The four Gospels sometimes tell different stories. Only John’s Gospel tells of the raising of Lazarus. Only Luke tells the story of Mary and Martha. Only Matthew has Jesus saying, “Come to me, all you that are weary and heavy laden.” There are many such examples.
So when all four Gospels tell the same story, it’s worth paying attention, especially if the story is about an apparently insignificant figure—like Barabbas. After all, Barabbas appears only once in the Gospels, when Pilate offers to release a prisoner at Passover, either Jesus or Barabbas. The people choose Barabbas, and we know what happened to Jesus.
Barabbas doesn’t appear earlier, nor do we hear what happened to him subsequently. Did he go back to life as a guerilla fighter? Did he retire in peace to cultivate a little vineyard somewhere? If he had become a disciple, I’m pretty sure we would have been told.
So why is he there—four times? Here’s one possible explanation: that the early evangelists found it useful to tell his story in their preaching. What is that story? Maybe it went something like this:
The night before my crucifixion, I didn’t sleep much. It had been a trap, of course, and I should have seen it coming. Three of us against two of them seemed reasonable odds, but with half a dozen more of them hiding in the shadows, we had no chance. The result was inevitable: death by crucifixion.
I had seen men die on crosses before and it wasn’t a pretty sight. Of course, I could see their point of view. They were the Romans, after all. They thought they ruled the world, and anyone who defied them was dealt with quickly and brutally. And I have to admit, if I caught a Roman soldier—and I had caught a few in my time—I dealt with them quickly and brutally too. In the world of the Jews versus the Romans, it was an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.
But the night before my crucifixion, I wasn’t thinking anything as rational as that. The cell was cold and damp and miserable; the rats scurried in the dirty straw around my feet; I tried to pray but God seemed a million miles away.
Finally, a grey light began to grow through the little square opening in the wall high above my head. Morning was near. I tried to collect my thoughts. Was there really no way of escape? Could my friends really not organise some kind of raid on the prison? But no, that was wishful thinking. This time, it was the end.
Eventually, I heard the heavy feet of a patrol coming down the corridor: tramp, tramp, tramp. Then, “Company, halt!” A key turned in the lock, and the door swung open with a loud squeak. There was the biggest Roman centurion I had ever seen, in full dress uniform, with four of his men behind him. “Barabbas! On your feet. It’s time to go.”
After a life like mine, I’m not easy to scare, but now it was difficult to get to my feet, and it wasn’t just the heavy irons on my ankles. A burly soldier took each arm, and they marched me out of the cell and down the corridor. We came to a door I knew led to the outside. One of the soldiers fiddled with the huge lock on the door, while the centurion unrolled a scroll he was carrying. He read: “Barabbas, by order of His Excellency Pontius Pilate, with the authority of the Emperor Augustus, I declare that this day you shall be … set free.” The door swung open, and I was almost blinded by the sunshine.
I couldn’t take it in. Was this some kind of cruel joke? I wouldn’t put it past them. “Did you say free?” “I’m afraid I did,” said the centurion. “Can’t see the point myself. Vermin like you. Now get lost before the governor comes to his senses and changes his mind.”
I stumbled into the daylight, and found myself surrounded by friendly hands holding me up. I looked around, and there were a bunch of my men, grinning from ear to ear. “Come on,” they said, “we need to get out of here. No point in hanging around. We’ve got horses. Let’s get going.” They helped me up onto a horse and we all began to ride towards the city gate.
“What’s going on?” I asked. “Never say Rome didn’t do anything for you,” said Eli with a laugh. “It’s the Passover, remember? The governor offered to release a prisoner to the crowd like he always does, and we got them all to shout for you. A bit taken aback he was, thought we’d ask for that Jesus character from Nazareth. But he couldn’t back out just because he didn’t like our choice, now, could he?” He slapped me on the back: “So you’re free as a bird, me boy!”
Just then, we came through the city gate, and as I looked up, my eyes were drawn by three crosses on a hill. Eli saw me looking. “Sure, one of those had your name on it!” he crowed, “but now this carpenter guy has got your cross.” “What did he do?” I couldn’t help asking. “Nothing,” Eli shrugged, “except get on the wrong side of the priests and Pharisees. Thought he was the messiah, apparently, and that’s one thing that gets the priests and the Romans worried. Anyway, why should you worry? He’s on the cross and you get to go free. Now is that a good exchange or what?”
Which in a way it was. I was the one who’d done wrong, after all, and by Roman standards I deserved to die. But Jesus hadn’t done anything wrong, and here he was dying on my cross, dying my death, in my place. In a strange way, I felt grateful, as if there’s something I should be doing for him.