Sunday, April 13, 2014

Jesus Crucified Between Revolutionaries or Thieves?

UPDATE: Welcome Pewsitter visitors. You're welcome to explore the Bear's woods and interact with the woodland creatures.

On Palm Sunday, or Passion Sunday, we hear the account of the crucifixion of Jesus. Some might have been surprised to learn that Jesus was crucified between two "revolutionaries," instead of the traditional thieves.

By using his indispensable Verbum software, the Bear is able to sound a lot smarter than he really is. Let's look at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishop's New American Bible (Revised Edition), the Vulgate, the Douay Rheims Bible, and the original Greek.

NABRE (and Lectionary):
"Two revolutionaries were crucified with him, one on his right and the other on his left." New American Bible. (2011). (Revised Edition., Mt 27:38). Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The Vulgate (the Latin word latrones means brigands, robbers, highwaymen):
"Tunc crucifixi sunt cum eo duo latrones: unus a dextris, et unus a sinistris." Biblia Sacra juxta Vulgatam Clementinam. (2005). (Ed. electronica., Mt 27:38). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.
 Douay Rheims Bible (a translation of St. Jerome's Vulgate):
"Then were crucified with him two thieves: one on the right hand and one on the left." The Holy Bible, Translated from the Latin Vulgate. (2009). (Mt 27:38). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.
Other translations have "bandits" (Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition) or "robbers" (New Revised Standard Version).

The original Greek is λῃσταί, or lestai. It comes from a root meaning "booty." The Greek word in the original Gospel manuscript simply meant "robber." It is probably closer to our word "brigand," as in one of a band of robbers, not a lone mugger. "Thief," is not the best translation, however, because a thief can be a shoplifter or embezzler. Brigands often killed people. It is quite possible that the criminals crucified next to Jesus were murderers. (In St. Luke's Gospel, one of them -- described as "criminals" -- even admits that they were being justly punished for their crimes, hardly the words of a martyred freedom fighter.)

Some provincial funerary inscriptions from Roman times record that the dead were killed by latrones, i.e. brigands. Starting in the 1950's, leftist scholars began arguing that these well-to-do Romans had been killed by "revolutionaries," anti-imperialist freedom fighters.

Since the Roman province of Judea was a hotbed of rebellion, the NABRE translators decided that these latrones, λῃσταί (lestai) -- brigands -- must have been Jewish zealots who were rebelling against the Romans. They departed from the traditional translation and came up with the eccentric "revolutionaries."

They may have been freedom fighters, or just murderous brigands, or some combination. But the actual Greek does not compel a translation to "revolutionaries." Indeed, there are other Greek words that could have been used had St. Matthew intended to convey that idea.

The NABRE is usually a close and reliable translation from the original languages. The Bear believes in this particular instance, however, translators read something into the text that is not there.

As for why the USCCB would want to put Jesus between two revolutionaries on Calvary, your guess is as good as the Bear's.


  1. I was at the Log Church and of course the Gospel was in Latin. I don't know what the text said. It was pretty long. Poor father. No homily. Just moved on with the Credo and the rest of the mass. Low mass. I think Institute of Christ the King does not have faculties for High Mass or processions from what I have gathered Father (Canon) Weiner to say on some occasions. He said we could not have a procession in Cahokia at the beginning of mass. It was not raining then, though it was a the end of mass. So I gather he was referring to permission from the bishop.

  2. P.S. A general compliment. Nice graphics and features on the blog! Eg, holy week, holy father's intentions....

  3. I'm making a real nuisance of myself here now.

    I just looked in my 1962 missal, which has gospels in English. It says "robbers." I would hold with that as having authority in translation.

  4. Thank you for your compliments! Things have been a little wild and wooly lately, so it seemed appropriate to refocus for Holy Week. The Bear is staying away from near occasions of sin like the Vatican website and NPR. The silly "revolutionaries" business gets me every year, though. So unnecessary and distracting. Change for the sake of change, unless it is to highlight Jesus as a political savior, which I would not put past the USCCB. A nuisance? Perish the thought!

  5. I still consider the two as thieves. Otherwise, as you stated, the comments of the one "revolutionary" make no sense. Regardless, I pay no heed to the USCCB. I donate to nearly anything Catholic. With the notable exception of the USCCB. Sad to say.

  6. I've been doing some thinking about this...besides being a jarring change in the last few years, could it possibly be a comment on Capital Punishment? Wouldn't it be easier to crucify someone for "revolutionary activities" instead of being simply a thief? Just a thought.

    Either way it matters not. Jesus is what matters. What He did for us all. By His wounds we are healed.

  7. I'm sure the people who wanted to change the meaning of the word to "revolutionaries" are much smarter than a Bear. They must have concluded that whatever might be lost by Catholics being jarred out of the Passion narrative by saying to themselves, "What the heck?" would be more than made up for by the insight the word "revolutionaries" would spark. Because if there's one thing we've learned as Catholics, change is always good.

    What's really odd, though, is that the NABRE translation philosophy is closer to word-for-word than thought-for-thought. The not only had to abandon not only the literal meaning in the inspired text, but their own principles of translation. Now, they may have been revolutionaries. But that's beside the point. We have a right to an accurate translation of the Gospel, no? The word is "robbers." Period. Not tax evaders, hackers, drug dealers, revolutionaries or anything else. And people wonder why the Bear thinks the Douay Rheims is still the best translation into English. (With probably the NRSV Catholic Edition the best modern translation, despite a halh-hearted arrempt at "inclusive language.")


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