Barabbas by Pär Lagerkivst, translated by Alan Blair (New York: Vintage International, 1951. 144 pp)

Pär Lagerkivst was the author of more than 35 books and was renowned for his versatility as a poet, dramatist, essayist, and novelist. In 1940 he was elected one of the 18 “Immortals” of the Swedish Academy, and in 1951 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He died in 1974.

Starring in Your Own Story

Every minor character in someone else’s story is the protagonist in their own story. The best stories show character depth for everyone because we all lead our own stories.

When a film, television series, or novel falters, it tends to unravel in these tertiary characters. The love interest’s motivations only find purpose within the instrumental nature of the main character. Critics tend to describe these characters as one-note stereotypes. The bad guy desires world domination but the viewer never really understands why. A character picks a fight with the protagonist, not because a fight naturally emerges from the story, but because the protagonist must move from plot point A to plot point B.

Even in sacred narratives, many characters enter and exit without much autonomy, their fully realized lives unimportant to a narrative pointing the reader toward belief.

For this reason, I find Pär Lagerkvist’s Barabbas intriguing.

The Source Material

In the gospel narrative, a minor character plays a crucial role in determining the passion of Jesus Christ. Arrested, Jesus faces Pontius Pilate and judgement. The screaming hoard wants the death penalty, but Pilate finds no fault in this supposed criminal. A discerning governor, Pilate suggests the crowd choose a criminal for acquittal during the Passover season. The two in custody: Jesus Christ, facing charges of blasphemy, and Barabbas, facing charges of murder.

The crowd chants the name of Barabbas and soon, the shackles fall and he gains his freedom. Simultaneously, Jesus carries his cross to Golgotha and the rest is history.

What Would You Do with a New Lease on Life?

But Lagerkvist asks an interesting question with Barabbas. Namely, what would happen to a person acquitted of crimes clearly committed at the eleventh hour. Would it change you? Would you commit to rehabilitation, given the new lease on life?

Lagerkvist imagines a Barabbas intrigued about the man who took his place on the cross. As such, Lagerkvist sends his Barabbas to the many canonical experiences of early Christianity. Barabbas watches the crucifixion and considers what just happened among friends at the local pub.

“They eagerly made room for him at the table, pouring out wine for him and all talking at once about his having been let out of prison and being discharged and how damned lucky he was that the other one had been crucified in his place” (12).

Barabbas witnesses the resurrection. Barabbas encounters Pentecost.

“One or two others then witnessed and were so filled with the spirit that the congregation continued in its exaltation and many rocked their bodies to and fro as though in a trance. Barabbas watched them from his corner, sitting and taking note of everything with his wary eyes” (62).

Who Are these Christians?

All the while, Barabbas considers this fledgling religion, and what it might mean to clothe himself in this new reality.

Interestingly, Barabbas finds the leaders of this religion contemptible. The disciples so often boneheadedly depicted in Scripture stay true to form in this narrative.

“Barabbas could not avoid sometimes running into the followers of the crucified rabbi. No one could say that he did so deliberately; but there were a number of them here and there in the streets and marketplaces, and if he encountered them he liked to stop and talk for a while and ask them about him and that queer doctrine which he couldn’t make head or tail of” (43).

But, Barabbas sees the true beauty of this faith in the timid presentation of the hare-lipped girl, a clear representation of Mary Magdalene. This girl cuts to the heart Jesus’ teaching in ways the disciples never quite understand.

“When they reached the parting of ways—she was evidently going to take the road leading down to the valley of Ge-Hinnom while he thought of going on to the Gate of David—he asked her again what the doctrine was that he preached and which she believed in, though actually it was no concern of his. She stood for a moment looking down on the ground; then, giving him a shy look, she said in her slurring voice.
—Love one another.
And so they parted.
Barabbas stood for a long time gazing after her” (41).

So, when the authorities put the hare-lipped girl on trail for the innocence of her faith, the dissonance of the community compared to this individual becomes too much for Barabbas to bear. With this event acting as the crux of the narrative and the pivot to the back-half of the plot, Barabbas spends the rest of the story coming to grips with what is true, and how to live faithfully in a world so unjust in its distribution of justice.

Lagerkvist’s Barabbas explores the inner life of a character whom only receives a couple of sentences in Scripture. Expertly considered, Barabbas questions the meaning of faith considering the deadening structures of society. It ponders whether one can truly find redemption when given a second chance. Well recommended.

Verdict: 4.5 out of 5



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