Friday, February 16, 2018

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

THGNT Blog: Variants in the Passion Narrative (1)

This is the first of a series of blog post 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. Either way, this is the most mechanical explanation available, and for that reason attractive.

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 note 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.


  1. (Quick note before I start: I think you meant Matthew 27:16-17 in your introduction, not Matthew 26:16-17.)

    On the basis of scribal habits alone, the longer reading seems preferable here. In my transcribing experience, I've found haplography more common than dittography. As for the non-mechanical explanation for the shorter reading, I agree that on its own it should be treated as a less likely explanation, but it's also worth noting that a deliberate omission nicely explains the omissions in both locations. Certainly, haplography could have happened in v16 (as the word preceding ιν ends in ν), but it's not as obvious asthe case in v17.

    The biggest obstacle to a purely mechanical explanation for either pair of readings in this case is the lack of any witnesses to ιησουν in v17, but not v16. If, as you suggest, ιν was either added to or omitted from v17 accidentally, then the scribe responsible for it likely would not have thought to "correct" the previous verse. After that, the only question is how many copying cycles propagated this text before the assimilation in v16 happened.

    We're left with a choice between one deliberate change in two locations and one accidental change followed by a deliberate one. The former option seems slightly more likely. And if the best explanation is a deliberate change to both verses, then the best way to defend the shorter reading would be with an explanation that's more plausible than the pious omission that you described.

  2. Thanks for pointing out the error in the chapternumber (was 26, should have been 27, now amended).
    I am properly with you that a purely mechanical explanation is not sufficient, and that is why I seek an answer in the distinctive 'Caesarean readings'. But in any discussion of a variant, it is wise to exclude mechanical / scribal explanations first (or show their insufficiency) before moving on to something less mundane. The problem with the longer reading remains its limited circulation, and only in a group of manuscripts with a common set of variants.

  3. This is an example of a textual issue that is non-theological so it is fun to try to work through.

  4. Dirk,
    even if you thought the majority of the UBS Editorial Committee was correct in favoring ιησουν βαραββαν, the methodology/procedure adopted for editing the THGNT (roughly, favor the reading of the oldest Greek witnesses) would require the adoption of the shorter reading, would it not?
    Mike Holmes

    1. Let's put it like this. As soon as a methodology starts making decisions for me which I myself would never make, it is time to change it. I don't believe in mechanically produced texts (not that there is nothing to learn from those).
      I think we wrote that we 'insist' on at least one witness from the fifth century or older, and in practice this works out well. However, if this would have led (and there may be a few cases) to printing a text that would be inferior it is time to interpret the word 'insist' in 'parental' terms - that is, it just doesn't work out always.

  5. Trying to explain on transcriptional grounds the movement either from the long reading to the short or from the short to the long seems difficult to me, such that transcriptional causes should here be given less weight than otherwise. It is at first glance easy to imagine pious emendation to be at work in the short readings, yet according to NA28 no scribes objected to the name of our savior being applied to a man in Col 4:11. Admittedly, the man there was not a villain, but in Ac 13:6 we have something of a parallel to Mat 27:16-17, and if I'm not mistaken, there was at most very minimal effort to remove this situation (there was confusion over the grammar). Would, then, Alexandrian, Western, Syrian/Byzantine/Common-Scribal-Tendency-Prone scribes (along with some Caesarean/Whatever-One-Wishes-to-Call-it scribes all emend these two verses by the same technique (i.e. omission, not substitution of some other name)?

    I'm not certain how to explain the rise of the long readings here, but the consensus of the majority of the MS tradition seems to me to support the short readings nonetheless, especially given, as Dirk points out, the fact that the Caesarean witnesses do not seem uniquely to carry original readings elsewhere.

  6. First of all, although the Greek text of Origen is not preserved, he apparently has problems with the association of the name Jesus with Barabbas, the name of a robber. Why would a later scribe/translator interpolate these references to difficult textual variants at two points?
    In addition, there is a Greek scholion extant in some twenty MSS, including the tenth-century uncial Codex S (028), which has been variously attributed to either Anastasius of Antioch, to John Chrystostom, or, in one manuscript, to Origen and which attests to the longer reading.

    With the fourth-century Sinaiticus Syriac (and Origen), the attestation is wider than the "Caesarean cluster" or whatever we call it. It is also relevant to note that even in some of the few Greek MSS which attest to the long reading, Jesus has been deleted by correctors in both verses.

  7. P46 is the only one of the extant early mss to read _ιησ_ in Coll 4:11. The rest read plene. But, going off what Origen pointed out, the motivation to delete Jesus was only strong in relation to the notorious outlaw. And the internal evidence for Jesus is strong in several ways: First, Pilate is contrasting ιησουν Bar Abba with ιησουντον λεγομενον χριστον--which Jesus do you want? Secondly, in recording it Matthew is contrasting the Jesus who is "son of the father" (Bar Abba) with Jesus who is the Son of the Father. Origen, who couldn't even pin down whether Joseph was the son of Eli or Jacob, or who their fathers were, missed the point.
    So, why was it only preserved in the Caesarean text line? Well, if the doctrine of preservation counts for anything, it means that two autocephalic churches had it in their ecclesiastically sanctioned Scriptures.

    1. Alternatively, the reference to Christ is intended not to distinguish him from another with the same first name but to highlight his messianic claims. "Shall I crucify your king?"

    2. These are both good points about intrinsic probabilities. A comparison with the parallel passages might shed some light on the matter.

      In Mark 15:7-12, we see the same exchange between Pilate and the crowd, but Mark simplifies both referents; Barabbas is just Barabbas, and both times, Pilate simply refers to Jesus as "the king of the Jews." If Matthew had based his account of this event on Mark's account, why would he have needed to add Jesus' name to highlight this claim? It seems more likely that he would have added the name "Jesus" to both characters to shape Pilate's question in the way that Daniel describes above.

      Pilate's exchange with the crowd in Luke 23:13-17 contains mostly unique material and does not feature any similar questions to the crowd, so it doesn't have much bearing on this question.

      The parallel in John 18:39-40 is the shortest one of all, but it handles the names as Mark does: Barabbas is not given any first name, but Jesus is also referred to not by name, but as "the king of the Jews."

  8. Even if Origen is included as a witness, it would still be a reading limited to a small "cluster" of witnesses. Lacking any other arguments (other than general suspicion of minority readings), it is hard to see this as anything other than simple preference for the majority. I think I'd probably go the other way and see this as a genuine reading preserved in a small group of witnesses to a very old text.

    1. Do we actually agree this time?

    2. Not the suspicion of minoritt readings in general but a suspicion of minority readings attested in this cluster only.

    3. Is there an observable Tendenz in this cluster?

    4. I don't know of any particular study, do you?

  9. Aside from Origen, the Syriac Sinaiticus doesn’t normally form a cluster with the MSS traditionally labeled Caesarean, right?

    1. Streeter seems to suggest that there is a relation.

  10. Ok, the method of grouping a bunch of witnesses under the label ”Caesarean” was deficient. This particular attestation is not that narrow I think.

  11. Willker's commentary (Matthew, TVU 378) offers more precise collation data for the variants in vv16-17:

    v16 ιησουν βαραββαν Θ, 1*, 118, 209*, 241**, 299**, 700*, 1278*, 1582, l844, sy s, sy pal mss, arab ms, arm, geo 2
    v17 ιησουν τον βαραββαν 1*, 22*, 118, 209*, 241**, 299**, 1582, sy s, sy pal mss, arab ms, arm, geo 2 | ιησουν βαραββαν Θ, 700*, l844, pc | βαραββαν ιησουν 579

    So it appears that 22* and 579 actually do preserve a text with ιησουν in v17 but not in v16, though 579 transposes the longer name in v17. Surprisingly, 1278* preserves a text with ιησουν in v16 but not in v17. We also see some addition versional evidence for the longer reading in both verses.