“Thief” is too mild a word in the verse where we are told that Jesus was “crucified between two thieves” (Matthew 27:38). The same is true in John 18:40, where we are told, “Now Barabbas was a robber.” The language is too mild. Not even “bandit” has enough kick to translate the word lēstēs. Barabbas and his buddies who were crucified with Jesus would be better described as revolutionaries, guerillas, pirates (the landlubber variety), or (to use a modern term) “terrorists.”
The difference becomes clear when we look at the alternative Greek terms. Kleptēs is the term for a burglar, someone who steals by being sneaky (Matthew 6:19-20). Jesus compares his coming to being like a kleptēs in the night (Matthew 24:43, Revelation 3:3, 16:15). Likewise, the New Testament compares the day of the Lord to such a thief (1 Thessalonians 5:2-4, 2 Peter 3:10).
Paul’s sin list in 1 Corinthians 6:10 includes not only kleptai, but also harpages. A harpax is a literally a “snatcher,” a mugger, someone who steals openly by force. The verb form is “to snatch,” the same verb Paul uses for the Rapture in 1 Thessalonians 4:17 (harpagēsometha, “we shall be snatched up”).
Our daughter describes the three Greek terms for thief as “sneaky, grabby, and stabby.” “Sneaky” is the kleptēs. “Grabby” is the harpax. Now, it’s time for the “stabby.”
We might call the lēstēs a harpax on steroids. Today’s ISIS fighters would be an excellent example, who combine robbery, pillaging, and murder with political revolution. Josephus uses lēstēs and its related adjectives and substantives 143 times. He pairs the lēstai together with the stasiōdes (insurrectionists, as in for example Jewish War 5.53). He explicitly describes as lēstai the Sicarii, men who circulated in the 50’s AD with short hidden daggers which they used to assassinate anyone who was not part of the anti-Roman resistance (literal “cloak-and-dagger!” See http://www.ancient-origins.net/history-important-events/sicarii-jewish-daggermen-thirst-roman-blood-008179). Josephus also speaks of the rebels who tyrannized Jerusalem through the horrors of 68-70 AD as lēstai. He uses the term lēstrikos polemos for “guerilla warfare” (Jewish War 2.65).
In the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:30, the traveler to Jericho is attacked by lēstai. The attackers not only strip him (the robbery component), but also beat him and leave him half-dead. There is no political revolution component (of course, Jesus probably intends the story as fiction), but here it is the gratuitous violence that marks the attackers as lēstai and not simply harpages or “snatchers.”
Two lēstai were crucified with Jesus. Barabbas (John 18:40) would have been the third, if he had not been freed by the Good Friday mob. Barabbas was being held for insurrection and murder (Luke 23:19), not stealing. We must note that neither Jewish nor Roman law prescribed the death penalty for mere theft. These men next to Jesus at Calvary were not being crucified for stealing, but for being violent revolutionaries.
It was a death so hideous, that both Gnosticism and Islam tried to wiggle out of the scandal thereof by claiming that God engineered a substitute for the real Jesus. For Gnosticism, they needed a substitute for the physical pain. For Islam, they needed a substitute for God’s prophet to avoid the ultimate injustice.
Nice try, but it flies in the face of honest history. Who was there on the ground who was in a position to take Jesus’ place, or to make it happen? Simon of Cyrene could be commandeered to carry the cross, but none of those who were carrying out the crucifixion would have allowed a substitute for the victim.
The scandal was unavoidable. It was part of the total price Jesus paid for the sins of an entire planet. The physical and emotional pain was bad enough. Cicero calls the cross crudelissimi taeterrimique (the “most cruel and terror-inspiring” penalty), while Origen calls it turpissima “(most obscene”). But the real pain was the penalty of hell placed on him for every one of us that was squeezed into those few hours of earthly time.
How degrading, for Jesus to suffer Rome’s most hideous punishment with such dangerous, violent men! Here we have a vivid picture of the depths to which Jesus humbled himself (Philippians 2:8), from whence God highly exalted him, and gave him the name at which every knee shall bow. Let us ponder the humiliation Jesus suffered by being crucified between two terrorists, as we commemorate Good Friday and celebrate Resurrection Sunday.