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By Par Lagerkvist
Translated by Alan Blair
New York: Random House, 1951
180 pages

Bob Corbett
December 2014

It took me at least half the novel or longer before I fully began to notice what was really going on! According to the New Testament when Jesus was brought before the Roman judge there were three men ready to be crucified, but the crowd demanded that Jesus be crucified, so the judge decided to release one of the three since only three crosses were prepared. He released Barabbas, clearly a murderer and insurrectionist. Thus the innocent Jesus goes to the cross and the guilty Barabbas is freed.

He not only witnesses the crucifixion and immediate aftermath, but is aware that the followers of Jesus believe him to be a god, and they are following the religion created in his name.

Thus begins the story of the rest of Barabbas’ life. He is utterly fascinated by Jesus and is in so many ways his exact opposite. Jesus is loving, caring and a leader of people. Barabbas is a loner, doesn’t even care much for himself much less other people. Yet he just can’t get this Jesus and this new religion out of his mind.

This sets up a dichotomy which author Par Lagerkvist exploits. We all fairly much know the story of the good, loving model of humanity, Jesus. In this work Barabbas becomes almost the opposite. He is, or at least was, the murderer and robber. Now he becomes a quiet, retiring person, eventually even a slave, who has no personal ambitions, yet is simply fascinated as to who this Jesus really is.

He is put into slavery and meets a man who is a Christian and enthusiastic about Jesus and the religion. They become co-workers in a copper mine in the Middle East, and manage to come to be an inseparable team. It would be hard to call them “friends” since Barabbas seems unable to be a friend, yet he can’t separate himself from this “Christian” man.

Eventually his partner is discovered to be a Christian, refuses to recant and is put to death for his belief. Barabbas, on the other hand, readily professes that he is not a Christian at all and is released.

Finally in his very old age, Barabbas, the slave, is taken to Rome by his owner and is still simply fixated on whom this Jesus is and what his religion is. He goes out one night after hearing of a Christian meeting, but the meeting has been cancelled since there have been rumors that Rome is to be set on fire. But Barabbas is out and sees Rome being burned and believing that the Christians are starting the fire, he decides that for once he will act with them and he begins to spread the fire too.

He is captured and taken to prison where he meets the arrested Christians and it comes out to them who he is: the man who was freed so that Jesus could be crucified. A day of so later Barabbas himself is crucified.

The novel is stark and dark. Barabbas is not a clear thinker. He is everything that Jesus is not. He doesn’t love people, he doesn’t even love himself. He has no goals or hopes; he lets the world dictate his being. He does seem to be a genuine friend to his one partner slave, yet does nothing to try to help him from being put to death for his belief in Jesus. And finally, he lets himself be put to death without a word of defense or protest.

The irony of the novel is relentless. There is the giving, loving Jesus who gives his life for his mission and his followers and there is the murderer Barabbas who is virtually his moral opposite who ironically dies in the same manner as Jesus, and it is because of Barabbas’ confused and mistaken ideas about Jesus that he comes to this end.

The book is chilling, challenging and a very unusual take on the Christian theme.

I struggled along to way to make sense of it, constantly thinking this will take some change of direction, something will HAPPEN, and in some sense nothing happens other than the full logic of the opposite of Jesus and Barabbas plays itself out to the end.

This is a brilliantly troubling novel, well worth the read.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett