The Gospel Story of the Two Thieves
In the New Testament gospel story, Jesus Christ is depicted has being hung on a cross between two "thieves," "criminals" or "malefactors."
This episode is represented at Matthew 27:38
, Mark 15:27, Luke 23:39-43 and John 19:18. The passage in Matthew says:
Then two robbers were crucified with him, one on the right and one on the left.
The Greek word rendered here as "robbers" and elsewhere as "thieves" is λῃσταί or lestai
, plural of λῃστής or lestes
), which Strong's defines as: "a robber, plunderer, freebooter, brigand." The Greek word is used 15 times across all four gospels. In Matthew, both criminals mock Christ, and there is no hint of a "penitent thief."Mark 15:27
And with him they crucified two robbers, one on his right and one on his left.
Here again the Greek word rendered "robber" is lestes
In a note in the RSV, we learn that there is in some Bible editions an insertion, Mark 15:28, which reads:
And the scripture was fulfilled which says, "He was reckoned with the transgressors."
We thus learn that this episode is included in order to "fulfill prophecy" (Is 53:12
), i.e., as part of the messianic scriptural blueprint used by the creators of Christianity, suggestive of the motif's fictional/mythical nature.John 19:18
There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, and Jesus between them.
The word here is simply ἄλλους or allous
, from allos
The passages at Luke provide more details (RSV):
One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, "Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!" But the other rebuked him, saying, "Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong." And he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." And he said to him, "Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise."
This passage does not identify these individuals as "thieves." They are simply crucified "criminals." Departing from Mark and Matthew, Luke does not use the word λῃστής or lestes
here to describe the "robbers." The Greek word at Luke 23:39 for "criminals" is κακοῦργος or kakourgos
, meaning "bad-doer." Hence, the Latin "malefactor" is closest to the literal translation. the same word κακοῦργος (G2557) is used in the NT only in Luke 23, at verses 32, 33 and 39, and at 2 Timothy 2:9.
These facts are suggestive of a later interpolation, especially since the term is used elsewhere only in a pastoral epistle widely accepted as pseudepigraphically attributed to Paul but which was evidently written in the middle of the second century. Could 2 Tim 2:9 be tied into Luke 23?
Moreover, in Luke one of the thieves has become not only penitent but also pretty chatty for someone nailed to a cross, a posture that would preclude talking. Does this extraordinary dialogue, found only in Luke and contradicting Matthew, really sound as if it is "historical?" Who recorded it? Is it verbatim? Did the scribe ask the crucified man to speak up? It frankly sounds like fictional dialogue.History of the 'Two Thieves' Motif within Christianity
Where does the story of Christ hanging between "two thieves" come from and why was it emphasized? This motif gained great popularity throughout Christendom, with the characters receiving various names. As I write in Christ in Egypt
(357ff, a six-page subsection discussing the "Two Thieves"):
According to Christian tradition, the thief going to heaven is named Dysmas/Dismas
/Desmas/ Demas/Dimas/Dymas, while the one destined for hell is Ctegas/Cystas/Cesmas/Gestas/Gistas, the names being introduced in several texts, including the apocryphal Acts of Pilate or Acta Pilati. In most manuscripts, Demas appears on the right of Jesus, while Gestas is on the left. In one manuscript of the Acts, however, and in several other texts, these positions are reversed. It is interesting that the manuscript of the Acta Pilati in which the positions are reversed, with Demas on the left and Gestas on the right...
The fact that the names of the thieves are "widely divergent," as are their roles, indicates a mythological construct, not a true story. This suspicion of myth is borne out by the apocryphal tale found in the Arabic Gospel of the Saviour's Infancy (23), in which appears a story of two robbers—held to be the same as the "two thieves"—assaulting the Holy Family in Egypt, by the names of Titus and Dumachus, the former of whom discouraged the latter from carrying out the crimes. For this act, according to the Infancy Gospel, "Titus" was promised by "the Lord"—a 2-year-old child!—to sit at his right hand in heaven. This tale is patently fictional, as well as illogical, as the omnipotent God/Jesus could surely have prevented himself from being robbed, as he could have thwarted Herod from assailing him and from heartlessly massacring a bunch of infants.
As part of the rise in popularity of this penitent thief story, Theophilus, patriarch of Alexandria (385–412), wrote a "classic Coptic" tract called Homily on the Crucifixion and the Good Thief
is, of course, the infamous leader who provoked mobs of Christians to destroy the Serapeum and whose successor and nephew, Cyrus, murdered the Egyptian female sage Hypatia. Theophilus also "cleaned out" the local Mithra temple or Mithraeum.
The inclusion and emphasis of this motif within Christianity appears to be part of the usurpation of these religions, and the reason for its popularity in Christendom seems to be as a selling point for sinners who repent - so long as they profess Christ with their mouths, they can attain to heaven. The Two 'Companions' Theme in Other Religions
Interestingly, we find this motif of a divine figure surrounded by two important characters, whether "malefactors," "thieves" or other, in Egyptian and Persian religion, as well as within Buddhism. In Christ in Egypt
, I discuss the "two-thieves" motif's relation to the well-known imagery of the Persian god Mithra surrounded by the two "torchbearers," Cautes and Cautopates
This imagery of the god between two important figures is abundant within Mithraism, which was widely spread from Persia to Great Britain during the centuries concerning Christian origins. Surely, the creators of subsequent Christian art depicting Christ hanging between two "companions" were not oblivious to this motif within Mithraism.
In Mithraism, one of the "torchbearers" is pointing up to the heavens, while the other points down to hell, much like the Christian tale of the penitent thief going to heaven, while the other is destined for hell. Moreover, Mithraic astronomy as explained by Dr. Roger Beck indicates these two represent the months following the vernal and autumnal equinoxes, the one pointing upward indicating the movement towards the "heaven" of the summer solstice and the one pointing downward showing the path to the "hell" of the winter solstice.
Within Egyptian religion, as discussed in CIE, we find an interesting depiction in the Dendera zodiac of the Egyptian god Horus situated on the line of the vernal equinox, surrounded by the baboon god Aan and a jackal, representing Anubis. Both of these animals are considered to be "thieves," and the fact that Horus is thus "crucified" on the line of the vernal equinox or at "Easter" is significant and suggestive of both the Christian and Persian iconography, predating the former by centuries.
Furthermore, there exists imagery from pre-Christian times of the Buddha surrounded by two subordinated figures, the Indian gods Brahma and Indra.
This image not only establishes the Buddhist motif of the godman between two figures, but it also demonstrates how priestcraft is used to usurp or subordinate other religions, with the new divine figure raised above the older ones. Here two Hindu gods are not only demoted under Buddha, but they are also made into malefactors who tempt Buddha with the delusions of the evil being Mara.
In Buddhism's Relation to Christianity
, Dr. Michael Lockwood comments on this blatant subordination of Hindu's most revered gods - something that Krishnaite priests had also done with their godman:
The Buddha and early Buddhism took an agnostic stance against the widespread polytheism of the masses. However, in India, one fights mythology with mythology.
We have seen how the Buddha, in his search for enlightenment, had been attacked by the Great Tempter, Mara, his alluring daughters, and his troops... The temptations represented by Mara's daughters were blatantly sexual, of course, and sexuality was considered a fundamental component of the god Brahma's powers. Mara, also, more than once attempts to persuade Buddha to give up his ascetic life, with the assurance that he would then become a universal monarch on earth, like the god Indra in heaven. Thus the two gods represent the two realms in which the Buddha-to-be/Buddha had been assailed: 1) the sexual and procreative realm of Brahma, and 2) Indra's realm of wealth, power and fame. The gods, however, stand, flanking him in subdued submission.
Thus, we can see that this "Christian" motif of the god between the two evil-doers is unoriginal and, indeed, mythical, possibly influenced by Mithraism, Egyptian religion and Buddhism, as well as the Jewish scripture mandating that the suffering servant (Isaiah 53) must be counted "among the transgressors."