By Thom Hennen
Question Box column
Q:Were the two men crucified with Jesus “thieves” or “revolutionaries? There seems to be a discrepancy between the Gospels on this. Also, where did the tradition of the name of the “good thief” being Dismas come from?
First, let me say that while I took (and passed) all of the required Scripture courses in seminary, a Scripture scholar I am not. That being said, I dusted off my interlinear Greek-English New Testament and with the help of an online Greek dictionary found that, indeed, different words are used to describe these men.
Matthew and Mark both use the word léstés, which has more of the sense of a “robber,” or one who steals out in the open or by violence (as opposed to kleptés, which is more like “thief,” from which we get the word “kleptomaniac”). This word léstés is the same used in the parable of the Good Samaritan when it describes the man who “fell victim to robbers,” and so we might also think of the word “bandit.”
However, in the New American Bible translation (which is used in our lectionary), the word translates as “revolutionaries.” This is not necessarily a bad translation, as the Roman occupiers might well have considered anyone disrupting the Roman order a “revolutionary.” Also, this is the same word used to describe Barabbas, who is definitely presented as a revolutionary. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) commentary notes that léstés can also mean “a guerrilla warrior fighting for nationalistic aims.”
Luke’s Gospel uses the word kakourgos, which most literally means “malefactor” or “wrongdoer” and usually is translated in English as “criminal.” It is only in Luke’s Gospel that we have the exchange between Jesus and the “good thief.” This should not surprises us, as Luke’s Gospel especially highlights Jesus’ heart for and ministry to those most on the margins of society. Who could be more on the margins than this man in his agony next to Jesus?
From what I could find, the tradition that his name was Dismas comes in some texts of the late 4th century. Dismas is recognized as a saint and his feast day is March 25 (sharing that date with the Annunciation). Whatever his true name, there could be no more clear “canonization” than our Lord himself telling this man from the cross, “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).
Interestingly, John’s Gospel uses neither of these words, but simply says, “There they crucified him, and with him two others [in Greek, allous], one on either side, with Jesus in the middle” (John 19:18).
Q. Why is the cross the symbol of Christianity and not an empty tomb?
A. This often comes up, especially among non-Catholics who question our prominent display of crosses and crucifixes, as though we are fixated on Jesus’ death.
St. Paul writes, “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Galatians 6:14). As Christians, the cross is transformed for us. It is no longer a symbol simply of death, but of death conquered, of life in spite and even through death. I would say that displaying the cross or crucifix is, in fact, a bold testimony to our belief in the Resurrection. Otherwise, why would we be so brazen in displaying, wearing and signing ourselves with this symbol of death?
Also, symbols take on meaning by use over time. From very early on, Christians took to this symbol, likely for those reasons I have described. On a more practical level, it is a very simple symbol to draw or make with just one vertical and one horizontal line.
(Father Thom Hennen serves as the pastor of Sacred Heart Cathedral in Davenport and Vicar General for the Diocese of Davenport. Send questions to email@example.com)