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Swedish author Pär Lagerkvist won the Nobel Prize for literature largely on account of his remarkable novel Barabbas (1950). It is like and unlike the best of other such novels based on events surrounding the life of Christ: Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Quo Vadis (1896) and Riccardo Bacchelli’s Lo sguardo di Gesù (The Countenance of Jesus) (1954). All three show that the person and the message of Jesus are revolutionary—not political, but exerting profound and irrefragable influence upon the common life of man.

Lagerkvist wrote his novel in a spare, terse prose for which each word is weighty, as if the novel were a lyric poem, suggesting always far more than it says outright. Like Quo Vadis, Barabbas was made into a Hollywood film. Neither met the hearty approval of the public, probably because there weren’t the expected angelic halos and alleluias, though both are well-acted and have moments of great power. That is especially true of the 1961 film Barabbas, with Anthony Quinn in the title role.

What distinguishes Lagerkvist’s story is that Barabbas does not understand Jesus, is not attracted to his person or his teaching, and does not profess belief in him, until perhaps when he gasps out his last breath, crucified among the Christians whom Nero blamed for the great fire of Rome. Lagerkvist himself was an agnostic, but the novel probes relentlessly what it means...

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