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.

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63 COMMENTS

  1. Can we avoid inaccuracies (both purposeful and unintentional) of communicators? - (historians, translators, teachers ... .)

    I cannot speak any of the original languages. Why would "God" choose not to communicate to us directly?
    • Communication is a human activity and it is quite complicated. So the short answer, inaccuracies, and misunderstandings are unavoidable. But once we know of them we can move forward without them.
    • Israel Bible Center equips you with the tools you need to enter into the Jewish world of Scripture. We provide first-rate teaching, and the opportunity to learn from some of the world’s top scholars. As a student, you will be able to interact personally with our teaching faculty, and gain access to hundreds of hours of Bible courses, including Biblical Hebrew I: First Steps and The First Commandment: Deuteronomy in the Gospels. Become a part of the community of teachers and students at Israel Bible Center today!
    • Seth, God does want to communicate with us directly, but He won't force communication. We have to *truly* *seek* Him, with *all* -- *all* of our heart, soul, mind, and strength; then we will find Him. Then, if we listen, He speaks to our heart.
      "My sheep know my voice."
  2. The inaccuracies in translation mentioned in the article are worrying because the Bible has been used for so many years and to correct translation now bring confusion to its readers. However, it is interesting to continue to learn.
    • This is a minor issue. If you think about it, it does not make a big difference. Unless you decide to build an entire theology around this imprecise translation. Then we are in trouble. But I am glad it is making you aware of how translations are important.

      + More answers (3)
    • The English word cross is a translation of Latin. The Greek text of the New Testament says "pole", "beam", lumber, or "a tree". The shape itself is not really important. The important part is that it actually happened. But translations have to be accurate, never the less.

      + More answers (3)
    • I do not have into the house nor hanged on my neck , ,, cross". As i told everyone when i had the chance, that wood was infact named stake, tree, finished to be named and shaped as cross and venerated. Important is what happened on that piece of wood.
  3. Thank you for this article, Professor Shir. Even though, as you said, this particular story shouldn't spawn an entire theology, it is still important as an example of how we should be careful to examine what we're reading.

    Shabbat shalom!
  4. I feel the difference’s are subtle but helpful an the intended message still gets across thank you for the teaching
  5. This morning while reading Luke 10:25-42, Yeshua used the term "robbers" (λεστἀς; lestas). Then your email arrived. Perfect timing to increase my understanding. Having been blessed by eTeachers Biblical Hebrew and Greek language studies, the Israel Bible Weekly emails are an added blessing to my studies. Todah! Prof. Shir.
  6. Thank you for explaining this. Very helpful. Those who originally translated this narrative into English, can we assume their knowledge of Greek was limited for them to use “thieves” and not the correct word “criminals”?
    • We are glad that you are finding our articles enlightening. You’ve already started your path into Scripture, but there’s so much more that awaits you! Consider enrolling in our immersive online courses: The Stories of the Jewish Christ: Among the Rabbis or . We guarantee that they will deepen your understanding of Scripture and enrich your faith experience.
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