Whatever Happened to Barabbas?

By Bob Hiller

Whatever happened to old Barabbas? You remember Barabbas from the Passion narrative, don’t you? He’s the robber (John 8:40), the notorious insurrectionist and murderer (Matt. 27:16; Mark. 15:7; Luke 23:18-19) who is bound for the cross the same week Jesus was on trial. When Pilate took up the custom of releasing a prisoner to the Jews and “tried” to let Jesus go (his wife was nervous and all), the angry leaders among the Jews demanded the criminal Barabbas be set free and Jesus crucified. Pilate knew Jesus had done nothing deserving death. He knew Barabbas should be the one to die. But he was too much of a coward to do the right thing. So, Pilate let the criminal go and put Jesus on Barabbas’ cross. Jesus didn’t just die a criminal’s death in some general sense. He died on Barabbas’ cross.

So, Barabbas got to go free. But what happened to him once Jesus took His cross? Did he go back to robbing? Did he re-up with the rebels (perhaps the Zealots) and set out to murder more Romans? What did Barabbas do with his new-found freedom once Jesus took his place on that cross?

History, as far as I know, doesn’t tell us what happened to Barabbas. It very well could be that he earned his way back to the cross a few weeks later. The picture of Barabbas I have in my head is from some old Jesus movie where Jesus is a stoic with piercing blue eyes. When Barabbas is freed, he’s pumping his fists and hyping the crowd. The dude looks like he’s on his way to the old digs to find some crime.

I suppose that’s what could have happened. Barabbas could have gone back to the old sinful ways. That is the danger of freedom, isn’t it? The possibility of sin is always there. The potential to fall back, or run back, as the case may be, into old forms of bondage is hard to resist. Old habits die hard and all that. Finding new friends is never easy for those who get out of prison, and the old friends have plans for you. Even as Christians who have been set free from the bondage of sin, we know that the old temptations don’t give up all that easy.

I have no doubt that once Barabbas was set free that he was presented with his old life. But since we’re speculating, what if something changed for Barabbas? What if something for him was different? After all, Jesus literally died on his cross. If one of us were to grab Barabbas and try to explain Luther’s happy exchange or the vicarious atonement, he could say, “Brother, you have no idea!” I actually wonder if he would. I wonder if Barabbas would call you brother or sister and then proceed to tell you about the time Jesus took his place. I wonder if Barabbas, though still riddled with sin, didn’t start going to church.

Now, I know its speculation. But its not as far fetched as you might think. Richard Bauckham, in his marvelous book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, writes,

Many characters in the Gospels are unnamed, but others are named. I want to suggest now the possibility that many of the named characters were eyewitnesses who not only originate the traditions to which their names are attached but also continued to tell these stories as authoritative guarantors of their traditions. In some cases the Evangelists may have known them” (Bauckham, pg. 39).

It could very well be that each of the gospel writers refer to the Barabbas account because he was a notorious criminal, and everyone would have known the story. It would have been a reference point of sorts for the early readers of the gospels. However, it could also be the case, if we take Bauckham’s theory (and I do!) that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John had direct contact with the ol’ murderer himself! When they reference him by name in the gospels, its as though they are saying, “You know Barabbas. He’s known in our churches. Go ask him about the time Jesus took his place on the cross!”

Now, of course, I don’t have the Jerusalem’s membership rolls from the first century, so I can’t say that Barabbas was a baptized member. But I like to think that if he showed up for the apostle’s teachings, the fellowship, the breaking of bread, and the prayers, Barabbas would have been welcomed to the altar. I like to think that a sinner with a reputation like that has a place in the church. Because, let’s face it, we’re no better than he is and the church is really just the place for people who have had Jesus take their place. What if in taking Barabbas’ place, Barabbas came to love and trust the one who stood in his place?

Ultimately, though, this is all pious speculation. Whatever became of old Barabbas I cannot say with any confidence. But with complete confidence I can say what happened for him. Jesus died in His place. And you, dear sinner, on this Good Friday, I can say with complete confidence what has happened for you: Jesus took your place on that cross. He was punished for your sins, your crimes, your insurrections, murders, and robberies, adulteries, lusts, slanders (need I go on?). For you, the prophet Isaiah says, “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed” (Isaiah 53:4-5) .

You are free from your sins because Christ Jesus took your place. What will you do with this new-found freedom? I can only speculate. But I pray it will bring you to the church, because that is just the place for people who have had Jesus die in their place.