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It seems that there are varying accounts of the problems with Barabbas.

John 18:40
Then they all cried again, saying, “Not this Man, but Barabbas!” Now Barabbas was a robber.

Another in Mark:

Mark 15:7
And there was one named Barabbas, who was chained with his fellow rebels; they had committed murder in the rebellion.

Luke seems to agree with Mark:

Luke 23:18-19
18 And they all cried out at once, saying, “Away with this Man, and release to us Barabbas”— 19 who had been thrown into prison for a certain rebellion made in the city, and for murder.

I'm curious about this word "robber" that is used in the NKJV version of the Bible.

What is the original Greek word for this? Could this original word also mean murderer or rebel (like the other two gospels state)?

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3 Answers

up vote 15 down vote accepted

The Greek word for robber in John 18:40 is λῃστής. This word is defined by Strong's Enhanced Lexicon this way:

3027 ἀρχιλῃστής, λῃστής [lestes /lace·tace/] n m. From leizomai (to plunder);15 occurrences; AV translates as “thief” 11 times, and “robber” four times. 1 a robber, plunderer, freebooter, brigand.

The Greek word used as murder here is φόνος. It is defined as:

5408 φόνος [phonos /fon·os/] n m. From an obsolete primary pheno (to murder); GK 5840; 10 occurrences; AV translates as “murder” eight times, “slaughter” once, and “be slain + 599” once. 1 murder, slaughter.

I don't think these words shed much light on the core of your question. These passages don't conflict though, I think the clearest explanation is that Barrabas was both a thief and a murderer and that none of the authors intended their description of his crimes to be exhaustive.

Source: Strong, J. (1996). The exhaustive concordance of the Bible : Showing every word of the text of the common English version of the canonical books, and every occurrence of each word in regular order. (electronic ed.). Ontario: Woodside Bible Fellowship.

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Thank you! This is the type of answer that has inspired my migrating to this site. –  Richard Oct 4 '11 at 20:25
very nice answer! +1 –  studiohack Oct 4 '11 at 20:33
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To build on blundin's answer, the most likely sense of the word in this context is "brigand". The NET Bible includes this footnote:

It is possible that Barabbas was merely a robber or highwayman, but more likely, given the use of the term ληστής (lhsth") in Josephus and other early sources, that he was a guerrilla warrior or revolutionary leader. See both R. E. Brown (John [AB], 2:857) and K. H. Rengstorf (TDNT 4:258) for more information. The word λῃστής was used a number of times by Josephus (J. W. 2.13.2-3 [2.253-254]) to describe the revolutionaries or guerrilla fighters who, from mixed motives of nationalism and greed, kept the rural districts of Judea in constant turmoil.

There are several ironies here:

  1. Barabbas was almost certainly guilty of attempting to overthrow Roman rule and had no doubt received whatever due process was common at the time. Jesus, the gospels (especially John) make clear, was not interested in political, but spiritual revolution. His followers were at pains, after his crucifixion, to distance themselves from the sort of rebellion that eventually resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem. The trial of Jesus (especially in John) comes of as a trio of kangaroo courts where Jesus couldn't catch a break and didn't even seem to try to defend himself.

  2. Another footnote points out:

    The name Barabbas in Aramaic means “son of abba,” that is, “son of the father,” and presumably the man in question had another name (it may also have been Jesus, according to the textual variant in Matt 27:16, although this is uncertain). For the author this name held ironic significance: The crowd was asking for the release of a man called Barabbas, “son of the father,” while Jesus, who was truly the Son of the Father, was condemned to die instead.

  3. The high priests are so instant the Jesus be crucified that they declare, “We have no king except Caesar!” It's the sort of thing a person would heartily regret saying the next morning on further reflection.

I should also point out that we tend to divide crimes more finely than was common in the past. We have several levels of illegal killing and many different designations of illegal taking of another's property. Punishments are usually tied to the severity of the crime. But in the past, there was less emphasis on differentiating the circumstances of various crimes and execution was the typical punishment for a wide range of crimes. In the case of highwaymen and brigands who demanded "Your money or your life", the only distinction between the one crime and the other was how the victim responded (in theory).

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"It's the sort of thing a person would heartily regret saying the next morning on further reflection." If I could upvote an answer twice, this sentence alone would make that happen here. –  Frank Luke Feb 7 '12 at 15:05
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Sometimes robber is generally used as a collective term to refer to rebels or outlaws in a rebellion who steal, kill, and destroy... After all, they steal lives and property.

So in this case, I would venture to say that Barabbas, in the rebellion, went through the countryside, stealing from the people and killed as well.

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Interesting, but it really doesn't answer the question. –  Richard Oct 4 '11 at 20:18
I would put it this way: these passages do not conflict directly. One can be a robber and a murderer. The authors simply choose to describe the man with different attributes, but they don't (seem to) claim to be exhaustive. –  blundin Oct 4 '11 at 20:18
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