Barabbas is one of the most intriguing puzzles in the Bible. He is mentioned only briefly, in three of the four gospels, and we have little real information on who he was or what he did.
As the story of the Messiah moves to its inevitable climax, Pontius Pilate is under pressure from the Jews to crucify Jesus. He sees a way out in an old tradition - releasing a prisoner on the Passover. All he has to do is officially condemn this King of the Jews, then release him using this holiday loophole.
(Many historians doubt this particular detail. After all, Rome was a world superpower. Why would they do something so foolish as to release death row inmates simply because some of their assimilated citizens were enjoying a religious festival? And what right-minded Jew would come up with such a tradition, anyway? But, of course, relations between Rome and Israel were strained, to say the least. Unusual circumstances were bound to emerge.)
Pilate wanted to use this holiday to pardon Jesus. The Jews (roused to righteous ire by their religious leaders) would have none of it. If Pilate wanted to release an inmate on the Passover, they insisted it be this.... Barabbas.
The Gospels of Mark and Luke note that Barabbas had been arrested for a murder he committed during an insurrection. The Gospel of Matthew refers to him as "notorious". He was a killer, a revolutionary, and an enemy to the Roman state. And he was famous for it.
One can readily imagine a grizzled terrorist, a fierce advocate of Israeli separation. A hater of Rome and a disturber of the peace. Perhaps he commanded a group of guerrillas, skulking in the hills to strike at military encampments in the dead of night. Perhaps he was a leader, a self-styled prophet, inciting riots and spreading incendiary dogma. Perhaps he stabbed one too many centurions in the neck, and now the time for justice had come.
Or, perhaps, he was a scapegoat, a Jew in the wrong place at the wrong time. We'll never know.
What is really interesting, though, is his name.
One need not be an expert in Hebrew (or Aramaic, or whatever this is) to discover what the name "Barabbas" means.
The "bar" means "son of". The other prisoner, for example, would be known as "Yeshua bar Yosef". It's a distant cousin of the famous "bin" in "Osama bin Laden". It's kind of like the Irish "O' " or the Scottish "Mc/Mac/Mack".
The "abbas" is similar to the word "rabbi", it means "father". Jesus recommended we refer to God as "Abba", which is closer to "Daddy".
So, then, "Bar-Abbas" means "Son of the Father", something which could be said of any man. Maybe it was a pseudonym, a nom de guerre. Maybe he was known for following in his father's footsteps.
More than a few people have proposed that Barabbas' first name was actually "Jesus". After all, it was a common name at the time. So then, what you would have is Jesus Barabbas (who violently opposed Rome, as the people wanted their Messiah to do... and who had a human father) and Jesus BarJoseph (who spouted bizarre yet somehow comforting theology and whose real father was intangible). The people chose between the two Jesuses, and picked the one who promised them physical freedom through violence (as opposed to spiritual freedom through sacrifice).
An interesting piece of symbolism, even if it isn't quite historically accurate.
Anyway, what I find truly intriguing about the story of Barabbas is that, if you translate it the right way, what you wind up with is a group of angry Jews in the first century, standing in front of a government building, in a vast political protest, all yelling in unison:
I just thought that was interesting.