Historical Background

barabbas from passion of christ

The traditional view of Barabbas is perhaps best represented today in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of Christ. Here Barabbas is portrayed as a mindless thug, a thief, ‘the lowest of the low’, to show that Jesus died in place of even the worst kind of human being.



However, history tells a different story. The Roman Empire was plagued with rebellions and in Jerusalem in particular, many rebel leaders proclaimed themselves “Messiah” (Hebrew) or “Christ” (Greek). Far from claiming to be the second member of the Trinity, these Christs were self-proclaimed leaders of the rebellion, who believed themselves anointed by God to lead their people to freedom. The word means “anointed” and ultimately should be read as “king”.

Naturally, the Romans were not happy with those who encouraged others to take up the sword against them. They had a special way of dealing with such figures when they were caught: crucifixion. It is for this reason that Pilate, when he could see that Jesus of Nazareth was clearly not trying to overthrow Roman authority in the province, did not want him crucified. Jesus was not a “Christ” in the way that most people expected. And since Jesus’ own means of bringing freedom to the people was not to take up arms against the oppressive Romans, the crowds called for his crucifixion.

But there was also one man in Jerusalem who at least had tried to bring the freedom for which the people so longed. He had tried to bring in the Kingdom of God. That is, he had tried to get rid of Caesar’s authority in the province, expel the Romans and leave the Jewish God free to reign in the holy city of Jerusalem.

Of course, by wanting to expel the Romans, he was naturally going to be an outlaw. He is described by the Gospels using the word “lestes”. This was the same word that the contemporary historian, Josephus, used to describe rebel leaders.

Give Us Barabbas

These “Lestai” had no choice to be outlaws. Professor Tom Wright points out that they were people who believed that with oppression from the Romans running high, the economy going up the wall, and the people exploited beyond imagining, the only way to be a good Jew was to flee to the hills to become an outlaw.

The caves of Arbela (right) were often used by outlaws. In the time of Herod the Great, a mass slaughter of the “Lestai” had taken place here.

When Jesus said “All who came before me were thieves and robbers” (John 10:8), he was using the word “lestai”. He asked those arresting him in the night why they were armed as though tney had come to arriest a “lestes” (Mk 14:43-52). And when he was crucified, he was crucified between two “lestai”. The so called Thief on the Cross, a major character in the book, was not a burgler or a thief, but a “Lestes” (Lk 23:39-43).

If anything, the reality of Barabbas is much closer to the William Wallace that Mel Gibson portrayed in his movie, Braveheart.  He was a people’s hero, who had given his life for his countrymen. But if Barabbas really should be seen as a hero, why has he come to be portrayed as a criminal?

Of course, a criminal is what he was, but he was the kind of Messiah that people had hoped for. Why has this truth been lost?

A brief example from recent history may help. Dietrich Bonhoeffer is widely regarded as a modern day saint, who was martyred by the Nazi regime for his part in the plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. As such, from the perspective of the Empire he was a criminal.

But what if the Nazi Regime had stayed in power for many centuries? How would Bonhoeffer eventually be understood? As a leader of rebellion, the Nazis would have made him out to be a ruthless criminal. He would not be the saint we regard him as today.

What happens to rebel leaders when the Empire of Rome becomes Christian? This is what eventually happened in the fourth century. And rebel leaders could hardly be portrayed as heroes by the Christianised Romans against whom he led his rebellion. Barabbas has been unfairly portrayed by centuries of Roman Christianity.

barabbas cover

All Who Came Before is an attempt to allow Barabbas to be heard in a way that is historically plausible.

His own approach to the salvation of his people was the majority view. It is a view still prominent today, known as “The Myth of Redemptive Violence”. The question is not so much whether salvation by violence can work, but what the consequences are likely to be.