Thieves, the Two on the Cross
Thieves, the Two on the Cross (Mt 27:38-44; Mr 15:27; Lu 23:39-43; comp. Joh 18:40). The men who under this name appear in the history of the crucifixion were robbers (λῃσταί) rather than thieves (κλεπταί)
belonging to the lawless bands by which Palestine was at that time and afterwards infested (Josephus, Ant. 17:10, 8; 20:8, 10). Against these brigands every Roman procurator had to wage continual war (Josephus, War, 2, 13, 2). The parable of the Good Samaritan shows how common it was for them to attack and plunder travelers even on the high-road from Jerusalem to Jericho (Lu 10:30). It was necessary to use an armed police to encounter them (Lu 22:52). Often, as in the case of Barabbas, the wild robber life was connected with a fanatic zeal for freedom which turned the marauding attack into a popular insurrection (Mr 15:7). For crimes such as these the Romans had but one sentence. Crucifixion was the penalty at once of the robber and the rebel (Josephus, War, 2, 13, 2).
Of the previous history of the two who suffered on Golgotha we know nothing. They had been tried and condemned, and were waiting their execution before our Lord was accused. It is probable enough, as the death of Barabbas was clearly expected at the same time, that they were among the συστασιασταί who had been imprisoned with him, and had taken part in the insurrection in which zeal, and hate, and patriotism, and lust of plunder were mingled in wild confusion.
They had expected to die with Jesus Barabbas (q.v.). They find themselves with one who bore the same name, but who was described in the superscription on his cross as Jesus of Nazareth. They could hardly fail to have heard something of his fame as a prophet, of his triumphal entry as a king. They now find him sharing the same fate as themselves, condemned on much the same charge (Lu 23:5). They too would bear their crosses to the appointed place, while He fainted by the way. Their garments would be parted among the soldiers. For them also there would be the drugged wine, which He refused, to dull the sharp pain of the first hours on the cross. They catch at first the prevailing tone of scorn. A king of the Jews who could neither save himself nor help them, whose followers had not even fought for him (Joh 18:36), was strangely unlike the many chieftains whom they had probably known claiming the same title (Josephus, Ant. 17:10, 8), strangely unlike the "notable prisoner" for whom they had not hesitated, it would seem, to incur the risk of bloodshed. But over one of them there came a change. The darkness which, at noon, was beginning to steal over the sky awed him, and the divine patience and silence and meekness of the sufferer touched him. He looked back upon his past life, and saw an infinite evil. He looked to the man dying on the cross beside him, and saw an infinite compassion. There, indeed, was one unlike all other "kings of the Jews" whom the robber had ever known. Such a one must be all that he had claimed to be. To be forgotten by that King seems to him now the most terrible of all punishments to take part in the triumph of his return, the most blessed of all hopes. The yearning prayer was answered, not in the letter, but in the spirit. To him alone, of all the myriads who had listened to him, did the Lord speak of Paradise (q.v.), waking with that word the thoughts of a purer past and the hopes of an immediate rest. But its joy was to be more than that of fair groves and pleasant streams. "Thou shalt be with me!" He should be remembered there.
We cannot marvel that a history of such wonderful interest should at all times have fixed itself on men's minds, and led them to speculate and ask questions which we have no data to answer. The simplest and truest way of looking at it has been that of those who, from the great Alexandrian thinker (Origen, in Romans 3) to the writer of the most popular hymn of our own times, have seen in the "dying thief" the first great typical instance that "a mail is justified by faith without the deeds of the law." Even those whose thoughts were less deep and wide acknowledged that in this and other like cases the baptism of blood supplied the place of the outward sign of regeneration (Hilar. De Trinit. c. 10; Jerome, Ep. 13). The logical speculations of the Pelagian controversy overclouded, in this as in other instances, the clear judgment of Augustine. Maintaining the absolute necessity of baptism to salvation, he had to discuss the question whether the penitent thief had been baptized or not, and he oscillates, with melancholy indecision, between the two answers. At times he is disposed to rest content with the solution which had satisfied others. Then again he ventures on the conjecture that the water which sprang forth from the pierced side had sprinkled him, and so had been a sufficient baptism. Finally, yielding to the inexorable logic of a sacramental theory, he rests in the assumption that he probably had been baptized before, either in his prison or before he entered on his robber-life (August. De Anima, 1, 11; 3, 12; Serm. de Temp. 130; Retract. 1, 26; 3, 18, 55).
Other conjectures turn more on the circumstances of the history. Bengel, usually acute, here overshoots the mark, and finds in the Lord's words to him, dropping all mention of the Messianic kingdom, an indication that the penitent thief was a Gentile, the impenitent a Jew, and that this the scene on Calvary was typical of the position of the two churches (Gnomon N.T.
in Luke 23). Stier (Words of the Lord Jesus, ad loc.) reads in the words of reproof (οὐδὲ φοβῇ σὺ τὸν θεόν) the language of one who had all along listened with grief and horror to the revilings of the multitude, the burst of an indignation previously suppressed. The Apocryphal gospels, as usual, do their best to lower the divine history to the level of a legend. They follow the repentant robber into the unseen world. He is the first to enter Paradise of all mankind. Adam and Seth and the patriarchs find him already there bearing his cross. Michael the archangel had led him to the gate, and the fiery sword had turned aside to let him pass (Evang. Nicod. 2, 10). Names were given to the two robbers. Demas or Dismas was the penitent thief, hanging on the right, Gestas the impenitent on the left (ibid. 1, 10; Narrat. Joseph. c. 3). The cry of entreaty is expanded into a long, wordy prayer (Narrat. Joseph. loc. cit.), and the promise suffers the same treatment. The history of the Infancy is made prophetic of that of the crucifixion. The holy family, on their flight to Egypt, come upon a band of robbers. One of them, Titus (the names are different here), has compassion, purchases the silence of his companion Dumachus, and the infant Christ prophesies that after thirty years Titus shall be crucified with him, and shall go before him into Paradise (Evang. Infant. c. 23). As in other instances [see MAGI], so in this, the fancy of inventors seems to have been fertile in names. Bede (Collectan.) gives Matha and Joca as those which prevailed in his time. The name given in the Gospel of Nicodemus has, however, kept its ground, and St. Dismas takes his place in the hagiology of the Syrian, the Greek, and the Latin Church. —Smith. It has been assumed that the penitent thief had been very wicked; that he continued so till he was nailed to the cross; that he joined the other malefactor in insulting the Savior; and that then, by a miracle of grace, he was transformed into a penitent Christian; so Origen (Hom. 35 in Matthew), Chrysostom (Hom. 88 in Matthew), and others (comp. Suicer, s.v. Λῃστής). But this view of the case seems to involve some misconception of the facts, which it may not be inexpedient to indicate. Whitby says, "Almost all interpreters that I have read here say that this thief began his repentance on the cross." With regard to his moral character, he is indeed styled by the evangelist one of the "malefactors (κακοῦργοι) who were led with Jesus to be put to death" (Lu 23:32); but the word is evidently used δοξαστικῶς, i.e. malefactors as they were considered. Matthew (Mt 27:44) and Mark (Mr 15:27) call them λῃσταί; but this word denotes not only robbers, etc., but also brigands, rebels, or any who carry on unauthorized hostilities, insurgents (Thucyd. 4:53). Insurrection was a crime, but it was a crime a person might have committed who had good qualities, and had maintained a respectable character. Again, this man's punishment was crucifixion, which was not in use among the Jews, but was inflicted by the Romans, as we have seen, not on mere thieves, but rebels. Barabbas had been one of these, and though he'" lay bound with them that had made insurrection with him, who had committed murder in the insurrection," Mark (Mr 15:27) has the same word, λῃστής, "robber," which is applied to him by John (Joh 18:40). It is most probable that these "malefactors" were two of his companions. Our Lord-was condemned under the same charge of insurrection (Lu 23:2), and the man whose case we are considering says to his fellow-sufferer, "Thou art under the same sentence, ἐν τῷ αὐτῷ κρίματι, and admits that they both were guilty of the charge, while our Lord was innocent of it (ver. 40, 41). It is impossible, then, to determine the degree of his criminality without knowing what provocations he had received under the despotic and arbitrary rule of a Roman governor such as Pilate, how far he had been active, or only mixed up with the sedition, etc. The notion that he was suddenly and instantaneously converted on the cross is grounded entirely upon the general statement of Matthew, "the thieves also which were crucified with him cast the same in his teeth" (Mt 27:44); whereas Luke, in his relation of the incident, is more exact. Instances of Matthew's style of speaking, which is called amplification, abound in the gospels, and in all writers. Thus, "the soldiers brought him vinegar" (Lu 23:36; Joh 19:29), "one of them did so" (Mt 27:48; Mr 15:36). "The disciples had indignation" (Mt 26:8), "some of them" (Mr 14:4)," one of them" (Joh 12:4). So on Mr 16:5; Mt 28:2, there is mention of one angel only: but in Lu 24:4; Joh 20:12, there is mention of two. This is substantially the explanation given by Cyprian (De Passione Domini), Augustine (DeCons. Evang. 3, 16), and others, which assumes a synecdoche or syllepsis or enallage. The captious objections to the narrative of Luke as inconsistent with that. of Matthew and Mark, and the inference drawn from; them that both are more or less legendary, are therefore puerile (Strauss, Leben Jesu, 2, 519; Ewald, Christus, in Gesch. 5, 438). It is far from certain that either faith or repentance of this "thief" was the fruit of this particular season. He must have known something o the Savior, otherwise he could not have said οὐδὲν ἄτοπον ἔπραξε, "he hath done nothing amiss." He may have been acquainted with the miracles and preaching of Jesus before he was cast into prison; he may have even conversed with him there. He was convinced of our Lord's Messiahship, "Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom." His crime possibly consisted of only one act of insubordination, and he might have been both a sincere believer, and, with this one exception, a practical follower of Christ. Kocher (ap. Bloomfield, Recen. Synop.) tells; us that it is a very ancient tradition that the thief was not converted at the cross, but was previously imbued; with a knowledge of the Gospel. See Kuinol, Macknight, etc.; and the monographs cited by Volbeding, Index Programmatum, p. 63; Hase, Leben Jesu., p. 212.