Your novel, I Was Called Barabbas, seeks to imagine how Barabbas, the prisoner released in exchange for Jesus, lived out the rest of his life. What made you decide to explore that in a novel?
When I read historical accounts, including the Bible, I like to think deeply about what it was like for our ancestors to live in those moments. They were real people, no better or worse than we are in their basic makeup. Their attitudes, hopes, behaviors, and opportunities for love and redemption were just like ours. Modern technology is just fancy wrapping paper.
We know next to nothing about the real person called Barabbas. We often gloss over his identity, but I’m sure Jesus recognized Barabbas as a real person with eternal identity and potential, just like the rest of us. Jesus also surely comprehended how the gravity of the moment of his selection as the sacrifice—and Barabbas’s unexpected freedom—would impact Barabbas’s life. That real scenario has fascinated me for a long time.
I didn’t sit down and plan out a book about the life of Barabbas and then start writing it. Instead, I would occasionally be thinking about what his later life might have been like in the context of everything going on around him in those early days following the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, and a scene would come to me, and I would think it through and then write it down. Later another scene would come, and I would write that down. After I had half a dozen or so of these scenes, I started to imagine how I could put them together with other scenes to form an interesting and useful depiction of the life of Barabbas. I was busy with work, family, church, etc., so it didn’t happen fast, and the final product went through several iterations, including four additional “final” edits after the professional editor had done her excellent work with it, but I finally got it done, and that felt really good.
Of course, I knew well before the book was finished that the story begged for a sequel, and I knew I wanted to focus a lot of Book 2 (with a working title of Pillars of Barabbas) on the growth of Christ’s early church and the traveling and preaching of the apostles. The 2nd draft of that book is complete, and it was just as fascinating to write as the first book. I even used it as an excuse to travel to Rome with my wife and visit the ancient sites there—to “feel the bones” of the Eternal City, seat of one of the greatest empires in the history of the world—whose emperors could (and did) take life at the snap of their fingers, but were never able to overcome death (though they tried), as Christ did. Let that sink in.
What historical evidence exists of Barabbas that you were you able to utilize in telling your story?
Barabbas is mentioned only briefly by the Gospel writers. Matthew refers to him as a “notable prisoner, called Barabbas.” Mark identifies him as someone whom the Romans had bound for committing murder in “the insurrection.” Luke notes that Barabbas had been cast into prison by the Romans for sedition and murder. Finally, John identifies Barabbas as a “robber.”
That’s not much to go on, and noted contemporary historian Josephus doesn’t mention him, so there were a lot of directions I could go with his life while at the same time staying true to other events recorded in the Bible and in Josephus’s Antiquities of the Jews, etc. Unfortunately, we have precious few historical documents from the time period. I’m sure there used to be many more records, but most have been lost or destroyed over the intervening two millennia, which is a very long time.
What research into the history and politics of the time was necessary?
History and Politics are two of my favorite subjects. I majored in Economics (back when that was still cool), and less than a hundred years ago, it was actually part of a field called “Political Economy.” That makes sense to me, since politics and economics are so strongly intertwined.
The politics of Rome were driven by imperfect people who fell to the same temptations people fall for today. So, as I continue to study Rome and its politics, I find it’s not all that different from what we experience in the world today. And that’s an important point to make. The people who lived under Roman rule at the time of Christ dealt with all of same political and economic forces that we—individually and collectively—deal with today. Again, while our many modern conveniences are wonderful, they don’t really change who we are … and how corruptible we are, so we must always be vigilant.
One of the main themes in the novel revolves around redemption – something Barabbas doesn’t think he deserves. Why did you decide on that important theme?
This is a big question. In fact, it’s the big question. People throughout history have had to deal with the reality of their own mortality, and the daunting question of “what comes next?” It expands quickly beyond their own selves to their families and their friends. We have a natural inclination to both seek and give love, but what ultimately happens to that love? And since we are also imbued with passions of the flesh and faced with the stark reality that survival on this planet requires hard work, how do we deal with all of the mistakes we make and the people that we hurt—even people that we think we love?
At some level, everyone can write a compelling story about personal redemption, because we all desperately need it. I feel some of my past mistakes keenly still. How can I be reconciled—not just with God, who gives us clear guidelines that will lead us freely toward a truly happy life—but also with myself? How can I forgive myself, and how does that relate to forgiving others?
Ultimately, it is impossible for us to achieve the redemption that we seek on our own, or even with the help of family and friends. There is only one who can help us achieve true and lasting redemption, and that is the Christ. How do we develop enough faith in his love, his purpose, and his wisdom? How do come to trust him enough to submit our free wills to his gentle guidance? How do we invite his Spirit to heal our wounds and enlighten our souls? And how is selfless service to others a key element in that process?
I definitely don’t know all of the answers, but I’ve been blessed with some tangible, powerful experiences that show me that at least I’ve found the right path. Now, how do I persistently progress along that path?
What other lessons can today’s readers take away from the life you imagined for Barabbas?
Life is hard. We all make mistakes, sometimes pretty big ones. But there isn’t anything too big for our Savior to help us with, if we humbly and sincerely seek him and ask for his help. Matthew recorded these words of the Savior: “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn of me, for I am meek and lowly in heart, and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30, KJV) I don’t memorize many scriptures, but I’ve memorized that one, and it often gives me solace.
The Lord isn’t saying that hard work won’t be required or that challenges won’t come if we diligently follow him—history clearly proves otherwise, especially given the nature of our true adversary—but he is promising to help us, and he is showing us that his path is far more fulfilling, far easier to live with, than the decadent, dissolute paths so often presented to us. I often ask youth if they have friends who have made some bad choices, and how much more difficult and complicated their lives have become because of their choices. We can revel in sin for the moment, but the piper must always be paid. We can choose our actions, but the consequences of those actions are very often out of our direct control.
What is the ultimate message you hope readers take away from your novel?
Hope in Christ and a deep-rooted recognition of each and every person’s value and potential as a literal child of a loving, all-knowing, and incredibly patient (but also just) God. So many temptations and distractions attempt to distance us from God and sow doubt and fear in our hearts and minds. We can overcome them, though, with God’s help, earnestly sought.
I Was Called Barabbas can be purchased on Amazon in both print and e-book. Soon it will be available in audiobook on the Amazon/Audible platform as well. Stay updated on the author's projects through his website (www.mdhouselive.com) and his Facebook page (www.facebook.com/LiteraryThunder).