Jesus Barabbas (/bəˈræbəs/; Aramaic: ישוע בר אבאYeshua Bar ʾAbbaʾ, literally "son of the father" or "son of the teacher")[1] is a figure mentioned in the New Testament, in which he is an insurrectionary held by the Roman governor at the same time as Jesus, and whom Pontius Pilate freed at the Passover feast in Jerusalem, while keeping Jesus as a prisoner.

"Give us Barabbas!", from The Bible and Its Story Taught by One Thousand Picture Lessons, 1910

Biblical accountEdit

According to all four canonical gospels there was a prevailing Passover custom in Jerusalem that allowed Pilate, the praefectus or governor of Judea, to commute one prisoner's death sentence by popular acclaim. In one such instance, the "crowd" (ochlos), "the Jews" and "the multitude" in some sources, were offered the choice to have either Barabbas or Jesus released from Roman custody. According to the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew,[2] Mark,[3] and Luke,[4] and the account in John,[5] the crowd chose Barabbas to be released and Jesus of Nazareth to be crucified.[3] Pilate reluctantly yields to the insistence of the crowd. One passage, found in the Gospel of Matthew, has the crowd saying (of Jesus), "Let his blood be upon us and upon our children."[6]

Matthew refers to Barabbas only as a "notorious prisoner".[7] Mark and Luke further refer to Barabbas as one involved in a στάσις (stasis, a riot), probably "one of the numerous insurrections against the Roman power"[8] who had committed murder.[9] Robert Eisenman states that John 18:40 refers to Barabbas as a λῃστής (lēstēs, "bandit"), "the word Josephus always employs when talking about Revolutionaries".[10]

Three gospels state that there was a custom that at Passover the Roman governor would release a prisoner of the crowd's choice; Mark 15:6, Matthew 27:15, and John 18:39. Later copies of Luke contain a corresponding verse (Luke 23:17), although this is not present in the earliest manuscripts, and may be a later gloss to bring Luke into conformity.[11]

The custom of releasing prisoners in Jerusalem at Passover is known to theologians as the Paschal Pardon,[12] but this custom (whether at Passover or any other time) is not recorded in any historical document other than the gospels, leading some scholars to question its historicity and to claim such a custom was an invention of the writers.[13]


Portrait of Barabbas by James Tissot (1836–1902)

Barabbas' name appears as bar-Abbas in the Greek texts of the gospels. It is derived ultimately from the Aramaic בר-אבא, Bar-abbâ, "son of the father". However, Abba has been found as a personal name in a 1st-century burial at Giv'at ha-Mivtar, and it appears fairly often as a personal name in the Gemara section of the Talmud, dating from AD 200–400.[14]


According to Jewish historian Max Dimont, the story of Barabbas as related in the gospels lacks credibility from both the Roman and Jewish standpoint. The story, on its face, presents the Roman authority, Pontius Pilate, backed by overwhelming military might, being cowed by a small crowd of unarmed civilians into releasing a prisoner condemned to death for insurrection against the Roman Empire. A Roman governor who had done that could have faced execution himself. As Dimont puts it: "any Roman governor setting a traitor against Rome free in exchange for an avowed friend of Rome, as Jesus was depicted, would have had his head examined, after it was severed from his body."[15] Further, Dimont argues against the believability of the Barabbas story by noting that the alleged custom of privilegium Paschale, "the privilege of Passover", where a criminal is set free, is only found in the Gospels. No similar custom is mentioned in any extrabiblical accounts, nor is there a precedent for such a practice in biblical or extrabiblical sources; this notable absence, Dimont argues, makes the basis for the narrative incredible and difficult to believe.

Some ancient manuscripts of Matthew 27:16–17 give the full name of Barabbas as "Jesus Barabbas" and this was probably the name as originally written in the text.[16] The early church father Origen himself admits that he was troubled by the fact that his copies of the gospels gave Barabbas' name as "Jesus Barabbas", and he declared that it was impossible this bandit could have had such a holy name, so that "Jesus" must have been added to Barabbas's name by a heretic.[15] But the reverse is also possible, i.e. that later scribes, when copying the passage, removed the name "Jesus" from "Jesus Barabbas" to avoid dishonor to the name of Jesus the Messiah.[17] Nevertheless, some modern scholars argue that the counter-intuitive similarity of the two men's names is evidence of its historicity. They doubt a Christian writer would invent a similar name for a criminal, practically equating Christ with a criminal, if he were fictionalizing the story for a polemical or theological purpose.[1][17][15]

Benjamin Urrutia, co-author of The Logia of Yeshua: The Sayings of Jesus, agrees with the theory that Yeshua Bar Abba or Jesus Barabbas was none other than Jesus of Nazareth by a different name, and that the choice between two prisoners is not historical.[15] Urrutia opposes the notion that Jesus would have either led or planned a violent insurrection. Jesus, in this view, must have been the planner and leader of the Jewish nonviolent resistance to Pilate's plan to set up Roman Eagle standards on Jerusalem's Temple Mount. The story of this successful resistance is told by Josephus—who does not say who the leader was, but does tell of Pilate's crucifixion of Jesus just two paragraphs later – though the authenticity of that passage has been disputed.[18]

A minority of scholars, including Stevan Davies, Hyam Maccoby and Horace Abram Rigg, have contended that Barabbas and Jesus were the same person.[19][20][21][22]


The story of Barabbas has played a role in historical antisemitism because it has historically been used to lay the blame for the crucifixion of Jesus on the Jews, and thereby to justify antisemitism – an interpretation known as Jewish deicide. Pope Benedict XVI, in his 2011 book Jesus of Nazareth, dismisses this reading, since the Greek word "ochlos" in Mark means "crowd", rather than "Jewish people".[3][23][24]

Art, literature, and mediaEdit

  • The Russian novelist Mikhail Bulgakov, in his fictional portrayal of the crucifixion in the novel The Master and Margarita (c. 1940), creates a more compelling portrait of Pilate as a harassed and despondent provincial official. He imagines a conversation between Pilate and Caiaphas, the high priest of the Jerusalem temple, where the latter threatens Pilate that Jesus of Nazareth will inspire an uprising in Jerusalem if he is released. Pilate, bitter, frustrated, fatigued by a command that does not suit him, and ultimately dismissive of Jesus's naïve utopianism, accepts to carry out the death sentence rather than worsen the ill will of the local priesthood.[25]
  • In Spanish, barrabás is a colloquial word for a bad or naughty person.[26] The word baraba has a similar meaning (vagabond, raff) in Slavic languages, especially Serbian and Croatian.[27]
  • In The Liars' Gospel, a 2012 novel by Naomi Alderman, Barabbas is one of the protagonists and Alderman depicts Barabbas rather than Jesus as the man who summons fishermen.[28]
  • The Belgian comics character Professor Barabas is named after the biblical character.[29]
  • Fulton Oursler, in his 1949 novel, The Greatest Story Ever Told, portrays Barabbas as a friend of Saint Joseph, who was the husband of Mary and the legal father of Jesus. Joseph's friend, originally known as Samuel, is a member of a group dedicated to the overthrow of Roman rule. Samuel, acquainted with the story of Jesus' birth, tells Joseph that he is choosing the name "Jesus Barabbas".[30]
  • The 1961 film Barabbas, based on the novel by Pär Lagerkvist, depicts the life of the biblical figure, portrayed by Anthony Quinn, following the Crucifixion as he seeks salvation.[31]
  • Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's 1961 film King of Kings works out a fictionalized backstory of Barabbas' arrest, depicting him as a Zealot and a partner in crime of Judas Iscariot who incites and fails in a revolt to overwhelm Jerusalem's Roman garrison.[32]
  • Barabbas, a 2005 TV film by Indian director Aneesh Daniel focuses on the imprisonment and subsequent release (in place of Jesus) of Barabbas.[33][34]
  • Mikhail Bulgakov's posthumously-published novel The Master and Margarita concerns Pontius Pilate's trial of Yeshua Ha-Notsri (Jesus of Nazareth) and his reluctant but resigned submission to Yeshua's execution.[35]
  • The controversial speculative history Holy Blood, Holy Grail, which posits a bloodline descended from Jesus and which served as source material for Dan Brown's novel The Da Vinci Code, advances the theory that Jesus Barabbas was the son of Jesus (and that the use of "Barabbas", meaning "son of the Rabbi" or "son of the father", was akin to "Junior"). The theory runs that the son was more violent than his father in efforts to overthrow Roman rule and to restore power to his Jewish royal family. It further proposes that Barabbas's release by Pilate was given in return for the surrender of Jesus, who had himself turned over to Roman authorities as a trade, to secure his son's release and banishment rather than execution, thus to preserve the Jewish royal line in his son by his own self-sacrifice. This release of the Jewish heir apparent, in exchange for the execution of his father, the claimant Jesus, King of the Jews, so the theory expounds, was done to appease the Jewish population and prevent an uprising.[citation needed]

See alsoEdit



  1. ^ a b "Barabbas | Facts & Significance". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2019-11-11.
  2. ^ Evans, Craig A. (2012-02-06). Matthew. Cambridge University Press. pp. 452–. ISBN 9780521812146. Retrieved 27 May 2015.
  3. ^ a b c "Mark 15:6-15". Retrieved 2018-11-20.
  4. ^ "Luke 23:13-25". Retrieved 2011-10-05.
  5. ^ "John 18:38-19:16". Retrieved 2011-10-05.
  6. ^ Matthew 27:25.
  7. ^ Matthew 27:16.
  8. ^ Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges on Mark 15, accessed 11 December 2017
  9. ^ Mark 15:7; Luke 23:19.
  10. ^ Contemporaries combining insurrection and murder in this way were sicarii, members of a militant Jewish movement that sought to overthrow the Roman occupiers of their land by force (Eisenman 177-84, et passim).
  11. ^ Brown (1994), pp. 793–95.
  12. ^ Robert L. Merritt, 'Jesus (the nazarene) Barabbas and the Paschal Pardon', Journal of Biblical Literature Vol. 104, No. 1 (Mar., 1985), pp. 57-68
  13. ^ Cunningham, Paul A. "The Death of Jesus: Four Gospel Accounts". Center for Christian-Jewish Learning at Boston College.
  14. ^ Brown (1994), pp. 799-800.
  15. ^ a b c d Dimont, Max I. (1992). Appointment in Jerusalem. ISBN 978-1585865468.
  16. ^ Evans, Craig A. (2012). Matthew (New Cambridge Bible Commentary). Cambridge University Press. p. 453. ISBN 978-0521011068.
  17. ^ a b Warren, William (2011). "Who Changed the Text and Why? Probable, Possible, and Unlikely Explanations". The Reliability of the New Testament: Bart Ehrman and Daniel Wallace in Dialogue. Fortress Press. p. 118. ISBN 978-0800697730.
  18. ^ Urrutia, Benjamin. "Pilgrimage", The Peaceable Table (October 2008)
  19. ^ Rigg, Horace Abram (1945). "Barabbas". Journal of Biblical Literature. 64 (4): 417–456. doi:10.2307/3262275. JSTOR 3262275.
  20. ^ Maccoby, H. Z. (1969). "Jesus and Barabbas". New Testament Studies. 16 (1): 55–60. doi:10.1017/S0028688500019378.
  21. ^ Davies, Stevan L. (1981). "Who is called Bar Abbas?". New Testament Studies. 27 (2): 260–262. doi:10.1017/S0028688500006202.
  22. ^ Hyam Maccoby. (1973). Revolution in Judaea. New York: Taplinger Publishing Company.
  23. ^ Pope Benedict XVI (2011). Jesus of Nazareth (Nazarene). Retrieved 2011-04-18.
  24. ^ "Pope Benedict XVI Points Fingers on Who Killed Jesus". March 2, 2011. Retrieved 2012-09-28. While the charge of collective Jewish guilt has been an important catalyst of anti-Semitic persecution throughout history, the Catholic Church has consistently repudiated this teaching since the Second Vatican Council.
  25. ^ Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita, ch. 2: "Pontius Pilate".
  26. ^ (in Spanish) barrabás in the Diccionario de la Real Academia.
  27. ^ "Baraba | Veliki Rečnik".
  28. ^ Holland, Tom (6 September 2012). "The Liars' Gospel by Naomi Alderman – review". The Guardian. Retrieved 27 May 2014.
  29. ^ Van Hooydonck, Peter, "Willy Vandersteen: De Bruegel van het Beeldverhaal", Standaard Uitgeverij, 1995.
  30. ^ Fulton Oursler, The Greatest Story Ever Told at 80–83 (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1954).
  31. ^ "Barabbas" – via
  32. ^ Carol A. Hebron, Judas Iscariot: Damned or Redeemed. A Critical Examination of the Portrayal of Judas in Jesus Films (1902 – 2014). (London Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016).
  33. ^ Aneesh Daniel on LinkedIn
  34. ^ Holyfire Ministry (April 30, 2009). Story of Barabbas - 1/3 (Hindi).
  35. ^ "The Master and Margarita". LitCharts. Retrieved 26 January 2020.


  • Brown, Raymond E. (1994). The Death of the Messiah, Vol. 1. New York: Doubleday.