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Barabbas: Son of the Father?

by Brant Pitre August 21, 2020 0 Comments

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After the account of betrayal though, now Matthew moves into the famous story of Jesus before Pontius Pilate, where Jesus is brought before Pilate for a hearing, and Pilate in this instance gives the people of Jerusalem at the Passover the option of having one of two prisoners released to them: either Barabbas or Jesus. Let's read the account here for just a moment and see what Jesus might be fulfilling. Here it says this in Matthew 27:15:

Now at the feast the governor was accustomed to release for the crowd any one prisoner whom they wanted. And they had then a notorious prisoner, called Barab'bas. So when they had gathered, Pilate said to them, "Whom do you want me to release for you, Barab'bas or Jesus who is called Christ?" For he knew that it was out of envy that they had delivered him up. Besides, while he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him,

And this is something only in Matthew's Gospel:

"Have nothing to do with that righteous man, for I have suffered much over him today in a dream." Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the people to ask for Barab'bas and destroy Jesus. The governor again said to them, "Which of the two do you want me to release for you?" And they said, "Barab'bas." Pilate said to them, "Then what shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?" They all said, "Let him be crucified." And he said, "Why, what evil has he done?" But they shouted all the more, "Let him be crucified."

At this point something happens that only Matthew tells us about so I want to highlight it. It says this:

So when Pilate saw that he was gaining nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, "I am innocent of this man's blood; see to it yourselves.” And all the people answered, "His blood be on us and on our children!" Then he released for them Barab'bas, and having scourged Jesus, delivered him to be crucified.

Let's pause there for second. What’s going on in this whole Jesus-Barabbas thing? How would this have been understood in a first century Jewish perspective and how should we understand this today? A couple of key points here that will help us grasp what Matthew’s getting at. First and foremost, most people get the idea that when Pilate offers them a choice between Jesus and Barabbas, that he's offering them a choice between Jesus the Messiah who was a nonviolent Messiah, who was a peaceful Messiah, and then Barabbas who was a revolutionary. And that the people chose the Revolutionary over the nonviolent Messiah. I think most people are familiar with that idea, but Matthew goes deeper than that by highlighting for us the name of the revolutionary because “barabbas”, that name in Aramaic, literally means son of the father. “Bar” means son and “abba”, as most people know, means father.

Okay. So on the one hand then Pilate is saying here is one son of the father, who was a violent revolutionary, and here's another son of the Father, who is the suffering servant. Which one are the crowds going to choose? And of course, what do they do? They pick the false son of the father, Barabbas, over the true son of the Father who is Jesus himself. So what's so interesting about this is some translations will highlight the fact that in certain manuscripts of Matthew's Gospel, we not only get Barabbas' last name, we also get his first name. So in certain manuscripts of Matthew it says that Barabbas' first name was Jesus Barrabas. So the irony is even higher here because what we have is Jesus, son of the father, revolutionary; and then Jesus, the true Son of the father, Jesus of Nazareth. And which one do the crowds pick? They pick the false son of the father, they pick Jesus Barabbas instead of Jesus the Son of God. So when that happens then, what we are seeing is the irony in the choice of Barabbas over Jesus. And that irony continues into the famous self-implication or self -declaration of the crowd, "his blood be upon us and upon our children." That is only located in Matthew's Gospel and it is a very controversial verse, because some people, some Christians, over the centuries have taken this verse and applied it to the Jewish people as a whole to say that the Jewish people put a curse upon themselves and are now to be considered accursed by God. I want to stress that the Church rejects that interpretation definitively in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. So I want to make clear what this passage actually means. So on the historical level what's happening here is the crowds are saying his death is upon us. We are taking responsibility for his death because Pilate has just washed his hands and said "I'm innocent of this man's blood." So they say "well we take responsibility for it." On the historical level that's what "his blood be upon us and upon our children" means.

What the Catechism points out in paragraph 597 is that this does not mean that the Jewish people as a whole are collectively responsible for the death of Christ, because it's only this particular crowd at this particular moment in history that is taking responsibility for the death of Jesus. And so the Catechism says in paragraph 598 that "all sinners are the authors of Christ's passion." In other words, there's a real sense that at a mystical level every single person who has ever been born, every single sinner, is responsible for the death of Jesus, because when we sin we, in a sense, crucify Jesus once again. We participate in the evil that led him to the cross. So I just want to stress that. Christians today need to make very clear that the statement of this particular Jewish crowd at the trial and death of Jesus is not something that makes all Jews of all time in all places collectively responsible for Jesus's death. However, there is an irony here because, as Pope Benedict points out in his book Jesus of Nazareth, by saying "his blood be upon us and our children," the irony is that at a deeper spiritual level they are in a sense praying for precisely what all of us need, which is for the powerful redeeming blood of Jesus to "be upon us and upon our children," so that it might cleanse us from sin and set us free from sin and death. So there's an irony in their words here, just like an irony in Barabbas. So all these levels of meaning are being fulfilled in this astounding account of the passion of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew. It is a very, very powerful moment; very important moment. As Christians we all want Jesus's blood to be upon us and upon our children, because we are all responsible for the crucifixion and the death of Christ.

Brant Pitre
Brant Pitre


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Life after Death, a Bible study on the 7 last things

This study could also be titled: the 7 most important things to know in our earthly life, as what happens when we die, affects how we live today.
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