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Was Barabbas man or myth?

by
14 April 2022

David Wilbourne grapples with what New Testament textual criticism has said

Niday Picture Library/Alamy Stock Photo

Crowds shout for the release of Barabbas (in an illustration published in 1909)

Crowds shout for the release of Barabbas (in an illustration published in 1909)

ALTHOUGH a rarefied pursuit these days, New Testament textual criticism was flavour of the month in Victorian times. As sacred manuscripts galore were unearthed in the Near East, scholars such as Westcott and Hort strode the world like colossi, attempting to assess how close the latest discovery was to the original Gospels.

In total, nearly 6000 ancient manuscripts contain all or part of the New Testament, all copied by hand, no autographs — the closest, apart from a few fragments, four centuries from the original. Copying with scratchy pens on grainy papyrus is very boring, and prone to schoolboy errors that are, fortunately, reasonably easy to detect. Less detectable is when the scribe decides to improve, correct, update, interpret, or harmonise the original.

Textual criticism, deploying a quasi-algebraic logic, attempts to unsift all that. For instance, the shorter, more difficult, more ragged reading is usually preferred to the more verbose, more orthodox, more smooth. The 6000 manuscripts belong to geographical and chronological groups, with familiar trends or biases for which you can compensate.

Take one notorious example in Matthew 27.16-17: is it to be Barabbas, or Jesus Barabbas? Barabbas has the forename Jesus only in Codex Koridethi and a few other ancient New Testament manuscripts: just 20 out of 6000. But why is it there at all? Might that tiny 0.33-per-cent trace flag up a variant that was formerly more widespread?

When Origen declared that “he knew of no sinful man who had ever been named Jesus,” you can understand how scribes would follow his lead and airbrush out Barabbas’s forename. There is a Jesus-sized gap in Mark’s awkward syntax before he introduces Barabbas in 15.7, which makes the embarrassing coincidence of name very likely.

Also in Matthew 27.16, IĒSOUN, which was commonly abbreviated to IN, is preceded by ’YMIN, with the possibility of the haplography-prone scribe taking his eye off the script and coming back at the second rather than first N, missing the second IN entirely.


CONTROVERSY over Barabbas’s forename notwithstanding, privilegium paschale itself is riddled with ambiguity. Mark, followed by Matthew, indicates that it was Pilate’s custom; Luke keeps silent; John claims that it was a Jewish custom, albeit one of which Pilate had to remind the Jews.

There are no reliable records of similar customs elsewhere, apart from Philo’s describing how, in Alexandria, a lunatic named Karabas was dressed up as Herod Agrippa I during an unpopular visit, and mocked. Given the closeness of k/ kaph (כ) and b/beth (ב) when written down in Hebrew, the French theologian Alfred Loisy speculated that Karabas accidently morphed to Bara(b)bas, and became the general title for such mummery.

In Loisy’s scenario, Mark, ever vague with his prepositions, mistakenly claimed Jesus was handed over instead of rather than as B/Karabas. Ingenious, but unfortunately there is no evidence of such widespread use other than in Loisy’s head.

All four Evangelists concur that the people could release any prisoner they chose — whereas, in the event, Pilate restricts it to a choice of two. In his book On the Trial of Jesus, Paul Winter claims that the whole episode was dreamt up to shift the blame for Christ’s death from Pilate and Rome to the Jews, thereby kick-starting two millennia of anti-Semitism. “Terribly sad story, that,” the Master of Trinity, Cambridge, Rab Butler, quipped to the Dean of Trinity, Harry Williams, after a performance of the St Matthew Passion. Sad indeed.

“Barabbas” means “Son of the father”, leading to fevered speculation that Barabbas never actually existed, but was an other-worldly designation for Jesus. In this dualistic scenario, the baying crowd prefer “the one from above” who claimed God to be his Father, simultaneously calling for the crucifixion of the flesh, epitomised by the man designated Jesus of Nazareth.

But this Gnostic LSD trip is fatally undermined by John, the Evangelist most sympathetic to Gnosticism, who spells it out abundantly clearly that Barabbas was a lēstēs, a bandit, whereas Mark describes him as just happening to end up in prison “among those arrested during the insurrection”. Earlier in his Gospel, John’s Jesus declares himself the Good Shepherd, compared with the rest, who are lēstai: bandits. When it comes to the crunch, with characteristic Johannine irony, the world prefers the lēstēs to the Good Shepherd.

Codex Koridethi spells Barabbas with a double rho, Barrabban, even separating the two parts, Bar Rabban, meaning son of the rabbi. In Matthew 13.55, Jesus is designated “son of the carpenter”. Géza Vermes, in Jesus the Jew, refers to the Jerusalem Talmud, in which carpenter/tektōn was a metaphor for “rabbi”; so Barrabbas might just possibly have been a designation for our Lord.


DURING a Passover fraught with massive tension, the whole privilegium paschale narrative could have arisen simply because of confusion between two prisoners with near identical names. Both were on a capital charge: the evidence against one was flimsy; against the other it was undisputed. Did the whole privilegium paschale tradition arise out of Pilate’s simply checking which prisoner was which, and either accidentally or wilfully being misled into executing the wrong man?

Christ’s crucifixion’s being a terrible accident caused by a miscarriage of justice would give dignity to every unnecessary or unjust death. And concluding that the privilegium paschale actually had quite innocent origins, with no crowd baying for Bar(r)abbas, should lead to a rebooting of Jewish-Christian relations.

A. E. Housman claimed that New Testament textual critics were merely scratching for fleas. Some scratch! Some flea!

The Rt Revd David Wilbourne is an hon. assistant bishop in York diocese.

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