Exactly Who Did Pontius Pilate Release From Prison?

When I asked that question on Twitter today, I had a few people tell me “Wodewick” or “Woger”. Oh and in typical Christian fashion, I was also called “an asshole” by @Griffmiester for asking the question.

But I learned something interesting today, another twist in the New Testament that I wasn’t previously aware of.

Most versions of the NT say that the man that Pilate released (it was apparently a custom for the the praefectus or governor of Judaea to commute one prisoner’s death sentence by popular acclaim) was a criminal called Barabbas.

For example, in the New International Version of the NT, in Matthew 27:16 it reads:

At that time they had a notorious prisoner, called Barabbas. So when the crowd had gathered, Pilate asked them, “Which one do you want me to release to you: Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?”


If we look instead at the Contemporary English Version, the same passage reads:

At that time a well-known terrorist named Jesus Barabbas was in jail. So when the crowd came together, Pilate asked them, “Which prisoner do you want me to set free? Do you want Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Messiah?”

Apparently some of the oldest versions of the NT, including the Syriac Sinaiticus, have the name of the prisoner as “Yeshua bar Abbas” but the “Yeshua” was dropped from later versions – yet another example of early Christian authorities editing the manuscripts to suit their agenda.

In Amaraic (and in Latin), “bar Abbas” translates as “Son of the Father”.

So the crowd was given a choice of “Jesus, Son Of The Father” or “Jesus, who is called The Messiah”. Don’t they sound like the same person to you?

What was Yeshua bar Abbas’ crime? In the different gospels, he is referred to in a variety of ways: a “notorious prisoner”, a “bandit”, an “insurrectionist” and a “murderer”.

When Pilate asked the crowd which prisoner he should release, they said “bar Abbas!” (The Son of the Father!).

What do you think? Confusing?

4 thoughts on “Exactly Who Did Pontius Pilate Release From Prison?

  1. That’s very interesting.

    My guess would be that this is deliberate to teach some subtle difference in Christianity that is long lost and irrelevant now. My reasoning is that mythological texts around this time often had subtle tricks, double meanings and puzzles left for the keen observer (like the Greek mythological texts). It’s only a guess – I have no evidence to back up this claim so it should be filed as interesting conjecture.

    One thing is evident, as literature progressed and fact separated from fiction, religions such as Christianity had to become ‘fact’ based. All of which seems a bit silly now.

  2. Hey Cam,

    In my experience the NIV tends to simplify in accordance with Xn traditions. I’d recomend the NRSV. I’ll even by you oen if you haven’t got one.

    Mat 27:16-17 At that time they had a notorious prisoner, called Jesus Barabbas. So after they had gathered, Pilate said to them, “Whom do you want me to release for you, Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Messiah?”

    I’ve always thought the point was to have two charcters who’s names were really similar but who’s modus operandi were very different.

    So Justin you’re right it’s kind of a subtle trick that gets lost in the meaning – a bit like how you might miss all the pop culture references in the simpsons if you watched ity in 50 years time.

    The below paragraph from http://www.crivoice.org/ explains it a bit better than I probably could

    If Matthew’s text included the name Jesus before Barabbas (the manuscript evidence is not unanimous), the choice could not have been stated with greater irony. Matthew has captured it so powerfully that unless one understands the meaning of these names in Aramaic, the point would be completely lost on English readers. So a little explanation is in order. Matthew tells us that Barabbas was “a notorious prisoner” (v. 16). But the Gospel of Mark, which Matthew used as a source, gives us a few more details. According to Mark 15:7, he was “in prison with the rebels who had committed murder during the insurrection.” The Jewish insurrectionists were guerrilla freedom fighters whose goal was to overthrow Roman domination and liberate Israel. The name Barabbas means son of the father. Jesus was a common name among Jewish people because it was the same name as the famed Old Testament character Joshua, which means God saves. So it is not surprising that two men in our narrative have the same first name. Matthew sees great irony in Pilate’s decision to have the crowd choose between these two persons with identical first names. Will they choose one whose ideology calls for violent rebellion and killing as a means of ushering in Israel’s salvation or one whose ideology is that Israel’s salvation comes in peace and love. Will it be Jesus Barabbas, son of the father, or Jesus the Messiah, the anointed of God?

    (source http://www.crivoice.org/lectionary/YearA/Alent6nt.html)

  3. I think “Matthew sees irony” is only one interpretation and a fairly simplistic one at that. Surely it isn’t so easy to dismiss the coincidence that Jesus “Son of God” who prays to God as Father was imprisoned alongside Jesus “Son of the Father.” And Christian dogma is so heavy with the “son of the Father” stuff. The Catholic Catechism states:

    “At the time appointed by God, the only Son of the Father, the eternal Word, that is, the Word and substantial Image of the Father, became incarnate; without losing his divine nature he has assumed human nature.”

    There is just too much similarity here to be dismissed.

    Let us also keep in mind that neither Mark nor Matthew was an eyewitness to the events we’re talking about (if they did, indeed, happen at all).

    If you asked most modern Christians who “the Son of the Father” refers to, they would he and the messiah is the same person.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.