Jesus Christ or Jesus Barabbas

One tactic of the dawah team used to attack the idea that Jesus was crucified is to claim that the authorities made a mistake and crucified Barabbas instead! Why would they make such an obviously ridiculous assertion? The reason is that Muslims usually interpret Surah An-Nisa 4:157: “And because of their saying: We slew the Messiah Jesus son of Mary, Allah’s messenger They slew him not nor crucified, but it appeared so unto them” as meaning that Allah took Jesus up to himself and placed the features of Jesus on someone else. Traditionally, it has been suggested that the unfortunate victim of this facial switch was Judas, but sometimes a disciple of Jesus (usually unidentified, and always with no historical evidence) has been proposed, but there is one particular reason Barabbas is a current favourite of the dawahteam – his name.

In some manuscripts of the Caesarean text of Matthew 27:16-17, the full name of this individual is given as Jesus Barabbas (Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentaryon the Greek New Testament, London and New York: UBS, 1971, p. 67). While Metzger notes that “A majority of the Committee was of the opinion that the original text of Matthew had the double name in both verses”, he also observes that the reading has “relatively slender external support”. It follows that we cannot build too much on this variant reading. Perhaps it is right: after all, “Bar Abbas” is essentially a surname, meaning ‘son of Abbas’, and so the individual must have had a forename, and there is no reason to believe that it could not have been Jesus(Hebrew Yehoshua). In many ways, it would suit the irony of the Gospel writers (more specifically, Matthew) to note that when offered one of two men called Jesus, the crowd, incited by the Sanhedrin, demanded the release of the one who was a violent criminal, as stated by Peter in his sermon at Solomon’s portico in Acts 3:

13 The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our fathers, glorified his servantJesus, whom you delivered over and denied in the presence of Pilate, when he had decided to release him.14 But you denied the Holy and Righteous One, and asked for a murderer to be granted to you,15 and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead.

However, the evidence is too limited to build much on it. Nonetheless, let us, for the sake of argument, continue as though the forename of Barabbas was indeed “Jesus”. The focus of the argument presented by the dawahteam is that somehow a mistake was made and the Romans crucified the wrong Jesus. The other point is the meaning of “Bar Abba(s)” – literally, “son of the father”, which the dawahteam feels could have led to confusion with Jesus, the Son of God.

  1. “Son of the Father” as a title of Jesus? 

Firstly, we must note that there is no title with the name “Son of the Father” in the Bible. The title nearest to this is “Son of God”, which Jesus uses of Himself in John 5:25; 10:36; 11:4. However, it does not act as surname, as is the case with the criminal Barabbas. It should be recognised that the Jewish leadership would never have referred to Jesus as “Son of the Father”, since they saw it as blasphemy worthy of death, John 5:18: “This was why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling Godhisown Father, makinghimself equal with God.” As for “Son of God”, this was their accusation against Jesus, John 19:7: “The Jews answered him, ‘Wehavealaw, and according to that law he ought to die because he has made himself the Son of God.’” This cuts the ground from under the claim of the dawah team.

  • Surnames in first century Palestine

Surnames, as currently used in the modern West, did not exist in ancient Palestine. Instead, people would normally be identified by their patronymic– i.e. after their fathers, e.g. John, the son of Zebedee. Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the eyewitnesses: The Gospels as eyewitness testimony, (Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2006, p. 78) lists several examples: “Within the New Testament, there is Levi son of Alphaeus (Mark 2:14), John son of Zachariah (Luke 3:2), and Jesus son of Joseph (John 1:45).” He also notes the case of Patronymic substituted (pp. 79-80):

A patronymic could also simply take the place of the personal name. This was a common phenomenon.For example, among the Masada ostraca we find Bar Simon, Bar Hilqai, Bar Yeshua{, Bar Qesa}, Bar Hanun, Bar Harsha}, Bar Benaiah, Bar Haggai, Bar Halafta}, Bar Jason, Bar Pinhi, Bar Levi, and others.It is notable that in many such cases, though by no means all, the name is relatively or very unusual. In such cases, especially if the person’s proper name were common (and especially if he had no brothers known in the context), the patronymic could be more useful than the proper name for distinguishing an individual. 

In the Gospels we find this phenomenon in the cases of Barabbas (= son of Abba) and Bartimaeus (= son of Timaeus). Mark calls the latter “Bartimaeus son of Timaeus” (Mark 10:46), thus explaining “Bartimaeus” for his Greek readers. He could never have been called “Bartimaeus son of Timaeus” (= Bar Timaeus bar Timaeus!). Timaeus is a Greek name occurring only in this case as a Palestinian Jewish name.This is no reason to question its authenticity or to treat Bartimaeus as a nickname rather than a real patronymic, since there are many other cases of Greek names occurring only once as the name of a Palestinian Jew. In this case, it is precisely the rarity of the name that makes the patronymic entirely sufficient for naming Timaeus’s son.

Barabbas and Bartimaeus are examples of what Ilan calls a “unique phenomenon in N[ew] T[estament] transliteration,” in which the Aramaic bar (son of) forms an integral part of the name.Other examples are Bartholomew, Bar-jesus, Bar-jonah, Barnabas, and Barsabbas. It looks as though this form is used when the patronymic (whether a true patronymic or a nickname, as in the cases of Barnabas and Barsabbas) functions as a personal name and could stand alone to designate the person without his personal name. 

On this basis, there is no compelling reason to think that the original text of Matthew did indeed include Jesus as the forename of Barabbas, but that is not the point here. The issue is that of the means of identification. One of these was geographical (p. 81):

Place of origin or dwelling added. Gospel examples are Jesus the Nazarene (= of Nazareth), Jesus the Galilean (Matt 26:69), Mary Magdalene (=of Magdala), Simon the Cyrenian (= of Cyrene), Joseph of Arimathea, and Nathanael of Cana (John 21:2). Of course, people could be distinguished in this way only when they were elsewhere than in their place of origin or dwelling. This is why Nathanael is called “from Cana of Galilee” in John 21:2, but not in 1:45.

Another example would be Judas Iscariot – i.e. Yehûdâh Îš-Qrîyôt, “Judah, the man from Kerioth”. The other Apostles were Galileans, but Kerioth was in Judaea, so it was equivalent to describing him as ‘the southerner’, to distinguish him from other men called Judas (Yehûdâh) such as Thaddaeus and Jude the brother of Jesus – the Hebrew name is the same. Similarly, by calling Jesus “the Nazarene”, people could distinguish Him from other men called Yehoshua. The Greek of John 19:19 presents Jesus crucified as “Jesus the Nazarene” – Ἰησοῦς ὁ Ναζωραῖος, which is in keeping with this trend.

Bauckham notes two other forms of surname which are relevant to this issue. One was the use of a nickname, the other referred to someone’s occupation (pp. 80, 83):

Nickname added. Nicknames were of many kinds. For example, they might refer to physical characteristics or defects, or they could be terms of endearment. Gospel examples of nicknames used with personal names are “James the little (tou mikrou)” (Mark 15:40), “Simon the leper” (Matt 26:6; Mark 14:3), and “John the baptizer.”

Occupation. A person’s occupation could be used to distinguish him in such a way as to become a form of nickname. In the case of a person’s profession or occupation recorded on their ossuaries, it is not easy to tell whether this had been used as a nickname during their lifetimes or was put on their ossuary simply as an honorific record. But in cases such as “Joseph son of Hananiah the scribe” or “Shelamzion daughter of Simeon the priest” it is clear that the term serves to distinguish the father from others of the name.

  • How did Pilate describe the two men?

It is most unlikely that a Roman like Pilate knew any Aramaic or Hebrew. He would have conversed with Jesus – and everyone else – in Greek. Therefore, the name “Barabbas” would not have signified any divine claims to him, and his knowledge of Jewish theology was probably rudimentary. When it comes to “Jesus the Nazarene”, Pilate describes Him to the crowd as “Jesus who is called Christ”, Matthew 27:17, 21. Otherwise he calls Him “the King of the Jews”, Mark 15:9, 12; John 18:39. The priest-incited crowds obviously never accused Barabbas of this claim, or they would not have demanded his release, nor does Pilate ever refer to Barabbas as a would-be Messiah/King. 

Even if the forename of Barabbas was “Jesus”, it is clear that Pilate distinguished him from the man which the Sanhedrin had handed over to him for capital punishment, because while he refers to the violent criminal by his patronymic, Pilate, as we have seen, refers to the Sanhedrin’s victim as “Jesus who is called Christ”, or “the King of the Jews”, specifically when he addresses the crowd, and his very address he distinguishes the two men, e.g. Matthew 27:17: “Whom do you want me to release for you: Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?” Note how in this very sentence, Pilate’s wordsdistinguish the two men – the violent criminal by his patronymic “Barabbas”, the Sanhedrin’s victim as “Jesus who is calledChrist” (ἢ Ἰησοῦν τὸν λεγόμενονχριστόν) – i.e. His “occupation”. 

In Luke 23, we find that Pilate became aware that Jesus was from Nazareth in Galilee: “Then Pilate said to the chief priests and the crowds, “I find no guilt in this man.”But they were urgent, saying, “He stirs up the people, teaching throughout all Judea, from Galilee even to this place.” When Pilate heard this, he asked whether the man was a Galilean.And when he learned that he belonged to Herod’s jurisdiction, he sent him over to Herod, who was himself in Jerusalem at that time.” This explains the inscription on the Cross, which identifies this “Jesus” from anyone else bearing that name – “Jesus the Nazarene,the King of the Jews”, the second title referring to Jesus’ claimed occupation, the first describing His place of origin. We are not told the name of the two other men crucified alongside Jesus, but even if both of them possessed the forename “Jesus” i.e. Yehoshua(which is not impossible, considering the popularity of the forename in first century Palestine), Pilate’s inscription would have distinguishedthe identity of the Sanhedrin’s victim.

  • “Abba” and “Bar Abba” as personal humannames

Note also how Bauckham renders “Barabbas” as “son of Abba”, indicating that “Abba” was also a personal, human name. It was not an uncommon name, as this quote from the Talmud illustrates: (Berakhot18b, https://www.sefaria.org/Berakhot.18b.14?ven=William_Davidson_Edition_-_English&vhe=William_Davidson_Edition_-_Aramaic&lang=bi&with=Tools&lang2=en)  

The Gemara cites another proof: Come and hear, as it is told: They would deposit the money of orphans with Shmuel’s father for safekeeping. When Shmuel’s father died, Shmuel was not with him, and did not learn from him the location of the money. Since he did not return it, Shmuel was called: Son of him who consumes the money of orphans. Shmuel went after his father to the cemetery and said to the dead:I want Abba.The dead said to him: There are many Abbas here. He told them: I want Abba bar AbbaThey saidto him:There are also many people named Abba bar Abba here.He told them: I want Abba bar Abba, the father of Shmuel.

Obviously, we are dealing with legendary material here, but the story would make no sense if it did not reflect the fact that in Jewish society, both “Abba” and “Bar Abba” were fairly common personal humannames. To give an illustration from modern English-speaking society. There are many men called “Maurice”, which means “Moorish”, but that does not mean that all or even any of them are either of North African descent or even appearance. Similarly, the name “Norman” does not mean the man is either from Normandy or even of Norman descent. 

The failure of the dawah team is that in their desperation to disprove that Jesus was crucified they have latched on to the fact that God was called “the Father” in Jewish society, ignoring that human beings were also addressed as “father”, and that “Abba” functioned as a personal name. It follows that the violent criminal who was released by Pilate at the call of the crowd was called “Bar Abba” because his father was named “Abba”, not because the murderer was the Son of God, something neither the criminal, nor Pilate nor the Sanhedrin-incited crowd ever claimed.

  • Two criminals with same forename a problem?

One of the most spectacular legal cases in late twentieth century American history was that in 1992 of John Gotti, boss of the Gambino Mafia crime family. Gotti had two nicknames: “The Dapper Don”, reflecting his taste in clothes and “The Teflon Don”, after his acquittal in several cases in the 1980s. Gotti made no attempt to keep a low profile – quite the opposite. His was a flamboyant character, his face instantly recognizable, not least when he stood trial. 

The Italian name “Gotti” means “Goth”, referring to the Ostrogoth conquerors of Italy in the fifth century. Of course, today many people associate the name ‘goth’ with a youth subculture involving the wearing of black clothes, make-up, etc. Imagine if there was a goth with the forename “John”, whose nickname was ‘the Goth’ who had stood trial at the same time. Even if the guards or police had brought both men out to the steps of the court at the same time – even if they stood next to each other – and despite the fact that they were both called “John”, with one named “John Gotti”, the other nicknamed “John the Goth” – is there any realistic possibility that either the court officials, guards, police, or the crowds assembled outside the court would confuse the two figures? One only has to express the idea to realise that it is nonsense. 

Let us consider what is stated about Barabbas. Matthew 27:16 describes him as δέσμιον ἐπίσημον (desmion epismēon) – a “notable prisoner”. The same could have been said about Gotti. Why was Barabbas so “notable”? Mark 15:7 informs us: “There was one named Barabbas, who was imprisoned with the rebels and had committed murder in the rebellion.” Luke 23:19 echoes this: “Barabbas had been thrown in prison for a rebellion in the city and for murder.” John 18:40 states: “Then they shouted back, “Not this man, but Barabbas!” (Now Barabbas was a rebel.)” So, Barabbas was a violent insurrectionist – a murderer, perhaps someone who would be called “a murderous terrorist” today. Had Usama bin Laden been captured and put on trial in New York for being behind 9/11, the description would have fitted him. Would anyone mistake him if, in the same court building, another man called “Usama” was on trial for a different offence? Everyone knew Gotti, and everyone knew bin Laden. Likewise, Barabbas was a notorious murderer – his infamy would have prevented any confusion.

  • Could they have been swapped?

Even if Jesus called Christ and Barabbas, the murderous insurrectionist had been stood side by side at Pilate’s residence, they would have been guarded by trained, efficient Roman soldiers. Pilate had met Jesus, and evidently knew who Barabbas was. The crowd certainly knew the difference between the two men. One would have been on the left, the other on the right, both under heavy guard. There is no evidence that the two men were ever alone together, or that Jesus ever ceased to be under guard from the time of His arrest to that of His death. Even if a miracle has taken place, whereby their features were swapped, their geographical positions would have betrayed what had happened. Everyone would have seen it, and gasped, but there is no record of this happening. Even so, everyone would have known which was which, and so the real Jesus called Christ would still have been executed. The more we explore this claim, the more ridiculous the assertion of the dawah team becomes.

In conclusion, we have to say that this argument betrays the desperation of the dawah team, in presenting an absolutely nonsensical claim, with no historical basis, and which is rooted in ignorance about ancient Jewish society regarding the issue of names. What they are claiming is frankly farcical in its nature, something with no scholarly basis. Evidently, Pilate, the Sanhedrin, the crowd and everyone else knew who was crucified. There is no claim in history that Barabbas was the one who was really executed on Calvary. The dawah team will have to go back to the drawing board.