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Jesus Barabbas, a Nominal Messiah? Text and History in Matthew 27.16–17*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  02 December 2011

Robert E. Moses
The Divinity School, Duke University, Box 90967, Durham, NC 27708. email:


This article examines the textual arguments offered for and against the reading Jesus Barabbas in Matthew 27.16–17. While siding with the position that the longer reading, Jesus Barabbas, stood in the original text of Matthew's Gospel, this article argues against the tendency of scholars to deduce from the longer reading that a historical figure called ‘Jesus’ with the patronymic ‘Barabbas’ was released by Pilate, and that this man's name was suppressed by Christian tradition out of reverence for the name Jesus.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2011

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1 All translations in this paper are my own, unless otherwise indicated.

2 See Aland, Kurt and Aland, Barbara, The Text of the New Testament: An Introduction to the Critical Editions and to the Theory and Practice of Modern Textual Criticism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2nd ed. 1989)Google Scholar 232. But cf. Bruce Metzger on the UBS text: ‘A majority of the Committee was of the opinion that the original text of Matthew had the double name in both verses… In view of the relatively slender external support for Ἰησοῦν, however, it was deemed fitting to enclose the word within square brackets’ (A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament [Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2nd ed. 1994] 56).

3 In this paper, I will use ‘longer reading’ to refer to the double name Jesus Barabbas, and ‘shorter reading’ for the single name Barabbas.

4 For example, NRSV, NET, REB, and TEV.

5 One only has to flip to the relevant pages of Matthew (and even Mark) commentaries written in the last few decades to get this impression. For a list of scholars who favor the longer reading, see n. 31 below.

6 See NA27 and UBS4.

7 It must be noted that the Georgian witnesses are split, with the earliest Adysh manuscript (897 CE) attesting to the omission of Ἰησοῦν, and the later two manuscripts, Opiza (913 CE) and the Tbet' (995 CE), attesting to its inclusion.

8 In Matthaeum 27.16–18; GCS 38.255. Davis, W. Hersey' translation in ‘Origen's Comment on Matthew 27.17’, RevExp 39 (1942)Google Scholar 65 (emphasis added).

9 So Davies, W. D. and Allison, Dale Jr., A Critical Commentary and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (3 vols.; ICC; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1997)Google Scholar 3.584.

10 In Matthaeum 24.4–5; GCS 38.63. Davis' translation in ‘Origen's Comment’, 65.

11 B. H. Streeter's formulation of this argument is less nuanced than our own: ‘On turning to the passage in [Origen's] Commentary on Matthew I found to my surprise that this reading [“Jesus Barabbas”] occurs in the text recited and commented on by Origen. It is the omission of the name Jesus before Barabbas that should properly be described as a reading “found in MSS. known to Origen”’ (The Four Gospels: A Study of Origins Treating of the Manuscript Tradition, Sources, Authorship, and Dates [New York: Macmillan, 1925] 95; author's emphasis).

12 Cited in Westcott, B. F. and Hort, F. J. A, Introduction to the New Testament in the Original Greek: With Notes on Selected Readings (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1882; repr., Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1988)Google Scholar 19.

13 Metzger thinks this scholium probably goes back to Origen. See Textual Commentary, 56.

14 Scholars who opt for the shorter reading often do so because of the external evidence. See, for example, Meier, John P., The Vision of Matthew: Christ, Church and Morality in the First Gospel (New York: Paulist, 1979)Google Scholar 197.

15 Westcott and Hort, ‘Notes’, 20. So also Constantinus Tischendorf, Novum Testamentum Graece, (vol. 1; Lipsiae: Giesecke & Devrient, 8th ed. 1869) 195–6.

16 So also Dunkerly, Roderic, ‘Was Barabbas also Called Jesus?ExpTim 74 (1963) 126–27Google Scholar.

17 Streeter favors this view (Four Gospels, 136).

18 Westcott and Hort, ‘Notes’, 20.

19 See Senior, Donald, The Passion Narrative according to Matthew: A Redactional Study (BETL 34; Leuven: Leuven University, 1975)Google Scholar 241 n.1.

20 So Burkitt, F. Crawford, Evangelion Da-Mepharreshe, (vol. 2; Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1904)Google Scholar 278.

21 See Donald Senior, The Passion of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew (Collegeville: Liturgical, 1990)Google Scholar 114.

22 Deissmann, Adolf, ‘The Name “Jesus”’, Mysterium Christi (ed. Bell, G. K. A. and Deissmann, A.; London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1930) 1727Google Scholar.

23 See Tischendorf, Novum Testamentum Graece, 451.

24 See Soden, Hermann von, Die Schriften des Neuen Testaments (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1913)Google Scholar 250.

25 Souter, Alexander, Pelagius's Exposition of Thirteen Epistles of St. Paul: Introduction (ed. J. Armitage Robinson; Texts and Studies 9; Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1922)Google Scholar 472.

26 See Souter, Pelagius's Exposition, 541.

27 In Matthaeum 27.16–18; GCS 38.256.

28 In Matthaeum 27.16–18; GCS 38.255.

29 In Matthaeum 27.16–18; GCS 38.256.

30 C. S. C. Williams suggests that Origen's dislike of the ‘Jesus Barabbas’ reading possibly led to its omission from the other Caesarean MSS, such as f 13 (Alterations to the Text of the Synoptic Gospels and Acts [Oxford: Alden, 1951] 31–3). For a discussion of Origen's movements in the early centuries and his eventual settlement at Caesarea, see Prestige, G. L., Fathers and Heretics: Six Studies in Dogmatic Faith with Prologue and Epilogue (New York: Macmillan, 1940) 91103Google Scholar.

31 Brown, Raymond, The Death of the Messiah: From Gethsemane to the Grave, (2 vols.; ABRL; New York: Doubleday, 1994)Google Scholar, 1.799 n. 22, documents an impressive list of scholars who favor the originality of the ‘Jesus Barabbas’ reading; the list includes: Allen, Bertram, Burkitt, Couchard, Gaechter, Goguel, Grundmann, Klostermann, Lohmeyer, MacNeile, Maccoby, Moffat, Rigg, Streeter, Trilling, Vaganay, and Zahn. To this list must be added Brown, Deissmann, Allison, W. D. Davies, R. T. France, Donald Senior, B. Metzger.

32 Another approach, which has very little bearing on the addition or omission of ‘Jesus’ before ‘Barabbas’, has been to search for evidence of the existence of customs or parallel events, either in the ancient Near East, Roman Empire, Rabbinic Sources, the OT, or early Jewish historians, similar to the Gospels' privilegium paschale. See Merritt, Robert L., ‘Jesus Barabbas and the Paschal Pardon’, JBL 104 (1985) 5768Google Scholar; Langdon, S., ‘The Release of a Prisoner at the Passover’, ExpTim 29 (1918) 328–31Google Scholar; Husband, Richard Wellington, ‘The Pardoning of Prisoners by Pilate’, AJT 21 (1917) 110–16Google Scholar; Chavel, Charles B., ‘The Release of a Prisoner on the Eve of Passover in Ancient Jerusalem’, JBL 60 (1941) 273–8Google Scholar; Blinzler, J., The Trial of Jesus (Westminster: Newman, 1959) 218–21Google Scholar; Wratlisaw, A. H., ‘The Scapegoat—Barabbas’, ExpTim 3 (1892) 400403Google Scholar; Maclean, Jennifer K. Berenson, ‘Barabbas, the Scapegoat Ritual, and the Development of the Passion Narrative’, HTR 100.3 (2007) 309–34CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Aus, Roger David, ‘The Release of Barabbas (Mark 15.6–15 par.; John 18.39–40), and Judaic Traditions on the Book of Esther’, Barabbas and Esther: And other Studies in the Judaic Illumination of Earliest Christianity (Atlanta: Scholars, 1992) 128Google Scholar; Aus, ‘The Release of Barabbas Revisited’, ‘Caught in the Act’, Walking on the Sea and the Release of Barabbas Revisited (Atlanta: Scholars, 1998) 135–70Google Scholar. We are mainly concerned with approaches that have bearing on the text of Matt 27.16–17. But against these attempts to find parallel customs or events in ancient literature, it must be said that the Gospel writers show no dependence on such supposed parallels. See Couchard, P. L. and Stahl, R., ‘Jesus Barabbas’, HibJ 25 (1926) 2642Google Scholar.

33 Riggs, Horace Abram, ‘Barabbas’, JBL 64 (1945) 417–56Google Scholar.

34 Riggs, ‘Barabbas’, 435.

35 Riggs, ‘Barabbas’, 452–3; an anachronistic use of the term ‘rabbi’.

36 Riggs, ‘Barabbas’, 452.

37 H. Z. Maccoby, ‘Jesus and Barabbas’, NTS 16 (1969) 55–60.

38 Maccoby, ‘Jesus and Barabbas’, 58–9.

39 For another theory that Barabbas is an extension of Jesus' identity, see Davies, Stevan L., ‘Who is Called Barabbas?NTS 27 (1981) 260–2CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

40 Brown, Death, 1.812: ‘The proposed change from a twofold designation of one person to designations for two different people could have happened no later than Mark (late 60s) and almost surely must have gone back into preMarcan days since it appears in all the Gospels, even in John, which is probably not dependent on Mark's Barabbas account’.

41 John's independence of the Synoptics also deals a huge blow to the theory that Barabbas was another designation for Jesus of Nazareth. For arguments for John's independence of the Synoptics, see Solages, B. De, Jean et les synoptiques (Leiden: Brill, 1979)Google Scholar; Brown, , The Gospel according to John i–xii (AB 29; Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1966) xxiliGoogle Scholar; Brown, , An Introduction to the Gospel of John (ABRL; New York: Doubleday, 2003) 90104Google Scholar. For arguments in favor of John's dependence on the Synoptics, see Barrett, C. K., The Gospel according to St. John (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1978)Google Scholar; Neirynck, F., Jean et les Synoptiques. Examen critique de l'exegese de M -E Boismard (BETL 49; Leuven: Leuven University, 1979)Google Scholar; Sabbe, M., ‘The Footwashing in Jn 13 and its Relation to the Synoptic Gospels’, ETL 58 (1982) 279307Google Scholar. For a mediating position, see Smith, D. Moody, ‘John and Synoptics: Some Dimensions of the Problem’, Johannine Christianity: Essays on its Setting, Sources, and Theology (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina, 1984)Google Scholar, 171; Smith, John among the Gospels (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina, 2nd ed. 2001)Google Scholar; Smith, The Fourth Gospel in Four Dimensions: Judaism and Jesus, the Gospels and Scripture (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina, 2008)Google Scholar.

42 Winter, Paul, On the Trial of Jesus (Berlin: W. de Gruyter, 1961)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

43 Winter, On the Trial of Jesus, 98–9.

44 Brown, Death, 1.814.

45 Evidence invoked for this argument is Matt 9.9 // Mark 2.14; Matt 26.3 // Mark 14.1; Matt 26.57 // Mark 14.53. See our discussion of these passages below.

46 Davies and Allison, Gospel of Matthew, 3.584.

47 We should include France, R. T. in this camp. Cf. France, The Gospel of Matthew (NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007)Google Scholar 1053: ‘It is even possible that [Pilate] had heard shouts in favor of Jesus (Barabbas) and assumed it was the other Jesus they were shouting for’.

48 See Metzger, Bruce M. and Ehrman, Bart D., The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmision, Corruption, and Restoration (New York: Oxford University, 4th ed. 2005 [1964]) 5361Google Scholar.

49 Theodor Zahn's conjecture that Jesus Justus originally also stood in the text of Philemon but was later suppressed is unpersuasive; see Zahn, Einleitung in das Neue Testament (ET Introduction to the New Testament, [ vol. 1; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1909] 451)Google Scholar. So also Amling, Ernst, ‘Eine Konjektur im Philemonbrief’, ZNW 10 (1909) 261–2Google Scholar and Deissmann, ‘The Name of Jesus’. The lack of textual evidence makes this argument dubious.

50 Cranfield, C. E. B., The Gospel according to Saint Mark (CGTC; Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1959) 449–50CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

51 Taylor, Vincent, The Gospel according to St. Mark (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2nd ed. 1981)Google Scholar 581.

52 Deissmann, ‘The Name “Jesus”’, 22, affirms this position.

53 Cf. Mark 15.7: ἦν δὲ ὁ λεγόμενος Βαραββᾶς μετὰ τῶν στασιαστῶν δεδεμένος οἵτινες ἐν τῇ στάσει ϕόνον πεποιήκεισαν.

54 For example, see Joel Marcus' note on the awkward Greek expression of Mark 15.8 (Mark 8–16 [AB 27A; New Haven: Yale University, 2009] 1030).

55 In other words, this essay takes the view that the tradition behind all the Gospels contained Barabbas, not Jesus Barabbas.

56 See Senior, Passion Narrative, 237–40.

57 In Matthaeum 24.4–5; GCS 38.63. Davis' translation in ‘Origen's Comment’, 65.

58 In Luke's Gospel also, the one who comes simply says, ἐγώ εἰμι (Luke 21.8).

59 See, for example, Davies and Allison, Gospel of Matthew, 3.584.

60 So also Matt 26.3 // Mark 14.1.

61 See BDAG 940, στασιαστής.

62 See Bond, Helen K., Pontius Pilate in History and Interpretation (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1998) 111–12CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

63 See BDAG 378, ἐπίσημος.

64 Davies and Allison, Gospel of Matthew, 3.584 n. 21. Thus, Matthew's omission of Mark's specific reference to the insurrection should not be viewed as a denial on Matthew's part that Barabbas was an insurrectionist; Matthew and his audience may not have known which particular insurrection Mark was referring to (see Gospel of Matthew, 3.584 n. 21).

65 France, Gospel of Matthew, 1054, differentiates between two perceptions of Barabbas: to the Jewish crowd, he is a ‘patriot’; but to the Romans, he is an ‘insurrectionist’. One wonders if this distinction makes much of a difference to the author of Matthew.

66 On the subject of the Zealots, see Klausner, Joseph, Jesus of Nazareth: His Life, Times, and Teaching (New York: Bloch, 1989 [1925])Google Scholar; Cullmann, O., Jesus and the Revolutionaries (New York: Harper & Row, 1970)Google Scholar; Hengel, M., Was Jesus a Revolutionist? (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1971)Google Scholar; Hengel, Victory over Violence: Jesus and the Revolutionists (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1973)Google Scholar; Klassen, W., ‘Jesus and the Zealot Option’, CJT 16 (1970) 1221Google Scholar; Richardson, A., The Political Christ (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1973)Google Scholar.

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