This week we’ve been thinking about a story of Jesus’ trial that is in all 4 gospels. All the gospels include the story of a choice being given between Jesus and a man named Barabbas. Likewise, this week we’ve seen comments from Marjorie Taylor Green and a person on Trump’s legal team comparing the arraignment of President Donald Trump to the arrest of Jesus in the gospels. There have even been Christians in our circles that have shared these and this connection on social media- some positively and some negatively. In some cases, the term “evangelical” has become better known by its connection with a certain political party and Christian Nationalism instead of or better than being recognized as the ones who are about sharing the Good News of Jesus. Because of this many Christians shy away from the term evangelical. This “nationalistic” version of evangelical Christianity has been coopted with the enticement of political power and what it can give them (and force on others).
This brings into question many things X44 has written about in the past. Who is your king? Can you serve two masters? Are you more loyal to the kingdom of Jesus or the nation of America? Has American nationalism become a religion? Should Christians vote? Should you vote for a party because they represent more Christian values than the other party even if the people representing the party are far from Christian or even represent good morals? Should you only be aligned with people in the same covenant relationship in the Lord (are you unequally yoked?) These are all great questions and as X44 typically doesn’t get overly political, (we try to focus on Jesus’ kingdom only), but occasionally these more political questions arise. Today we are writing to question our/your political consideration based on a better theology or cultural understanding of the Bible.
So as usual, we are going to be far more theological than political in this article. The point of this is not to bash Trump or smear him, it’s actually not really about Him personally at all, it’s about an ideology that is behind Him and within many in the evangelical church.
Let’s better examine the story of Jesus and Barabbas.
Now at the feast the governor was accustomed to release for the people any one prisoner whom they wanted. At that time they were holding a notorious prisoner, called Barabbas. So when the people gathered together, Pilate said to them, “Whom do you want me to release for you? Jesus Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?” For he knew that because of envy they had handed Him over. While he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent him a message, saying, “Have nothing to do with that righteous Man; for last night I suffered greatly in a dream because of Him.” But the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas and to put Jesus to death. But the governor said to them, “Which of the two do you want me to release for you?” And they said, “Barabbas.” Pilate said to them, “Then what shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?” They all said, “Crucify Him!” And he said, “Why, what evil has He done?” But they kept shouting all the more, saying, “Crucify Him!”
When Pilate saw that he was accomplishing nothing, but rather that a riot was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this Man’s blood; see to that yourselves.” And all the people said, “His blood shall be on us and on our children!” Then he released Barabbas for them; but after having Jesus scourged, he handed Him over to be crucified. (Matthew 27:15-26- see also Mark 15:6–15; Luke 23:18–25; John 18:39–19:16)
All 4 gospels tell us that was Pilate’s custom to release a prisoner during Passover. What was this? It was to pacify the people because there had been many riots and revolutions that had started during the time of Passover in previous years. The Passover was the remembrance of the Hebrew’s liberation from slavery and from the evil empire of Egypt.
On this Passover preparation day there is a choice between two prisoners, you might even say it was a choice between two Jesus’.
Who was Barabbas?
Some of our manuscript traditions have “Jesus Barabbas” and not just Barabbas. The gospel writers are trying to make a distinction between two types of messiah the crowd gets to choose between. Now, who was Barabbas? Movies like Passion of the Christ have done us a disservice here depicting Jesus Barabbas as a deranged serial killer but let’s look at what the gospel writers actually say about him: Matthew says he was a “notorious prisoner”, Mark and Luke speak about Barabbas being involved in a “riot” (stasis- the word for “stand”) in which he committed murder. John 18:40 points out that Barabbas was a bandit (lestes), which is the word Josephus, an ancient historian, always used when talking about revolutionaries and the zealots. The zealots were a group that wanted to presumably “take back Israel for God,” or just cited this as an excuse for insurrection. Barabbas was not some Jeffery Dahmer, he was more like their George Washington, William Wallace, or Che Guevara.
Why Barabbas instead of Jesus?
Since the Maccabean revolt (167-160 BC) there had been many revolts and stands against Rome and none were successful. The Jews were looking for another Judah Maccabees (means Judah the Hammer), who overthrew the Seleucid Greeks. This is why days before the crowds were shouting “hosanna”. This phrase has come to simply mean something like “hallelujah” today but in reality, it meant “Lord save us NOW”. It wasn’t a necessarily religious rendering of the term, as it was often adapted by insurrectionist, in fact it was likely more closely rendered to taking the Lord’s name in vain. The palm branches were a politically loaded symbol. It was the flag per se of the revolutionaries in the days of the Maccabees. They were asking Jesus to be their new Judah Maccabee and “stand” against the Romans like Barabbas. This is why you may read (or better, should read) a subtle adversity in the Biblical texts of the triumphal entry. Jesus didn’t come into Jerusalem riding on a war horse with pride but on the colt of a donkey with humility. Even as Jesus was entering the city, he was crying over the scene saying, “you don’t know the things that make for peace” (Luke 19:42). I can only imagine the crowd, probably saying something like, “What the Hell is this?” As I even feel uncomfortable writing the phrase, it would have fit their mantra well. But they didn’t care, if there was any chance of this person starting a revolt, they were going to cheer it on. I am sure some of them even wondered if he had the power to summon the angels to war, which I am sure they would have loved to join in battle with. That is what the world was looking for in a Mesiah, but that wasn’t the plan of Jesus. His plan actually looked opposite of that plan, backwards, or upside down to what the revolutionaries wanted.
When it came to the prisoner exchange, the choice was obvious for the crowd. They wanted Barabbas. He was a “real” mercenary with a proven track record, not this “peace loving preacher riding a donkey.” But there is more to this story and it is found in the names. Jesus means “salvation” and Barabbas means “son of abba” or “son of the Father”. The crowd has the choice between Jesus “the son of the father” or Jesus “the son of God” (the Messiah/King). Would “salvation” come through their definition of political and national victory (taking back Israel for God) or through the way of Jesus the Christ, who laid down his life, with radical self-giving and co-suffering love? Christlike peacemaking does not come by the way of Rome, the way of the Maccabee, or the way of the Zealot revolutionary, this is what it meant to be the son of their fathers. But Jesus’ was showing them a new way- the upside down kingdom way.
It has been assumed that Barabbas was a prominent figure in a movement resisting the Roman empire. It has even been posited that he belonged to the Sicarii (literally “dagger men”), a group of radical Jewish patriots who pledged to murder Roman rulers and their collaborators whenever possible. Barabbas’ supporters would have perceived him to be a freedom fighter.
Robert H. Gundy (1.) (b. 1932) suspects that knowing the specifics of Barabbas’ crimes would only distract from the narrative. This is the more traditional way that we think of Jesus. He was Innocent and Barrabas wasn’t. Gundy frames that way of thinking:
The placement of ἐν τη στάσει, “in the insurrection,” and φόνον, “murder,” before the verb calls attention to the criminality of Barabbas and his fellow prisoners. Against this foil Jesus’ innocence stands out in bold relief: Barabbas deserves to be bound and crucified; Jesus does not. Mark avoids obscuring this apologetic contrast with details concerning the insurrection. (Gundry, Mark: A Commentary on His Apology for the Cross, 926)
As the text leaves his sins to the imagination, Barabbas becomes an abstract but more relatable figure – At first, it seems that he is the one who deserves the punishment that Jesus receives (Almost as if Jesus takes his place), but as we dive more into the descriptions of both Jesus figures, we are actually going to find that they are equally “guilty” of insurrection in the eyes of Rome. In one sense Jesus was morally “innocent” but in another (nationalistic) sense, he will be deemed equally guilty. You will notice Gundy points out that the Greek may point to the criminality of Barrabas; but to be clear the Greek does not point to innocence or guilt in the description of Jesus. (I would theologically assert that you would have to read Jesus’ innocence into this text as Gundy seems to do, despite making a statement that Marks apologetics don’t allow that way of thinking.) I usually like Gundy, but this one leaves me scratching my head. (He allows the hermeneutic “law” for Barabbas but doesn’t interpret the Greek in the same hermeneutic when approaching the text with Jesus.)
In Hebrew names often tell who some is historically. The name Barabbas means “son of a father.” John R. Donahue (2.) (b. 1933) dissects:
The proper name here consists of two Aramaic elements: bar meaning “son” and ’abba’ meaning “father.” The derivation from Bar-Rabban (“son of the master”) is less likely. There were rabbis known as “Bar-Abba,” and the practice of using bar plus the father’s name is witnessed in the cases of Simon bar Jona (for Peter; see Matthew 16:17) and Simeon Bar Kokhba (or Kosiba) around 132-135 C.E. Some manuscripts supply Barabbas with the first name “Jesus” in Matthew 27:16. Since one would expect him to have a first name and since it is unlikely that early Christians would have created the name “Jesus” for him there may well be a historical basis for this tradition. In either case the choice presented to the crowd—between Jesus of Nazareth (the real “Son of the Father”) and (Jesus) Barabbas—is rich in irony and in theological significance. (Donahue, The Gospel of Mark (Sacra Pagina), 432)
Joel Marcus (3.) (b. 1951) analyzes:
Some texts of Matthew 27:16-17, mostly of a Caesarean type… read “Jesus Barabbas” rather than “Barabbas,” and Origen [184-253] acknowledges that some of the manuscripts known to him attest this reading (Commentary on Matthew 121 [on Matthew 27:16-18]). Many scholars think that “Jesus Barabbas” was the original reading in Matthew and that the forename was later suppressed by reverential scribes who felt, as Origen did, that no sinner should bear the name of Jesus…This theory is made more plausible by the observation that the forename has been erased from several manuscripts (see F. Crawford Burkitt [1864-1935], Evangelion da-Mepharreshe 2.277) …Some exegetes…even suggest that “Jesus Barabbas” may have been the original reading in Mark, since “the one called Barabbas” is awkward, and elsewhere ho legomenos is usually preceded by a personal name and followed by a descriptive title or nickname (Matthew 1:16, 4:18, 10:2, 27:17, 22; John 11:16, 20:24, 21:2; Colossians 4:11). There are instances, however, in which ho legomenos is not preceded by the personal name (Matthew 26:3, 14; Luke 22:47; John 4:25, 9:11, 19:17), and awkward expressions are common in Mark. (Marcus, Mark 8-16 (The Anchor Yale Bible Commentaries), 1028)
Ben Witherington III (4.) (b. 1951) adds:
At Mark 15:7 we are introduced to Barabbas, whose name according to a textual variant at Matthew 27:16 was Jesus Barabbas. This, in turn, has led to the suggestion that Pilate misheard the crowd when they were shouting for the release of Jesus Barabbas, thinking they were asking for Jesus of Nazareth. But there is no clear evidence for such a conclusion here, and most of the earliest and best manuscripts do not have the name Jesus appended to Barabbas. (Witherington, The Gospel of Mark: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, 391)
What we have is two radical (Jesus) figures that stand in opposition to the national government and power of the systems and rulers of Rome. In one sense, one is innocent morally and one likely isn’t but, in another sense, they are both guilty of not being allegiant to Rome and make no mistake, both stood in complete opposition to “worshiping” the Roman authority, one by peaceful means and the other by physical harm and insurrection.
N.T. Wright (5.) (b. 1948) resolves:
The story of Barabbas invites us to see Jesus’ crucifixion in terms of a stark personal exchange. Barabbas deserves to die; Jesus dies instead, and he goes free. Barabbas was the archetypical Jewish rebel: quite probably what we today would call a fanatical right-wing zealot, determined to stop at nothing to bring in a version of God’s kingdom which consisted of defeating Roman power by Roman means – in other words, repaying pagan violence with holy violence. No doubt many Christians in Mark’s community, and others who would read his book, had at one stage at least flirted with such revolutionary movements. Reading the story of the guilty man freed and the innocent man crucified, it would not be hard for them to identify with Barabbas, and to view the rest of the story with the awestruck gaze of people who think, ‘There but for God’s grace go I.’ (Wright, Mark for Everyone, 209)
Brian Zahnd (6.) sums up this thinking saying:
“Recently a well-known megachurch pastor said, ‘When I’m looking for a leader I want the meanest, toughest son of a gun I can find.’ Whether he understands it or not, this evangelical pastor is saying, “Give us Barabbas!” For many American Christians the politics of Jesus are dismissed as impractical and so they kick the can down the road saying, ‘maybe someday we can turn our swords into plowshares, but now is the time for us to build more B-2 bombers and stockpile nukes so we can kill all our enemies.’ The crowd that gathers on Good Friday shouting, ‘Give us Barabbas!,’ is far more plausible and numerous than most of us imagine. If we think that killing our enemies is compatible with Christian ethics, we are in effect saying, ‘Give us Barabbas!’ But Lent is the time to rethink everything in the light of Christ. We are not called to scrutinize the Sermon on the Mount through the lens of the Pentagon; we are called to follow Jesus by embodying the kingdom of God here and now, no matter what the rest of the world does.” (Zahnd, The Unvarnished Jesus: A Lenten Journey, 123)
Likewise, today some evangelical Christians want to trade Jesus for “strong man” politicians who will do what it takes to “make America great again” and enforce “Christian values” on the people. Thus, in doing so we’ve created Christ in our own image. This is political idolatry and what Christian nationalistic idolatry looks like.
We’d rather have a “strong man” leader like Barabbas than the turn the other cheek, riding on a donkey, “go to the cross as the battle” savior Jesus.
Benjamin Cremer notes in his article “Trading Jesus for Barabbas” that “history shows us how devastating the consequences can be when we Christians choose ‘strong man’ leaders like Barabbas to lead us instead of Jesus in order to “take our country back for God.” Leaders who promised to do whatever it takes to conquer imagined enemies for the sake of Christianity. Enemies who Christians were convinced by such leaders to often fear and hate rather than to love. It should break our hearts to see this same trend in our world today.” He goes on to quote a democratically elected leader who in the recent past gained the support of the Christians in his nation promising to do these exact things.
This frightening quote on the same topic could sound like something coming out the mouths of many politicians and some in pulpits today:
(7.) “The national government will maintain and defend the foundations on which the power of our nation rests. It will offer strong protection to Christianity as the very basis of our collective morality. Today Christians stand at the head of our country. We want to fill our culture again with the Christian spirit. We want to burn out all the recent immoral developments in literature, in entertainment, and in the press – in short, we want to burn out the poison of immorality which has entered into our whole life and culture as a result of liberal excess during recent years.”
-This is a quote from a radio address that Adolf Hitler gave to Germany on July 22, 1933. (From “My New Order, The Speeches of Adolf Hitler, 1922-1939”, Vol. 1, pp. 871-872, Oxford University Press, London, 1942)
Some Theology of the Cross
As we turn our hearts and minds to Jesus and his life, death, and resurrection this Holy Week, let us be aware of what was going on leading to the cross. Many in the Evangelical tradition like to frame the work of the cross in a court room setting where we are pardoned of sin and our debt “payed off”. I’m not going to get into the deep theology of the cross in this short blog, but we do have a whole series on it on YouTube and our Podcast. These ways of viewing Christ’s work on the Cross, specifically the Penal Substitutionary (Governmental) and Ransom theories of atonement are largely reformed and Calvinistic views; but unfortunately, most Christians have “grown up” thinking this is “just theology” and thinking that there aren’t other Biblical options. There are at least 5 other Biblical views of atonement to consider. X44 takes a Scot McKnight “Golfclub” approach to them, but we lean more on a Christus Victor way of thinking than any of the other views and in this article, you will see some aspects of substitutionary atonement theory, although in a traditional sense we don’t often agree with much of the theology that is tied to substitutionary atonement theories.
I think we can all agree that in some way Jesus was a substitute for us. What we need to realize is that it was the crowd (empowered by the government) that killed Jesus, not God (see Acts 2:23-36; Acts 3:13-18; Acts 4:10-11; Acts 5:27-28; Acts 7:51-52; Acts 10:39-41; Acts 13:26-41, as well as Isaiah 53- we see 2 perspectives [the crowd’s and reality] and it was at the hands of the crowd the servant would suffer, not God’s hands). In the gospel of Mark and John Jesus is said to be a “king” or “King of the Jews” by Pilate. The Crowd responds with “We have no King but Caesar” (John 19:15). The way of the Kingdom is backwards and will look like treason to the kingdoms of this world (Acts 17:6-7). In this way Jesus was definitely guilty of Treason before Caesar.
Leading up to the cross and on the cross Jesus presents a new way and a new kingdom: a substitute for the ones of the World that exist in a framework of power-over rather than power-under. Jesus on the cross shows us the true revelation of God and the way of the Kingdom- rather than hate, fear, violence, and grasping for power we see love, forgiveness, hope, redemption by redefining of what conquering and victory looks like. On his way to Jerusalem, Jesus explained to his disciples: the way of empire is to seek domination and “It shall not be so among you” (Matt 20:26). “The kingdom of God is a kingdom of love, not domination. As followers of Jesus, we are called to the practice of radical patience, because the kingdom of God is without coercion. We persuade by love, witness, Spirit, reason, rhetoric, and if need be, by martyrdom, but never by force.” As Alan Kreider says, this is “the patient ferment of the early church.”
Some struggle with this notion. In the Old Testament there were times where God Himself fought the battles. But at other times He asked the Israelites to act as His physical manifestation to “fight” the battles. Jesus reconciles a lot of things at the cross. That is part of His atonement. Something happens at the cross that “changes” the course of Christianity. The power of life is regained at the cross, and the victory is won. We don’t understand everything that takes place spiritually in the cross, resurrection, and ascension, that is why theologically we call them “atonement theories.” We do know Jesus sets the record straight in many ways.
Theologically we have to ask, “what changes?” It is interesting that in the New Testament (including the book of Revelation) that there isn’t one place that asks us to physically fight as Christians, but we do get some battle language describing spiritual warfare. It seems that physical fighting of Christians was reconciled at the cross, and perhaps that was never the way it was supposed to be. Does Jesus need you to physically fight for Him or His kingdom? Does he need you to fight politically? What about abortion? Should we exercise our dual citizenship to fight abortion politically? What about when government schools say God isn’t welcome there? Should we fight? What if America says you can no longer open the doors of your church to worship. Do you fight? What about when you are being persecuted for your moral convictions. Will Jesus ask you to fight physically, politically, or metaphorically? Does the Bible teach perhaps simply defensively or give permission in the name of God to “fight” offensively?
When we look at the cross this weekend do we just see a savior forgiving a sin debt or do we also see the enthronement of a King and the entrance into a new kingdom and new way of life? Dallas Willard states that we need to rethink our gospel from one of simply sin management to a gospel of a kingdom and a king that results in discipleship and transformation. We are happy about Jesus forgiving us but often reject the upside-down kingdom way of life he calls us to. Do you believe Jesus brought life here and now?
Now, coming full circle, do you see the irony (idolatry and blasphemy?) in the comparisons of Trump paralleled with Jesus during Holy Week? If anything, maybe we should compare this ideology in the church with Barabbas. Benjamin Cremer sums this though pattern up:
We want the war horse.
Jesus rides a donkey.
We want the bird of prey.
The Holy Spirit descends as a dove.
We want the militia.
Jesus calls fishermen, tax collectors, women, and children.
We want the courtroom.
Jesus sets a table.
We want the gavel.
Jesus washes feet.
We want to take up swords.
Jesus takes up a cross.
We want the empire.
Jesus brings the Kingdom of God.
We want the nation.
Jesus calls the church.
We want the roaring lion.
God comes as a slaughtered lamb.
Is there a place in Christianity for a fight? That sounds more like Jesus Barrabas than King Jesus. Some preachers and teachers believe this comes down to calling and gifting. Are some called to fight and some called to be disarmed? What does Jesus say and do? Is there (still) a place still for a disciple to carry a sword?
I pray that the church can choose the way of Jesus versus the way of Barabbas this Holy week. I pray that we can know the things that make for peace and repent of our idolatry. Lord have mercy on us!
Which Messiah will you choose?
Written by Matt Mouzakis and Dr. Will Ryan @X44
- Gundry, Mark: A Commentary on His Apology for the Cross, 926
- Donahue, The Gospel of Mark (Sacra Pagina), 432
- Marcus, Mark 8-16 (The Anchor Yale Bible Commentaries), 1028
- Witherington, The Gospel of Mark: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, 391
- Wright, Mark for Everyone, 209
- Zahnd, Unvarnished Jesus, 18-19
- “My New Order, The Speeches of Adolf Hitler, 1922-1939”, Vol. 1, pp. 871-872, Oxford University Press, London, 1942