Jesus Christ’s crucifixion, along with his resurrection from the dead, is the central event of the Christian faith. Not surprisingly, devout believers, and Bible readers of all kinds, study the details of Jesus’ death at the end of the four Gospels. Eyewitnesses testified that the authorities crucified Jesus next to two criminals and many people are interested to know about them.
The criminals crucified next to Jesus are unnamed in the Gospels. They were likely insurrectionists, associates of the political agitator Barabbas, who Pilate freed at the crowd’s request. Various unreliable traditions call the thief that Jesus saved “Demas,” “Zoathan,” “Titus,” and “Rakh.”
What details does each Gospel include about the men crucified next to Jesus? Was Jesus seen as an insurrectionist? What do the Gospels say about Barabbas’ crimes against Rome? What did the crucified men next to Jesus say to each other and him? What did Jesus say to them? Keep reading to learn the answers to these questions and others.
Jesus Was Crucified Between Two Thieves
What Bible readers can know about the criminals crucified next to Jesus is found in the texts of the Gospels. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all mention the men. Though none of them mention their names, the narratives reveal other details that inform readers about certain aspects of their identities.
|Matthew 27:38||Then two robbers were crucified with him, one on the right and one on the left.|
|Mark 15:27||And with him they crucified two robbers, one on his right and one on his left.|
|Luke 23:32||Two others, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him.|
|John 19:18||There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, and Jesus between them.|
At the time of Jesus’ crucifixion, the Roman governor Pilate sought to silence and punish political agitators. Local uprisings against Roman rule weren’t uncommon, and it was in the best interests of an official in Pilate’s position to squash threats when they arose.
Was Jesus a political agitator?
According to the Jewish civil authorities, Jesus’ crimes qualified for the Roman death penalty. As part of their conspiring, they knew that Roman officials would take the title “King of the Jews” as a threat.
Of all the accusations made against Jesus during his trials (Mark 15:3; Luke 23:2), the question Pilate asked him was his royal title: “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “You have said so.” (Mark 15:2, ESV).
While it was true that Jesus was the King of the Jews (see Matt. 2:2), his kingdom wasn’t a political threat to the Roman Empire. He never encouraged his followers to fight against Rome or participate in insurrections. Nevertheless, his accusers associated him with those who engaged in such combat.
Barabbas: Murderer and Insurrectionist
The two named men accused of criminal behavior in the scene are Jesus and Barabbas. The primary charge against Jesus is connected to his name, “King of the Jews” (see above).
Though the Gospels refer to Barabbas as a “robber” (ESV, NKJV, NASB) or a “thief” (KJV), his offenses against the Roman Empire were greater than stealing.
Crimes like theft didn’t often result in crucifixion in first-century Rome, but the other offenses the authorities accused him of did. Mark reports that Barabbas was a political agitator and a killer.
He writes, “And among the rebels in prison, who had committed murder in the insurrection, there was a man called Barabbas” (Mark 15:7, ESV). Some Bible scholars call Barabbas a “terrorist.”
Were the thieves crucified next to Jesus cohorts of Barabbas?
Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines an insurrection as “an act or instance of revolting against civil authority or an established government.” The Greek word translated “rebel” (sustasiastes, συστασιαστής) in Mark 15:7 refers to an insurgent, i.e., one who is associated with an insurrection.
The Greek word sustasiastes is also the root of the term translated as “insurrection” in the second half of the verse. In other words, the Greek word for “insurrection” is used twice.
The NASB is precise in its translation: “The man named Barabbas had been imprisoned with the insurrectionists who had committed murder in the insurrection” (emphasis added). The KJV reflects this precision, too.
Other translations read “uprising” (NIV, NLT). Yet another says “rebellion” (NKJV).
The thieves next to Jesus may have been insurrectionists and associates of Barabbas. While none of the Gospels explicitly state this, some scholars believe it’s a logical deduction from the available information.
Jesus Saves One of the Thieves
Luke’s account of Jesus’ crucifixion includes a remarkable conversation. One of the criminals hanging on a cross next to Jesus mocked him just like some observers in the crowd did. He said, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” (Luke 23:39, ESV).
Yet the thief being crucified on the other side responded to him, admitting his own guilt and recognizing Jesus’ innocence. “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong” (Luke 23:40, ESV).
Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus replied, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:42-43).
R. Kent Hughes writes, “Jesus gave the wretched thief life! The man hung writhing next to Jesus in mortal agony. He too was grasping for breath. The same severed nerves screamed. He moaned in agony. He was probably mocked too — for his deathbed conversion, his ridiculous faith in this helpless king — ‘Save you, you fool? He can’t even save himself.'”
Hughes continues, “The thief’ heard and watched Jesus die. Soon he too would be dead, but somehow he felt peace.’s redemption dramatizes for us the immediate bliss of the departed. Sinners who cast themselves into the arms of Christ go into the presence of God — ‘away from the body and at home with the Lord’ (2 Corinthians 5:8).” 
 Luke by R. Kent Hughes. PTW. p. 821-822.
 Matthew by Grant Osborne. ZECNT.
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