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#169 Barabbas

July 12, 2010

Hi Dr. Craig,

As I am sure you remember, in your debate with Richard Carrier (video/audio), he brought up the point about Barabbas possibly being a literary creation of Mark because of the name’s meaning as well as the possible parable to the Jewish practice of sacrificing goats for forgiveness of sins.

In response to that, you said that it could be that Barabbas’ parents gave him a symbolic name, not necessarily Mark. In other words, you think that it’s a coincidence that both of them happened to be “the Son of a Father”. But the problem with this is that in earlier Greek manuscripts (from what I hear), Barabbas was called “Jesus Barabbas”, in other words - Jesus, the Son of a Father.

So we have two Jesus’, both of whom are emphasized to be “the Son of a Father”, and one of them is released while the other is sacrificed for atonement of sins.

This seems, like Richard pointed out, an obvious parable to the goat tradition.

And while I understand that the case for the resurrection does not depend on the general reliability of the Gospels, this would definitely cast doubt on Mark, or at least on his crucifixion/burial story. But the thing I find the most suspicious is that the other Gospels, who are supposed to be independent of Mark, also tell us the story of Barabbas.

I am interested in seeing your response to this.


God bless


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Dr. craig’s response


I’m afraid that there’s been a lot of disinformation spread about in the online infidel community about Barabbas.

The name “Barabbas” is a compound based on the Aramaic words “bar” (son) and “abba” (father). In Greek it takes a final sigma (“s”), in common with certain masculine names.

“Barabbas” is not, in fact, an unusual name at all but is a frequently attested surname. It is attested in Aramaic as “Bar-Abba” from as early as the fifth century B.C. right on through the rabbis of the Amoraic period of the second to fifth centuries after Christ. We even have an inscription from the time of Christ in a burial cave at Giv’at ja-Mivtar near Jerusalem of the name “Abba,” the name of a man whose son would be called Barabbas in Greek. The fact that Barabbas was a common surname evacuates any argument based on its allegedly unusual nature of significance. Semitic names frequently expressed deeper meanings, and so it is here.

A further intriguing possibility that at least deserves mention is that “Barabbas” may not have been the man’s family name but a cognomen given to him by his followers. The third Jewish revolt (A.D. 132-5) is usually referred to as the Bar Kochba revolt after the man who led it. But, in fact, the man’s real name was Simon ben Kosiba. “Bar Kochba,” which means “son of the star” in Aramaic, was the name given him by his followers based on Numbers 24.17. It’s interesting that Mark introduces Barabbas as follows: “There was one called Barabbas imprisoned among the insurrectionists who had committed murder in the insurrection” (Mk 15.7). The use of the definite articles shows that Mark expects his readers to know what uprising he meant. Barabbas was evidently a rebel leader, who “was called” “Barabbas” (cf. Josephus’ reference to James “the brother of Jesus who was called Christ” [Antiquities 20.9.1 §200]). It is not implausible that “Barabbas” was a name given to this insurrectionist by his followers precisely because of its symbolic value.

As for the forename “Jesus,” this is attested only in some manuscripts of the Gospel of Matthew 27.16-17. Ironically, the best argument for its being in the original text is the precise opposite of the infidel line, namely, it would be highly unlikely that Christians would lend the name of the Lord Jesus to a sinful criminal; more likely that they would suppress it! It is controversial whether it is a later scribal addition. But in any case, its originality would show it merely to have been part of Matthew’s text, not of Mark’s text, which is earlier.

The name “Barabbas” thus does nothing to call into question the historicity of the Barabbas incident, which is part of the pre-Markan passion story and therefore very early and is independently attested by John (Jn 18.40).

As for the scapegoat, this hypothesis is misconceived, since the scapegoat was not part of the Passover feast, when Jesus died, but part of Yom Kippur, celebrated at a different time. Moreover, the sins of the people were symbolically laid on the scapegoat, which was then driven out into the wilderness. That interpretation of the Barabbas incident would make Barabbas, not Jesus, the one who bears our sins! Thus, it would be utterly inept theologically to invent the Barabbas story on this basis.

- William Lane Craig