Two Men Named Jesus

SOME may be puzzled by a striking reading of Matthew 27:16, 17 found in several comtemporary translations of the New Testament.1 These verses form part of the narrative of Jesus' decisive appearance before the Roman governor Pilate. In the course of his deliberation of the case, Pilate determined to release Jesus since he found him to be in no need of conviction. According to the Biblical accounts,2 the usual custom was to release a prisoner at this time of national festivity. . .

-candidate in New Testament and early Christian literature, University of Chicago at the time this article was written

SOME may be puzzled by a striking reading of Matthew 27:16, 17 found in several comtemporary translations of the New Testament.1 These verses form part of the narrative of Jesus' decisive appearance before the Roman governor Pilate. In the course of his deliberation of the case, Pilate determined to release Jesus since he found him to be in no need of conviction. According to the Biblical accounts,2 the usual custom was to release a prisoner at this time of national festivity. It was Passover, and Pilate had an infamous criminal3 in prison. Matthew relates that Pilate thought he would secure Jesus' release by offering the mob a choice between Jesus and the prisoner.

Any intelligent citizen would see that to release the latter would be a grave menace to the city. Out text consititutes Pilate's introduction of these two individuals from whom the mob would choose one to be released. "There was then in custody a man of some notoriety, called Jesus Bar-Abbas. When they were assembled Pilate said to them, 'Which would you like me to release to you—Jesus Bar-Abbas, or Jesus called Messiah?' " (Matt. 27:16, 17, N.E.B.).

Jesus Bar-Abbas! This is not a misprint. The New English Bible has chosen to translate this criminal's name from the readings of a particular group of Greek manuscripts and ancient versions. In its footnote to the passage, however, the New English Bible gives the wrong impression when it notes, "Some witnesses omit Jesus." It would have been more accurate to state that most witnesses omit the name Jesus as one of Barabbas' names. Yet, this fact itself does not militate against the reading that includes Jesus, since in textual studies the number of manuscripts supporting a given reading is not decisive.

Is it possible that Barabbas' name was really Jesus? We will not be able to answer this question ultimately, but we can consider several textual perspectives that relate to the genuineness of the name Jesus Barabbas in Matthew.

To treat the problem textually one must be conscious of his own over-all philosophy of or approach to textual criticism. For one whose primary criterion for a preferred reading is the witness of the majority of the "great" uncial manuscripts and/or the testimony of the "best" text type, this question can be answered simply. Not only do the manuscripts Sinaiticus, Alexandrinus, Vaticanus, and the unconventional Bezae support the reading Barabbas without Jesus, but so does the lauded Alexandrian text type, together with the Western and Byzantine text types. From this point of view, the Barabbas reading without the name Jesus is superior.

However, for one whose main principle is the maxim that the preferred reading is the one which best explains the existence of all other readings, the weighing of manuscripts and text types is not sufficient. 4 In this case, one must ask if it is more likely for the name Jesus to be added to or to be deleted from the text. The only reason, apart from an unlikely mistake, 5 why this name would be added to Barabbas would be to provide a dramatic comparison in the narrative. Given the conscious attempt of Christian scribes to preserve the dignity and majesty of Jesus at the expense of textual accuracy, such an addition seems remote.

On the other hand, if Matthew originally read Jesus Barabbas, later scribes would have every motivation to delete the name Jesus. It would seem particularly irreverent for an opposing character in the drama of the passion to himself bear the name Jesus. The reading Jesus Barabbas best explains the shorter reading Barabbas and, thus, is to be preferred.

In our text Pilate introduces Jesus as the One "who is called Messiah." The wording suggests that this was Pilate's way of distinguishing him from another Jesus in the same context. The reading of this description of Jesus is unchallenged in the witnesses to the text. In my opinion, this fact strongly supports the reading Jesus Barabbas for the criminal's name. Only with this reading would the text contain a sensible structure. Certainly the drama is intensified when the choice is between two men having the same name.

Today the name Jesus is not used for naming children except in certain Spanish-speaking areas. Therefore, it is difficult for most to consider the use of this name for anyone other than Christ. But in New Testament times this name was common among Greek-speaking Jews. "Jesus" is the anglicized form of a Greek translation of the Hebrew name Joshua. It is used throughout the Septuagint and New Testament 6 for the man who succeeded Moses as Israel's leader, as well as for others bearing the name Joshua. The New Testament mentions two others by the name Jesus. One is in Luke's genealogy of Christ (Luke 3:29); the other is a companion of Paul who sends greetings to the Colossians (Col. 4:11).

The name Jesus is even better attested in extra-Biblical sources. It is used for various persons in Josephus and in the Epistle of Aristeas. Jesus regularly occurs in tomb inscriptions from Palestine 7 and in Jewish commercial and legal documents from Egypt. 8 This indicates that in New Testament times the name Jesus was employed both in Palestinian and Diasporic communities of Jews. Therefore, it would not be unusual, despite the coincidence, for Barabbas to have the name Joshua. His name rendered into Greek then would be Jesus. He may even have used the Greek form himself.

It seems reasonable to conclude that, at least according to Mat thew's account of the event, when Pilate presented the two men be fore the Jewish mob, both of them were named Jesus. One was a criminal, Jesus Barabbas; the other was Jesus called the Messiah. The mob was to choose which Jesus they wished to have released. They demanded Jesus Barabbas, and he faded into obscurity—he even lost part of his name in most accounts of the story. The other figure, Jesus Christ, was executed that day and became the most important Jesus in all history.


1. See, for example, The New English Bible, Today's English Version, and The Bible: A New Translation by James Moffatt.

2. See Matthew 27:15; Mark 15:6; John 18:39.

3. Matthew 27:16 describes him as episemos a well-known person, here probably in the sense of notorious. Mark 15:7 uses the word stasiastes—a revolutionary—to describe him. Luke relates that he was in prison for starting a stasis—a riot—in Jerusalem and for phonos—murder (23:19). John 18:40 refers to him as a lestes—an insurrectionist.

4. For the Jesus Barabbas reading the manuscripts and versions range from the second century Old Syriac, to the fourteenth century manuscripts of family 1. The majority of these witnesses comprise the bulk of the ill-defined, but important, Caesarean text type.

5. Since the compound name Jesus Barabbas appears in both verses 16 and 17 in most manuscripts which contain the variant, it is almost impossible to conceive of a mistaken insertion of the name Jesus in both places.

6. See Acts 7:45 and Hebrews 4:8.

7. See for examples P. Jean-Baptiste Frey, Corpus Inscriptionum ludicarum, vol. 2 (Roma: Pontificio Istituto di Archelogia Christiana, 1952).

8. See for examples Victor A. Tcherikover and Alexander Fuks, Corpus Papyrorum Judaicarum, vols. 2 and 3 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1957 and 1960).

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-candidate in New Testament and early Christian literature, University of Chicago at the time this article was written

May 1974

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