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)?

6 Answers 6


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.

  • Thank you! This is the type of answer that has inspired my migrating to this site.
    – Richard
    Commented Oct 4, 2011 at 20:25
  • very nice answer! +1
    – studiohack
    Commented Oct 4, 2011 at 20:33

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).

  • 3
    "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
    Commented Feb 7, 2012 at 15:05

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.

  • 2
    Interesting, but it really doesn't answer the question.
    – Richard
    Commented Oct 4, 2011 at 20:18
  • 3
    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
    Commented Oct 4, 2011 at 20:18

The Romans usually only crucified insurrectionists. That is, people who had an agenda to harm their empire. "Thief" or "robber", therefore, is unfortunate language as we interpret that in our culture as someone who steals. But, Barabbas and those crucified alongside Jesus were more likely thought of by the Romans as Terrorists.

What we know historically, contextually and culturally therefore gives us the best clues to interpreting these words/phrases.

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    – ThaddeusB
    Commented Jul 28, 2015 at 16:32

Barabbas was almost certainly in prison for insurrection, as Mark and Luke make quite plain. I consider this important because of the implications for the scene on Golgotha. Most translators speak of Jesus as being crucified between two robbers, thieves or bandits. Regardless of how this is translated, I think we should consider these two too be insurrectionists.

Indeed the most likely scenario is that they were Barabbas' companions:

Mark 15:7 KJ21

And there was one named Barabbas, who lay bound with those who had made insurrection with him, and who had committed murder in the insurrection.

We may debate whether robbers would be crucified, but there is no doubt insurrectionists who committed murder during the rebellion would be put to death. This also sheds light on why the thief on Jesus' right admitted that he deserved to die.

Conclusion: Barabbas was in prison for insurrection, and Pilate justified substituting Jesus for him because Jesus, too, was thought to be a serious threat to the political order, whether he actually was or not.


THE POLITICS OF JESUS CRUCIFIXION: I believe that high level politics was played, which let to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. I read from some ancient records which explained that Yeshua Barabbas (Jesus the son of the father) was not just a robber and killer as portrayed in some gospels, but a rebel trying to overthrow the roman authority and free the Jews. He had a guerrilla warfare group who constantly ambushed, attacked and killed roman soldiers and burn their homes. This must have endeared him to his Jewish folks as their redeemer. The Jews believing Yeshua Nazareth (Jesus of Nazareth) - the Christ (Redeemer of mankind) to be the king that would totally redeem them from the Romans tyranny wanted him crowned king, but Jesus escaped and refused to the crowned king, which led to the disappointment of the Jews in him because they thought he was an earthly king, which Jesus Christ personally denied and stated that his kingdom is not of this earth but spiritual and heavenly.

Pilate must have been aware that the people would prefer Barabbas to be released as against Jesus Christ because he fights in their side to dethrone the Roman authority. He did confide in his wife that "I have quelled rebellions in this ranging out-post a number of times and Caesar had promised me that the next time it would be my blood." Even after Jesus Christ asked him if he knew the truth, he asked his wife if she would recognize the truth when she sees it. His wife told him one wouldn't know the truth unless you agree that it be told to you. He answered his wife that the only truth he knew at that moment was the rebellion that was about to happen - it showed that he was more interested in holding on to his office rather than accept the truth. He said if he released Jesus Christ, there would be rebellion, and even if he condemned him, Jesus Christ' followers could still raise a rebellion. I believe he deliberately made the choice to have Jesus Christ crucified because his supporters were fewer in number compared to those of the High Priests'.

I believe that mere washing of hands did not completely exonerate Pilate from being culpable in the murder of Jesus Christ. Was there a real trial? People shouting "crucify him" isn't a real trial. Pilate just ordered him to be crucified without proper trial.

However, it was an earthly destiny which Jesus Christ came to fulfill.


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