[St. Pachomius Library]

The Thieves Crucified with Christ

In Chapter 23 of Luke we read: "And there were also two other, malefactors, led with him to be put to death. And when they were come to the place, which is called Calvary, there they crucified him, and the malefactors, one on the right hand, and the other on the left ... And one of the malefactors which were hanged railed on him, saying, If thou be Christ, save thyself and us. But the other answering rebuked him, saying, Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss. And he said unto Jesus, Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom. And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with me in paradise." According to Mark 15:28, the crucifixion among thieves was to fulfill Isaiah's prophecy (53:12) that the Messiah would be "numbered among the transgressors".

The Wise Thief is mentioned in the Exapostilarion of Good Friday, in the Ninth Liturgical Hour, in the prayer before Holy Communion ("But like the thief will I confess Thee ..."), and in the Apolytikion of Tone 7 (Barys). In one of the Tone 5 (Pl. 1) kontakia, Peter laments that "I betrayed Thee, but a thief theologised."

Patristic references are numerous, but for some reason many seem not to be available in English. The following paragraph from St. Bede's Commentary on Luke (translated for this page by Karen Rae Keck) is typical:

... The thieves who are crucified with the Lord at that time and place intimate those who submit in faith and in acknowledgement of Christ either to the contest of the martyr or to the custom of stricter self-control [i.e. asceticism]. But however many work here for eternal and heavenly glory alone are defined by the faith and reward advanced to the thief on the right, whereas those who have not forsworn either an eye for human praise or in any way a less worthy intention in this undeserving age [have] the mind of the blasphemer and of the thief on the left, and their acts are aped by such as those to whom the apostle says: And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.

There has always been disagreement about whether the two thieves were ordinary criminals, exceptionally notorious murderers (cannibals, according to an Ethiopian tradition), or political revolutionaries who, like Jesus, were seen as threats to the Establishment. Most Fathers seem to emphasise the wickedness of the thieves; even the "good" thief, according to Chrysostom, only repented after seeing the earth quake. (This was meant to explain the troublesome statement in Mark 15:32 that "they that were crucified with him reviled him", although the timing of the earthquake in Mark and Luke also appears at a first reading to be different.)

Norman Hugh Redington