New Testament

Jesus Barabbas or Jesus the Messiah?

Picture of the cross for Jesus Barabbas or Jesus the Messiah

One detail of the Easter story that is sometimes missing is the contrast and comparison of the two men named Jesus. Yes, you read that right! At the end of Jesus’s trial, Pilate selects two men named Jesus as candidates for selection by the Jewish crowd. Jesus the Messiah and Jesus Barabbas are put forward side by side. The dilemma is obvious. To which Jesus will the nation of Israel affirm their loyalty?

Jesus Barabbas in Matthew 27:16-17

Many people are not familiar with the idea that Barabbas is most likely a surname, while his given name was Jesus. A brief survey of the English translations shows why many people have not heard of Barabbas as Jesus Barabbas.

ESV“Whom do you want me to release for you: Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?”
NASB“Whom do you want me to release for you? Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?”
CSB“Who is it you want me to release for you—Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?”
NET“Whom do you want me to release for you, Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Christ?”
NIV“Which one do you want me to release to you: Jesus Barabbas, or Jesus who is called the Messiah?”
LEB“Whom do you want me to release for you—Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is called Christ?”
KJVWhom will ye that I release unto you? Barabbas, or Jesus which is called Christ?

In Matthew 27:16-17 there are two references to Barabbas. The ESV, NASB, CSB, and KJV all simply refer to him as Barabbas, but the NET, NIV, and LEB refer to him as Jesus Barabbas. The issue is that there are some Greek manuscripts that that read Jesus Barabbas (Θ ƒ1 700*. l 844 sys), while the majority (and best) of manuscripts simply read Barabbas.

Metzger’s textual commentary states that in a marginal comment in some manuscripts the following note is found: “In many ancient copies which I have met with I found Barabbas himself likewise called ‘Jesus’.” This textual variant existed as early as Origen (ca. 200–250 AD), who made a comment that many manuscript copies do not include the name Jesus for Barabbas. It is possible that this comment means that the majority of manuscripts in Origen’s day did read Jesus Barabbas.

Although our external evidence is limited for the reading Jesus Barabbas, many scholars are of the opinion that Jesus Barabbas was the original reading of Matthew 27:16-17 (although Dirk Jongkind is a notable exception). It is probable that Christian scribes would suppress the fact that Barabbas was also named Jesus out of respect for the Son of God. Origen himself seems to exemplify this attitude when he notes, “in the whole range of the scriptures we know that no one who is a sinner [is called] Jesus.” It is much more likely that scribes would take the name of Jesus out of the text, than that they would add the name of Jesus to Barabbas.

Choose This Day Which Jesus You Will Serve

Matthew tells us that it was the custom to release a prisoner for the crowd during the feast (Matt 27:15). Matthew also tells us that one of the prisoners they had on hand was Jesus Barabbas (v. 16). Barabbas means “Son” (Bar) of “Father” (Abba), and matches with Matthew’s way of using surnames (cf. Matt 16:17, Simon Bar-Jonah). It is thought, based on funerary inscriptions found near Jerusalem, that Abba could be a proper name. Alternatively, Abba is also a term that could be used for teachers. In any case, Jesus Barabbas is identified by Matthew as being famously notorious.

Although Matthew does not go into detail, John 18:40 tells us Barabbas was a robber. We are also told in the other gospels that Barabbas was an insurrectionist who had committed murder (Mark 15:7; Luke 23:19; cf. Acts 3:14). Interestingly enough, the same term for robber is also used of the two criminals who flank Jesus on the right and left on the other two crosses (Mark 15:27). Perhaps Barabbas and the other criminals were apart of the same group of brigands. In any case, the murdering thief—the insurrectionist who was a part of a revolt against Rome—this Jesus Barabbas was chosen as a direct contrast to the other Jesus, the Messiah, the true King of the Jews.

Although every gospel makes the innocence of Jesus prominent, in John’s gospel, John makes it very clear that Pilate was convinced Jesus was innocent. Right before releasing Barabbas, Pilate says, “I find no guilt in him” (John 18:38). Yet, when Pilate presents the innocent Jesus who claims to be the “King of the Jews” (John 18:39), the people cry out, “Not this man, but Barabbas!”

The people of Israel had spoken. The Jewish leaders, representing their nation, finalized their hatred and rejection of their true King. When faced with two people named Jesus (ironically, the name Jesus means “Yahweh will save”), the people reject their king and true salvation, and they look to salvation in another Jesus—a murderer and a thief.

This was not a surprise to Jesus, the Messiah. Jesus had already seen this rejection coming and had prophesied that the kingdom was to be taken away from this generation of Jews and given to a future people (Matt 21:43). After the death and resurrection of Christ, Peter proclaimed the hope that Israel could return to the real Jesus, and through faith in His name they could be granted life, and ultimately the restored kingdom (Acts 3:12–26).

Jesus the Messiah as True Salvation

If I may be given some license to draw a parallel to today, it is undoubtedly true that the above scenario has been replayed many times. Many people reject the true way of salvation in Jesus the King, and they accept an alternative Jesus more in line with their lifestyle and preferences. There are many so-called versions of Jesus today, but there is only one true Jesus, the Messiah—and following Him is costly.

Photo by Samuel McGarrigle on Unsplash

Peter serves at Shepherd's Theological Seminary in Cary, NC as the professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages. He loves studying the Bible and helping others understand it. He also runs The Bible Sojourner podcast and Youtube channel.