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James Still Absurd

The Absurd Life: Barabbas and Christ

James Still

There is a certain Faustian conflict in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus says, "Blessed are they who have been persecuted within themselves. It is they who have truly come to know the father."[1] Just as Mephistopheles tells Faust that the darkness gives birth to the light,[2] Jesus must deal with his dark side in order to determine his own identity. Like Meursault in Camus’ The Stranger,[3] Jesus wrestles with the tension of absurdity at the end of his life. When mob mentality and Roman legal machinations set themselves against him, Jesus seems as strangely distant from this confrontation as Camus’ hero was from his own trial. In the mind of Jesus, the commotion seems to be about someone else; seditious crimes that another must have committed, not him. The "other" is Barabbas, who exists within Jesus until the realization of absurd existence forces him out. The Passion–Jesus’ arrest, trial, and crucifixion–portrays the strain and eventual split of Jesus’ transcendental ego (the darkside) from his conscious self; the former released to the mob while the latter is given up to the cross. Two figures emerge from the lost personal identity of Jesus: the Christ and Barabbas.

What we do know of Jesus and Barabbas tell us how remarkably similar the two men were. Jesus was arrested as a rebel[4] by a Roman cohort[5] (600 soldiers) and additional temple police suggesting that he had many more than just twelve followers. Prior to his arrest, Jesus had engaged in the Temple Cleansing,[6] disrupting bankers and merchants and threatening to destroy the temple.[7] The night of Jesus’ arrest he had equipped his disciples with swords[8] in anticipation of trouble; he and his followers always left Jerusalem for nearby Bethany before it got dark to avoid arrest or assassination.[9]

Barabbas was likely a Zealot; a lestes or robber[10] (if you were pro-Roman) or a revolutionary hero if you were a fellow messianic Jew. Like Jesus, Barabbas was also involved in an insurrection in Jerusalem and was caught and arrested as a rebel on charges of sedition.[11] Also, like Jesus, Barabbas had many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of followers who were likely to riot in support of him. The Zealots were patriots for Judaea. They desired to rid their country of the Romans and the corrupt temple cultus whose high priests were pro-Roman collaborators and mere puppets of state. By attacking the temple infrastructure, Jesus and those of his disciples who were also Zealots[12] displayed their affinity for Barabbas’ cause. The Zealots carried their nationalistic struggle into the temple itself in an attempt to topple the collaborating high priests. The Jewish historian Josephus (himself pro-Roman and from a priestly family) tells us of one successful assassination in the temple writing that the Zealots "had daggers under their garments, and, by thus mingling themselves among the multitude, they slew Jonathan [the high priest]."[13]

Barabbas is from the Hebrew bar (son) and Abba (Father), which is to say "son of the Father" because the term Abba was a sacred name of God.[14] Origen and other manuscripts refer to Jesus Barabbas and the translators of the Scholars Version now include Jesus Barabbas as "probably the original reading" of the biblical texts.[15] Later manuscripts drop "Jesus" from Barabbas perhaps to alleviate Origen’s confusion over how a "sinner" could share the Son of God’s name. Thus, Jesus "Son of God" who prays to God as Father[16] was imprisoned alongside Jesus "Son of the Father." Both men would have had much in common to talk about while languishing in prison. They had led nearly identical lives in their days leading up to their arrest; both were enemies of the Roman-controlled temple cultus and both were arrested and awaiting crucifixion, a punishment reserved for rebels alone. Indeed, it is possible to imagine that Jesus Barabbas and Jesus of Nazareth are actually one and the same man.[17]

The transcendental ego of Barabbas and the consciousness of Jesus combine to form a single, psychologically-coherent, personal identity. Within Jesus is Nietzsche’s Dionysian self, Jung’s shadow, who longs to break free of the constraints of the consciousness and escape his prison to enjoy the freedom of life once again. Having been imprisoned as a rebel, Jesus begins to confront his "demonic dynamism,"[18] the shadow which has led him to his fate. Like Meursault’s monster within, who fires his revolver at the Arab while Meursault himself watches in complete surprise, Barabbas leads Jesus to the brink of destruction. The process of identification with that shadow begins in his dank cell and builds toward the crucial focal point of the crowd scene. While Pilate pleads desperately with the crowd on Jesus’ behalf, Jesus himself must have felt completely horrified at his predicament. Wishing to be their king, he is abruptly taken aback by an unruly mob which demands his immediate crucifixion. The Anointed is now the rejected. Rejection then feeds denial. This scene plays itself out in his mind, but only remotely; as if it is not really him at all but the Other, the subconscious which, once objectified, in turn objectifies the conscious self. Barabbas holds a mirror up to Jesus and forces him to reconsider his personal identity amid the swirling shouts and screams around him.

Who is this man gesturing to the crowd beside me? Why are they screaming? The mob is screaming at me! Jesus slips into denial, Sartre’s "nothingness," in which human reality "separates its present from all its past" and cuts "[consciousness] in two."[19] On the edge of the precipice, Jesus ceases to be while the Christ and the shadow-self Barabbas come into being. The stage is literally set and consciousness interprets the fickle mob’s din as enthusiastic shouts for Barabbas’ release. While Barabbas steps triumphantly down from the precipice to embrace the cheering crowd (arms raised in victory!) the proxy stays behind to endure the absurd determinism of death. Jesus Barabbas now becomes the creator because his absence makes possible the Christ.

Christ achieves the Übermensch--the Superman–and has overcome the shadow by identifying with it to propel himself, like Zarathustra, higher than all living things.Jesus’ pathology, his separation from self, is a realization of the absurd, that moment when he sees that there is no future and so gains freedom from that awareness. This freedom creates a new reality to fit the circumstances of Christ:

Mystics … find freedom in giving themselves. By losing themselves in their god … they become secretly free. In spontaneously accepted slavery they recover a deeper independence … completely turned toward death … the absurd man feels released from everything outside that passionate attention crystallizing in him.[20]

The Christ, armed with the knowledge that the flesh is weak, finds higher purpose inthe cross. "Woe to the flesh that depends on the soul; woe to the soul that depends on the flesh."[21] The soul, the Christ, now free from the shadow, finds itself "beyond good and evil" and in a higher state of exaltation. Having overcome the phenomenon of morality, the secular trials and men’s feeble accusations lose their relevance; Christ has nothing to do with the petty human affairs of revolution, military occupation, murder and intrigue. The Christ is fixated on the highest good that transcends these distractions and seeks the cross with which to demonstrate his ideal pacifism. Ignoring the taunts of the bystanders, Christ fully accepts the ego’s subconscious world and its salvific purpose. While the Other cries (as if from a great distance in a dream) "My God, my God, why did you abandon me?"[22] the Christ transcends the cross to expire in perfect dignity.


  1. The Nag Hammadi Library in English. James M. Robinson, ed. New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1990, The Gospel of Thomas, 69.
  2. Goethe. Faust. Walter Kaufmann, trans. New York: Doubleday, 1990, p. 161.
  3. Camus, Albert. The Stranger. Matthew Ward, trans. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988.
  4. Mk. 14:48; Mt. 26:55; Lk. 22:52.
  5. Jn. 18:12.
  6. Mk. 11:15-17; Mt. 21:12-13; Lk. 19:45-46; cf. Jn. 2:14-16.
  7. Mk. 13:1-2; Mt. 24:1-2; Lk. 21:5-6.
  8. Lk. 22:36-38.
  9. Mk. 11:11, 19; 14:1-3; Lk. 19:47-48.
  10. Jn. 18:40.
  11. Mk. 15:7; Mt. 27:20.
  12. James and John share the nickname Boanerges (Mk. 3:17) or in Hebrew benei ra’ash which is to say "sons of thunder" a common Zealot reference; Simon the Zealot is explicitly referred to in Lk. 6:15; Matthew and Mark corrupt the Hebrew kena’ani (Zealot) for Canaanite even though the Canaanites no longer existed. The infamous disciple Judas Iscariot is a corruption of the Latin sicarius or "knife-man" after the Zealot sicarii who slew Jonathan the high priest (see below note). The fact that the gospels preserve the disciples’ political ties by retaining their nicknames suggests that Jesus’ politics was not in opposition to the Zealots. (see Maccoby, Revolution in Judaea, pp. 121-124).
  13. The Works of Josephus. William Whiston, trans. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 1987, The Antiquities of the Jews. 20.8.5.
  14. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. Joseph Henry Thayer, trans. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Publishing House, 1979. cf. Ab (or father) denoting earthly (biological) parentage. NT parallels (Mk. 14:36; Rom. 8:15; Gal. 4:6) indicate usage of "my father" or "the father" as a prayer of believers to God.
  15. Palimpsest in Saint Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai: Evangelion da-Mepharreshe. F.C. Burkitt, ed. 2 vols. Cambridge, 1904, Monastery at Koridethi in the Caucasus: "The Text of the Gospels and the Koridethi Text," Harvard Theological Review 16: 1923, pp. 267-286, and "Codex 1 of the Gospels and its Allies," Texts and Studies 7(3): 1902. Origen (c. 250) was troubled by the use of "Jesus Barabbas" in the manuscripts he was familiar with because, although "Jesus" was a common Aramaic name, Origen had thought that no "sinner" could have such a name. Major manuscripts of the fourth century (Sinaiticus, Alexandrinus, Vaticanus) do not contain the variant and Hyam Maccoby (Revolution in Judaea, New York: Taplinger Publishing Company, 1973) believes it was "suppressed in most of the manuscripts" because of Origen’s confusion and the embarrassment of having Jesus "Son of God" share a prison with Jesus "Son of the Father" (p. 159). The New English Bible and the Scholar’s Version (The Complete Gospels. Robert J. Miller, ed. Sonoma, Calif.: Polebridge Press, 1992) now contains Jesus Barabbas in their translations.
  16. Mt. 11:25, 26; 26:42; Lk. 10:21; 23:34, 46; Jn. 11:41; 12:27, 28; 17:1, 5, 11, 21, 24, 25.
  17. Hyam Maccoby (Revolution in Judaea. New York: Taplinger Publishing Company, 1973) first suggested this possibility.
  18. Jung, C.G. "On the Psychology of the Unconsciousness," Two Essays on Analytical Psychology. R.F.C. Hull, trans. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1977, p. 30.
  19. The Philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre. Robert Denoon Cumming, ed. New York: Random House, Inc., 1965, pp. 115-123.
  20. Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus. New York: Vintage International, 1983, pp. 58-59.
  21. The Nag Hammadi Library in English. James M. Robinson, ed. New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1990, The Gospel of Thomas, 112.
  22. Aramaic, Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani (Mk. 15:34) which Matthew renders instead the Hebrew Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani (Mt. 27:46) so that the Ps. 22:2 ‘eli ‘eli lamah ‘azabhtani makes more sense if bystanders think Christ is crying out to the prophet Elijah. Since Jesus spoke Aramaic, not Hebrew, this is a literary device on Matthew’s part for the sake of the story.
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