The Crucifixion and the Barabbas Sacrifice

Chapter VII

The Crucifixion and the Barabbas Sacrifice

The study of ancient religious customs provides no stranger or more complex puzzle then that of the relationship between the Gospel story of the Crucifixion of our Lord and the ancient rituals of human sacrifice. At first sight the account of the Crucifixion seems to be quite straightforward, and to describe an ordinary Roman infliction of death upon the cross: that is to say, Jesus seems to have been put to death by the usual method employed by the Romans in the case of criminals of low class; but when we look closer we find that some of the main incidents in the Gospel account have their parallels in these rites of human sacrifice as practised by the ancients. In fact, one may say that if a cosmopolitan writer of that period had set himself to invent the story of the sacrificial death of an incarnate god who was thought to have died for the remission of sins, he might, out of his general knowledge, have produced a tale more or less like that in the Gospels.

This startling fact has led a good many critics to regard the whole story of the Crucifixion as a myth, while others take the view that although the account of the execution of Jesus is correct in so far as the main fact is concerned – namely, that He suffered the Roman death of crucifixion – the details are fictitious additions derived from the knowledge of the usual rites and procedure of human sacrifice as it was still practiced at that time in some parts of the Roman Empire. In other words, according to these critics, the authors of the Gospels had wished to show that the earthly task of Jesus had culminated in the sacrifice of Himself to God, and therefore they had framed a story which was not that of an ordinary crucifixion of a criminal, but was that of an actual human sacrifice.

It is, indeed, impossible to avoid the conclusion that this was no ordinary Roman crucifixion of which the Gospels tell us: there were some peculiar features about it which distinguished it from the usual execution upon the cross. Five of these peculiarities may here be mentioned. Firstly, this death by crucifixion was inflicted upon a man whose crime was that of blasphemy and heresy, but the punishment for such a crime was death by decapitation or stoning. Secondly, the execution took place on the eve of the Passover; and since crucifixion was a slow torture, often lasting several days before death released the sufferer, an ordinary crucifixion would have been held over until after the festival. Thirdly, in spite of it before the day before the Passover, two malefactors were also crucified. Fourthly, the victim in this case was first dressed as a King, a mock crown being placed on His head, and a mock sceptre in His hand; and in the inscription affixed to the cross He was described as “the King of the Jews.” And, finally, the execution of Jesus was preceded by the release of a condemned criminal called Barabbas.

It is the last of these points which, in my opinion, furnishes the clue of the mystery. I believe that the Crucifixion of Jesus by the Jews as a sort of human sacrifice, and that therefore the similarity of the procedure described in the Gospels to the old sacrificial ritual, far from providing evidence that the story was invented, indicates that the account is authentic history. But to prove my argument it must be shown firstly that the Jews of those days did practice some kind of human sacrifice by crucifixion annually on the eve of the Passover and, secondly, that Jesus was their chosen victim for that year’s sacrificial ceremony. The matter is of immense importance, for if I am right the main argument advanced by that powerful school of criticism which regards Jesus as a mythical figure completely collapsed, or rather, is turned round to demonstrate His historicity.

In primitive days it was the custom in many lands for a king or ruler to put his own son to death as a sacrifice to the tribal god. Philo of Byblus (1) in his book on the Jews says that it was customary for the king to give his beloved son to die for the nation as a ransom offered to the avenging devils, and that the victims were sacrificed with mystic rites. Porphyry tells us (2) that Phoenician history is full of such sacrifices, and we know that amongst the Canaanites not only kings but ordinary people sacrificed their children. Amongst the numerous instances of this custom on record, I may mention the following well-known cases. There is the shocking story (3) of how Abraham, impelled by religious motives, attempted to sacrifice his son Isaac; and there is the even more appalling tale of King David’s effort to stop a famine by sacrificing seven princes of the royal house, the sons of King Saul, and hanging them up before the Lord. (4) The Bible also tells how King Mesha of Moab sacrificed his eldest son; (5) how King Hiel sacrificed his sons at the foundation of Jericho; (6) and how Kings Ahaz and Manasseh consigned their children to the sacrificial fire; (7) and there is an Arab legend that Ishmael, like Isaac, was nearly sacrificed by his father. (8) The Carthaginians, who originally came from Syria, also had this custom: Hamilcar sacrificed his son at the siege of Agrigentum; (9) and Maleus, a Carthaginian general, crucified his son as a sacrifice to Baal. (10) The words of the prophet Micah may also be noted: “Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” (11)

The king was, in early times, usually regarded as a personification of the tribal god, and hence as the divine father of his people, and his son who was sacrificed was thus the “Son of the Father,” this phrase being in Hebrew Bar Abbas. But, as civilise ideas developed, kings were gradually relieved of this terrible duty, and in various lands a criminal condemned to death was substituted for the royal prince. Thus in the Babylonian Sacaea a criminal was dressed up in royal robes to represent a prince, a crown being placed on his head, and was scourged and then crucified or hanged; (12) and similarly at Rhodes a criminal was sacrificed at the Kronian festival (13) in commemoration, obviously, of the sacrifice by Kronos of his royal son Ieoud. It may well be, therefore, that in early Palestine a similar custom obtained, and that a criminal was sacrificed in the guise of the primitive royal “Son of the Father,” or Bar Abbas.

Now the sacrifice of a lamb or kid at the great Jewish festival of the Passover undoubtedly had its origin in a human sacrifice, the Passover being really a spring festival very much older than the days of the Exodus; for in the story of Abraham and Isaac, it will be remembered, Isaac is described as playing the part of the sacrificial lamb, and finally a ram is substituted for him: a tradition which may have actually been cited by way of authority for the substitution of the animal for the human victim, this substitution of a lamb for the first-born son being definitely affirmed in the Mosaic law. (14) The above-mentioned sacrifice of Saul’s sons, too, may have been connected with the primitive Passover, for the Bible says that they were sacrificed at the beginning of the barley harvest, and this harvest begins, in the plain of Jericho and in the Jordan Valley, at about the time of the Passover. There is a record, too, of a certain Jesus Ben Pandira who was stoned to death and hung up on a tree on the eve of the Passover in the reign of Alexander Jannaeus about 100 B.C. (15)

Thus, there is good reason to suppose that while the primitive human sacrifice at this great spring festival was transformed into the sacrifice of a lamb, the older custom also survived in a modified form, the execution of a condemned criminal being made to serve as a sort of human sacrifice performed annually at the time of the Passover; and since in primitive times the most efficacious sacrifice was that of a royal prince by his father the king, this criminal was made to play the part of the royal personage, as in the Babylonian Sacaea, being designated the Bar Abbas of the year. This would account for the remark attributed to Caiaphus, (16) that it was expedient, presumably at Passover-time, (17) that a man should be sacrificed for the good of the nation; and it would also explain the curious Gospel story of Barrabus.

Frazer has pointed out (18) that “Barrabus” was certainly not the personal name of any one criminal, but was the traditional name for the victim in an annual human sacrifice, or rather in the execution into which the sacrifice had deteriorated; and there is evidence that the use of this name survived even later than the time of Christ, for Philo Judaeus, (19) writing in the days of Agrippa, about 40 A.D., tells us that the mob at Alexandria dressed up a crazy old man, putting a sham crown on his head, a sceptre in his hand, and a purple robe over his body, and hailing him as Karabbus, an obvious mis-writing for Barabbas, and as Maris, the Syrian word for a royal personage.

In the Gospel story Pilate seems to have been asked by the Jews to release to them the condemned criminal chosen to be the Barrabas for that year – in this case the leader in some forgotten riot; and, though the significance of the incident does not seem to have been understood at the time when it was recorded, the inference is that Jesus was made to take this man’s place as that year’s Barabbas. Now in these “Barabbas” executions the victim was always, it seems, crowned and dressed up as a royal personage, as in the above-mentioned case quoted by Philo Judaeus. In the Kronos legend Ieoud was dressed in royal robes before being sacrificed; in the Babylonian Sacaea the victim was similarly robed and crowned; and the Carthaginian Maleus likewise dressed up his son as a royal personage before crucifying him. The significance of the dressing up of our Lord as a king, and of the inscription “The King of the Jews,” thus becomes apparent.

The victims of the human sacrifices were generally crucified, or else killed and then “hung on a tree” until the evening, as in the various hangings before the Lord mentioned in the Bible. (20) In this regard it is interesting to notice that in the Acts (21) the writer mistakenly speaks of Jesus as having been slain and then hanged on a tree, as though this were a common phrase coming readily to his mind; and the word “hanged” is frequently used in Greek to denote crucifixion. (22) In the holy groves of Uppsala men were sacrificed by being hung up on the sacred trees; (23) the ancient Gauls crucified the human beings sacrificed to their gods; (24) the victim in the Babylonian Sacaea was crucified; the Carthaginian Maleus sacrificed his son by crucifixion; Jesus Ben Pandira was hung up on a tree; and so forth. Although only one man represented the actual Bar Abbas, it must have been usual to sacrifice others with him; for it was customary in primitive days for persons to be slain on the occasion of an important death, so that their spirits should attend their prince into the next world. (25) Thus two men were crucified with Jesus, and the Gospels say explicitly that the one was placed on His right hand and the other on His left, as though they were attendants. Moreover, in a fragment of Ctesias, it is recorded that the Egyptian usurper Inarus was crucified by Artaxerxes I between two thieves; and a Persian saint, Hitzibouzit, of unknown date, is said to have been “offered up as a sacrifice between two male-factors on a hill-top facing the sun.” (26)

To sum up, then, if this theory be accepted, the fact that our Lord was put to death by crucifixion, and not, as in the case of John the Baptist, by decapitation, is explained; the reason why He was executed on the eve of the Passover becomes apparent; the purpose of dressing Him up in royal robes is shown; the significance of the release of “Barrabas” is made clear; the presence of the two malefactors is accounted for. in this way the critical argument that the Gospel story of the Crucifixion is too similar to an account of a human sacrifice to be believed is disposed of. It was a human sacrifice.


  • Quoted by Eusebius, Preparatio Evang., i. 10, 29.
  • Porphyry, De Abstinentia, ii. 56.
  • Genesis xxii. 1-19.
  • 2 Sam. Xxi. 9.
  • 2 Kings iii. 27.
  • 1 Kings xvi. 34.
  • 2 Chron. Xxviii. 3; xxxiii. 6.
  • Weil, Biblical Legends of the Mussulmans, p. 62.
  • Diodorus, xiii. 86.
  • Justin, xviii. 7.
  • Micah vi. 7.
  • M. Robertson, Pagan Christs, p. 145.
  • Porphyry, De Abstinentia, ii. 54.
  • Exodus xxxiv. 20.
  • See Chapter II.
  • John xi. 50.
  • John xi. 55.
  • Frazer, Golden Bough.
  • Philo Judaeus, Against Flaccus, ch. 6.
  • 1 Sam. Xxi. 9’ Josh. Viii. 29; Josh. x. 26; etc.
  • Acts v. 30; x, 39.
  • Frazer, Golden Bough, i. 226, note.
  • Adam of Bremen, Descriptio insularum Aquilonis, 27.
  • Strabo, bk. Iv., ch. Iv. 5.
  • See, for example, Herodotus, iv. 71.
  • Conybeare, Apology and Acts of Apollonius, p. 270.