When we read about Jesus standing trial before Pontius Pilate, one of the most well known episodes from the gospel accounts is the story where the crowd demands the release of a man named Barabbas (a prisoner from a violent insurrection) while calling for Jesus’ death. About this man, we read:
“The man named Barabbas had been imprisoned with the insurrectionists who had committed murder in the insurrection,” (Mark 15:7).
Skeptics challenge this account on many fronts. Indeed, some have (erroneously) argued that even the very name “Barabbas” is proof that this is nothing more than a clever tale of Christian fiction! More thoughtful critics, however, claim that there were no insurrections in Judea close enough to the time of Jesus’ trial to justify the presence of a prisoner like Barabbas. The argument goes that, while we do have records of numerous revolts from the general time period, none of them are near enough to Jesus’ last days to explain why there would be a prisoner there awaiting trial or execution. The insurrection would have to have been very recent for Barabbas to still be there awaiting Pilate’s decision, and none of the ones we have on record fit the bill.
Was there an Insurrection?
The first and most obvious flaw in this argument is that it wrongly assumes that we have something like systematic records of all high crimes and treason committed in ancient Judea during the Graeco-Roman period. We do not. Further, many of the incidents about which we do have records are only found in one source! To take just one of many such examples, Josephus gives us a few short lines about a revolt in Jerusalem led by a man named Helix during the time of the Roman ruler Cassius.1 Were it not for this quick gloss, we’d never know the event happened at all. And yet, we have no reason to doubt that this event occurred. Thus, we should consider a few key points:
Our records show that there were many mostly small-scale revolts throughout this time period. We have no reason to think that we have specific records on every single one of these events.
The gospels themselves provide us multiple witnesses that there was a revolt during this time period precisely by mentioning it in relation to Barabbas.
The gospel writers were much closer to the time of Jesus than Josephus was to the time of men like Helix. If we can believe Josephus when he is the only source on a subject, we cannot dismiss the gospels which represent multiple corroborating sources.
The incidental silence of outside sources does not contradict the testimony of the gospels. If other credible sources said something directly opposed to the gospel accounts then we would have an issue to deal with. As it stands, however, our other sources present this time as a period of general unrest, which corresponds well with what we learn from multiple sources in the gospels; i.e., that a prisoner from a recent act of insurrection was bound in Jerusalem awaiting his own judgement during Jesus’ hearing before Pilate.
The New Testament testimony
The insurrectionist Barabbas is not mentioned in any source outside of the New Testament, nor should we expect him to be. The revolt in which he was involved does not seem to have been a particularly major uprising and even the gospels seem to present him as merely one violent participant rather than the leader. But we must never forget that the New Testament really is enough, not only because it is the word of God, but even just historically! As we have noted, there are all kinds of real people and events that are attested by only a single source. And the New Testament is not one single source but rather a collection of multiple often independent and very early sources. Thus, when we look at the matter of Barabbas, what do we find? All four gospels affirm the same name, context, and events surrounding this man.
Now, many scholars today (including conservative, believing Christians) argue that Matthew and Luke used Mark as a source. So, let’s say, for the sake of argument, that all of the information on Barabbas in Matthew, Mark, and Luke really comes just from Mark. That still leaves Mark and John as two independent, first-century documents both testifying to Barabbas and his insurrection. Historically speaking, that is significant evidence.
But there is more. The Book of Acts, though written by the same author as the Gospel of Luke, nevertheless contains distinct, independent information. As even highly skeptical scholars like Bart Ehrman attest:
“Some of the speeches in Acts contain what scholars call preliterary tradition: oral traditions that had been in circulation from much earlier times that are found, now, only in their written form in Acts.”2
Interestingly, one of the things we find in those speeches is the story of Barabbas:
“The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of our fathers, has glorified His servant Jesus, the one whom you delivered and disowned in the presence of Pilate, when he had decided to release Him. But you disowned the Holy and Righteous One and asked for a murderer to be granted to you,” (Acts 3:13-14).
Though the name does not appear here, this is quite obviously a distinct but parallel account of the same event. Thus, we have yet another ancient voice affirming the events of Barabbas’ existence, violent insurrectionist past, imprisonment, and release at Jesus’ trial. Therefore, while critics attempt to dismiss Barabbas and his revolt as mentioned “only in the New Testament,” what that actually means is that he is attested by at least two, arguably three, and as many as five different very early sources.
Neither Barabbas nor his revolt are plainly mentioned by any sources outside the New Testament, and skeptics often appeal to this in their claims that he did not exist and that the events surrounding him at Jesus’ trials are mythical Christian inventions. However, when examined objectively, the New Testament evidence is itself quite strong, and though other sources don’t mention it specifically, the reality of periodic small revolts in and around Jerusalem throughout this period is well attested, making the existence of such a person and event consistent with the general picture these sources give us. We have no reason to doubt that Barabbas was real and his insurrection actually happened.
1↑ Josephus, The Jewish War, Book 1, Chapter 12, Section 1 https://ccel.org/ccel/josephus/complete/complete.iii.ii.xii.html (Accessed 04/22/2022) Josephus later repeats this same report in his work “Antiquities of the Jews,” (Book 14, Chapter 11, Section 7) but it is still the same report by the same author, not a second source.
2↑ Bart Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist? (Harper One, 2012) 109