I’m currently trying to write about Jesus’ last week in Jerusalem through the eyes of a Roman officer who is in Jerusalem. I need some help on the character of Bar Abbas. Who was he? Did he actually lead an insurrection against Rome? I’m pretty much stuck on this one.

Scripture tells us nothing about him, other than he was an insurrectionist who got caught around the same time as our LORD.

The name means “son of the father”.

The books of Josephus might tell you more.


I always wonder – Since, are we not all sons of our fathers? – If this indicates son of a father of unknown name, ie a bastard?


Here’s my two cents.

First off, well, we don’t know, since Jesus Barabbas is one of those people that only show up in the gospels. Josephus doesn’t someone by that name either; a few scholars thus went so far as to say that Barabbas was simply an invention, a fictional figure inserted by the evangelists (or the early Christians).

What we know from the gospels as a whole is that Barabbas was named ‘Barabbas’ (some manuscripts of Matthew give him the name ‘Jesus’, which is plausible), that he was in jail with rioters/insurrectionists/‘robbers’ at that time, which could mean he was convicted as being an accomplice (does not necessarily mean that he actually was - more on this below), and that he was in a way someone known to the public (based on Matthew saying that he was a “notable” prisoner).

Now while it’s pretty much a given since ancient times to assume that Barabbas really was a lēstēs (insurrectionist / robber / bandit / rebel, etc.), I’ve seen a few people entertain the possibility that he actually wasn’t - that he was only convicted as one, mistakenly. In short, he was framed. He was at the wrong place at the wrong time, someone had a beef on him, the Romans got the wrong guy, who knows? Maybe someone along those lines.

This actually to them explains why the Jewish authorities would pick Barabbas as a candidate against Jesus and clamor for his release and why Pilate would have had no hesitation in releasing such a supposed dangerous criminal at all (certain points in the traditional narrative people have had a hard time trying to figure out): Barabbas in this picture is the son of a prominent, respected figure who was implicated (mistakenly?) in a recent disturbance and imprisoned for a crime that he may or may not have committed.

In this scenario, the Jewish authorities were actually trying to persuade Pilate that Jesus Barabbas was innocent (hence asking for his release), but that Jesus of Nazareth was guilty. In other words, they were trading the ‘guilty’ Jesus for the ‘innocent’ Jesus.

They point to the descriptions of Barabbas in the earlier gospels (Matthew and Mark): In the Greek, Mark literally says that Barabbas was “bound/jailed with the insurrectionists (stasiastēs) who had in the insurrection (stasis) committed murder.” Depending on how you parse the phrase, you can potentially read this as simply saying that Barabbas was in jail with insurrectionists charged with murder - not that he was one of them himself.

Matthew meanwhile says simply that Barabbas was a desmion episēmon. You see this translated in some Bibles as “notorious” or “infamous prisoner,” but the Greek adjective is actually neutral - in itself it doesn’t have a negative connotation (it is used in a positive sense in Romans 16:7 to describe Andronicus and Julia, “outstanding (episēmos) among the apostles”). The Greeks just says that he was a “marked (in the sense of ‘distinguished’ or ‘notable’) prisoner.”

In fact, it’s only John that says outright that Barabbas was a lēstēs. Even Luke is still rather careful with his description of him (though he’s more damning of Barabbas than Matthew or Mark are): “the man who had been thrown into prison for insurrection and murder.”

It just means “son of Abba.” Now Abba is an actual name: there were people who had that name. Assuming that it was (also) a nickname, the “son of (the) father” double meaning is possible, but there’s another possibility: “son of (the) teacher.” Bar-Rabban.

Going back to my last post, if Barabbas was actually derived from Bar-Rabban, then there’s a rather interesting speculation (although of course, given lack of actual evidence, it’s just a rather nice piece of speculation) of Jesus Barabbas actually being a son of Rabban (rabbi + abba) Gamaliel. This could explain why Barabbas was a ‘famous’ prisoner (his father is an eminent rabbi, after all), and why Gamaliel would have stood up for Peter and John in Acts, assuming that detail was historical).

We could actually make some sort of ‘what-if’ scenario based on all these speculations. Again, this is just a ‘what-if’.

(1) Jesus ‘Barabbas’, the son of Gamaliel, was arrested by the Romans. Maybe this disturbance had something to do with Jesus of Nazareth; at least, that could be a reason why Barabbas was arrested (because he was also a ‘Jesus’). Or maybe the similarity of names was just coincidental and this was an unrelated disturbance. Barabbas may or may not have have really been involved in some way. Who knows, maybe false leads led to the arrest squad getting the wrong man, or maybe Barabbas took a wrong turn in the street that day. :wink:

(2) Given how Gamaliel is a respected and prominent figure the arrest of his son would have caused some kind of uproar. The Jewish authorities arrested Jesus of Nazareth and handed Him over to Pilate while trying to - or maybe should I say, ‘in order to’ - clear Jesus son of Gamaliel’s name. “This is the guilty Jesus, now hand us back the innocent Jesus over there.”

Yep. I was actually originally planning to make it a story about a Roman centurion who was part of a detachment of a legion to end the Barabbas rebellion.

Actually, I think bastard children (mamzerim) would have been called by the names of their mothers (matronymics) instead.

(That being said, just because a matronymic is used does not necessarily mean that person was a bastard: there were also cases when people preferred to use the names of their mothers, if the mother’s lineage was considered more prominent than the father’s. In Greco-Roman contexts, a matronymic was deemed more preferable in magic contexts - spells, rituals, amulets where names have to be given - because the idea is, you could never fake the mother who bore you.)

Now the interesting thing is, in Mark 6:3 Jesus is called by the people of Nazareth the “son of Mary,” not the “son of Joseph.” Joseph is never named at all; in fact, there is no Joseph throughout Mark’s gospel. (Because Mark wanted to make a point that God is Jesus’ real Father? I mean that gospel revolves around Jesus being the “son of God.”) Some thus take this as a sort of hint that the people of Nazareth thought or knew that Joseph was not Jesus’ real father, that He was considered there as an illegitimate child.

In fact, scholars seem to consider the more pointed, more offensive Markan version of the accusation against Jesus - “Isn’t this the tekton, the son of Mary” - to be more historically plausible than Matthew’s or Luke’s versions (“Isn’t this the son of the tekton,” “Isn’t this the son of Joseph”), which kind of seem to be tamed-down versions. (Being a tekton or a worker - a ‘carpenter’ - was not a highly-regarded profession, and again, there’s the matronymic = bastard issue; one could imagine that the two authors softened the taunt a bit: Matthew made the tekton tag less direct by ascribing it to Joseph while Luke omitted it outright. Both agree in giving Jesus a patronymic.)

Well, since we’re talking about a fictional story I don’t want to be too nitpicky about the finer historical details (you do have to sometimes sacrifice some of those for the sake of drama), but the general outline of the situation at the time of Jesus as I understand it (you might already know this) was:

(Note: this is also a sort of answer to your past posts about the legions in Judaea. Yeah, I’ve been tracking those. :p)

In the Galilee, Antipas had his own troops and so there was little to no actual visible Roman military presence there. In fact, Antipas, as a client ruler, was paying tribute to Rome in order to keep some degree of autonomy: to have his own currency and his own army. In other words, client rulers pretty much paid and promised service to Rome so as to leave them alone in exchange.

(The ‘centurion’ or hekatontarch Jesus met at Capernaum is more likely to be an officer in Antipas’ army than a Roman one: after all, we know that Herod the Great imitated the Roman military structure for his personal army, so who’s to say that his sons and heirs didn’t do the same for their armies. Also, the story of the royal official in John is so highly similar to the synoptic one about the hekatontarch that they’re likely to be just different versions of the same story: in other words, the hekatontarch was an official of Antipas.)

As for Judaea, Judaea was governed by a prefect. Because the prefect was of equestrian rank, he did not have the legal authority to command a legion. The nearest legion/s were stationed at Syria, controlled by the Roman legate, the prefect’s immediate superior. Legionaries only went down south when things really got out of hand, when the prefect could not handle disturbances using his own troops.

The prefect’s troops would have been auxiliaries, composed of non-Roman volunteers and recruits. Most of the prefect’s soldiers stayed with him in Caesarea Maritima (the capital of Judaea) for most of the year; there were small detachments in places like the Antonia Fortress in Jerusalem and small garrisons throughout the province, but generally, the situation in Judaea would have also been unlike how they portray it in some Jesus movies where Roman soldiers are omnipresent, patrolling the streets 24-7 and harassing Jews like it’s martial law or something. In reality, in the 30s, the situation was a deal more peaceful. The ‘Roman patrol’ thing was for years later, the 60s.

Since the Romans generally preferred keeping out of the spotlight (the Jews preferred it that way after all), daily government was largely left in the hand of Jewish officials. So the Jews in Judaea were also allowed to govern themselves, to some degree. It made the job easier.

For the city of Jerusalem, authority rested upon the high priest, his council of advisers, the “chief priests,” and the aristocrats (“the elders”). After all, the high priesthood was a traditional and respected position: at least, I think the people will heed the high priest more than they would the prefect. The prefect only made a public appearance during special occasions like Passover; that was when the prefect went from Caesarea to Jerusalem bringing his troops with him. That was probably the only time of year that Roman soldiers would have been prominently visible in Judaea/Jerusalem; after all the Temple also had its own security force, the Temple police.

Since we’re talking about troops I might as well answer your past posts directly.

During the time of Jesus (the 20s-30s), or more specifically, during Pilate’s tenure (AD 26-36) AFAIK we don’t really hear of any mass uprising that caused or necessitated the legionaries in Syria to visit Judaea. At least, I haven’t read that sort of thing in Josephus. A scenario of that magnitude is more accurate for the time of the Jewish-Roman War (60s-70s), not the time of Jesus decades earlier.

You have to remember that situations could transform drastically in a matter of years or decades: just look at the Middle East. Ten years ago, who could imagine that stuff like the Arab Spring, ISIL and everything in between would happen? Thirty years ago, who would have thought that the Bamiyan Buddhas or Palmyra would be bombed by extremists?

IIRC the recorded fiascos Pilate was involved in - the standards/shields incident, the aqueduct riot, the Gerizim massacre - seem to have just involved his own troops, suggesting that while they’re serious, they’re not on the same scale as, say, the riots and the uprisings of the 60s - heck even the 40s or the 50s. They’re still sort of ‘manageable’.

Another thing is, we often imagine Barabbas as the leader of the stasis, “the uprising” or “the sedition” he was supposedly involved in. But the gospels doesn’t necessarily say that. Even if one agrees with the traditional idea of Barabbas as a guilty ‘robber’ / Zealot / whatever, all one can infer from the texts was that he was a “notable prisoner,” (Matthew) that he was “jailed with the insurrectionists who in the insurrection committed murder,” (Mark) and is apparently convicted of insurrection and/or brigandry and murder himself (Luke, John) - all of which are not direct indications that he was the ringleader, just that he was maybe (accused of being) a part of it.

Actually, the legate’s second in command was a senior tribune of equestrian rank. In this case, if the legate was absent, the senior tribune took command of the legion. This was the case in Egypt so that was what would have happened with Judea. Plus, Acts 21 states the commander of the Jerusalem garrison was a tribune. If the garrison was composed of auxiliaries then the commander would have been a prefect not a tribune.

First, Pontius Pilate was a prefect. At least, that’s what his inscription says. Pontius Pilatus praefectus Iudaeae.

Second, you’re talking of the Jerusalem garrison in Antonia Fortress. The prefect’s actual headquarters were in Caesarea Maritima, not Jerusalem. The Antonia was a barracks, a place where a detachment of Roman soldiers kept an eye on the Temple; contrary to medieval belief, it’s more likely that the prefect stayed in Herod the Great’s palace on western Jerusalem when they were in the city, not the Antonia.

Third, wrong time period (again). This was AD 58, not AD 30. This was after Rome resumed control of the province after Herod Agrippa and when the magnitude of disturbances were increasing. The early-to-mid 50s were also the time when Palestine first received an actual Roman colony: Ptolemais (modern Acre), which provided the Romans with a secure military base. Roman legions from Syria did provide the settlers to the colony. So while you could reasonably assume the presence of legionaries during the 50s, that does not necessarily hold true for twenty or so years before.

Josephus himself speaks of legionaries of the Jerusalem garrison up to the years leading up to the Jewish Revolt. Personally the 12th legion would have been a possible candidate since it was regarded as a Christian legion in the 3rd century A.D.

And again, the key words here are “the years leading up to the Jewish Revolt,” not the time of the prefects thirty years before.

Acts does mention an “Italian cohort” (cohors Italica) headed by Cornelius based in Caesarea, but this doesn’t have to be a reference to a legion. From Josephus, we know that the principal portion of the Roman army stationed at Caesarea were Syrian auxiliaries, so it’s more likely that the Italian cohort were auxiliaries, not legionaries. (What made them unique was that unlike most auxiliary units, they were made up of Italian volunteers rather than locals.)

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