Matthew 27:16,17 Was Barabbas Called ‘Jesus Barabbas’?

Variants in the Passion Narrative (1)

This is the first of a series of blog posts on some of the textual variants found in the Passion narratives. We will discuss the rationale behind the text adopted in the Greek New Testament as Produced at Tyndale House in (1) Mt 27:16,17, (2) Mt 27:49, (3) Mk 14:30, 49, 72a, 72b, (4) Lk 22:31, (5) Lk 22:43-44, (6) Lk 23:34.

Only in Matthew is there some confusion about the exact form of the name Barabbas, as a small section of the evidence has Jesus Barabbas instead of just Barabbas. The variant is interesting as it may have been discussed explicitly by Origen, back in the first half of the third century.

16  εἶχον δὲ τότε δέσμιον ἐπίσημον λεγόμενον Βαραββᾶν. 17  συνηγμένων οὖν αὐτῶν εἶπεν αὐτοῖς ὁ Πειλᾶτος· τίνα θέλετε ἀπολύσω ὑμῖν; Βαραββᾶν ἢ Ἰησοῦν τὸν λεγόμενον χριστόν;

The two readings are visible in two popular modern translations:

ESV: 16 And they had then a notorious prisoner called Barabbas. 17 So when they had gathered, Pilate said to them, “Whom do you want me to release for you: Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?”

NIV  16 At that time they had a well-known prisoner whose name was Jesus Barabbas. 17 So when the crowd had gathered, Pilate asked them, “Which one do you want me to release to you: Jesus Barabbas, or Jesus who is called the Messiah?”

The manuscript support:

Jesus Barabbas

v16      ιησουν βαραββαν Θ f1 700* l844, Sinaitic Syriac

v17      ιησουν τον βαραββαν f1, Sinaitic Syriac

ιησουν βαραββαν Θ 700* l844



v16      βαραββαν ℵ A B D K L W Γ Δ f13 all other minuscules, Latin, Syriac – Peshitta and Harkleian, Coptic

v17      βαραββαν ℵ A D K L W Γ Δ f13 all other minuscules, Latin, Syriac – Peshitta and Harkleian, Coptic

τον βαραββαν B 1010 1012

I do not think that the Latin is of much help to decide between βαραββαν and τον βαραββαν in v17, but at least the Latin is helpful in that it does not have ‘Jesus Barabbas’.

The external evidence for (16) ιησουν βαραββαν and (17) ιησουν τον βαραββαν is limited, though this is the text given in NA26 – NA28, yet with the first part in brackets.

In Metzger’s commentary, the longer reading is granted much weight because of the supposed discussion in Origen. Having read what Donaldson has written on this Origen (387-90), I am much less sure that we have Origen’s words in the discussion. According to Donaldson (388 FN 28) there is only one manuscript that attributes the relevant scholion to Origen. Of course, it may still be by him as his star fell rather dramatically in later centuries, but there is a serious question mark about the attribution. There is also an interesting difference between the Latin and Greek version of the scholion in question. The Latin states that ‘in many copies it is not included that Barabbas is also called Jesus’, whilst the Greek says, ‘But in many old copies I have encountered, I found also Barabbas himself called Jesus’. There is a difference in perspective, in the Latin the reading assumed is Jesus Barabbas with the alternative being just Barabbas, in the Greek it is the other way around (incidentally, Streeter in his The Four Gospels, 94-95 knows only the Latin version – and yes, Jesus Barabbas is of course a ‘Caesarean reading’ in his eyes).


Are there any scribal explanations for the rise of the two readings?

  • The omission of ιησουν in ιησουν βαραββαν can be explained as ridding the text of a confusing repetition of the name Jesus. The same name cannot be used for the Saviour and for the murderer.
  • Metzger points to the second of this pair of variants and notes the sequence υμιντονβαραββαν. The nomen sacrum for Jesus would be ι̅ν, which is the same as the final letters of υμιν. If this is indeed the origin of the longer reading, then the first instance was corrected to bring it in line with the accidentally longer second instance. Alternatively, of course, a haplography of -ιν- within υμινι̅ντονβαραββαν would be an argument the other way around.


In this case, perhaps, the origin should be sought in manuscript tendencies. There is a cluster of readings that show up in a select group of manuscripts. Though I would not talk about Caesarean manuscripts or a Caesarean text, this group of readings found in a specific part of the tradition can be called ‘Caesarean readings’. Please note that I am more interested in the set of readings than in the question what the appropriate label should be. Our variant is one of these readings and should be studied as part of the whole cluster of Caesarean readings. We might then learn more about what these readings have in common and possible even find a historical context. For the sake of the argument here it suffices to acknowledge that this group of readings exists and that there is no strong argument to accept any of their unique readings as original. So in this case the main argument for rejecting the readings ‘Jesus Barabbas’ is that it is found mainly in a small group of witnesses that have a shared set of unique, but suspect readings.

Metzger notes that the decision to accept [ιησουν] βαραββαν was a majority decision. I think that the majority of the committee was mistaken.


Donaldson, Amy M. “Explicit References to New Testament Variant Readings among Greek and Latin Church Fathers.” Dissertation, Notre Dame 2009.

Streeter, B.H. The Four Gospels: A Study of Origins. 4th ed.  London: Macmillan, 1930.