Sunday Morning Greek Blog

March 13, 2011

Thieves, Robbers, or Rebels?

Filed under: Biblical Studies,Greek,Mark Gospel of,New Testament — Scott Stocking @ 8:43 am

About a year ago, I had the privilege to edit (and read, of course) the fiction novel The Butane Gospel by Michael Hinkle. The main character in the story, redneck trucker Leon Butane, finds himself on a life-or-death mission after his own near-death experience to discover the names of the two men crucified with Jesus. As Hinkle himself described the story, it is a cross between The Big Lebowski and The DaVinci Code. What captured my interest in the story was one of the underlying questions Butane and his associates had to answer: Were the two men crucified with Jesus simple thieves, or were they rebels? I’ll let you read the book for yourselves to find out how Hinkle resolves the issue.

I was reminded of this question this week as I read Mark 11. Mark 11:15–19 records the story of Jesus cleansing the temple (parallel passages are Matthew 21:12–17; Luke 19:45–48; and John 2:13–22). In the three synoptic Gospels, all authors record Jesus’ reference to Jeremiah 7:11, which in the TNIV reads: “Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you?” (All Scripture citations are from Logos 4.0 versions of the references, unless I indicate I have used my own translation.)

At issue here is the word translated “robber” in a majority of the English translations, both in Jeremiah 7:11 (Hebrew: פָּרִיץ pārîṣ, ‘violent one’, from the verb פָּרַץ pāraṣ, break (through, down, over), burst [TWOT 1826]) and Mark 11:17 and synoptic parallels (λῃστής lēstēs, ‘robber’, ‘rebel’, ‘highwayman’; also used in the LXX translation of Jeremiah 7:11). For both the Hebrew and Greek words, “robber” is an appropriate translation, but it only has a real impact on those who understand the legal, technical difference between a “robber” and “thief” (in Greek, the latter is translated from κλέπτης kleptēs, used 16 times in the NT). A robber uses violent force against a person to take something, while a thief does not.

In Nehemiah, the Hebrew word is used to contrast the efforts of those rebuilding the wall. The enemies of the Jews wanted to level and break down the walls, as indicated by the verb definition above. In other places in the Hebrew text, the word has much more violent overtones. In Isaiah 35:9, the word refers to “ravenous” beasts. In Ezekiel 7:22, it refers to those who would desecrate the temple (the TNIV uses “robbers” there as well). In Psalm 17:4, it is used in parallel with those who bribe, an action always associated with violence in the OT. And in Daniel 11:14, the word is used of those “violent” ones who would rebel against the divine visions.

The use of the Greek word lēstēs in the LXX and NT has similar connotations. The translation “highwayman” above can be aptly illustrated in the character of Vizzini in The Princess Bride. Although comic and eventually benign, his character represents the kind of violence implied by lēstēs. Luke (10:30, 36) uses the word to describe the bandits who robbed and beat the man in the story of the Good Samaritan. John (10:1, 8) uses the word to describe those who break into the sheepfold. He also uses the word of Barabbas in 18:40. Interestingly, Matthew identifies Barabbas as “Jesus Barabbas” in 27:16–17, although “Jesus” is an uncertain variant in both places and not well attested in the most prominent manuscripts.

Another place where we find the Greek word used is in the Garden of Gethsemane when the soldiers come to arrest Jesus. The three synoptic writers (Matthew 26:55; Mark 14:48; Luke 22:52) all have Jesus asking a question (my translation): “You come after me as rebel?” Note that in those contexts, the arresting party brings clubs and swords, thinking Jesus to be a violent man. (Did some have him confused with Jesus Barabbas? I’m not sure that is plausible.) In Matthew, Jesus admonishes them, saying that he sat in the temple courts teaching every day. But I have to ask a question at this point: Was Jesus’ temple outburst, just though it may have been, the watershed event that led to his arrest and crucifixion? And if so, is it possible that the two men crucified with Jesus (whom Matthew and Mark identify as lēstoi; Luke has κακοῦργοι kakourgoi, lit. ‘workers of bad’) were not criminals, but men who had “zeal for God’s house” (John 2:17, quoting Psalm 69:9) comparable to that of Jesus? Had they jumped on the bandwagon when Jesus started overturning the tables of the moneychangers? Or had they just taken advantage of the general upheaval caused by Jesus and done their own plundering? (I must here give credit to Hinkle’s The Butane Gospel for bringing these questions to the forefront, but my conclusions are slightly different from those of the characters in his book.)

It should be noted that when Jesus overturned the moneychangers’ tables, he did not actually steal any of the goods for himself, so technically, he could not be classified as a lēstēs.

I find it significant, then, that lēstēs, used only 15 times in the NT, is found 10 times total in the three stories of the temple cleansing, arrest, and crucifixion. The word seems to tie these stories together, not to portray Jesus as a lēstēs, but to acquit him of the charge and thus defend his innocence as the Lamb of God.

4Surely he took up our pain

and bore our suffering

yet we considered him punished by God,

stricken by him, and afflicted.

5But he was pierced for our transgressions,

he was crushed for our iniquities;

the punishment that brought us peace was on him,

and by his wounds we are healed.

6We all, like sheep, have gone astray,

each of us has turned to our own way;

and the Lord has laid on him

the iniquity of us all.

7He was oppressed and afflicted,

yet he did not open his mouth;

he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,

and as a sheep before its shearers is silent,

so he did not open his mouth (Isaiah 53:4–7, TNIV).


  1. […] Thieves, Robbers, or Rebels? […]

    Pingback by The Passion Week of Christ « Sunday Morning Greek Blog — March 11, 2012 @ 2:11 pm | Reply

  2. […] Thieves, Robbers, or Rebels? […]

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