The Barabbas Narrative Proves the Gospels Cannot Be Trusted?

grdbrtgI recently watched a debate between Dr. William Lane Craig and Dr. Richard Carrier on the resurrection. Richard Carrier’s main issue with the resurrection is that there’s no evidence for its historicity. You may be thinking “but wait…what about the gospels?” Dr. Carrier repeatedly makes the claim that the gospels cannot be taken as historical because that’s not their genre. They are not concerned with history; they’re concerned with theology. They have no historical value. An interesting example is the release of Barabbas at the trial of Jesus (28:34 in the video). The account is attested in all four gospels (Matt. 27:15-26; Mark 15:6-15; Luke 23:13-25; John 18:39-40). Dr. Carrier’s position is the gospels are clearly not written to record history but myth the early church believed. This is evidenced by a few things in regards to the Barabbas incident. Dr. Carrier’s issues with that account are twofold: 1) Barabbas’ name means “son of the father” which is just too ironic, and 2) the idea of releasing a prisoner is not found outside the New Testament.  Dr. Carrier finds the story of one “son of the father” (Aramaic for Barabbas) being released while the true Son of the Father condemned to be a recapitulation of an Old Testament ritual where one sacrificial goat is released and another bears the weight of sin as an atoning substitute (Lev. 16:8-10, 23:27-32). A false son is released while the true son carries the weight of Israel’s sin. The irony is just too rich to be true. Second, for Dr. Carrier, it is just too obtuse and implausible for the Roman leadership to release a Jewish prisoner.


Should we take Dr. Carrier’s position as fact and subsequently abandon the idea that Jesus rose from the dead (which would be the end of Christianity)? Hardly! There seems to be some issues that need to be discussed. Dr. Craig brought up a few with the apparent mythical account of Barabbas. First, the name is actually a common name in the first century. Dr. Craig responds saying:

“Barabbas” is not, in fact, an unusual name at all but is a frequently attested surname. It is attested in Aramaic as “Bar-Abba” from as early as the fifth century B.C. right on through the rabbis of the Amoraic period of the second to fifth centuries after Christ. We even have an inscription from the time of Christ in a burial cave at Giv’at ja-Mivtar near Jerusalem of the name “Abba,” the name of a man whose son would be called Barabbas in Greek. The fact that Barabbas was a common surname evacuates any argument based on its allegedly unusual nature of significance. Semitic names frequently expressed deeper meanings, and so it is here.

dfgbfgBecause the name is such a common one amongst early Jews, there seems to be no reason to assume that it was made up on the spot by the gospel writers. Another further problem is the misplaced symbolism associated with Carrier’s position. The problem is the theological symbolism is skewed if Carrier’s position is true. He is right to affirm that there was an Old Testament ritual where two goats are brought to the tent of meeting (Lev. 16). The priest would cast lots to determine which beast is for the LORD and which is for Azazel. The one for the LORD is sacrificed to cleanse the tent of meeting and the goat that finds itself fortunate enough to be in the Azazelian position is set free into the wilderness. The goat that is set free represents the picture of Israel’s sin being sent out of the camp. The “scapegoat” is to remove the impurity and iniquity from the community in order to avoid offending the Lord and the repercussions of such dangerous malady. If the Barabbas narrative has this story as its backdrop, it is then Barabbas who is bearing the weight of Israel’s sin, not Jesus! The writers would be getting their Old Testament symbol wrong. Dr. Carrier’s reading is actually what’s ironic. The backdrop of the passion narrative is not the Yom Kippur sacrificial scapegoat but the Passover lamb’s sacrifice. The Passover feast is directly connected with the narrative portions concerning the Lord ’s Table (Matt. 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:14-23). Furthermore, John’s gospel explicitly links the Passover lamb with the sacrifice of Jesus when it says “But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water. He who saw it has borne witness— his testimony is true, and he knows that he is telling the truth— that you also may believe. For these things took place that the Scripture might be fulfilled: “Not one of his bones will be broken.” (John 19:34-36). The Old Testament Scripture that is grammatically closest to this phrase is the Septuagint’s (Greek translation of the OT) quotation of Exo. 12:10 (See also Exo. 12:46; Num. 9:12; Psa. 34:20). The Messiah is being linked with the Passover lamb of Israel (John 1:29). Deliverance through the blood of a lamb prefigured the coming of Jesus as the Lamb of God to obtain final salvation for God’s people through his death, which in turn redeemed them from death, sin, and Satan.

Dr. Carrier’s position is likely also clouded by his anti-supernaturalist worldview. If there is no God who has been working through Israel and her sacrificial system and who embodied the person of Jesus who the sacrificial system prefigures, it would seem that the gospel writers are in fact just making up things that are demonstrably false. But if God has in fact worked within history by unfolding his plan of redemption since our original parent’s disobedience, then it seems reasonable that things happened according to his preconceived order. If the Christian narrative is true and things do in fact happen according to his will, there’s no real problem with Old Testament shadows being fulfilled in New Testament realities.

defgvrstgWhat about the idea of a Roman leader letting a Jewish criminal go? Other liberal scholars have also pointed to this portion as evidence that the account is ahistorical for no Jewish custom exists. Are they right? Dr. B. Corley refutes Dr. Carrier’s second rejoinder in his article in the Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels saying:

The Barabbas incident and the paschal amnesty in particular are often dismissed as nonhistorical, “nothing but a figment of the imagination” (Winter, 134). The objections to the episode, based on the lack of evidence for such a custom in antiquity, do not carry sufficient weight. In the provincial cities, acclamation of the people {acclamatio populi) played a significant role in Roman legal administration (Strobel, 126-27); there are numerous examples of Roman magistrates who heeded a crowd’s wishes at the tribunal (e.g., Tacitus Ann. 1.44.4; Justinian Digest 49.1.12; 48.8.16; see Bickerman, 103, 133-34). This custom is well illustrated by an incident in Egypt (A.D. 85) where the Roman governor released the accused, saying, “You deserve to be scourged [mastigōthēnai] . . . , but I will deal more humanely with you and will release you to the crowds” [ochlois] (Papyrus Florentinus 61.59-65; cf. Blinzler, 207]). The political situation for Pilate was acutely unstable because of a series of clashes with the Jews (cf. Philo Leg. Gai. 38 §301-302), so he would have been inclined to placate them on this occasion. He did not want a bad report in Rome, and the Jews traded on his insecurity as a “friend of Caesar” (Jn 19:12), a title weighted with political intrigue during the last stages of Tiberius’ reign (cf. Tacitus Ann. 6.8; Philo Flacc. 6 §40; NewDocs 1978. 75). No clear evidence has yet come to light for a regular amnesty at a feast, but a provision stated in the Mishnah may be relevant: “They may slaughter the Passover . . . for one whom they have promised to bring out of prison” (m. Pesaḩ. 8:6). This much-discussed text may refer to an evening release from a Jewish prison (Jeremias, 73), but it must have occurred with regularity to become a topic of rabbinic legislation, and a Roman detention cannot be ruled out (Blinzler, 218-21; Robinson, 261). These analogies favor the historical plausibility of the Gospel account much more than the explanations which try to derive the story in purely theological terms.

From the mentioned issues found above, it seems best to continue trusting the gospels’ account of the resurrection and carrying on with our Christian faith.


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