Updated: Mar 7
There are passages of the Bible that I have read repeatedly until I can practically quote them in my sleep. I have felt so familiar with certain passages or stories that there didn’t seem to be anything else I could glean from them.
Then the other day I was completely gob-smacked (an old Irish term for utterly astonished) when I was reading the passages of Yeshua’s trial before Pilate and the people. I was comparing the gospel accounts and different versions of the Bible when I had to stop and make sure I was reading what I thought I had read.
Let’s go to the passages I’m referencing, which are in Matthew, chapter 27:15-17 . I’ll quote it to you from several different sources. I want you to read them slowly. Let’s start with the well-loved King James version:
“Now at that feast the governor was wont to release unto the people a prisoner, whom they would. And they had then a notable prisoner, called Barabbas. Therefore when they were gathered together, Pilate said unto them, ‘Whom will ye that I release unto you? Barabbas, or Jesus which is called Christ?’” (KJV)
Let’s try the English Standard version:
“Now at the feast the governor was accustomed to release for the crowd any one prisoner whom they wanted. And they had then a notorious prisoner called Barabbas. So when they had gathered, Pilate said to them, ‘Whom do you want me to release for you: Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?’” (ESV)
How about the Amplified Bible?
“Now at the feast [of the Passover] the governor was in the habit of setting free any one prisoner whom the people chose. And at that time they were holding a notorious prisoner [guilty of insurrection and murder], called Barabbas. So when they had assembled [for this purpose], Pilate said to them, ‘Whom do you want me to set free for you? Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?’” (AMP)
And one last popular version before we proceed…the New American Standard Bible.
Now at the Passover Feast the governor was accustomed to release for the people any one prisoner whom they wanted. And at that time they were holding a notorious prisoner called Barabbas. So when the people gathered together, Pilate said to them, ‘Whom do you want me to release for you: Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?’”
My main Bible has been the Complete Jewish Bible for the last few years, but I had a King James Bible before that. And just as we can read words with missing or transposed vowels because our brain is a magnificent code-breaker, so too can our brains not register minor changes in passages or words we’re reading when we’re very familiar with them. When we simply scan the text instead of actively reading it, our brains gloss over any discrepancies. Because of illness I have been very addled in my reading comprehension lately, and I have had to read things more slowly. The bolded words are what jumped out at me as I read this passage in my Bible.
“It was the governor’s custom during a festival to set free one prisoner, whomever the crowd asked for. There was at that time a notorious prisoner being held, named Yeshua Bar-Abba. So when a crowd had gathered, Pilate said to them, “Whom do you want me to set free for you? Bar-Abba? or Yeshua, called ‘the Messiah’?” (CJB)
Wait a minute…where did that addition to Barabbas’ name come from? Yeshua Bar-Abba? I began scouring the different Bible versions on Bible Gateway to see if I had been that oblivious throughout the years and should perhaps turn in my research/writing/teaching creds. You can see from the passages that have been quoted that there was never an indication of Barabbas’ name being Jesus (or Yeshua) in many of the Bible translations.
Then I pulled up the New International Version and here is how it reads (I have bolded the relevant words):
“Now it was the governor’s custom at the festival to release a prisoner chosen by the crowd. At that time they had a well-known prisoner whose name was Jesus Barabbas. So when the crowd had gathered, Pilate asked them, ‘Which one do you want me to release to you: Jesus Barabbas, or Jesus who is called the Messiah?’”
There is a footnote in the NIV version that states many manuscripts don’t have the name Jesus before Barabbas’ name. Now my nerd brain was in full gear. How had this textual variant happened and what were we to make of it?
Let’s look at the United Bible Societies’ Bruce Metzger’s commentary. (The United Bible Societies is a network operating in over 240 countries with over 150 individual Bible societies to work at translating the Bible and distributing it. It was begun right after WWII. Bruce Metzger was an American biblical scholar, Bible translator, and longtime professor and Bible editor at Princeton Theological Seminary.)
“A majority of the Committee was of the opinion that the original text of Matthew has the double name in both verses and that Ἰησοῦν was deliberately suppressed in most witnesses for reverential considerations.”
What Metzger is saying is that most everyone agreed, based on evidence, that later scribes deleted Barabbas’ first name out of reverence for Yeshua our Messiah.
The NET Bible, a Bible with over 60,000 translator notes included (the perfect tool for us research fanatics!), has this to say:
There is no good reason for a scribe unintentionally adding Ἰησοῦν (iēsoun) [Jesus] before Βαραββᾶν (Barabban), especially since Barabbas is mentioned first in each verse (thus dittography [repetition by a copyist] is ruled out).
Further, the addition of τὸν λεγόμενον Χριστόν (ton legomenon Christon, “who is called Christ”) to ᾿Ιησοῦν in v. 17 makes better sense if Barabbas is also called “Jesus” (otherwise, a mere “Jesus” would have been a sufficient appellation to distinguish the two).
In a nutshell? There was no good reason for ANY scribe to include the name Jesus before Barabbas in any translation or copy, especially since Barabbas is always mentioned first (thus ruling out a simple duplication error). In addition, the additional explanation of Jesus “who is called Christ” would not have been needed to distinguish between the two men if Barabbas had simply been Barabbas. There’s no way to mix up those two names.
Is Barabbas’ name and his character really important to our study of the Bible? I think it is. We know from Matthew that he was a “well-known prisoner” (NIV), and Mark tells us that he was in prison with the insurrectionists who had committed murder. Other gospels allude to him as a robber or plunderer. However, Peter, in Acts 3:14, calls him a murderer.
He was in prison and condemned for treason against Rome. He participated in rebellious uprisings that attempted to overthrow the Roman government. In short, Barabbas was content to use all natural means, all earthly ways, to get the outcome he wanted, no matter the cost.
His name gives us even more insight into his character, and this is where I think the absence of his full name in various translations does a disservice to what G-d can reveal to us in this passage.
We know that Yeshua (Jesus) means salvation. Barabbas’ name can be broken down this way (as it is in the Complete Jewish Bible) – Bar-Abbas, or son of a father. In essence, Barabbas is a son of a father of this world, fully immersed in the ways of the world. His name can be read as salvation through worldly means (which we know is no salvation at all.)
Yeshua our Messiah, however, is also salvation, but salvation through the Anointed One, the Son of THE Father. The Father’s ways are not our ways, and many times we are blinded or deliberately refuse to see how He is working in ways that transcend the physical.
The Hebrews of first century Israel were looking for a physical king, one who would take Israel back from the Romans by force, by bloodshed if necessary. They were looking for Mashiach ben David, the conquering King. What they failed or refused to see, however, was that Mashiach had to come as Mashiach ben Joseph, the Suffering Servant, first. The spiritual rebirth had to occur first, or an earthly kingdom would be of no use. Our human natures would ensure that we would rebel even against the King of Kings without that spiritual realignment that only the Father can accomplish.
In the end, Pilate asked the crowd which Yeshua they wanted. They chose the son of a worldly father instead of the Son of THE Father. They wanted the shortcut, the earthly way of satisfying their desires, not G-d's way. In the end, they rejected the Son who loved them for a murderer.
I think we need to ask ourselves the same question. Have we made a Jesus in our own worldly image, or are we embracing the Yeshua sent from the Father? The fact is, many times we follow a Jesus of our own making, one in our image that we feel more comfortable with, a Jesus that is physically, ideologically, or politically more like our beliefs and interpretations. But this Yeshua has little to no resemblance to Yeshua H’Mashiach that is depicted in the gospels or apostolic writings. He bears no resemblance to the Messiah ben Joseph/Messiah ben David spoken of throughout the Hebrew scriptures, from Moses to the prophets.
As I studied and pondered, I came to the conclusion that the acronym WWJD (what would Jesus do) is the most over-hyped, useless acronym we could possibly base our faith standards on. Now, before you break open the goose-down quilt and start heating the tar up, give me a moment to explain.
You see, we can’t possibly answer WWJD until we acknowledge which Jesus (Yeshua) we’re serving, which Jesus (Yeshua) we have committed to following. And if we’re following the Jesus that comes from THE Father then Scripture gives us that answer. But if we’re not…
Perhaps the better question we should be asking is this…
Which Jesus do YOU want?