Friday, November 18, 2011

The ironic theology of "Barabbas"

Those familiar with Christian history know the name Barabbas. He is the criminal given freedom, instead of Christ, during Christ's trial before Pilate. All four Gospels mention Barabbas (Matthew 27:15-22; Mark 15:6-15; Luke 23:18-21; and here is John's account as an example:
But you have a custom that I should release one man for you at the Passover; will you have me release for you the King of the Jews?" They cried out again, "Not this man, but Barab'bas!" Now Barab'bas was a robber. (John 18:39-40)
Something occurred to me the other day about Barabbas' name. In the passage when Jesus changes Peter's name from Simon to Peter (Matt. 16:16-19), Peter leads by declaring Christ to be the "Son of God." Christ returns the label and calls him "Simon Bar-Jona." The root "Bar" there refers to "son of" so-and-so. Essentially, in response to "you are Son of God," Jesus says back to Peter, "you are son of Jonah." Bar means "son" in Aramaic. Even today, Jewish custom preserves the term in "Bar Mitzvah" which means "son of the commandment."

So quite literally, Barabbas' name means "Son of Abba." And Abba of course means "Father" in Aramaic. Jesus and Paul both used the phrase "Abba, Father" in reference to God the Father. The Dictionary of the Bible says Abba is an "Aramaic emphatic form of 'ab, "father", employed as a vocative."1 Barabbas' name quite literally translates to "son of the father."

On Mark's reference to Barabbas, the Ignatius Study Bible states:
Barabbas: An Aramaic name that literally means "son of the father". Aramaic-speaking Christians surely detected the tragic irony: the guilty Barabbas is released in place of Jesus, the truly innocent Son of the Father.2
There is an aspect of theology that recognizes the devil as an "imitator." For instance, Paul says the devil will perform "pretended signs and wonders" (2 Thes. 2:9). Yet true "signs and wonders" are properly the gift of God (e.g. Ps 135:9; Dan. 4:2; Acts 5:12; Heb. 2:4). St. Leo the Great said the devil is an "unwearied imitator."3

All of this points toward the great irony of Barabbas being freed in place of Christ. The guilty imitation, the false "son of the father" is released. The true Son of the heavenly Father is innocently sent to death. In Barabbas' name, we can see the diabolical delusion at work in those who wrongly choose the false "son of the father" to solve a problem.

This is something that can be applied to daily life. In our choices, do we choose what is good and true? Or do we delude ourselves and choose the false imitation to try justify our decisions? This is the irony of Barabbas!

1McKenzie, John L., S.J. Dictionary of the Bible. Touchstone. Simon & Schuster. New York. 1995. 1.
2Mitch, Curtis (Compiler) and Hahn, Scott (editor), Ignatius Catholic Study Bible New Testament, 2nd Catholic Edition RSV, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2010. 95.
3St. Leo the Great, Sermon 36.2


  1. The real and true "irony" is that "Christ" was never known, seen or even heard of during Pilate's reign as governor, -he first 'appeared' (in literature i.e. the Holy Gospels) after Saul of Tarsus' epiphany (some nearly 10 years after the crucifixion of 'the descendant of David and the Jewish Mashiach'. Moreover, although He was 'called' Barabbas (Son of the Father) His name was Jesus.

  2. Richard - do I understand you correctly that the man Jesus Christ never existed, but is only a product of literature? Or are you saying the term "Christ" is a later monicker?

  3. Nice article. So true also of how we often time do try and justified our own delusions of our perverse sense of Justice. Before Saint Michael appear to me in a vision and I quit drinking due to his words, I remember another fellow who appear to me one day while at a store buying some beer and how he so smoothly put in my mind the pleasure of alcohol. This of course was not to be my last time that Satan came to me as very brotherly or should I say a Fatherly type of figure with smooth words and seemly helpful advice.
    Great find in the bible.