Jesus and     Barabbas

Joseph Francis Alward

This is another in a continuing series of analyses of Dennis R. MacDonald's book, The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark.

Here, MacDonald's claim that a parallel exists between Mark's story of the contest between Jesus and Barabbas and Homer's fight beggars is described.

                             Hail, king of the Jews!

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Odysseus and Irus

Athene touched him with her wand and [made Odysseus look like an old tramp]…Now there came a certain common tramp [named Irus] who used to go begging all over the city...and was notorious as an incorrigible glutton and drunkard…. he began to insult Odysseus, and to try and drive him [away and said to him,] "Be off, old man ….Do you not see that they are all giving me the wink, and wanting me to turn you out by force?"….. Odysseus gave him a blow on the neck…he fell groaning in the dust, gnashing his teeth and kicking on the ground…the [people] were beyond measure astonished….[they] threw up their hands and nearly died of laughter…[and said], "Hail , father stranger..".....(The Odyssey)

      Statue of Odysseus



Jesus and Barabbas

Very early in the morning, the chief priests, with the elders, the teachers of the law and the whole Sanhedrin, reached a decision. They bound Jesus, led him away and handed him over to Pilate...Now it was the custom at the Feast to release a prisoner whom the people requested. A man called Barabbas was in prison with the insurrectionists who had committed murder in the uprising. The crowd came up and asked Pilate to do for them what he usually did [release a prisoner]. "Do you want me to release to you the king of the Jews?" asked Pilate…But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have Pilate release Barabbas instead. "What shall I do, then, with the one you call the king of the Jews?" Pilate asked them. "Crucify him!" they shouted.  "Why? What crime has he committed?" asked Pilate.  But they shouted all the louder, "Crucify him!"  Wanting to satisfy the crowd, Pilate released Barabbas to them….And they began to call out to [Jesus], "Hail, king of the Jews!" Mark 15:1-18.


Odysseus and Irus Jesus and Barabbas
In Homer's work, the hero, Odysseus, watched over by the goddess Athena, is believed by the crowd to be a common beggar. Homer brings a real beggar, Irus, and Odysseus together.  The real beggar is the crowd favorite. The crowd encourages a contest between the real beggar and the apparent one, and the apparent one wins. The crowd's leader hails the victor, the hero Odysseus. In Mark's work, the hero, Jesus, watched over by God, is believed by the crowd to be a common criminal.  Mark brings a real criminal, Barabbas, and Jesus together. The real criminal is the crowd favorite. Pilate sets up a contest between the real criminal and the apparent one, asking the crowd to choose which one should be released, and the real criminal wins.  The crowd hails the loser, the hero, Jesus.


   Detailed Summary
Parallels Odysseus and Irus Jesus and Barabbas
Readers know that the hero is empowered by a god, while crowd is unaware of this. Odysseus is empowered by a goddess; persons in crowd are unaware of this. Jesus is empowered by a god; persons in crowd asking for his crucifixion are unaware of this.
Crowd believes hero is something he's not. Crowd believes Odysseus is a common beggar. Crowd believes Jesus is a fraud, a common criminal.
Author sets up a contest between two scoundrels, one real, the other apparent. The apparent beggar fights the real beggar. The apparent criminal competes with the real criminal for the crowd's approval.
Crowd underestimates the power of the hero. Crowd underestimates the power of Odysseus. Crowd underestimates the power of Jesus.
Author creates irony by having the crowd side with the villain. Crowd sides with Irus, the real beggar, an insolent braggart. Crowd sides with Barabbas,  the real criminal.
Author creates irony again, at the end of the contest, by having crowd hail the person who will eventually rule over and destroy them. The hero, Odysseus, wins, and his victory is hailed, "Hail, father stranger." The hero, Jesus, loses, and his defeat is mockingly hailed, "Hail, King of the Jews."


  Clues Signal Fictional Nature of Gospel
A Play on Words

As MacDonald points out, Mark provided an important clue to his readers that his story was fictional which no one could miss:  he called the prisoner "Barabbas."  Barabbas means "the son of the father" 1. Thus, Mark has Pilate set up a contest between two "sons of the father", one real, the other not. Of course, this unlikely contest probably only took place in the creative imagination of Mark, who wanted to create for his readers a parable teaching the goodness of Jesus and the evilness of his persecutors.  


An Unlikely Practice

MacDonald notes that there is no evidence independent of Mark that it was ever the custom at feasts for the Romans to release a prisoner requested by the Jews. Furthermore, such a practice would make no sense, and would be quite foolish:  it's not likely, for example, that the Romans would release a prisoner accused of murdering soldiers. Thus, this "practice" of releasing a prisoner probably existed only in the imagination of Mark, who just needed to have two men to have a contest between one good man and a bad one, similar to the one which occurred in Homer; Mark already had the first man on the stage--Jesus, and through an artless contrivance he brought on the second one.  


MacDonald points to another strong indication that Mark borrowed Homer's story to create the Jesus-Barabbas story. More than 800 years before Mark, Homer put the word "Hail" in the mouths of the crowd at the end of contest between Odysseus, the beggar apparent, and an actual beggar, Irus.   Mark, too, used this word at the end of that contest between Jesus, a criminal apparent, and Barabbas, an actual criminal.2  This wouldn't be so interesting, perhaps, if Mark had often used the salutation, but never did he do so; not once--other than this one time--did Mark have someone say, "Hail!" to another person.  Its use at the end of the same type of scene as is found in Homer is--by itself--evidence that Mark based his story about Jesus on a fictional story in The Odyssey.

[1] Abba means "father", as is clear from the following three verses:

Abba, Father," he said, "everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will." (Mark 14:36)

For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, "
Abba, Father." (Romans 8:15)

Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, "Abba, Father." (Galatians 4:6)

[2] In the entire New Testament, "Hail" is used as a greeting only five other times, but two of those (Matthew 27:29, and John 19:3) are just echoes of Mark's story. Three others occurrences listed below:

And forthwith he came to Jesus, and said, Hail, master; and kissed him. (Matthew 26:49)

And as they went to tell his disciples, behold, Jesus met them, saying,
All hail. And they came and held him by the feet, and worshipped him. (Matthew 28:9)

And the angel came in unto her, and said,
Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women. (Luke 1:28)


Loaves and Fishes
Elpenor and Eutychus
Temple Merchants
The Wicked Tenants
Jesus and Barabbas
Gerasene Demoniac
The Baptist's Head
Anointing Jesus
Cannibalism in Mark
Jesus Visits Hades
Young Man at Tomb