all, no Jews asked for the cupbearer to be released. But in a previous story the Jews came to Egypt to have Simeon released after he stayed one year in Egypt after their first visit. This was before the 11 knew who Joseph was.
      It was just to stitch together these two stories of the cupbearer and Simeon, and the allegory of Barnabas came into being.

  5. Avatar
    tarobe  June 12, 2020

    Here’s a radical thought. What if Barabbas DID exist and that he and Jesus of Nazareth were one and the same? Suppose the crucifixion of Jesus actually preserves the memory of the execution of Jesus Barabbas, who was really an insurrectionist and had a following of disciples who viewed him as the Jewish Messiah? Suppose the story of Jesus of Nazareth is a legend created after his death by his followers, who wanted to clean up the image of their executed leader?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 14, 2020

      What would make one think so? (I.e., what evidence do you have in mind?)

      As to Jesus as an insurrectionist, I’ve dealt with that a lot on the blog. Look up such words as Zealot, insurrectioniist, and Reza Aslan, and you’ll see.

    • Avatar
      Rpkruger  June 19, 2020

      Haym Maccobi, in his “Revolution in Judea,” suggests that Jesus of Nazareth was known to the crowds in Jerusalem as Jesus Barabbas and that while he was in prison the crowds called for his release. That’s how the story began, but then his character was divided in two, the good pacifistic Jesus and the bad militant Jesus. I recommend his book, written in the 1970s, for a highly favorable Jewish view of Jesus.

  6. Avatar
    Bennett  June 12, 2020

    You believe the story of Barabbas is a distorted memory – but a memory of what? I understand the use of the story by (gentile) christians to blame the Jews for Jesus’ death as the two communities grew apart. But as you say, a version of the story is found in all 4 gospels, so that would indicate there was some historical basis of some sort. Although our knowledge of Pilate comes from limited and biased sources, it is as you say unlikely that any such policy for releasing prisoners, especially insurrectionists, could have been in place. Perhaps Pilate wasn’t sure, based on his read of the mood of the people, whether executing Jesus was going to make things better or worse for him (assuming the description of Jesus’ popularity was even partially true). Whatever it was, it would seem that *something* real was at the root of the story, no? What could it have been?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 14, 2020

      A distorted memory of what actually happened leading up to Jesus execution.

      • Avatar
        Bennett  June 14, 2020

        To clarify further, are you saying that the ‘distortion’ relating to Barabbas amounts to a total fabrication of the story (the part about Barabbas I mean – certainly Pilate ordered the crucifixion)?

        • Bart
          Bart  June 15, 2020

          That’s right: the reliable memory is that Pilate ordered his crucifixion; the distortion is that he tried to get him off the hook by offering the crowd either Jesus or an insurrectionist/murderer as part of his yearly Passover custom.

  7. Avatar
    fishician  June 12, 2020

    The Barabbas story seems unrealistic, especially given the interpretation of the name, but then I would also say the same about “Judas.” Especially Judas “Iscariot”, which no one can agree on. Likewise Joseph of “Arimathea.” And “Theophilus” (beloved of God?) in Luke/Acts. For that matter, Paul only mentions Peter and John of the original 12. And James the brother of Jesus who plays a minor role in the Gospels. Realistically, aren’t the names and associated stories highly suspect? I know history is to some degree a game of percentages, but how much stock do you put in any of these names and associated stories? (Not asking for a full explanation, just a rough estimate of their reliability.)

  8. Avatar
    Shawnmrmsh  June 12, 2020

    I have a co-worker who claims that Barabbas was a “coded message” that showed Jesus was actually advocating a military uprising against Rome. (She reads a lot of books by Picknett and Prince as well as Graham Hancock). I don’t believe that myself but she does. Have you ever heard that interpretation of this passage?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 14, 2020

      Yes, several blog members have heard it as well. I can’t think of a single piece of evidence to support it…. (Plus there is serious evidence that Jesus was not an insurrectionist.) Look up the word on the blog and you’ll see. Or maybe I;ll repost it…

  9. Avatar
    Shah  June 12, 2020

    The story is not invented by the Christian storytellers, but that is just another story to reveal that Jesus was not literally crucified but they send him to exile.
    And the two thives crucified by Jesus are also Judas and his twin brother Thomas, which is also another way to reveal how they give one a negative role (on the left) and the other a positive (on the righ side).

  10. stevedemarco
    stevedemarco  June 12, 2020

    Maybe Barabbas was a real person. Could it be possible, prior before the Gospels were written, that in the oral tradition Barabbas was seen as a Messiah-like figure and was in competition with Jesus of Nazareth?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 14, 2020

      Possible. But I don’t know of any evidence for it.

      • stevedemarco
        stevedemarco  June 14, 2020

        What caught my eye is when you mentioned that Barabbas is Aramaic for “son of the father”. So we have “Jesus the Messiah” and the “son of the father” standing next to each other. Since Barabbas is an Aramaic name it would appear that this pre-dated that gospels because they were written in Greek. Barabbas is not the only person I see that could have been in competition with Jesus, two other people came to mind when reading this post. Such as “John the Baptist” in Mark 1:7 and “Simon the Magician” in Acts 8:9-13.

  11. Avatar
    seahawk41  June 12, 2020

    Here is something that interests me. I’ve been reading a book, Bach’s Musical Universe, by Christoph Wolff. The other day I was reading about scholars trying to untangle the origins of certain of Bach’s works. For some, they have autographs, for some polished versions that were sent to printers, for others they only have copies made by his students, wife, or others. In some cases, an autograph exists with corrections or changes in Bach’s own hand. So I wondered whether something similar happened with the gospels. Granted the vast difference in literacy between the 1st and 18th Centuries, might it be that Mark, say had been telling this gospel story to people he met with, based on stories he had accumulated. Someone wrote it down, perhaps him, perhaps someone who heard him talk. He might have gone over it repeatedly over several years as he told the story, and revised it (or someone who heard him revised a copy they had), and so on. And it began circulating, copied by one scribe after another and so forth. I’m speculating that the “original” might have taken several years to form.

    • Avatar
      Kirktrumb59  June 15, 2020

      And don’t forget that a few of the cantatas are…not, in fact, by Bach, including BWV 50 (Revelation 12:10): either a non-pseudoepigraphic forgery or a misattribution.

  12. Avatar
    forthfading  June 12, 2020

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Would it not be counterproductive for the authors to include such a story if the audience that heard the stories knew no such policies were ever used by a Roman official? I guess what I’m really asking is why would the authors include unnecessary details that could expose fraudulent history if there was no historical basis for them?

    Thanks, Jay

    • Bart
      Bart  June 14, 2020

      One might think so, if it weren’t for the massively implausible things that we know can’t be right that are reported in our papers every day. And we, unlike they, have sophisticated methods of verification! I’m afraid it’s always been that way. And the fact that somethign gets reported doesn’t mean that every reader necessarily agreed with it….

  13. Avatar
    WaterfrontSunrise  June 12, 2020

    I’ve always found it so hard to imagine this exchange in a pre-microphone society. For them to have understood what Pilate was saying and respond coherently, I assume the crowd should have been much smaller than it’s usually depicted. Actual historical understandings of this incident aside, is this sort of politician-to-public, “friends, Romans, countrymen”-style exchange something that happened?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 14, 2020

      It certainly happened, and often there would be “criers” who would shout out what the official had said so others could hear it.

    • Avatar
      Leovigild  June 14, 2020

      Roman Emperors regularly interacted with the spectators at large gatherings. Here is what Suetonius says of Claudius, for example:

      “Now there was no form of entertainment at which he was more familiar and free, even thrusting out his left hand, as the commons did, and counting aloud on his fingers the gold pieces which were paid to the victors; and ever and anon he would address the audience, and invite and urge them to merriment, calling them “masters” from time to time, and interspersing feeble and far-fetched jokes. For example, when they called for Palumbus he promised that they should have him, “if he could be caught.””

      So it clearly was possible.

  14. Avatar
    GeoffClifton  June 13, 2020

    I remember watching the film ‘King of Kings’ (starring Jeffrey Hunter as Jesus) many years ago and being surprised that the Barabbas character (played by Harry Guardino) was also called Jesus. I see now that that was based on at least some textual evidence. Yes, I agree that Barabbas was likely to have been fictitious and possibly influenced by the more overt violence of the zealots and sicarii around the time (or just before) the Gospels were being written. I think that, at the time of Jesus, Rome only had a few auxiliary troops (a couple of cohorts – 1000 men or so) stationed in Judea and so was not expecting or encountering too much in the way of armed opposition.

  15. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  June 13, 2020

    “Jesus Before the Gospels” has been a very helpful book to me. I still, however, struggle with the idea of “memories” being distorted or changed. I just don’t like calling this “Memory.” To, me it’s more that stories, not memories, got changed and embellished with storytelling.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 14, 2020

      Given your background, you would enjoy reading David Schachter’s book Seven Sins of Memory. He was the Chair of Psychology at Harvard, and is a UNC grad!

      • Avatar
        Kirktrumb59  June 15, 2020

        Dan Schachter
        Memories, including for those relating to very temporally proximate episodes, are distorted virtually continuously as soon as they’re formed, some more than others. Blame your RNA.

  16. Avatar
    Damian King  June 13, 2020

    Is it historically plausible that St Luke was actually a physician? I understand that he is called a physician in a letter which scholars think Paul did not write, but could it still be passing on information about a real Luke who was an actual doctor?
    Thanks

    • Bart
      Bart  June 14, 2020

      It’s possible, but no more possible than that he was any other kind of worker you can imagine. It’s possible Colossians is describing Luke accurately, of course. But we have no way of knowing, and probably more important we do not have anyone saying that this person Luke wrote the Gospel and Acts until about a hundred years later!

  17. Avatar
    Solomon  June 13, 2020

    My understanding is that most of the Jews in the crowd would have not been locals but from far across the empire.
    With a name like Jesus Barabbas they could easily have been provoked into calling for the wrong person. But really I think there is too much against the story for it to be a real event unless some of the facts have been hidden from us.

  18. Avatar
    anthonygale  June 13, 2020

    When you say distorted memory, that implies the story had root in something historical. What do you think it is, that was historical, that got distorted?

    A murdering insurrectionist, from the Roman perspective, sounds like an awful person you’d be crazy to release. I remember being taught in Catholic school that Barabbas was simply a murderer. It portrayed “the Jews” as being so determined to have Jesus killed that they’d rather release a murderer. But perhaps what the Romans might have seen as a murdering insurrectionist is exactly what many Jews thought the messiah should be. Not a bloodthirsty monster, but a hero liberating them from their oppressors and restoring the sanctity of their homeland.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 14, 2020

      What was historical is that the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate ordered Jesus to be crucified. What is distorted in this case is the claim that he tried to release Jesus as a prisoner to the Jewish crowds, who refused him in order to demand an insurrectionist named Barabbas instead.

      • Avatar
        tom.hennell  June 14, 2020

        The straight answer to your original question, Bart, is clearly ‘no’. Barabbas features by name in all four Gospels, so it would not appear possible that they each (or any one of them) actually invented him.

        What does seem to have been invented (though again it must precede the composition of the Gospels) , is the idea of a Passover privilege of prisoner release; and the consequent involvement of a Jerusalem crowd in saving Barabbas and sending Jesus to the Cross. For the very good reasons you state..

        Raymond Brown notes, though, that Mark does not actually identify Barabbas as either an insurrectionist, or a murderer; only that he had been arrested alongside those who were (Mark 15:7). Brown proposes that Barabbas may indeed have been released by Pilate ‘when the feast brought the governor to Jerusalem to supervise public order’ – likely on the basis that his guilt had not been sufficiently established. But that a pre-Marcan Christian tradition then contrasted the two actions of the governor – especially ironic if both men were named ‘Jesus’ – both arrested for sedition,against the Emperor, but the one freed and the other crucified.

        • Bart
          Bart  June 15, 2020

          That’s exactly right. None of the four invented him. The story was commonly told throughout the Christian communities and had been for many years before any of the Gospels had been written.

  19. Avatar
    mannix  June 13, 2020

    Is it possible the Jews WERE revolution-minded and DID want an insurrectionist who would kill Romans, and that Pilate was foolish enough to give one back to them? After all, Jesus was the pacifist type (love enemies, turn cheeks) who was obviously going to do nothing to lift the Roman yoke.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 14, 2020

      Some Jews were, yes. But I’d say there’s no such thing as what “The” Jews wanted any more than there is such a thing that “The” Americans do… But yes, the point is that if you want insurrection, well, that won’t turn out well for you.

  20. Avatar
    DirkCampbell  June 13, 2020

    Hmmm OK. Distorted memory. That means a distortion of a memory of something that happened. What actually happened? Was there a Barabbas or wasn’t there? If there was, how can he fit with what we know of Pilate, Jewish religious customs and Roman standard practice? If there wasn’t, what event produced the ‘distorted’ memory?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 14, 2020

      What happened was that the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate ordered Jesus to be crucified. What is distorted in this case is the claim that he tried to release Jesus as a prisoner to the Jewish crowds, who refused him in order to demand an insurrectionist named Barabbas instead.

      • Avatar
        DirkCampbell  June 14, 2020

        When I first read your posts the comments and replies already given don’t appear, so it seems like I’m making the first one. Won’t make that mistake again! 😊

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