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Jesus Barabbas and the Allegorical Trial Scene

People have devoted entire websites to contradictions, moral failings, and falsehoods in the Bible. In a world where some hold to the untenable position of biblical inerrancy such sites have their place. However, many such biblical problems are boring and, in any other environment, pointing them out would even be a bit petty. Some problems are actually quite interesting though and I think the character Barabbas from the trial of Jesus is one of them.

For those unfamiliar here is the story as told in Mark

Pilate Hands Jesus over to Be Crucified

6 Now at the festival he used to release a prisoner for them, anyone for whom they asked. 7 Now a man called Barabbas was in prison with the rebels who had committed murder during the insurrection. 8 So the crowd came and began to ask Pilate to do for them according to his custom. 9 Then he answered them, “Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?” 10 For he realized that it was out of jealousy that the chief priests had handed him over. 11 But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release Barabbas for them instead. 12 Pilate spoke to them again, “Then what do you wish me to do with the man you call the King of the Jews?” 13 They shouted back, “Crucify him!” 14 Pilate asked them, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Crucify him!” 15 So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified.

Historically Plausible?
The problem with this part of the trial story is that it has zero historical plausibility. Outside of this one gospel story no writer ever mentioned a Roman custom of releasing dangerous criminals. Given its unusual nature we can have a high expectation that we would find at least one such a mention. What’s more, what we know of Roman administration of territories positively excludes such custom for the Romans were no kind and gentle overlords.

This goes doubly for the territory of Jerusalem. Riot and insurrection were common occurrences both when Rome ruled through client (puppet) kings and when they ruled the territory more directly. If the Romans had such a custom one can be sure that each year at Passover, they would be compelled by the crowds to release the most popular rebel, thus insuring more riot and insurrection. Not to mention this is supposed to be happening under Pontius Pilate, a man with a brutal reputation in our sources, especially when it came to his attitude towards Jewish customs and laws. No, this episode simply did not happen.

But Why Include It?
The question naturally arises as to why this part of the story would become part of the early Christian tradition (it appears in all four canonical gospels). Did the authors, and their readers, simply not know how implausible it was? It appears the reasons for this story were strictly allegorical.

The Two Goats of Yom Kippur
In Leviticus 16 we find the source of the allegory. It describes a sacrifice the high priest is to perform on Yom Kippur. He is to gather two goats as sin offerings. One (selected by “casting lots”) will eventually be set free into the wilderness bearing the sins of Israel. The other will be sacrificed to atone for those sins. Sound familiar?

So we have a criminal, bearing the sins of Israel (insurrection and murder) set free into the crowd, and another that stays behind to be sacrificed to atone for sin.

What’s in a Name?
The parallels would have been painfully obvious to any first century reader but just to drive it home a bit we have the sledgehammer of character’s name, Barabbas. “Bar” means son of, while “Abba” means father. So the name of the man who was set free was “Son of the Father.” In early copies of Matthew it goes even further and his full name is given as Jesus Barabbas, “Jesus, son of the Father.” The Jewish crowd picked the wrong Son of the Father! They chose insurrection and murder.

Not Even Wrong
What I find interesting about this story is that it shows that those who read the Bible as an inerrant historical document are missing the point! The story isn’t true, but it also isn’t the case of a really bad historian telling a thoroughly implausible tale. The author isn’t instead trying to lie to anyone. This is not even intended to be history, it is allegory.

Credit where it’s due. I first heard of this through biblical scholar Bart Ehrman, and later through historian Richard Carrier.