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Barabbas is my hero

(Article published in the Apr 4,2012 issue of Manila Standard Today)  

Senate President and Impeachment Court Presiding Officer Juan Ponce Enrile  was quoted recently as saying  that “the classic case of a wrong survey was the Man on the Cross...” He was reacting to results of Pulse Asia’s survey that a significant number of respondents considered Chief Justice Renato C. Corona as guilty.

This official distancing from the survey elated a number of my colleagues at the law office.  Three of my law partners, i.e., Attys. Eduardo de los Angeles, Jacinto Jimenez, and Tranquil Salvador, are members of Chief Justice Renato C. Corona’s defense team. They have been rendering unto him, pro bono and in their personal capacities, our boss Ricardo J. Romulo is quick to insist, their time and talent to the defense of  Corona’s treasure. 

However, as our law office’s self-appointed resident grouch, I, on the other hand, take Senator Enrile’s affirmation of the court’s resolve to decide solely based on the evidence presented, as a strong suggestion on this Holy Week to make an inquiry into this man who is known, by what we now consider as surname, as  “Barabbas”. Was he real? If so, what was he? Why was he, to whom tradition also attributes what we now call as the given name , “Jesus”, preferred by the respondents of Pilate’s survey over  Jesus the Nazaroan?  These issues are more interesting, I suspect, than the sermons I will be doomed to hear from my parish priest these coming days.


By way of a preliminary matter, what is this custom, salutary from Barabbas’ point of view, of a prisoner being freed during a special occasion at the crowd’s request?  That there was such a custom, in some form or shape, the gospels agree; but on the exact profile of that practice, the gospels are conflicting.  John specifically attaches the release to the Passover while Mark, Mathew and Luke simply imply it.  Mark and Luke seem to say it was the Roman governor’s, or at least only Pilate’s custom; John says it is a Jewish custom and Luke even suggests that it is an obligation.  In any case, there are no indications from anybody, gospel writer or otherwise, that the practice was irregular.

Who then was this Barabbas who was in captivity at the same time the Nazaroan was?  Mark states that Barabbas was in prison “with the rioters, those who had done killing during the riot.”  Matthew says he was a “notorious prisoner.”  Luke in his gospel described him as “someone thrown into prison because of a certain riot that had taken place in the city and (because of) killing”; and in his Acts of the Apostles, Luke says he was “a man who was a killer”. Finally, John says Barabbas was a “lēstēs” which is Greek for bandit or robber.

Unfortunately, all that testimony is from the evangelists, none of whom Justice Seraphin Cuevas would grant as having “personal knowledge”.  So, is there non-hearsay evidence that Barabbas was a real person?

There have been suggestions that Barabbas was not real.  Some say he was just an aspect of the identity of the Nazaroan: “Jesus of Nazareth” represents the political side and “Jesus Barabbas” the religious.  When Pilate let Barabbas go but continued to detain the Nazaroan, he was, according to this theory, asserting his jurisdiction over the political issue only and was  disclaiming  jurisdiction over  the religious.

Another theory says that Barabbas was a fictional character patterned after a certain lunatic named Karabas. Karabas, after being cloaked like a king, was made to roam the streets by anti-jewish rioters in  protest of the visit of Jewish King Herod Agrippa I to Alexandria.  These Barabbas-is-not-real theories, though, have historical difficulties which space prevents me from detailing here.

Suffice it to say, however, that positing Barabbas as historical is less challenging to the mind than accepting that he was fiction.  His name, which literally means “son of [a person named] Abba” is found frequently in the Gemara section of the Talmud (perhaps as of equivalent widespread usage as our use of “de la Cruz”). It was thus a convenient appellation for one who, in the eyes of the authorities, is a trouble maker.  The police going into a neighbourhood looking for Juan de la Cruz would be suspected of suffering from the summer heat; he could end up being shown at least ten Juan-a-bes.

Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, does not, as far as I know, take a categorical stand on the issue.  However, he in his book, “Jesus of Nazareth,” tells us of the significance of Barabbas being called a  “bandit” or “robber”.   The Greek “lēstēs” which was used by John to describe Barabbas had, said Ratzinger,  “acquired a specific meaning in the political situation that obtained at that time in Palestine.  It had become a synonym for “resistance fighter”.  And Mathew’s description of Barabbas as “notorious” is, for Ratzinger, “evidence that he was one of the prominent resistance fighters, in fact, probably the actual leader of that particular uprising.”  He was therefore, like the Nazaroan, also a messianic figure.

In current language therefore, Pilate’s survey was to find out whether the populace desired a) a messiah that was for actively struggling against rulers whom they consider as their oppressors or b) a messiah who was promising the inheritance of the earth to, of all people, the meek.  Ratzinger thus asks the question that the Corona defense could object to as leading, “Is it any wonder that the crowds prefer Barabbas?”

I, too, for today prefer Barabbas, just like all the apostles and all the disciples who even responded with their feet, abandoning the Nazaroan upon his arrest at the Garden. They fled as quickly as they could, including Peter who in addition denied association with him thrice before the cock crowed.  That, for now, is the correct choice.

But only until the advent of Easter, of course.  On that day the Christ, as he had promised, made his appearance.  Hopefully, Renato C. Corona would, as he had also promised, make his appearance too.

Happy Easter to all.