Thursday, April 13, 2017

Revolutionaries or Thieves?

When we hear the account of the crucifixion of Jesus, some might be surprised to learn that Jesus was crucified between two "revolutionaries," instead of the traditional thieves.

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. One of the best presents I ever received was a Douay Rheims - Latin Vulgate side by side. It's a large and hefty tome as they say. But, from what I can tell, the most reliable for translation.

  2. I would never argue with a bear, but I do have a few quibbles with the NAB, one of which is its reduction of "the valley of the shadow of death" in Psalm 23 (22) to "the dark valley." Sigh. It also adopts the modernist/Protestant translation of Gabriel's unique salutation to Mary in Luke 1:28, "κεχαριτωμένη, kecharitomene" as "favored one" rather than the traditional "full of grace." So I am not at all surprised by the substitution of "revolutionaries" for more appropriate terms here. The USCCB seems to take every available opportunity to adopt secular Leftist views of just about anything, so converting the Crucifixion to an episode of Liberation Theology is routine for them.

    1. If a particular version of the Bible doesn't have "Hail, full of grace" for Luke 1:28, I'd toss it in the trash. It's actually blasphemous.

    2. No. I think the NABRE is a terrible product, but especially the notes which flat-out accuse the evangelists of ignorance and error.

  3. The Bishops may be implying that Jesus was also a revolutionary--a Social Justice revolutionary--who came to save us from such rapacious individuals as Donald Trump who is keeping folks from making a heaven on earth, the exact reason why Jesus, evidently, came here in the first place.

    1. Haha! Good one, Michael.

    2. I suspect you're right. They had to have some reason to depart from the traditional translation.

  4. Just looking at things from the narrative structure, the bits about the two others who were crucified is supposed to be a "boo hiss" moment for the audience. The audience having sympathy for the two others is not what is being conveyed. They are supposed to be viewed as bad people and well deserving of being crucified.

    As such, using "revolutionaries" makes no sense as the term is a sympathetic term for the time of translation as well as for the time of Jesus. Jews didn't like the Romans and even if they didn't like the tactics of the Jewish revolutionaries, there still would be some amount of sympathy -- akin to saying that Jesus was crucified between two IRA members. Having Jesus crucified between two Jewish anti-Roman revolutionaries is not a "boo hiss" moment for a Jewish audience.

    1. The essence of the words used is "bandit." Not just criminals operating on their own, but as part of a band. A member of a band of rebellious slaves might be so described. As might "revolutionaries," but I think this is badly translated anyway. There were rebels, of course, but splitting hairs, I guess. Such men were not just thieves, either, but took lives as well as property. These are the kind who nearly killed the unfortunate who was cared for by the Good Samaritan. Technically, they could have been rebels, but it goes beyond the text to make them so and causes people familiar with the snake pit known as the USCCB to suspect an agenda.

      I will not use the NABRE. I do think it is fairly good as a translation - with exceptions - but the notes could have been written by Karl Marx.

    2. Perhaps they were of the same "band" led by Barabbas, who may have been originally intended for the middle cross? Here is an interesting blurb from Wikipedia: "Robert Eisenman states that John 18:40 refers to Barabbas as a lēstēs ('bandit'), 'the word Josephus always employs when talking about Revolutionaries'."

    3. The problem we get into, Marissa, is that people really don't understand crime in the Roman Empire, nor how the terminology was used. The essence is a band of armed thugs - brigands. Such brigands, or bandits, would often kill their victims in order to rob them. There are many funerary inscriptions attesting to murder by bands of armed robbers, and some of the victims were some pretty tough guys - including a retired gladiator. These robbers presumably had no political motivation. Rebellious slaves were called by the same word, until they grew in number to be called an "army." (Think Spartacus.)

      Bands of terrorists, brigands or revolutionaries, were all identified by the same word. Josephus isn't wrong, he's just using a catch-all term which encompasses a range of violence that includes political motivated violence.

      Making things even more complicated is the possibility that "revolutionaries" might have seen a wealthy-looking Roman citizen as a quick source of cash. So now are they "revolutionaries," or "bandits?"

      Perhaps the Romans (and Greeks) knew what they were doing in not trying to calibrate the meaning of their word of brigands too finely.

      My point is that there is ZERO reason to pick "revolutionaries" from among the permissible choices. Some other sharp readers have pointed out some good textual clues.

      There may have been two revolutionaries (an awkward modern term, anyway, for Jewish zealots). There may have been one revolutionary, and one bandito. There may have been two brigands. There is no way of telling. So why did the USCCB pick "revolutionaries?" I suspect because their translation team wears Che Tees on workdays.

  5. Judea had long been a place for "brigands" and murderers. It just so happened that Jewish zealots hid in the same areas as the thieves. They probably even recruited many brigands. The Romans did have a legion stationed in Damascus, and perhaps a Century (about as large as an infantry company assigned to Jerusalem and Galilee). However, for normal police work, the Romans hired Samaritan auxiliaries to police Judea, which really got under the skin of the zealots. As a consequence, most Jews traveled in groups and avoided traveling at night.

    There were no shortages of these biblical "gang-bangers".

    1. Excellent points. And exactly why there is no reason to depart from traditional usage.


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