As Easter nears, I think about two men – one who died, and one who didn’t. Jesus died; Barabbas didn’t. Or maybe it’s the other way around, in the long term.
If 1st century Israel had telephone books, Jesus could not have been listed. He didn’t qualify for a last name. Although he is commonly called Jesus Christ, Christ was not his family name. In fact, it’s not a name at all. It’s a title, an honorific, like “Reverend” or “President.” Christ – Christos in Greek – is the term used for the Messiah, the anointed one, the chosen one.
In his culture, sons were identified by their father’s name. The prefix “Bar” meant “son of,” just like “Mac” or “Mc” for the Scots, and “O” for the Irish.
The earliest biblical texts describe Jesus only as the son of Mary – making him a no-count illegitimate. Later versions legitimize him by providing a human father – Joseph, son of Jacob, a descendant of the legendary King David. But Jesus is never, never, described as Jesus Bar-Joseph.
And Jesus himself never refers to Joseph as his father.
He reserves the term “Father” – in Aramaic, “abba,” better translated by our familiar “Daddy” – for his relationship with God. John’s gospel regularly pairs Jesus with a divine father. Jesus spends almost two chapters of that gospel exploring the intimacy of his relationship with his Father, meaning God.
By a cruel irony, when governor Pontius Pilate offers to free Jesus as a goodwill gesture for the Jewish Passover, an angry crowd demands that he release, instead, a thief and murderer named “Barabbas.” Barabbas — “the son of the father”.
And so the man who said “The Father and I are one” was executed on a trumped-up charge of claiming to be King of the Jews, while the man named “Son of the Father” was set free. The coincidence is so keen, it almost demands further exploration.
Did the freed Barabbas go to Golgotha, to the hill of many skulls, to watch his stand-in die?
What did it do to him, to know that he was alive only because an innocent person took his place? Was he haunted by guilt? Did it change his life? Or did he grab his unexpected freedom with both hands and scamper out of Jerusalem, away from the unholy liaison between Temple and Rome, to resume his career of crime?
At least one writer has felt inspired to look at life through the eyes of the man who didn’t get executed. Par Lagerkvist wrote a 1950 novel called Barabbas.
A commentary describes the novel as founded on thesis and antithesis – similarities and contrasts. Jesus dies first; Barabbas dies later. Jesus is crucified in Jerusalem; Barabbas, in Rome. Jesus talks to God; Barabbas, to darkness. Barabbas is, in many ways, a modern person. He says he wants to believe, but can’t accept the exalted beliefs of early Christians about Resurrection and the Second Coming. What he really believes in is the “opaque and remorseless void that surrounds his life.”
He is a fatalist. Where others find meaning, Barabbas finds only meaninglessness.
Perhaps the novel’s central antithesis is that because Barabbas has never known love, he can never understand someone who embodied love.
Author Jim Taylor lives in Lake Country: firstname.lastname@example.org