A Price is Paid for Narrowing Our Focus

For all the significance of the Crucifixion it comes as something of a surprise just how lacking in curiosity many Christians are in respect to the two thieves crucified eitherside of Jesus. The Canonical Gospels are not particulary forthcoming about them and yet we are told that the two ‘thieves’ responded in different ways to Jesus of Nazareth. Luke’s Gospel indicates a marked change in the conduct of the one thief, the one traditionally portrayed on Jesus’s right, and variously called Dismas, the Good Thief, and the Wise Thief. Here is an individual who rebukes his co-criminal and acknowledges the innocence and kingly power of Christ. Scholars continue to debate what they believe these two criminals had done in order that they be sentenced to be crucified. Were they bandits or highway robbers, or maybe they were insurgents against Rome, possibly Zealots? There is every likelihood that we will never know, but this should not discourage biblical scholars and historians from trying to piece together their story and by so doing gain a better understanding of their historic and present significance.

In endeavouring to understand this seeming lack of curiosity or indeed indifference to the role of the two thieves we would do well to appreciate that a range of factors come into play. Firstly, their status as criminals is significant, societies rarely have much time for those whom Officialdom in its various forms down the ages have comdemned. Occasionally certain criminals are romanticised or the source of ghoulish fascination; the pirate Blackbeard (in fact historical pirates in general) for the former, and the notorious Jack the Ripper for the latter. When it comes to criminals, society is rarely ambivalent, and usually is not only uncharitable towards them, but generally vengeful, believing that they should be locked up and the key thrown away. Roman Society prided itself on what it believed to be its civilised values, yet in respect of transgressors it was vengeful and utterly without mercy. Fast forward two thousand years and we would do well to ask whether we are really any better? The public barbarism may have disappeared from view in most countries, but inhumanity still exists in various forms. What is more the veneer of civilisation often appears to wear perilously thin, with a public appetite for retribution such that if governments gave permission for televised public executions advertisers would be falling over themselves to acquire prime time slots.

Stained glass (17th century) of the Crucifixion in St. William’s Protestant Church, Strasbourg, France

Historically, since the Reformation there has been a tendency to home in on the figure of Jesus Christ alone on the Cross, the other figures deemed supernumeraries who distract from the message of the Crucifixion, rather than adding to it. Protestant churches have sought to emphasise the centrality of Jesus and as a result have ensured that depictions in art have narrowed their focus. As a direct consequence of such an outlook figures such as Dismas and Gestas have been omitted, and the same could be said to be true of many treatises about the Crucifixion. Whilst this is perfectly understandable, it is inevitable that we pay a price for not endeavouring to appreciate the role and significance of characters such as the Good Thief. No meaningful study of the Crucifixion is complete without an analysis of Jesus Christ’s last words from the Cross, and these include those spoken to the figure traditionally depicted on the cross to the right of Jesus. To downplay or omit Jesus’s interaction with the Good Thief is to lose one of the most revealing episodes of the entire Crucifixion, one which I posit is emblematic of hope for all time.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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