Barabbas and the Perfect Man

“Then came Jesus forth, wearing the crown of thorns, and the purple robe.  And Pilate saith unto them, Behold the man!” (John 19:5)

David Christiansen

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Behold the man! That’s what Pilate said to the Jews, and inmarchapril-2015 particular to the leaders of Israel, as they petitioned Pilate to put Jesus to death.  Behold the man! The chief priests and officers heard these words of Pilate.  They saw Jesus before them wearing a purple robe and a crown of thorns.  These were put on Him by the Roman soldiers – not to honor Him but to mock Him.

Jesus stood before the Jews.  They watched Him being mocked and beaten by the Roman soldiers.  “Hail, King of the Jews” the soldiers cried over and over as they hit Him and spit on Him.  John records “they struck him in the face.” (John 19:3 NIV)

What did the Jewish leaders say when they saw this?  Were they overcome by compassion for this innocent man?  Did they change their minds and realize that Barabbas the murderer should be crucified and Jesus be allowed to go free?  Did they listen when Pilate himself said three times that he found no fault in Jesus? Instead of softening their hearts they cried out all the more, “Crucify Him!” The Israelite leaders were adamant that they wanted Barabbas to be set free and that they wanted Jesus to be crucified.


Barabbas is a person hardly discussed. He is like an actor in this real life drama who has no speaking part, though his presence adds a twist to the scenario. Why did Barabbas have this cameo part in the real life story of the crucifixion of our Lord? Barabbas didn’t really need to be in the story.  He was not required to be present for Jesus to give up His life on the cross. But Barabbas was there, and was important enough to be recorded in the scriptures, so perhaps God had some more lessons for us.

“And there was one named Barabbas, which lay bound with them that had made insurrection with him, who had committed murder in the insurrection” (Mark 15:7).   What was Barabbas’ crime? There are several theories about this.

One theory suggests, because it is found in just a very few Greek manuscripts, that Barabbas’ name was actually Yeshua bar Abba in Aramaic, which means Jesus, Son of the Father. Perhaps, it is purported that the common Jews were really crying out to Pilate to let Jesus go free.

This, of course, is not scriptural. This is conjecture based on a very small percentage of the old manuscripts. Even if Barabbas’ name really was Yeshua bar Abba, it does not necessarily follow that the Jews were crying out for the opposite of what our Bibles tell us.

Another theory is quoted in Wikipedia. Because this source is so widely followed, it should be examined.

Hyam Maccoby and some other scholars have averred that Jesus was known as ‘bar-Abba’, because of his custom of addressing God as ‘Abba’ in prayer, and referring to God as Abba in his preaching. It follows that when the Jewish crowd clamored before Pontius Pilate to ‘free Bar Abba’ they could have meant Jesus. ‘Anti-Semitic elements in the Christian church, the argument goes, altered the narrative to make it appear that the demand was for the freedom of somebody else (a brigand or insurrectionist) named Barabbas.’ This was, the theory goes, part of the tendency to shift the blame for the crucifixion towards the Jews and away from the Romans.”

Perhaps the Jewish leaders who were bent on getting rid of Jesus and wanted Him to be crucified does not mean that one is Anti-Semitic. To conclude that, “Anti-Semitic elements in the Christian church, changed the narrative to make it appear that the demand was for the freedom” of somebody else, namely Barabbas, without any proof is very hard to accept.  Jewish leaders induced many to turn away from Jesus, but this was a necessary part in God’s plan to save the whole world.

In light of the behavior of the Jewish leaders leading up to Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion, neither of these two theories seem even remotely plausible. The leaders of Israel had been hostile to Jesus since He started preaching.

These bizarre suggestions show that when the Bible gives little information about something or someone, people may generate opinions that can be a long way from the truth.

It is easy to conjecture that the early church changed the narrative, and charge them with anti-Semitism.  But is it feasible for that motive to stem from Jewish writers?  Let us rather consider the testimony as it actually appears in the record, that is, the scriptures.

The Name of Barabbas

According to Strong’s Concordance, the name Barabbas means “son of a father.”  Jesus, is often called the Son of God, as for example in Mark 1:1, “Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1).

There is another who is called the Son of God.  “Which was the son of Enos, which was the son of Seth, which was the son of Adam, which was the son of God.” (Luke 3:38).

This seems to be a microcosm of a greater plan. We know from the scriptures that Jesus paid the ransom price for Adam, a perfect life for a perfect life. One “Son of God,” Jesus, paid the price for another “son of God,” Adam (1 Corinthians 15:22). However, in the story of Jesus’ crucifixion, the Son of the Heavenly Father gives His life in place of Barabbas, the “son of a father.” It doesn’t seem likely that Barabbas was chosen at random. God chose him for a good reason. It gives us one more picture of the ransom sacrifice.

Mark 15:7 says, “And there was one named Barabbas, which lay bound with them that had made insurrection with him, who had committed murder in the insurrection” (Mark 15:7).

Notice that Barabbas: (1)  was bound or imprisoned; (2) was an insurrectionist; and (3) was a murderer. How do those three things compare to Adam’s experience?

Adam was initially free – free to roam the Garden, free to worship God, and free from death.  Likewise, Barabbas was as free as he could be under Roman authority. He could roam about the land, he could worship the God of his ancestors, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; and while doing so, he was free from any death penalty that the Romans might impose on him for breaking their law. But the sentence of death was given to both men for breaking the law.

Barabbas was an insurrectionist. He rebelled against Rome. Was Adam an insurrectionist? He rebelled against God when he ate the forbidden fruit. Note Pastor Russell’s comment: “He cast Adam out from the garden of Eden and all its favors; he no longer treated him as his loved creature and friend but as one who had rebelled;  he virtually said, you have chosen your own path, now walk in it” (Reprint 1176)

The last thing mentioned in Mark 15: 7 was that Barabbas had committed murder. So, of course, the next question is, “Did Adam commit murder?” Let’s examine the text a little closer. It says that Barabbas “committed murder in the insurrection.” Did Adam commit murder in his insurrection against God?  Clearly, Adam’s insurrection of disobeying led to the death of every one of his progeny.

Continuing from Reprint 1176: “God determined to make an example of the sinner and of the natural consequences of sin, and so the penalty of sin went into effect.” Romans 6:23 says, “For the wages of sin is death.” Adam’s disobedience was responsible for sending all other human beings into sin and death. Adam’s insurrection was directly responsible for causing all other people to die. Not exactly murder but very close. (See Romans 5:12, and 17-19).

Mark15:7says that Barabbas lay bound with them that had made insurrection with him. Adam and Eve together disobeyed God. When they were cast out from the Garden of Eden they were suddenly under the bondage of sin and death. This was much the same as Barabbas and his fellow insurrectionists. Once they were all caught for making insurrection, all of them came under the death penalty by Rome. Literally, they were bound in prison.

So we see a correlation between Barabbas and Adam.  Jesus took the place of each of them in death. There is no evidence in the Bible that Barabbas asked Jesus to forgive him, nor do we read anywhere that Jesus balked at dying in Barabbas’ stead. We feel that this is a beautiful picture of the ransom.   Just as Christ freely gave his perfect life to literally save one sinner, Barabbas, we see on a grander scale that Jesus gave his life for the whole world of sinners – Christian and otherwise. “For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus; Who gave himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time” (1 Timothy 2:5,6); ( See also Acts 24:15, 1Corinthians 15:20-23, 1Timothy 4:10, Hebrews 2:9).

The Feast

There is an additional lesson. This is the only incident recorded in scripture of a prisoner being released at Passover or any other Jewish Holy Day.  It takes place at this very time of Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion.

  • “Now it was the governor’s custom at the Feast to release a prisoner chosen by the crowd.  At that time they had a notorious prisoner, called Barabbas. So when the crowd had gathered, Pilate asked them, “Which one do you want me to release to you: Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?” (Matthew 27:15-17 NIV).
  • “Now it was the custom at the Feast to release a prisoner whom the people requested” (Mark 15:6 NIV).
  • “(For of necessity he must release one unto them at the feast)”
  •  (Luke 23:17).
  • “But you have a custom, that I should release someone for you at the Passover; do you wish then that I release for you the King of the Jews?” In Matthew it is said to be “the governor’s custom” (John 18:39 NIV).

The NAS of Mark 15:6 says, “Now at the feast he,” meaning Pilate, “used to release unto them one prisoner.” The Luke account is probably spurious, and John merely calls it a custom. But was that a custom according Israel or according to Rome? Israel at the time was under bondage to Rome and any custom that benefits the Jews would only happen with Roman consent. This must have been a Roman custom, perhaps to placate subjects.

John’s account, however, “But you have a custom,” seems to contradict that idea.  A closer look at the text helps to clarify.

  • The Diaglott translation reads, “But it is customary for you,” while the interlinear reads, “It is but a custom for you.”
  • The Philips translation reads, “I have an arrangement with you.”

The conclusion from examining the accounts is that a prisoner release was offered and used at the discretion of the Roman governor and that the Jews became accustomed to it.

There is also some evidence in an article by Sam Harris

that this is the case. He says, “According to the Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Frank E. Gaebelein Editor…’The custom referred to of releasing a prisoner at the Passover Feast is unknown outside of the Gospels. It was, however, a Roman custom and could well have been a custom in Palestine. An example of a Roman official releasing a prisoner on the demands of the people occurs in the Papyrus Florentinus 61:59ff. There the Roman governor of Egypt, G. Septimus Vegetus, says to Philbion, the accused: Thou hast been worthy of scourging, but I will give thee to the people.’”

Harris2 also quotes the Interpreter’s Bible in the same article which says, “The custom of amnesties (a general pardon) at festival times is known the world over. It used to be said that there was no evidence for such a proceeding in Palestine at this time, but there is a Talmudic rule that a paschal lamb may be slaughtered for one who has been promised release from prison.” Again, this could have only happened with Rome’s consent.   Jesus condemnation freed Barabbas from a life of imprisonment and death for his crimes. What a beautiful picture of the ransom.


There is one last part to this story.  The people and events came together at just the right time –the time of Jesus crucifixion. In the Bible, Barabbas (whose name means son of a father)was in prison at the time. He was not heard of before or after. His crimes matched those of Adam’s.

The custom of releasing a prisoner at Passover is not recorded in the Bible either before or after this event, but just happened to be offered and accepted at this time. It almost surely happened before but evidently not often.

Roman rulers and leaders at the time were generally cruel — especially to those who claimed to be a king other than Caesar. Herod, a Jew ruling at the appointment of Rome, had killed all of the children two years old and younger.  Yet, here is a Roman governor who perhaps realized Jesus’ innocence and had heard from his wife about it and did what he could to free him.  All this took place at Passover time. The likelihood of all of this coming together randomly at the same time is miniscule–from a human standpoint.

We can see our Heavenly Father’s providence in all of this. He had planned and arranged for this a long time before, and it was meant to be. How this increases our faith to know the story! When, this year, we partake of the emblems that represent Christ’s body and blood, may we quietly say in our hearts – “Behold the Man!”

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