Denigrating the Oppressed: A Fresh Look At Barabbas

It seems that holy week would be an appropriate time to reconsider Barabbas, despite colonized depictions that disparage and belie the legacy of this man. I suggest that Barabbas is not the man often depicted in many Western Churches, rather through faithful study of the gospel records a clear alternative image is painted of this New Testament biblical character.

Tell me if this sounds familiar. Barabbas is a psycho criminal that went through the towns ravaging and murdering. In fact, he probably had one cocked eye and foamed at the mouth right? Wrong. Western Christian tradition has stripped Barabbas of his Jewishness and from the larger socio-political context that offers meaning to his presence in the story. To understand Barabbas one must remember his Jewish body (and all others) under the control, rule, and domination of the Roman Empire. Without the proper historical realities, Barabbas’ role in the story is missed (which also means we miss something about Jesus as well).

I have always contended that the Gospels portray Barabbas as a desperate freedom fighter, who much like Nat Turner (or American Revolutionaries) wanted to free himself from imperial and oppressive forces. It becomes clear that he was arrested for participating in a revolutionary movement. Consider the Biblical record…

  • Mark 15:7 “A man called Barabbas was in prison with the insurrectionists who had committed murder in the uprising.”
  • Luke 23:19 & 25 “Barabbas had been thrown into prison for an insurrection in the city and for murder” vs.25 “He released the man who had been thrown into prison for insurrection and murder, the one they asked for, and surrendered Jesus to their will”
  • John 18:40 “They shouted back, “No, not him! Give us Barabbas!” Now Barabbas had taken part in an uprising.”

Clearly Barabbas was arrested for his leadership in an insurrection against the Roman Empire and not because he was a foaming at the mouth serial killer. It is convenient for Western Imperial Christianity to denigrate Barabbas in that way, completely dismissing the conditions that led to such behavior. Not only that, but it strips Jesus from his context as well, for he too is Jewish under the rule of the Roman Empire.  I will explore this more in a follow up post because there is a significant relationship between Barabbas and Jesus that ought not be overlooked. However, for the moment consider taking a fresh look at Barabbas and how his socio-political as well as Jewish significance plays out in the gospel narrative.  Barabbas was in the tradition of the radical Zealots (of which Jesus had such companions in his own entourage).

How have you been taught about Barabbas? Is your understanding of him in sync with the Gospel records? Freestyle with me…

Published by Drew G. I. Hart, PhD

Drew G. I. Hart is a theology professor in the Biblical & Religious Studies department at Messiah College with ten years of pastoral experience. Hart majored in Biblical Studies at Messiah College as an undergraduate student, he attained his M.Div. with an urban concentration from Missio Seminary in Philadelphia, and he received his Ph.D. in theology and ethics from Lutheran Theological Seminary-Philadelphia. Drew was born and raised in Norristown, Pa and has lived extensively in Philadelphia and Harrisburg, PA as well. Dr. Hart’s dissertation research explored how Christian discipleship, as framed by Black theologies and contemporary Anabaptist theologies, gesture the Church towards untangling the forces of white supremacy and the inertia of western Christendom which have plagued its witness in society for too long. As two traditions that emerged from the underside of violent and oppressive western Christian societies, he found Black theology and Anabaptism each repeatedly turning to the particularity of Jesus in the gospel narratives. From that arises an ethic of solidarity with the oppressed and pursuing liberation in Black theology and an ethic of radical peacemaking and ecclesial nonconformity in the Anabaptist tradition. Each challenge the violent and oppressive logics of mainstream western Christianity and salvage the call to follow the way of Christ. Together in dialogue they deepen our analysis of the churches failures and the need for Jesus-shaped repentance. His work beyond teaching and writing has included pastoring in Harrisburg and Philadelphia, working for an inner-city afterschool program for black and brown middle school boys, delivering lectures and leading anti-racism workshops, collaborating with local faith-based organizers and activists in his city, and doing a broad range of public theology. He is also a co-leader for a local Harrisburg faith-based relational network called FREE Together which has collaborated with POWER Interfaith, MILPA, the Shut Down Berks Detention Center movement, and a little with the Poor People’s Campaign. Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism by Drew Hart, has received great reviews by Publisher’s Weekly and Englewood Review of Books. Endorsing this resource, Shane Claiborne said, “This book is a gift from the heart of one of the sharpest young theologians in the United States. Hold it carefully, and allow it to transform you--and our blood-stained streets.” As a text, Trouble I’ve Seen utilizes personal and everyday stories, Jesus-shaped theological ethics, and anti-racism frameworks to transform the church’s understanding and social witness. Trouble I’ve Seen focuses on white supremacy as an overarching framework for understanding racism, with careful attention to its systemic and socializing dimensions. However, unlike sociology textbooks on the subject Dr. Hart also considers the subversive vocation of Jesus and the nonviolent yet revolutionary implications his life ought to have for his followers today. His newest book project is entitled Who Will Be a Witness?: Igniting Activism for God’s Justice, Love, and Deliverance and will be published September 1, 2020. Who Will Be A Witness? invites the church to liberate its centuries long captivity to supremacist practices, and to expand its restricted political imagination in view of Jesus’ messianic reign. The book guides disciples of Jesus into joining God’s delivering presence through scriptural reasoning, historical reflection, practical theology for congregational life, social change theory, and the Christian call to love our neighbor. It is written for congregations, leaders, and students that understand that pursuing God’s justice goes way beyond waiting around for electoral seasons to come around. It is about the ongoing vocation of the Church right now, at the grassroots level, seeking after the wellbeing of their neighbors through faithful, strategic, and concrete action. Drew recently joined the Inverse Podcast team serving as a cohost along with Australian peace activist Jarrod Mckenna. Together they interview interesting people and explore how scripture can turn our ethical imagination and the violent and unjust systems of our world upside-down, which contrasts with interpreting the Bible as a tool for the status quo. Dr. Drew Hart was the recipient of bcmPEACE’s 2017 Peacemaker Award, a 2019 W.E.B. Dubois Award from a Disciples of Christ congregation, and in October 2019, Dr. Hart was chosen as Elizabethtown College’s 2019 Peace Fellow. Each award recognized him for his local and national justice work and public theology. You can find Drew Hart on Twitter and Facebook, or you can catch him as he travels and speaks regularly across the country to colleges, conferences, and churches. Drew and Renee, and their three boys (Micah, Dietrich, and Vincent) live in Harrisburg, PA and attend Harrisburg First Church of the Brethren.

5 thoughts on “Denigrating the Oppressed: A Fresh Look At Barabbas

  1. I agree with you. I heard this teaching about Barabas in the early days of my faith, but not since then. I completely agree. The Jews were desperate for freedom from Rome. When they saw that Jesus wasn’t the man to lead a violent uprising, they turned to the man who they believed was the freedom fighter they needed. Blindly, they rejected the real freedom that can only be found in Christ.

  2. It’s funny that you mention this topic. There was a screening of the Passion of the Christ at our Church this past weekend, and I was pondering this same question. Barabbas is depicted as a disgusting and idiotic buffoon. Your post seems more to the point. We don’t know a lot about Barrabas, but I think he was more than likely an earnest if misguided freedom fighter.
    Have you seen the Anthony Quinn movie Barrabas?

  3. Yo Keith, definitely… and I will touch on Barabbas’ relationship to Jesus in my next post.

    Hey Matt, I have not seen the Anthony Quinn movie, is it a stereotypical or antitypical portrayal of Barabbas?

    Rod… thought you might like this one. Got a little more up my sleeve, stay tuned.

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