Monday, April 02, 2007

Palm Sunday - Barabbas, violence, and antichrists

The four Christian gospels include in their account of the events leading up to the crucifixion of Jesus the striking story of the crowd choosing a criminal named Barabbas to be the recipient of the avoid-execution-and-get-out-of-jail-free card that the Romans offered the Jews every Passover. Jesus could have been the lucky winner, but the crowd said "Barabbas".

One of the problems with the story is that there's no other written reference to this merciful custom. It's an unlikely custom, out of character for the Romans. But it's a great parable.

That's because Barabbas is the antithesis of Jesus -- an antichrist, if you will. Take his name: Bar-Abbas, "son of the father". Some texts even name him "Jesus Barabbas". That's quite a challenge to the claim that Jesus of Nazareth is the One who is The Son of The Father.

Further, Barabbas is referred to in one gospel as an insurrectionist and murderer, and in another as having been arrested with insurrectionists who had committed murder, and in a third simply as an insurrectionist. Clearly, this Barabbas is a Zealot of some type -- a member of the movement for violent resistance to the Evil Empire.

Jesus, on the other hand, rejected the Zealot option, although his followers included former Zealots, such as Simon the Zealot and Judas the Zealot. Judas Iscariot might have been a Zealot also -- one of the knife-wielding assassins known as Sicarii, after "sicarius", their type of dagger. ("Iscariot" could be a simple garbling of "Sicariot" --but the derivation of "Iscariot" is quite uncertain.)

The novel and movie, The Last Temptation of Christ, showed a Jesus who was tempted to live the normal life of a married man and father. The episode of Barabbas, however, makes it more plausible that the temptation was political: the real issue was peaceful change vs. violent change. The expectation for a Jewish Messiah was that he would lead a movement of successful redemptive violence to overthrow the oppressions of the current Evil Empire. The gospels make much of the disciples' conventional messianic expectations. Jesus keeps trying to disabuse them of that notion. It takes a long time for them to get it.

A foundational element of the Jesus message is peace. No blessings for Redemptive Violence to Save The People. Only blessings for peacemakers. Love the enemy? That would not be the way of the expected messiah or of the other, low-fi Jesus, Barabbas. No wonder a mainline religious crowd would be portrayed as choosing Barabbas and rejecting Jesus.

A more convincing Last Tempation of Christ would not have him flee to the arms of a zaftig Mary Magdalene to beget fine children. The message of the Palm Sunday scriptures and liturgy is that becoming Barabbas would have been the way to win the acclaim of the crowd and avoid the cross -- at the cost of continuing the delusion that violence will then wipe out the evildoers and, in the words of our president, "rid the world of evil".

If Barabbas is the first exemplar of the type labeled "anti-Christ", he's not a perfect one; his religious claims are only by analogy, based on his name. Political leaders who wage Manichean wars in the name of God come closer to the ideal.


John Backman said...


Very trenchant insights on the Barabbas story. The only thing I'd add is that maybe Jesus did, at some point, dream of a normal life with wife and children. It would be oh-so-human to do so: how many of us have, in moments of risk or danger, thought, "Why can't I just go back to my nice, quiet, NORMAL life"?

That said, your point is well taken: Jesus wasn't selling what the Zealots were buying. That could get ANYONE in trouble.

Brother Billy said...


I accept your addition about Jesus and the normal life. Being a man, and a Jewish man, he would naturally want to have a wife and family.

If I were writing a "Last Temptation of Christ", I'd be inclined to portray him as a widower who might have lost his wife and child in an epidemic -- or perhaps lost both in childbirth -- and who found his calling after that. Marriage to Mary Magdalene wouldn't be out of the question, either.

However, I'm also inclined to take Crossan's view that as a 'tekton', or day laborer, Jesus, like many other displaced rural folks, might not have had the economic resources to marry young. Crossan thinks that late marriage -- in the 30s -- was probably pretty common for the landless poor.

Either way, in the time of crisis and danger, he'd likely think wistfully of The Normal Life.

That being said, the big temptation -- the structural or life-defining choice -- would be the Zealot option. His rejection of that option is what defines his message and his mission. Violence, not marriage, is the difficult issue for ordinary Christians.

Malana said...

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