Why do we always choose Barabbas?
A new book by Phillip Pullman was published this week. Pullman, you are no doubt aware, is a celebrated children’s author whose best-selling His Dark Materials trilogy brought him considerable notoriety, principally because it presents a formidable attack on conventional religion and traditional ideas about God. The Publicity Group of the Manchester College Chapel Society in Oxford sent the following letter to Mr. Pullman recently:
Dear Philip Pullman, Your views about the Christian faith were rarely out of the news in 2009, and you have probably been the target of many earnest attempts to convince you of the rightness of fundamentalist dogma. But you might be interested to learn that there is at least one religious community which shares your views about the humanity of Jesus.
Unitarians honour the moral teachings of Jesus, but do not worship him. Since the foundation of our faith in the seventeenth century, we have rejected the doctrines of Original Sin and Atonement, preferring to believe in the innate potential for good in every human being, and refusing to project responsibility for our personal redemption on to a mythical sacrificial figure; so we seek inspiration from the texts of all the world’s religions, and we reject the notion of priestly authority: we recognise no authority higher than that of the individual’s conscience.
It is not easy to define Unitarian beliefs, because we don’t have a fixed creed. … … … Oxford Unitarians look forward with interest to the publication of your new book, and we would be pleased to welcome you to one of our services of worship, which are held each Sunday at 11a.m. in the chapel of Harris Manchester College in Mansfield Street.
Philip Pullman replied: Thank you for your letter…. … I was aware of your presence, and knew a little about the valuable work Unitarians have done. As for my forthcoming book about Jesus, yours is the forty-fifth letter I’ve received about it, and the first positive one, which made a pleasant change. I hope that when you read it you will find it not unsympathetic, but I’m encouraged in that hope by the evident intelligence and open-mindedness of everything I’ve read about the Unitarian position. I don’t think I’ll be joining you for worship quite yet, though.
Pullman’s new book is called The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. I haven’t read it yet, but from the reviews I’ve seen and from the extracts that were printed in The Guardian two Saturdays ago, it seems safe to assume that the premise of the book is that Mary gave birth to twin sons and that one of them, Jesus, turned out okay, but the other, Christ, proved a little more troublesome.
Apart from the linguistic absurdity of this premise – while ‘Jesus’ is indeed a name, ‘Christ’ is a title – (which I’m sure Pullman is well aware of), the idea that there were two children born at the same time in the same place is not without precedent. The film The Life of Brian plays with the same notion, and there have been suggestions down the ages that the apostle, Thomas Didymus, was Jesus’ twin brother. These are speculations, of course, and we don’t have to be convinced of their historical veracity in order to see how they might provide creative insights into the nature and meaning of the Jesus stories.
However, you may be surprised to learn that there is a suggestion in the Gospels themselves that there were two Jesuses. It comes at the end, in those accounts of the crucifixion and death of Jesus which are read throughout Christendom at this time of the year. What’s more, it’s in all four Gospels, so this ‘multiple attestation’ should prompt us to take it seriously. It concerns Barabbas. This is how Mark tells the story:
Now it was the custom at the Feast to release a prisoner whom the people requested. A man called Barabbas was in prison with the insurrectionists who had committed murder in the uprising. The crowd came up and asked Pilate to do for them what he usually did.
‘Do you want me to release to you the king of the Jews?’ asked Pilate, knowing it was out of envy that the chief priests had handed Jesus over to him. But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have Pilate release Barabbas instead.
‘What shall I do, then, with the one you call the king of the Jews?’ Pilate asked them.
‘Crucify him!’ they shouted.
‘Why? What crime has he committed?’ asked Pilate.
But they shouted all the louder, ‘Crucify him!’
Wanting to satisfy the crowd, Pilate released Barabbas to them. He had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified.
There are a number of aspects of this story which need our attention. First, the complete historical unlikelihood of such an event taking place. There is no evidence whatsoever that there was such a custom of freeing a prisoner at Passover time as is alluded to here; if there had been, it would have been discovered by now by those who are desperate to find history in these stories. What’s more, common sense tells us that there could not have been such a custom. The Romans were not in the habit of appeasing their subject peoples by means of such foolhardy behaviour, and for a Roman governor – especially one as ruthless and as shrewd as Pilate was – to release a Jewish terrorist who was imprisoned on capital charges at the time of the Passover – the festival of Jewish freedom – would not have been an act of conciliation but of idiocy.
But, as I’ve said before, whenever we come across historical or scientific absurdity in the Bible – and there are plenty of examples of both – we should look closely at the text; it’s giving us a message; it’s telling us that we have to look below the surface if we want to find out what the text really means. This is not my fanciful conclusion; it’s an old principle of interpretation, set out clearly by Origen in the 3rd Christian century, but completely ignored by generations of scholars who are determined to find history and science in texts that have little or no concern with either.
Second, consider the name of this man: Barabbas. We are so used to hearing or reading this name that we think of it in much the same way that we think of ‘John’ or ‘Bill’. But familiarity deceives us. The name is an Aramaic word and it is made up of two parts: ‘bar’ means ‘son of’ and ‘abbas’ means ‘father’.(Remember ‘bar mitvah’ means ‘son of the commandment’, and ‘abba’, which means ‘father’ in both Aramaic and Hebrew, was the word by which Jesus referred to God.) Barabbas is ‘Son of the father’. But The Gospel before this point has been at pains to tell us that Jesus is ‘the son of the Father’. Right at the beginning of the Gospel, at his baptism by John, God declares, ‘this is my beloved son’, and at the Transfiguration God says, ‘This is my son, whom I love, listen to him’. So now we have two ‘sons of the father’ – Barabbas and Jesus. But there’s more: in some early copies of the Gospel manuscripts, Barabbas is actually called ‘Jesus Barabbas’ – Jesus, Son of the Father. So, Pilate’s question is really, ‘Which of these two Jesuses do you want?’
And, of course, the crowd chooses the wrong one. The crowd always chooses the wrong one. The crowd is still choosing the wrong one. We want a Jesus who fits in with our preconceptions. The crowd in the Gospel story wanted a Messiah they could understand – a political figure who would free them from the Roman yoke and give them the kind of liberty that generations of prophets had told them to expect. It’s still a lingering expectation within Christendom. The whole idea of the ‘Second Coming’ of Jesus is built around the notion of Jesus returning but this time with a different agenda: at his first coming he was gentle and peaceful, understanding, forgiving, giving people a chance to mend their ways. But, at his second coming it will be no more Mr. Nice Guy, they tell us. Next time round he won’t plead with the wicked, he’ll destroy them completely (as groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses believe), or condemn them to the lake of fire where they’ll burn for all eternity (which is still the orthodox position). Some change! Is the principle of forgiveness provisional? Is it only for a time? Does the parable of the Prodigal Son only apply until Jesus returns? We, the crowd, love a powerful, vengeful God, a punishing, stick-wielding Jesus, a deity who’s going to see to it that everyone gets what he deserves. Barabbas was a murderer, the Gospel says. Secretly, we rather like what he represents.
It was interesting to watch the programme on the Gospels presented recently by Gerry Adams in the Channel 4 series on the Bible. Many people thought Adams a curious choice as presenter, and the choice was no doubt motivated, in part at least, by a cynical desire on the part of the producers to attract viewers through controversy. But there was another dimension to it. Gerry Adams is a radical politician, a self-styled revolutionary, one who has allegedly been involved in an insurrectionary organisation, just as many think that Jesus was. We hear about Jesus the political activist frequently, particularly from people on the left: Jesus was a communist, they say; Jesus believed in transforming the political system, overthrowing the Roman overlords, wresting power from the rich, redistributing wealth, and so on. Liberation theology as it is called has to some extent cultivated and promoted this image of Jesus as an early Che Guevara figure. In the Channel 4 programme on Jesus, Gerry Adams was talking to a biblical expert about the trial and crucifixion of Jesus, and the subject of Barabbas came up. The scholar told Gerry that Barabbas was a terrorist, and Gerry added, ‘Or, as some might say, a freedom-fighter,’ but then it seemed to dawn on him just what he had said: the freedom-fighter in the Gospel story is Jesus Barabbas. Jesus son of Mary told Pilate, ‘My kingdom is not of this world.’ I think Gerry realised he’d got the wrong Jesus.
Pilate let Jesus Barabbas go free while he sent Jesus Son of Mary to the cross. Barabbas has been released among us: he’s a god or at least a demigod, a terrorist, a revolutionary, an authoritarian. He’s become the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, Creator of the World, Pantocrator, Messiah, Christ, Mediator, Saviour, miracle worker, judge of the world, punisher of the wicked, destroyer of the unrepentant, scourge of the unbeliever. Down the ages people have worshipped him, feared him, and appropriated him for this or that political or religious agenda. We’ve twisted his words to make them into prophecies of future calamities. We’ve sent letters to writers and artists like Phillip Pullman issuing death threats in his name. We’ve woven around his life a multitude of incomprehensible dogmas over which we argue with each other, exclude and anathematize each other, and even kill each other. We’ve made him sinless, pre-existent, virgin-born, all-powerful, all-knowing, giving him qualities which take him out of the human situation altogether. We have indeed, often made a scoundrel out of him.
What we haven’t done to any marked degree, is follow him. What we haven’t done is find in him a human being like ourselves, but one who presents to us a different way of understanding and developing our humanity, a way that is truly radical in that it overturns all the accepted norms of human behaviour, not just temporarily but permanently. As G.K. Chesterton said, Christianity hasn’t failed, it hasn’t even been tried. Maybe this Easter we should look to a new kind of resurrection, not the fancied reanimation of a corpse, but the rebirth in our imagination and in our lives of a human Jesus; maybe now is the time, figuratively speaking of course, to send Jesus Barabbas to the cross and let Jesus son of Mary go free. (Easter Sunday 4th April, 2010)