Barabbas Comparison & Jesus’ Significance

My last post I considered how Western Christianity denigrated Barabbas by taking Barabbas’ ethnicity out of the equation as well as ignoring the socio-political context. This was all compounded by a tradition of sloppy exegesis which distorted the clear depiction of an insurrectionist into a mindless serial killer.

However, I would like to consider why Barabbas is important in the Jesus story. More often than not, Barabbas is the poster child and mascot for those who choose to impose penal substitutionary atonement on every passage, regardless of the biblical context. Why not, Barabbas deserved his crime and Jesus took his place, right? Well, yes and no.

The reality is that Barabbas’ presence in the story is not there primarily to teach us that Jesus is our substitute. Instead, Barabbas is supposed to help us consider Jesus’ significance and mission. Remember that Jesus was Jewish just like Barabbas, and both were born into oppressed bodies under the Roman Empire. Barabbas as noted in my last post was a well known revolutionist who attempted to violently overthrow his occupiers. However, Jesus is actually accused of participating in similar activities when before the Roman authorities. Consider these passages…

Luke 23:2 “We have found this man subverting our nation. He opposes payment of taxes to Caesar and claims to be Messiah, a king.”

Luke 23:5 “But they insisted, “He stirs up the people all over Judea by his teaching. He started in Galilee and has come all the way here.”

In fact, in Matthew 26:55 Jesus himself poses a rhetorical question as he is about to be arrested. He asks “Am I leading a rebellion?” However, the answer is not clear cut. In some ways he is, just not a violent one like the kind Barabbas leads. However his proclamations of a new Kingdom being ushered in certainly imply a certain type of overthrow.

So again we have Barabbas and we have Jesus.  In many ways you could say that they are both revolutionaries, just varying in kind. Matthew 27:15-27 goes a bit further and clues us in on Barabbas’ importance in the Jesus story. Barabbas’ name is Jesus Barabbas. Here in Matthew we see that there is a choice between Jesus Barabbas and Jesus the Messiah. Jesus itself means “the Lord Saves”. So the choice for the people comes down what type of revolution they want and who they believe God is going to use to bring them true liberation. They can try to achieve freedom using the same tools that currently oppress them (violence and manipulation) or Jesus’ methods (sacrifice and service).

Unfortunately they choose Barabbas, thinking that the way of force, violence, and oppression will some how turn into freedom and peace (often promised imperial deceptions).  Yet we all have a choice to make, who will you follow Jesus Barabbas the Violent One or Jesus the Crucified One. Do you expect the violent tools of the empire to suddenly create a new world of  peace and justice? Or are you willing to follow Jesus’ way, the way of the cross, as he flips this world upside-down? How does this impact our role as Christians in America, (the modern Roman Empire in the world)?

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.

3 thoughts on “Barabbas Comparison & Jesus’ Significance

  1. I hear what you are trying to say – but…

    I question whether it’s not so much Western Christianity as it is Hollywood that depicts Barabbas as the person you say he’s been made out to be.

    and

    “But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have Pilate release Barabbas instead.”
    Mark 15:11

    Did I see this verse listed in your references? Maybe I missed it.
    Any teaching I ever heard that mentioned Barabbas also mentioned this verse because the chief priests held a lot of power in those days and if you wanted to remain welcome in the community – you better play by their rules. Because of this I question whether those people were even remotely aware of the difference between the Prince of Peace and the murderer and if they even cared.
    I agree wholeheartedly with you that there was and is a world of difference – I just don’t think that the “rent a mob” in question had a clue.

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