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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament


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BARABBAS (Aramaic Bar-Abba, ‘son of Abba’ or ‘son of father.’ There is very slight documentary authority for the reading Bar-Rabban, ‘son of a Rabbi,’ which is adopted by Ewald and Renan. On the other hand, if Bar-Abba = ‘son of father,’ it would hardly differ in meaning from Bar-Rabban; for in the time of Jesus ‘Abba’ was a common appellation of honour given to a Rabbi. But after all ‘Abba’ may have been a proper name; for though it is sometimes affirmed [e.g. by Schmiedel in his article ‘Barabbas’ in Encye. Bibl.] that it was not till after the time of our Lord that the word began to be used in this way, the authors of the corresponding article in the Jewish Encyclopedia assure us that ‘Abba is found as a prœnomen as early as Tannaitic times’).

Only one Barabbas meets us in the Gospels, the criminal whom Pilate released instead of Jesus at the demand of the people. All the four Evangelists relate the incident (Matthew 27:15-26, Mark 15:6-15, Luke 23:17-25, John 18:39-40), which is again referred to in Acts in the account of St. Peter’s sermon in the Temple portico (Acts 3:14). From these narratives we gather that Barabbas was ‘a notable prisoner,’ ‘a robber,’ one who had taken part in ‘a certain insurrection made in the city,’ and who in this disturbance had ‘committed murder.’ It had probably been an old Jewish custom to release a prisoner at the Passover feast (John 18:39). According to the Roman habit in such matters, the procurators of Judaea had accommodated themselves to the Jewish practice. In his desire to save Jesus, Pilate bethought himself of this custom as offering a loophole of escape from the dilemma in which he found himself between his own sense of justice and his unwillingness to give offence to the multitude. So he offered them the choice between the life of Jesus and the life of Barabbas, probably never doubting that to Jesus the preference would be given. The fact that he seems to have expected this precludes the view which some have held that Barabbas was a pseudo-Messiah, and even the notion that he was no vulgar bandit, but the leader of a party of Zealots, since popular sympathy might have been anticipated on behalf of a bold Zealot or insurrectionary Messiah. The probability accordingly is that Barabbas was simply a criminal of the lowest type, a hater of the Romans it may be, but at the same time a pest to society at large. And unless we are to suppose, on the ground of the possible etymology, ‘son of father’ = ‘son of teacher,’ and the ‘filius magistri eorum’ which Jerome quotes from the account of the incident in the Gospel of the Hebrews, that he was popular among the people because he was the son of a Rabbi, we have no reason to think that either the Jewish leaders or the multitude had any ground for preferring him to Jesus except their passionate hatred of the latter.

According to an old reading of Matthew 27:16-17, the name ‘Jesus’ in both verses is prefixed to Barabbas, so that Pilate’s question runs, ‘Whom will ye that I release unto you? Jesus Barabbas, or Jesus which is called Christ?’ If this reading were accepted, Barabbas would not have the force of a proper name (like Bartimaeus), but would be only a patronymic added for the sake of distinction (cf. ‘Simon Bar-jona’). In his exposition of the passage, Origen refers to this reading, which is favoured by some cursive MSS [Note: SS Manuscripts.] and by the Armenian and Jerusalem Syriac Versions, and has been defended by Ewald, Lange, Meyer, and others, who have supposed that the accidental similarity of the name may have helped to suggest to Pilate the alternative which he presented to the Jews. Olshausen not only adopts this view, but finds a mournful significance in both of the (supposed) names of the condemned criminal—‘Jesus’ and ‘son of the father,’ and in the fact that the nation preferred this caricature of Jesus to the heavenly reality. Both dramatically and homiletically, no doubt, these ideas are tempting—the meeting of the two Jesuses, the irony of the popular choice, the sense of a Divine ‘lusus’ in human affairs. But the truth remains that the grounds on which this construction rests are very inadequate. There is ingenuity certainly in the suggestion, first made by Origen (who, however, prefers the ordinary reading), that ‘Jesus’ may have been dropped out of the early MSS [Note: SS Manuscripts.] of Matthew after the name had become a sacred one, because it appeared unseemly that it should be borne by a murderer; but it is of too hypothetical a kind to counterbalance the immense weight of the documentary evidence against the presence of the name ‘Jesus’ at all. The fact that, even in the scanty MSS [Note: SS Manuscripts.] and VSS [Note: SS Versions.] in which ‘Jesus Barabbas’ is found in Matthew 27:16-17, ‘Barabbas’ and ‘Jesus’ are set in direct antithesis in Matthew 27:20 tells strongly against the reading, as well as the circumstance that no trace of it is found in any MS of the other three Gospels. There is much to be said for the suggestion of Tregelles, by way of explaining the appearance of the ‘Jesus’ in some copies of Matthew, that at a very early date a careless transcriber repeated the last two letters of ὑμῖν (Matthew 27:17), and that the in was afterwards taken to be the familiar abbreviation of Ἰησοῦν.

Literature.—The Commentaries of Meyer, Alford, and Olshausen; Ewald, History of Israel, vol. vi.; Lange’s and Renan’s Life of Christ; art. ‘Barabbas’ in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible, Encyc. Bibl., and Jewish Encycl.; Merkel, ‘Die Begnadigung am Passahfeste’ in ZNTW [Note: NTW Zeitschrift für die Neutest. Wissen. schaft.] , 1905, p. 293 ff.

J. C. Lambert.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Barabbas'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. 1906-1918.

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