All four gospels recount Barabbas’ role in Jesus’ trial (cf. Matthew 27:15-26; Luke 23:18-25; John 18:39-40). Matthew 27:16 in the English Standard Version says that Barabbas was a “notorious prisoner;” John 18:40 calls him a “robber” or “bandit,” which according to Robert Eisenman, is “the word Josephus always employs when talking about Revolutionaries.” Contemporaries combining insurrection and murder in this way were sicarii, members of a militant Jewish movement that sought to subvert the Roman occupiers of their land by force (Eisenman 177-84, et passim).
“Bar Abbas” is the Hellenized form of the Aramaic appellation Bar Abba. Bar means “son of” and abba means “father,” which is a Hebrew term that connotes intimacy and closeness. Thus, Barabbas is patronymic, “the son of the father” or “the son of his dear father.” On Passover in Jerusalem in A.D. 33, there was a guilty but pardoned “son of the father,” Barabbas, and an innocent but condemned “Son of the Father,” Jesus of Nazareth.
As the ruthless Roman guards approached Barabbas’ cell, he was expecting the worst was about to commence. But instead, they unlocked his heavy shackles, plunking them to the stone floor with a clang that reverberated through the halls of the governor’s prison. Slowly, he realized what was happening: They were releasing him. As he was escorted out of the prison, Barabbas passed and locked eyes with a man, bloody and wearing a crown of thorns, obviously having been severely beaten. He eventually learned of this substitution that had given him a new lease on life. No miserable cross awaited this convicted murderer, who had rebelled against someone’s kingdom. Where the day before he didn’t stand a chance against 1st-century Roman justice, it’s certain that he could hardly believe his “luck.”
“Yeshua,” or Jesus, was a rather common name during 1st-century Judea. Extant manuscripts of the Scriptures state that Barabbas’ full name was Jesus Barabbas, though the first name later might have been removed by scribes. Whatever his real name was, he was a condemned killer, thief and insurgent — guilty as charged and sentenced the due penalty for his crimes. Perhaps Barabbas’ role in the story is more significant — and by that, I mean having a special meaning — than we see on the surface. Was the name of Barabbas, given to him in Scripture, simply a matter of fortuitous circumstance — or was his name meant to point to a deeper truth that applies to us all? Do we identify with the murderer, Barabbas, waiting on death row? Maybe we should.
The Jewish mob had the choice between two men named Jesus, and chose to turn loose the one who was a convicted criminal. This is consistent with our fallen human nature. Yes, we have a “choice” to accept or reject Jesus Christ; but left to our own sinful nature, we would only choose sin, embracing the wrong savior, expecting him to deliver us from temporal oppression. But we would condemn ourselves to eternal bondage to sin and death instead of liberation from sin and eternal life (John 6:44; Romans 2:4).