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Barabbas, according to a representation in The Bible and Its Story Taught by One Thousand Picture Lessons, from 1910

Barabbas (/bəˈræbəs/; Biblical Greek: Bαραββᾶς, romanized: Barabbās)[1] was, according to the New Testament, a prisoner who was chosen over Jesus by the crowd in Jerusalem to be pardoned and released by Roman governor Pontius Pilate at the Passover feast.[2]

Biblical account[edit]

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 (reduce) one prisoner's death sentence by popular acclaim. In one such instance, the "crowd" (ochlos), "the Jews" and "the multitude" in some sources, are offered the choice to have either Barabbas or Jesus released from Roman custody. According to the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew,[3]Mark,[Mark 15:6–15] and Luke,[Luke 23:13–25] and the account in John,[John 18:38–19:16] the crowd chooses Barabbas to be released and Jesus of Nazareth to be crucified.[Mark 15:6-15] 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."[Matthew 27:25]

Matthew refers to Barabbas only as a "notorious prisoner".[Matthew 27:16] 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"[4] who had committed murder.[Mark 15:7][Luke 23:19] Robert Eisenman states that John 18:40 refers to Barabbas as a λῃστής (lēstēs, "bandit"), "the word Josephus always employs when talking about Revolutionaries".[a]

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.[5]

The custom of releasing prisoners in Jerusalem at Passover is known to theologians as the Paschal Pardon,[6] but this custom (whether at Passover or any other time) is not recorded in any historical document other than the gospels, leading some scholars to question its historicity and make further claims that such a custom was a mere narrative invention of the Bible's writers.[7][8]


Representation of Barabbas by James Tissot (1836–1902)

There exist several versions of this figure's name in gospel manuscripts, most commonly simply Biblical Greek: Bαραββᾶς, romanized: Barabbās without a first name. However the variations (Biblical Greek: Ἰησοῦς Bαῤῥαββᾶν, romanized: Iēsoûs Bar-rhabbân, Biblical Greek: Ἰησοῦς Bαραββᾶς, romanized: Iēsoûs Barabbâs, Biblical Greek: Ἰησοῦς Bαῤῥαββᾶς, romanized: Iēsoûs Bar-rhabbâs) found in different manuscripts of the Matthew 27:16–17 give this figure the first name "Jesus", making his full name "Jesus Barabbas" or "Jesus Bar-rabban", and giving him the same first, given name as Jesus.[b] The Codex Koridethi seems to emphasise Bar-rabban as composed of two elements in line with a patronymic Aramaic name.[10][11] These versions, featuring the first name "Jesus" are considered original by a number of modern scholars.[12][13] The Church Father Origen seems to refer to this passage of Matthew in claiming that it must be a corruption, as no sinful man ever bore the name "Jesus" and argues for its exclusion from the text.[14] He however does not account for the high priest Biblical Greek: Ἰάσων, romanized: Iásōn from 2 Maccabees 4:13, whose name seems to transliterate the same Aramaic name into Greek, as well as other bearers of the name Jesus mentioned by Josephus.[10] It is possible that scribes when copying the passage, driven by a reasoning similar to that of Origen, removed this first name "Jesus" from the text to avoid dishonor to the name of the Jesus whom they considered the Messiah.[15]


Of the two larger categories in which transmitted versions of this name fall Biblical Greek: Bαῤῥαββᾶν, romanized: Bar-rhabbân, seems to represent Jewish Palestinian Aramaic: בּר רַבָּן, romanized: Bar Rabbān, lit. 'Son of our Rabbi/Master', while Biblical Greek: Bαραββᾶς, romanized: Barabbâs appears to derive ultimately from Jewish Palestinian Aramaic: בּר אַבָּא , romanized: Bar ʾAbbā lit. 'Son of ʾAbbā/[the] father', a patronymic Aramaic name.[10] However, ʾAbbā has been found as a personal name in a 1st-century burial at Giv'at ha-Mivtar. Additionally it appears fairly often as a personal name in the Gemara section of the Talmud, a Jewish text dating from AD 200–400.[16]


According to 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.[17] 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. Raymond E. Brown argued that the Gospels' narratives about Barabbas cannot be considered historical, but that it is probable that a prisoner referred to as Barabbas (bar abba, "son of the father") was indeed freed around the period Jesus was crucified and this gave birth to the story.[18]

On the other hand, Craig A. Evans and N. T. Wright argue in favor of the historicity of the Passover pardon narrative, quoting evidence of such pardons from Livy's Books from the Foundation of the City, Josephus's Antiquities of the Jews, Papyrus Florence, Pliny the Younger's Epistles and the Misnah.[19]

The similarities of the name Biblical Greek: Ἰησοῦς Bαραββᾶς, romanized: Iēsoûs Barabbâs in some manuscripts and the name of Jesus have led some modern scholars to 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][15][17]

A minority of scholars, including Benjamin Urrutia, Stevan Davies, Hyam Maccoby and Horace Abram Rigg, have contended that Barabbas and Jesus were the same person.[20][21][22][23]


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" but most scholars consider that the population of Judea at the time was mostly of Jewish origin.[Mark 15:6-15][24][25]

Art, literature, and media[edit]

  • Barabas is the main character in The Jew of Malta, a 16th-century play by Christopher Marlowe.
  • 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.[26]
  • In Spanish, barrabás is a colloquial word for a bad or naughty person,[27] while barrabasada is a bad decision.[28] The word baraba has a similar meaning (vagabond, raff) in Slavic languages, especially Serbian and Croatian.[29]
  • 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.[30]
  • The Belgian comics character Professor Barabas is named after the biblical character.[31]
  • Barabbas is the namesake of the Ultraman Ace kaiju Baraba, who plays a key role in a two-part episode as one of Yapool's pawns in a scheme that results in the crucifixion of the four previous Ultramen.
  • 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".[32]
Anthony Quinn as Barabbas in Barabbas (1961)
  • 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.[33]
  • 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.[34]
  • Give Us Barabbas! was a 1961 TV film produced for the Hallmark Hall of Fame, written by Henry Denker and directed by George Schaefer. Barabbas was portrayed by James Daly. The film also starred Kim Hunter, Dennis King, Keir Dullea and Toni Darnay.
  • From 27 March – 24 April 1977, NBC-TV presented the miniseries Jesus of Nazareth. Actor Stacy Keach portrayed Barabbas.
  • Barabbas, a 2005 TV film by Indian director Aneesh Daniel focuses on the imprisonment and subsequent release (in place of Jesus) of Barabbas.[35][36]
  • The controversial speculative history The Holy Blood and the 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]
  • The 2016 film Risen depicts Barabbas as the leader of a Zealot revolt, in which the protagonist Clavius Aquila Valerius Niger leads soldiers to crush the revolt, and who eventually executes the defeated Barabbas on the field of battle.

See also[edit]



  1. ^ 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).
  2. ^ This version of the name in Greek can be found the Codex Koridethi, some minuscules of Family 1 manuscripts, and in Minuscule 700 – translations of this version name also exist in Syriac and Armenian sources, such as the Codex Syrus Sinaiticus, the Harklean version, and in the Bible used by the Armenian Apostolic Church. The Codex Koridethi spells the name Biblical Greek: Ἰησοῦς Bαῤῥαββᾶν, romanized: Iēsoûs Bar-rhabbân with an emphazied gap between the two Rhos.[9]


  1. ^ a b "Barabbas : Facts & Significance". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2019-11-11.
  2. ^ "Barabbas | Facts & Significance | Britannica". Retrieved 2022-06-24.
  3. ^ Evans 2012, pp. 452ff.
  4. ^ "Mark 15". Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges. Retrieved 11 December 2017.
  5. ^ Brown 1994, pp. 793–795.
  6. ^ Merritt 1985, pp. 57–68.
  7. ^ Cunningham, Paul A. "The Death of Jesus: Four Gospel Accounts". Center for Christian–Jewish Learning at Boston College.
  8. ^ Ehrman 2016.
  9. ^ Paul, Winter (1961). On the Trial of Jesus. Berlin. pp. 94–95. ISBN 978-3-11-082540-4. OCLC 979784188.
  10. ^ a b c Paul, Winter (1961). On the Trial of Jesus. Berlin. pp. 94–97. ISBN 978-3-11-082540-4. OCLC 979784188.
  11. ^ Evans 2012, p. 453.
  12. ^ Lagrange, Marie-Joseph (1923). ÉVANGILE SELON SAINT MATTHIEU (in French). Paris: V. Lecoffre. p. 520.
  13. ^ Dahl, N. A. (September 1955). "Die Passionsgeschichte bei Mattheus". New Testament Studies. 2 (1): 23. doi:10.1017/s0028688500017185. ISSN 0028-6885. S2CID 170230969.
  14. ^ Origen, Commentary on Matthew, Chapter 27, paragraph 17
  15. ^ a b Warren 2011, p. 118.
  16. ^ Brown 1994, pp. 799–800.
  17. ^ a b Dimont 1999.
  18. ^ Brown 2008, pp. 815–820.
  19. ^ Evans & Wright 2009, p. 21.
  20. ^ Rigg 1945, pp. 417–456.
  21. ^ Maccoby 1969, pp. 55–60.
  22. ^ Davies 1981, pp. 260–262.
  23. ^ Maccoby 1973.
  24. ^ Pope Benedict XVI 2011.
  25. ^ Reynolds 2011.
  26. ^ Bulgakov 2016, Ch. 2 Pontius Pilate.
  27. ^ "barrabás", Diccionario de la Real Academia (in Spanish)
  28. ^ "barrabasada", Diccionario de la Real Academia (in Spanish)
  29. ^ "Baraba | Veliki Rečnik".
  30. ^ Holland 2012.
  31. ^ Van Hooydonck 1994.
  32. ^ Oursler 1957, pp. 80–83.
  33. ^ "Barabbas" – via
  34. ^ Hebron 2016.
  35. ^ Aneesh Daniel on LinkedIn
  36. ^ Holyfire Ministry (April 30, 2009). Story of Barabbas - 1/3 (Hindi).