Barabbas is one of my favorite Biblical characters. I recall knowing about Barabbas when I was a young boy. Today is Palm Sunday, and in the Catholic Mass, the Passion narrative from the Bible is always read. The priest, lecture, congregation, and another voice take different roles from the narrative, like actors rehearsing their roles. The congregation plays the role of the crowd in the square before Pilate, and, among other lines, we get to shout, “Barabbas! Give us Barrabas!” When you’re a little kid, this is fun.
Also as a boy, on TV, I had seen the film, Barabbas, starring Anthony Quinn. Between the Passion narrative and the film, I had a very romantic image of Barrabas. I thought of him the way little boys think about cowboys, outlaws, and frontiersmen. Barabbas was a self-reliant leader, a courageous man, an outlaw, and an underdog—all the things that American culture traditionally idolizes. He was a man of action, a man’s man who stood on his own two feet.
In the film, The Passion of the Christ, we see a seething brute, who, though bound in chains, continues to taunt and resist the Roman soldiers. He looks filthy, ragged, and violent, and we assume he is guilty as charged.
But what actual facts do we know about Barabbas? Scripture says he was a notorious criminal, had taken part in a rebellion and was charged by the Romans with insurrection and murder. That is all we know about his actual background.
Like any other leader, Pilate had to balance conflicting demands. Pilate did not like to use the death penalty unnecessarily. Pilate understood that Jesus had been brought to him out of clerical envy and did not want to kill Him. Pilate’s wife had even told him that she had a dream about Jesus, and that he should not harm Him. Moreover, Pilate seems taken aback by Jesus’ answers to his questions--such answers from a man faced with immanent crucifixion made him wonder.
However, Pilate had to answer to Rome for keeping the peace, and he had an enraged mob in front of him. There had been unrest and insurrections before. If Pilate didn’t placate the populace, would he soon have another rebellion on his hands?
Pilate’s offer to trade the notorious, murderous Barabbas was a bluff. He thought the mob would have enough sense to call for the release of Jesus, but the fired-up, unthinking mob accepted. Pilate had painted himself into a corner. When Pilate washed his hands in front of the crowd, he was not merely trying to disclaim his own responsibility and guilt but was trying to cast the blame on the crowd.
The drama of Barabbas is multi-layered and symbolic. It’s a microcosm of almost the whole gospel. In Aramaic, “Bar-Abba” means, “Son of the father.” To say, “Son of the father,” would be redundant in ordinary discourse. In my opinion, the author of the gospel stated the name this way to remind us of the guilty Barabbas’ humanity—that he was a child of God, just as we are. He is our brother just as Jesus was. Furthermore, the innocent one, the Son of God, is put to death, of His own accord, while the guilty one is set free. One must ask one’s self, what kind of God is this? And make no mistake about it: You and I are no different than Barabbas.