70 Years after its publication—Pär Lagerkvist’s novel is as modern as ever
This is the book I wanted to write. I had a brilliant idea a few years ago to write about Barabbas and what happened to him after he was spared in exchange for Christ.
There is almost nothing mentioned about him in the synoptic Gospels other than that he was a criminal who the crowd called to be released instead of Jesus when the Passover tradition occasion allowed for one prisoner condemned to death to be freed by the Romans.
What kind of life would he have lived? What could be said about the man who should have died for his crimes, and about whom can be said quite literally that Christ died in his stead? Well, it turns out the book has already been written seventy years ago, and how! An amazing feat and rightly recognized with the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1951 and was made into a film starring Anthony Quinn ten years later (and again as a movie in 2012 starring Billy Zane).
Of course, I couldn’t have come up with the long and complex plot that Lagerkvist did, and thus I was totally captivated and wolfed it down in one sitting. A proverbial page-turner.
Suffice it to say that in Lagerkvist’s rendering of events, Barabbas is not immediately convinced of Jesus Christ’s Messiah status. The story is one I know: It is a modern story of needing a lifetime to understand the importance of significant events earlier in life.
I was struck by how modern the writing was, the themes of belief, meaning, power and powerlessness, sacrifice and self-determination. The book is written from the perspective of inside Barabbas’ head. The dialogue was configured without quotation marks which was also refreshing and flowed well. I perhaps assumed that 1951 was a more prudish era, so I got a kick out of the fact that the very first thing Barabbas does after watching Jesus’ crucifixion is to go back to his drunken bros and his girlfriend, only referred to as the ‘fat woman’ to party and get laid. A very modern tale indeed. Now this is a story I can relate to! It is only slowly, over the course of much more pain and suffering that Barabbas begins to find the meaning of Christ’s death, and the book ends with his own crucifixion at an old age for being a Christian, in Rome under Nero no less. It’s like a Forrest Gump of the Jesus era kind of tale.
I was reading the book on the airplane from Philadelphia to Boston, and the woman next to me eventually asked what I was reading and so I explained. The copy I had was an old library book with brown pages, and I’d taken off the hardcover to make my luggage lighter (I found it on eBay for $5) and it had 50’s movie poster style sketched illustrations—the first which was a nude of the ‘fat woman’ and so I suspect my seat-mate had glanced over and wondered what the subject was. When I told her about how I found the story quite fascinating, especially how modern it was and that I was at the part where Barabbas goes back to his lady-friend and has a good time the night of the crucifixion, she said somewhat dolefully,
“It’s almost risqué to be religious these days.”
“Yes”, I replied, “I’m trying to walk the line between being a spiritual being having an earthly experience, and vice versa.”
We proceeded to have a conversation about the state of religion in America and the increasing difficulty of being tolerant of people who are religious vs. Atheist, or rather, how the extremism of both positions pushes our tolerance levels. In Lagerkvist’s imagining of what Barabbas’ life was like, he sets up a scene where Barabbas, after being enslaved in the copper mines of Sicily for 20 years chained to an Armenian Christian is questioned by the Roman Governor about whether he is a Christian too.
Barabbas says, “No, I am not. But I want to believe.”
The Governor then scratches off the sign of the cross from his slavery medallion. I have been questioned frequently by non-believers of all stripes about my beliefs. I have researched, read, and explored many theories, philosophies, and religions… and at this point, I don’t know much for sure. But I want to believe. I would rather live my life believing, or rather, “operate under a working hypothesis” that there is a cosmic intelligence (call it what you will) that consists of Love, than that there isn’t. I’ve noticed it seems to bring out the best in people, if you believe in their best selves. So why not do that of the universe, too?