I’ve been thinking a bit about Barabbas this week (albeit somewhat disjointedly), and I thought I’d share my thinking here.
Now at the feast he used to release for them one prisoner for whom they asked. And among the rebels in prison, who had committed murder in the insurrection, there was a man called Barabbas. And the crowd came up and began to ask Pilate to do as he usually did for them. And he answered them, saying, “Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?” For he perceived that it was out of envy that the chief priests had delivered him up.But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release for them Barabbas instead. And Pilate again said to them, “Then what shall I do with the man you call the King of the Jews?” And they cried out again, “Crucify him.” And Pilate said to them, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Crucify him.” So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released for them Barabbas, and having scourged Jesus, he delivered him to be crucified.
Mark states that they were a number of rebels in the prison who committed murder in the (unspecified) insurrection, but it is Barabbas who the chief priests want released. It’s unclear what their motivation for wanting Barabbas in particular to be released was- they could have chosen some petty low-level criminal who didn’t pose much of a threat instead, rather than a man who is clearly dangerous (especially someone who posed a threat to the Romans, and would be less likely to be released by Pilate).
Pilate doesn’t want to release Barabbas. He asks about Jesus “what evil has he done?”, presumably in contrast to Barabbas (who is noted as a “notorious prisoner” by Matthew) whose actions will have been well-documented.
It could well be that Barabbas was simply a well-known name and he was the best choice to avoid a split vote (not that this was in any way democratic, but a unified voice is better than lots of people shouting different names), but in choosing Barabbas, the chief priests are essentially that Jesus’ alleged blasphemy is a greater crime than any that Barabbas has committed. Or they just really wanted to humiliate him and send a message to his followers.
Barabbas probably couldn’t believe his luck. Unfortunately, we don’t know what his reaction was (beyond the Passion accounts, he’s not mentioned elsewhere), but it is reasonable to assume that he was at least thankful because he escaped the death penalty. He may have been hostile to Jesus and thought it was a double blessing that he went free while a man he didn’t like died in his place. Mark (and the other gospels) don’t record this because that’s not the point they are trying to make. I personally think Mark’s emphasis here is more on God’s sovereignty and the fulfilment of Scripture than in Jesus taking punishment for our sins, but that’s not to say we should disregard that element altogether.
For example, the name Barabbas is Aramaic and means “son of the father” which basically is a way of saying “anyone” since every man is the son of a father, or could be taken as a way of contrasting with Jesus, the son of the Father. That was probably his actual name, but if there is significance in this, perhaps Mark is emphasising that Barabbas represents everyone and that Jesus is taking our deserved punishment.
In any case, Barabbas’ freedom meant Scripture could be fulfilled and that we can have peace with God. It would be great if he personally realised that, but sadly we’ll never know.