In the gospel telling of Jesus’ journey to the cross, one small character catches our attention for an instant and then disappears from the rest of the biblical account. We read about him in Matthew 27:15-26:
15 Now it was the governor’s custom at the festival to release a prisoner chosen by the crowd. 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?” 18 For he knew it was out of self-interest that they had handed Jesus over to him….
21 “Which of the two do you want me to release to you?” asked the governor.
“Barabbas,” they answered.
22 “What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” Pilate asked.
They all answered, “Crucify him!”
In his novel, Barabbas (1950), Swedish novelist and Nobel Prize Laureate, Pär Lagerqvist grabs ahold of that brief mention of an infamous character and builds it into a powerful retelling of Barabbas’ life. Tracing Barabbas’ story from the moment of the exchange, and then working both backward to his earlier life and forward through his unfolding years, Lagerkvist offers a compelling picture of how Barabbas’ life was affected by his literal replacement by Jesus in crucifixion. Characters, some biblical and some not, weave in and out of Barabbas’ life as he lives in Jerusalem and beyond as a man haunted by the life he has received back as a gift, yet which at times feels like a curse.
In one particularly poignant scene, Lagerqvist opens wide Barabbas’ grappling with the story of Jesus, in a heated exchange with one of the early Christ-followers. Barabbas begins the exchange:
—The Son of Man?
—Yes. That’s what he called himself.
—The Son of Man . . . ?
—Yes. So he said. But some believe . . . No, I can’t say it.
Barabbas moved closer to him.
—What do they believe?
—They believe . . . that he is God’s own son.
—Yes . . . But surely that can’t be true, it’s almost enough to make on afraid. I would really much rather he came back as he was.
Barabbas was quite worked up.
—How can they talk like that! he burst out. The son of God! The son of God crucified! Don’t you see that’s impossible!
—I said that it can’t be true. And I’ll gladly say it again if you like.
—What sort of lunatics are they who believe that? Barabbas went on, and the scar under his eye turned dark red, as it always did when there was anything the matter. The son of God Of course he wasn’t! Do you imagine the son of God comes down into the earth? And starts going around preaching in your native countryside!
—Oh . . . why not? It’s possible. As likely there as anywhere else. Its’ a humble part of the world, to be sure, but he had to begin somewhere.
Some retellings of biblical stories fall dramatically flat, turning the characters we know well into two-dimensional plaster saints. However, Lagerqvist’s rendering of Barabbas’ life opens the biblical story in a way that breathes life into hidden passageways of the Bible. He leads us into deeper reflection on the significance of Jesus’ journey to the cross and what it might have been like within the earliest Christian community, as they wrestled with who Jesus was and what He accomplished. All the while, Lagerkvist forces us as the readers to grapple with the nature of God and what God might mean for us as human beings journeying through life upon this earth.