The penalty for Barabbas' crime was death by crucifixion, but according to the four canonical gospels and the non-canonical Gospel of Peter there was a prevailing Passover custom in Jerusalem that allowed or required Pilate, the praefectus, or governor of Judaea, to commute one prisoner's death sentence by popular acclaim, and the ’crowd’ (ochlos) which has become ""the Jews"" and ""the multitude"" in some translations, were offered a choice of whether to have Barabbas or Jesus released from Roman custody.
According to the closely parallel gospels of Matthew (27:15-26), Mark (15:6-15), and Luke (23:13 - 25), and the more divergent accounts in John (18:38-19:16) and the Gospel of Peter, the crowd chose Barabbas to be released and Jesus of Nazareth to be crucified. A passage found only in the Gospel of Matthew has the crowd saying, "Let his blood be upon us and upon our children".
The story of Barabbas has special social significances, because it has historically been used to lay the blame for the crucifixion of Jesus on the Jews, and to justify anti-Semitism; an interpretation dismissed by Pope Benedict XVI in his 2011 book, in which he also questions the historicity of the passage in Matthew.
Scholar Hyam Maccoby argues that Jesus was known as ’bar-Abba’, because of his custom of addressing God as 'Abba' in prayer and referring to God as Abba in his preaching. It follows that when the Jewish crowd clamoured before Pontius Pilate to ’free Bar Abba’ they could have meant Jesus.
According to Jewish scholar Hyam Maccoby, anti-Semitic elements in the Christian church may have altered the narrative to make it appear that the demand was for the freedom of somebody else (a brigand or insurrectionist) named ""Barabbas"". For Maccoby, this may have been part of the tendency to shift the blame for the crucifixion of Jesus towards the Jews and away from the Romans.