This essay originally ran in April 2020.
Then were there two thieves crucified with him, one on the right hand, and another on the left.
(Matthew 27:38, King James Bible)
Two revolutionaries were crucified with him, one on his right and the other on his left.
(Matthew 27:38, New American Bible)
Reading the Passion according to St. Matthew on Palm Sunday, I was struck by my missal’s use of the New American Bible’s version of the text, in which the two men crucified along with Jesus are referred to as “revolutionaries.” I assume like most people I remember these men (who remain nameless in the gospels but in apocryphal tradition are called Dismas and Gestas) as “thieves” or “robbers.”
Call them revolutionaries and the story is transformed. The slippage of meaning in the various translations appears to follow a political struggle over the meaning of criminality across generations. Thieves, bandits, terrorists, freedom fighters, revolutionaries: so much depends on who is doing the labeling, and who is being labeled.
And what of those crimes committed in the context of oppression? British historian Eric Hobsbawm theorized upon “social banditry”:
Social bandits are peasant outlaws whom the lord and state regard as criminals, but who remain within peasant society, and are considered by their people as heroes, as champions, avengers, fighters for justice, perhaps even leaders of liberation, and in any case as men to be admired, helped, or supported.
Banditry was prevalent throughout the ancient Roman empire, and seen as a direct threat to the authority of the state—practically synonymous with seditious activity. And, much like in modern times, the state often painted organized revolutionaries as common criminals to delegitimize their cause.
That Dismas and Gestas were condemned to crucifixion alongside Christ underscores the gravity of their crimes. We do not know exactly what these were, but perhaps Dismas and Gestas are more like Christ than their traditional representation as thieves leads us to believe.