Who was the better choice for Pilate to release?
The answer to that question depends on what people were looking for.
If you were looking for someone who proclaimed the nearness of God to all who would seek him and the way of love as laying down one’s life for others, Jesus of Nazareth is who you wanted.
But if you were looking for something else, as most at the time were, you might have preferred another option.
Maybe a guy like Barabbas.
Interestingly he is also named Jesus (Yeshua Bar Abba).
At first glance, we don’t really see the appeal, but Barabbas was probably the people’s choice for a reason.
In several translations, including the KJV, John’s Gospel refers to him as a robber. Some other translations call him a brigand.
This tends to be how many of us think of Barabbas. A robber.
While robber or brigand is a perfectly acceptable translation of the Greek word ‘lestes,’ it misses an important part of the picture.
It also leaves us a bit confused as to why the crowds could have been so easily talked into calling for his release instead of Jesus’.
If he was a simply a robber who attacked people or stole from average people like them (think of the robber in the parable of the Good Samaritan), it would have been a tougher sell.
Think about it.
While Barabbas may have been a robber, he was more than that.
Fortunately, the other Gospel accounts as well as an interesting bit of word use help us understand the bigger picture.
A man called Barabbas was in prison with the insurrectionists who had committed murder in the uprising.Mark 15:7
Mark gives us a huge clue here. Barabbas was an insurrectionist and had committed murder as part of an uprising.
Now we begin to see the appeal.
Remember, what the majority of 1st Century Palestinian Jews wanted was Rome off their backs and out of their country.
And some, possibly many, were willing to use violence to make it happen.
The group perhaps most committed to using violence to accomplish their goal were known as the Zealots, although others were willing to follow the same direction if needed.
Barabbas was not only a robber. He was someone willing to get his hands bloody in the fight against Roman occupation.
And, interestingly, a well-known Jewish writer of the era called Josephus uses that same Greek word (lestes) found in John’s Gospel to refer to the Zealots’ activity.
That’s probably why Barabbas was an easy sell to the people.
He had actually taken a shot at what many of them had dreamed of: sticking it to Rome and trying to get rid of them. It didn’t work, of course, but he had been a part of trying.
Jesus of Nazareth, by contrast, wasn’t very interested in that agenda. He guided people to pay their taxes (‘give to Caesar what is Caesars’) and to go an extra mile when forced to carry a Roman soldier’s gear.
He taught that God’s kingdom wouldn’t come by by physical force. It would grow like the tiny mustard seed, transforming people and communities in the way of self giving love.
Sadly, that had much less appeal.
So, for many in the crowd, Jesus Barabbas was the more appealing choice than Jesus of Nazareth.
And ironically, they released the man likely to rise up, steal and kill Roman soldiers again and crucified the man who taught people to love those same soldiers.
Which Jesus would you have chosen?