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Barabbas: The Questioning Christian

Updated on June 14, 2015
John Everette profile image

I am a 65-year-old Christian aspiring writer long interested in learning more about Christianity and history of Christianity.


In the Bible, especially in the New testament, characters come and go. In some cases-in most cases-we are given little information about them other than their brief encounter with Jesus. Not even their names in some cases. We do not learn very much about them either before during or after their encounter. That is all left to speculation and theological discussion. Some of this speculation resulting in books and movies for others to consider and think about. Take the character of Barabbas.


In the Bible, Barabbas appears for a short time as Pilate-the Roman governor of Palestine makes the Jews/ Hebrews decide which "criminal" to release; Jesus or Barabbas.

Pilate is put into this position as a result of Jewish religious leaders convicting Jesus of blaspheme for his claim as being equal to God, and having come from God. Because the land of Palestine-the Jewish promised land- in Biblical days was ruled by Rome they could not put to Jesus to death. For this they had to turn to their Roman governor and persuade him that Jesus was a threat to Rome.

Around the same time there was; according to the Gospel of John, a bandit that the Romans had arrested. In the Gospels of Mark and Luke, this bandit was actually person who had been involved in a riot. In the Gospel of Matthew, he is a notorious criminal. Some interpretation of Biblical manuscripts go so far as speculating that Barabbas may have been a zealot. Zealots being a believer that the Jewish Messiah would militarily lead Jews to force Rome and all their oppressors out of their homeland-Palestine.

Regardless of Barabas's identity as a bandit or a zealot, it is appears that Romans had already decided that Barabbas was a dangerous man. Jesus, on the other hand does not appear to be neither a dangerous man or a threat to Rome. ,In fact, Pilate has trouble finding any fault with the man and his opposition to the Jewish religious leaders. However, as the Roman governor, he knows that he must resolve this situation lest the Jewish religious leaders either report him to Rome, or the Jews would become more unruly as they were already believed to be.

Pilate finds the solution to his problem in a custom that existed at the time. That custom of the ruler giving the people a choice of two criminals. Which one would the people choose to be freed and which one would suffer the fate of being crucified.

For a short time the two stand together for the people to choose whom they want.


Anthony Quinn as Barabbas in 1962 film
Anthony Quinn as Barabbas in 1962 film | Source

The choice

Now, not much is made of the choice in the Bible, but some people have delved deeper into the story which is a good thing because it gives us a better understanding of what actually was going on.

In some early manuscripts of Matthew 27:16-17 Barabbas's full name is given as Jesus bar Abbas (Jesus son of the father). You put that along side of Jesus's claim of being The Son of The Father, you seemingly get a picture that the Jews were being made to choose between two men who claimed to be the son of God. One being in a physical sense, and one being in a spiritual sense.

Then comes the idea that Barabbas was a zealot. In Biblical days a zealot was a radical, warlike individual advocating the violent overthrow of the Roman occupiers of Judea. You put that along side that of Jesus claiming only that the kingdom of not being of the natural world.

Thus, Pilate is actually making the people choose between the natural and the spiritual. Between the freedom promised through an armed conflict with Rome, or a freedom promised through seeing beyond the natural/ physical world to the spiritual world.

Further thought

In 1950 a writer by the name of Par Lagerkvist ( a political socialist who also had some religious-Christian beliefs) wrote a book about Barabbas as he struggled with his faith. As he struggled with a person's relationship with A God who is said to be involved in the lives of us humans, but is more often than not, incredibly, and mysteriously silent. In the end, Lagerkvist manages to prove that though God does seem silent and uninterested in the lives of individual humans, He is interested and active in the lives of individuals.

In the book, Barabbas seeks to celebrate the fact that because of the people choosing to free him rather than Jesus, but he is haunted by Jesus. He is haunted by the fact that while he was a man of action, and even violence, he was not considered as dangerous as a man of peace. He his haunted by what he saw on the day of Jesus's crucifixion. As he is haunted, he seeks to learn of Jesus and why he took his place on the cross. He seeks to believe in a God who is active in his life.

In 1961 a movie, based on the book was made with Anthony Quinn in the title role. However, like most Hollywood made movies that are supposedly based on the books they say they are based on, many scenes in the book were replaced by scenes that had little to do with the book. The whole idea of Barabbas being a gladiator being the most apparent.

Around 2012 the movie was remade. This time an actor by the name of Billy Zane was in the title role. Again, though it claims to be based on the book, it is a far departure from the book.

1961 film

2012 film

Book or Movie

When you get into the individual stories in the Bible, you have a tendency to discover what is really going on in the story. What the real message of the story and the Bible are all about.

Though there are many short stories in the Bible concerning characters we initially know little of anything, it seems that the story of Barabbas that tends to characterize all of us whether we are believers or unbelievers. We find ourselves asking the same questions that Par Lagerkvist must have been struggling with when he wrote the book.

1. How are we to relate to God?

2. How do we know we are doing His will-, what He wants us to do?

3.Are we to be guided by what we can only see and understand. or are we to be guided by that which we can not see, or understand.

4. Why does God not make himself clear?

5..Why does it seem that God does not care of us earthly humans, or the questions that eat at us?

6. Why is God so silent when we are in need?

Though these questions seem to come out in the book, I have found that, though the movies do not follow the book as it was written, one can sense the same questions being asked, perhaps in more dramatic and violent ways.

For me, I have found the book more thought provoking in that it not only illustrates the contains scenes that I have not found in the movie versions. I must admit, at this point that thought I have seen the 1961 version, I have not yet seen the 2012 version.

The key scene that I am talking about is Barabbas's interaction with early Christians shortly after Jesus's crucifixion. His interactions with the Apostle Peter, once as he seeks to find out about Jesus, and then after Barabbas seeks to obey Jesus as he takes part in the burning of Rome, only to be put into prison with early Christians, including the Apostle Peter.

One of the most striking scenes in the book is when Barabbas is put to death. His last words echoing the last words of Christ-It is finished. The searching and questioning is finished.

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1961 film


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