Everyone who knows the gospel story has heard about the thieves on the cross. There are countless paintings, books, and movies that feature these two figures. But what if I told you that the men crucified next to Jesus were not really thieves? Most people know this story through popular translations. The King James Version calls them “thieves,” but the Greek text says something very different.
In ancient Greek, the term for “thieves” is κλέπται (kleptai), a fairly common word in the New Testament (cf. Matt 6:19; 24:43; Luke 12:33, 39; John 10:1; 1 Cor 6:10). But that is not what the Gospel writers call the two men crucified beside Jesus. In Luke, they are referred to as “evil-doers” (κακοῦργοι, kakourgoi) or “criminals” (Luke 23:33). In Matthew and Mark, the Greek term is (λῃσταί; leistai), which is best translated as “robbers” or even “bandits” (Matt 27:38, Mark 15:27).
Though people tend to use the terms interchangeably today, there seems to be a distinction between thieves (κλέπται, kleptai) and robbers (λῃσταί, leistai) in the ancient world. Thieves and burglars break into places and steal valuables, but robbery often refers to a violent crime in antiquity. Robbers, bandits, and raiders do not merely snatch goods; rather, they seize them by force after brutalizing or murdering their victims. The book of Baruch 36:31 (second century BCE) speaks of a “nimble thief (λῃστής, leisteis)" who is hard to catch because he skips from city to city. The Letter of Jeremiah 6:14 (second century BCE) uses the same term when it mentions idols of deities that cannot defend their temples from plunderers.
Executing common burglars, pickpockets, or marketplace thieves on crosses seems excessive. A gruesome public execution method such as crucifixion was reserved for more heinous criminals. In 332 BCE, Alexander the Great crucified two thousand defiant survivors of the Phoenician Tyre siege (Quintus Curtius Rufus, History of Alexander 4.4. 17). In 71 BCE, gladiators, slaves, and impoverished Romans numbering one hundred thousand started an uprising; the Romans crushed this Spartacus rebellion, and six thousand rebels were crucified along the road to Rome (Appian, Civil Wars 1.121). In 88 BCE, the Sadducee Alexander Jannaeus crucified 800 Pharisees who were his political opponents (Josephus, Antiquities 13.380).
The brutality and public display of crucifixion were meant to cause humiliation and serve as a deterrent for would-be criminals. History points to crucifixion as the punishment of dissidents, political agitators, rebel fighters, religious adversaries, revolutionaries, and enemies of the state. The Gospels' uses of "criminals" (κακοῦργοι; kateurgoi) and "robbers" (λῃσταί; leistai) to describe those beside Jesus at Golgotha is more appropriate than calling them "thieves" (κλέπται; kleptai).
Jesus was crucified based on the perception that he claimed to be "King of the Jews," which would have been seen as a possible political rival to Caesar and his Judean vassals. The accusation was spelled out on the inscription above his head (cf. Matt 27:37; Mark 15:26; Luke 23:38). After all, he invited suspicion when he drew huge crowds and taught about God’s Kingdom, which was clearly not the Roman Empire. Though Yeshua did not call for a revolution or violence, he could be perceived as having a political agenda. Even his Galilean company would make him suspicious because most Zealots and rebels came from that region.
So what sort of robbery would the two men next to Jesus have to commit to be worthy of crucifixion? Probably a violent one; the kind that involved murder or was politically motivated against the Romans. Granted, this is speculation (the Bible doesn't mention the men's crimes) but they might have been roadside robbers who ambushed Roman convoys. Under Roman law, such a crime against the state would make them worthy of such public suffering by crucifixion.
How often do our modern cultural assumptions or favored Bible translation create all sorts of inaccuracies in our minds? The only way to avoid interpretational misunderstandings and contextual mishaps is to study the history of antiquity and the original languages of the ancient texts.