Any attempt to put an age on Dismas at the time of his execution, will almost certainly involve some exploration and discussion of the supposed encounter between him and the Holy Family during the event known as the Flight to Egypt. The Canonical Gospels make no mention of Dismas until the Crucifixion, and even then, he is not named, nor are there any indications of his age or that of his co-criminal. Legendary lore recounts, albeit in various versions, that the first encounter between Dismas and the Holy Family, took place during the period when the latter were refugees, having fled Judaea in fear of persecution. The Gospel according to Matthew recounts it thus:
“Now when they (The Wise Men) had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there till I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” And he rose and took the child and his mother by night, and departed to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod.” (Matthew 2:13-15)
It is to other sources that we must turn to for mention of Dismas encountering the Holy Family during their self-imposed exile, sources that is wise to treat with a degree of circumspection. The apocryphal Syriac Infancy Gospel, which also goes by the name of the Arabic Infancy Gospel, dating from the Fifth or Sixth century recounts how a thief called Titus prevails upon his associate Dumachus from harming the Holy Family. A similar account is to be found in the Book of the Bee, a thirteenth century compilation by Solomon of of Ahklat, a Syrian bishop of the Nestorian Church. In the Western world St Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) recounts how Dismas was so struck by the sancitity of the countenance of the Infant Jesus that he prevailed upon his fellow criminal/criminals to do them no harm, with Jesus’s Mother Mary recognising what had been done and tellling Dismas that later in life when he was nearing death he would be rewarded for his merciful act. A variation of this theme has a family of brigands extending charity to the Holy Family having been moved by their plight. They watched as Mary bathed the infant and were in awe of her gentleness, sensing a sanctity about them. The wife of the chief brigand felt emboldened to ask if she could bathe her own son in the water that had been used., she brought forward out of the shadows of the cave her leprous son who was about three years of age, his limbs were covered in dreadul sores, and yet when he was bathed these fell away and he was cured. The said child grew up and followed his father in a life of brigandage and sin which eventually brought him to being executed on the cross. Jesus’s mother recognised Dismas and prayed prayers of intercession for him. We know from Luke’s Gospel of how the two thieves Dismas and Gestas interacted with Jesus, with Dismas not only publically acknowledging the innocence of Jesus, but also his kingkly power over death.
Let us look at each supposed encounter and calculate how old Dismas might have been at the time of the Crucifixion. Neither the Syriac Infancy Gospel nor the Book of the Bee give any indication of age, the briggands could be anything from their late teens onwards. Add to this the thirty-three years that Jesus was believed to be at the time of his execution and then Dismas would be in his early fifties plus. If we the age calculate based on the second account, the Good Thief would be about thirty-six years old. Artistic depictions have often been wide of the mark, a classic case in point is The Crucifixion Fresco (1442) by Fra Angelico in the Convent of San Marco, Florence, Italy. Art invariably plays fast and lose with the facts, that said, we should not allow that to diminish our appreciation of religious art; or allow it to demotivate us in our search for meaning in characters who to varying degrees form part of The Bible and Apocryphal Gospels. By embarking on a quest to work our Dismas’s age at the time of his execution we learn other things along the way and appreciate the sometimes it is not the answer that matters, rather what we discover along the way.
Scripture quotation from the Revised Standard Version of the Holy Bible.
The Flight in Egypt by Lorenzo Monaco – Tempera on poplar painted between 1405-1410. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.