A Closer Look:
#2 How Many?

By Joel Heller

Occasionally, we find a set of passages in Scripture which individually seem to support a traditional belief, while disagreeing with each other in some detail. The Synoptic Gospels all report that Yeshua was crucified between two other men, who are described as Bad Guys. The problem is that the two Bad Guys in Matthew and Mark are not the same two Bad Guys as in Luke. We’ll come back to John later.

 Matthew 27:33–44 puts the events of the crucifixion in this order: The soldiers lead Yeshua to Golgotha; they offer a mild sedative which he declines; they attach him to his cross; they divide his clothing amongst themselves by rolling dice; they post his indictment; then they crucify two “thieves,” both of whom hurl insults. Mark agrees with Mathew.

Luke (23:33–43) gives us this order of things: the soldiers crucify Yeshua and two “malefactors” on Calvary; then . . . they rolled dice to divide his clothing; they insulted him as did one of the malefactors; the other malefactor asked to be remembered in the Kingdom and was promised Paradise.

Reading the two accounts together, we see Yeshua led to Golgotha/Calvary to be crucified with two malefactors; the three were nailed to their crosses (Luke); one of the malefactors “railed on him;” the other recognized him as king and was promised Paradise; then the soldiers divided his clothing, insulted him, and posted the indictment. Then they brought two more condemned prisoners (Matthew and Mark), “thieves” who both reviled Yeshua, and crucified them. This gives us a total of not less than five men crucified that day, Yeshua plus two thieves plus two malefactors.

The word translated thief in Matthew is lestes, meaning robber or brigand. A thief may steal stealthily, but a robber or brigand takes by violence. A sneakthief is not likely to warrant crucifixion; he will more likely be sold into slavery.  The word translated malefactor in Luke is kakourgos, meaning “evildoer,” from kakos, evil or bad, and ourgos, from a root meaning work. A brigand is an evildoer, but not all evildoers are brigands.  

Let’s see what John has to say. He condenses the execution into a few sentences. The soldiers lead Yeshua to Golgotha, “Where they crucified him, and two other with him, on either side one, and Jesus in the midst.” (John 19:18) 

Wait. Didn’t we just see two others on either side? ‘What are you trying to pull?’ I hear you ask. The answer is in the Greek text of John. I have reproduced an interlinear translation of this verse:

John 19:18 in Greek Interlinear

Notice that there is no word in Greek corresponding to “one.” The Greek says “. . . two others on either side.” Adding “one” preserves tradition, but destroys the unity of the text. 

I do not accuse the translators of consciously thinking, “We know what it says, but we have to change it to conform to doctrine.” I presume that they added the word one because it never occurred to them to do any differently. After all, everybody knows that Jesus was crucified between two thieves, right? If everybody knows it, be careful.

I would not have seen the solution to this apparent contradiction unless someone had shown it to me. This is not a new idea. The chain of footnotes goes back at least to E. W. Bullinger in the 19th century. 

When there is a conflict between the text and tradition, the text wins every time. This is so, especially when the text can be interpreted in a way that accounts for all relevant data. We don’t need to make excuses for the Evangelist who “got it wrong.” It wasn’t the Evangelist, it was Bible teachers who simply passed on what they were taught without questioning the expertise of their teachers, without taking A Closer Look. We need to be able to rely on experts, but even experts are not infallible.

Joel Heller Profile Picture

Joel Heller is the author of Neither Yavne nor Antioch: Recovering Nazarean Judaism. He is a retired member of the Kansas Bar. In place of traditional Protestant presuppositions, he brings the common-law principles of legal interpretation to the interpretation of God’s Law, called the Torah or Nomos. You can reach him by email.