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BARABBAS (bar-ăb'ăs, Gr. Barabbas, for Aramaic Bar-abba, son of the father, or teacher). A criminal chosen by the Jerusalem mob, at the instigation of the chief priests, in preference to Christ, to be released by Pilate on the feast of the Passover. Matthew calls him a notorious prisoner, and the other evangelists say he was arrested with others for robbery, sedition, and murder (Matt.27.16; Mark.15.15; Luke.23.18; John.18.40). The custom here mentioned of releasing a prisoner on the Passover is otherwise unknown. The reading “Jesus Barabbas” for his full name in Matt.27.16-Matt.27.17 was found by Origen in many MSS and is still found in some early versions and a few cursives. It is probably due to a scribe’s error in transcription.

BARABBAS bə răb’ əs (Βαραββα̂ς, G972, Aram., בַּר אַבָּא, son of the father, or son of Abba). The criminal whom the crowd, in response to Pilate’s offer, chose for release instead of Jesus.

Beyond the evidence in the gospels, nothing is known about the governor’s custom of releasing a prisoner at the Passover. But the releasing of prisoners for various reasons was known (Jos., Antiq. XX. ix. 3; Livy, V. 13; Deismann, Light from the Ancient East, p. 267). Pilate offered the crowd the option between Jesus and Barabbas in the expectation that Jesus would be released. The chief priests could readily influence the vote of the people because the sight of Jesus as a helpless and unresisting prisoner deeply outraged their Messianic expectations concerning Him. Their vote was motivated not by popular esteem for Barabbas, but by aroused antipathy to Jesus because of disappointed hopes.

The name Barabbas may simply be a conventional proper name. It is found as the surname of several rabbis. Jerome (On Matthew) asserts that in the apocryphal Gospel According to the Hebrews the name was “son of their master” (filius magistri eorum), which points either to a form Bar-rabban (“son of a rabbi”) or to Bar-Abba (“son of the father,” in the sense of teacher). That Barabbas was chosen because he was the son of a rabbi is improbable.

Origen (Commentary on Matthew) noted a reading “Jesus Barabbas” in Matthew 27:16, 17 and called it an ancient reading. It appears in the 9th cent. Codex Θ and in some Syrian sources. This would make it a patronymic (cf. Simon Barjonah). If his personal name was “Jesus,” in itself not improbable, it made Pilate’s offer more pungent—“Jesus Barabbas or Jesus of Nazareth.” This reading has been accepted by some scholars, but its authenticity must remain dubious.

Nothing is known concerning the subsequent history of Barabbas.


E. P. Gould, “St. Mark,” ICC (1896), 285-287; W. B. Wright, The Heart of the Master (1911), 186-195; A. E. J. Rawlinson, “St. Mark,” WC (1927), 227-229; H. A. Rigg, “Barabbas,” JBL, 64 (1945), 417-456; C. E. B. Cranfield, “St. Mark” (1959), 449, 450.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

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