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Matthew 27:38 and Mark 15:27 say “two robbers” were crucified with Jesus. Luke 23:32 says “two criminals” were crucified with Jesus. John 19:18 says only that “two others” were crucified with him.

At the trial of Jesus, instead of releasing Jesus, who was innocent of any crime, the crowds asked for Barabbas to be released – a known activist against Rome “who had been thrown into prison for insurrection and murder” (Luke 23:25). John 18:40 says Barabbas had taken part in an uprising. Barabbas was an enemy of the state.

You can understand why Rome wanted Barabbas crucified, but two common robbers? My NIV Study Bible says this about the criminals on either side of Jesus being described as robbers (Mark 15:27):

According to Roman law, robbery was not a capital offence. Mark’s term must signify men guilty of insurrection (like Barabbas), crucified for high treason.

There is also the parable of the unforgiving servant (Matthew 18:23-35) who was thrown into prison until he repaid the huge debt he owed his master. Indeed, the Law of Moses was clear that any person found guilty of stealing had to make recompense to the victim by repaying more than the amount taken. Common theft or robbery could be dealt with under Jewish law.

Pilate had sentenced Barabbas to death by crucifixion, but were the two criminals alongside Jesus just common criminals, robbers? If so, then there would have been no need for them to be brought before Pilate for sentencing. This was not a capital offence and could be dealt with under Jewish law. Or were they, like Barabbas, guilty of treason against Rome? We know how ruthless the Romans were – after all, you don’t get to be the biggest Empire in the world by being soft on crime.

If we accept the NIV comment in Mark 15:27 that robbery was not a capital offence and that the two criminals being crucified next to Jesus were guilty of high treason, then why do the Gospel accounts not make this clear?

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    Robbery is a very serious offence. It is not mere theft, it involves violence (or threat of violence) against the person in order to take possession. It is the degree of violence (or the degree of threat) against whom has been robbed that is significant, not the value of what has been robbed. Robbery has to be stamped out at all costs if society is to be permitted to continue without gangsterism and anarchy completely taking over. I doubt very much the truth of the NIV statement.
    – Nigel J
    Jul 26, 2023 at 17:45
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    The Greek term is "λῃστάς" which is not only robber or bandit but also insurrectionist, pirate or revolutionary (en.wiktionary.org/wiki/%CE%BB%E1%BF%83%CF%83%CF%84%CE%AE%CF%82)
    – eques
    Jul 26, 2023 at 23:04
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    It may be incorrect to state that Pilate had sentenced Barabbas to death by crucifixion. Barabbas was awaiting conviction, and was in prison. Had Jesus been left off, Barabbas may have returned to the prison, or convicted according to the wisdom of Pilate. Jul 27, 2023 at 8:15
  • I am not suggesting that robbery is not a very serious offence. What I am asking is that under Roman law would a robber deserve being crucified? We know that Barabbas was guilty of insurrection against Rome (Mark 15:7). Now that demanded the death penalty.
    – Lesley
    Jul 28, 2023 at 10:38
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    Lesley, please note that Pilate had initially recused himself from convicting Jesus, asking the Jewish leaders to do the job according to their law. Is it not possible that the Robbers were handed over to the Romans by the Jewish themselves, for crimes, including murder, which merited death sentence ? Was not the ' an eye -for - an eye law' in prevalence at the time ? Jul 28, 2023 at 12:50

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Why do the Gospel accounts not specify what crimes the two men crucified next to Jesus were guilty of?

This is because the Gospels are more interested in the Crucifixion and the Resurrection of Jesus than anything else. To know the crimes of the other two condemned persons or their names for that matter does not add necessary details to the narratives of the Evangelists that are important.

The Gospels are most interested in Christ himself than those who were crucified with him! Such information would add very little to the Gospels and as such they are not needed. That's why this information has not come down to us.

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    This would be the same reason why the Bible doesn't identify the meal at the Last Supper, why it doesn't describe the civil consequences of chasing merchants out of the temple and placing an embargo on more commerce, or any of the many thousands of details great and small.
    – JBH
    Jul 27, 2023 at 3:17
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I agree that the "robbers" were almost certainly violent insurrectionists, probably followers of Barabbas who were imprisoned with him, as Mark 15:7 says:

The man named Barabbas had been imprisoned with the insurrectionists who had committed murder in the insurrection.

Why don't the Gospels identify them more directly? There are a number of reason why this might be. But let me suggest two:

  1. Originally it was Barabbas who should have taken center "stage" in the crucifixion scene. Just as Jesus' crime of trying to make himself "King of the Jews" was posted on his cross, Barabbas' crime of leading a revolt against Rome would have been posted above his, and the two other men would be assumed to be his accomplices. But because Barabbas was replaced by Jesus, the identity of the other two crucified men became confused. The Gospel writers knew they were not Jesus' disciples but did not know that they were actually Barabbas' followers. So they used the Greek word λῃστής which means "a robber; a plunderer, freebooter, brigand."

  2. A second possibility would be that the evangelists wanted to emphasize that Jesus' manner of death fulfilled prophecy, such as Isaiah 53:9 - "His grave was assigned with wicked men." Robbers are wicked, but patriots are not. So rather than portray Jesus as one of three Jewish patriots executed for treason against Rome, the evangelists called the men "robbers."

Summary: The Gospels use the term "robbers" either because 1. the authors did not know that the men were actually insurrectionists or 2. they wanted readers to understand that these were "wicked men" (a fulfillment of prophecy) rather than Jewish patriots.

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    Thanks to @Dottard, I have learned that in John 18:40 Barabbas too is called λῃστής (léstés) = a robber, brigand, bandit. See my question about their identity. Jul 27, 2023 at 16:46
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    As you point out, the two men crucified alongside Jesus were "wicked men" in fulfillment of prophecy. One is Isaiah 53:12 where Jesus was numbered with the transgressors.
    – Lesley
    Jul 28, 2023 at 10:51
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    It is very likely that the two individuals were worse culprits than was Barabbas. Or else, Pilate would have considered release of one of them, in a gesture similar to the still - existing legal provision for commutation of sentence of convicts who show good conduct in prison. Jul 29, 2023 at 1:17
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Thieves The New Testament is full of illustrations about "thieves (Gk. kleptes). This nomenclature referred to men who were like what we call today, "cat burglers" who sneak in unawares and steal property. The emphasis was on the "unannounced aspect" of their actions. (See Luke 12:33, 39, 1 Cor. 6:10, 1 Peter 4:15). The Second Coming is compared to this type of arrival. (1 Thess. 5:2,4, 2 Peter 3:10, Revelation 3:3, Matthew 24:43)

Robbers The word used to describe the two men crucified on each side of Jesus is different. It is lestai (Gk.) and describes the criminal who resorts to violent robberies. Today we would classify armed bank robbers, train robbers, stage coach robbers, as this type. Jesus used this term when he responded to the armed guard arresting him in the Garden: Am I a robber (lestai) that you come after Me with swords? (Matthew 26:55, As if against one committing armed insurrection.) It was used by Jesus to describe the desecration of the Temple by "buyers and sellers." (Luke 19:46, Matthew 21:13) It was used to describe the mean dudes who attacked the victim in the parable of the Good Samaritan. (Luke 10:30) And it was used to describe the men who beat up Paul. (2 Corinthians 11:26)

The "robbers" were not of the cat burglar sort, but resorted to violence and murder to accomplish their evil deeds. Look at the bloody mess laying along the Jericho Road, left for dead, as an example of their modus operandi. He fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. (Luke 10:30) These were the crimes that the men committed who were crucified with Jesus. Those men weren't just "car thieves, pick-pockets, grocery store pilferers."

So the Gospels do specify what crimes the two men were guilty of--- contrary to the implications of this post question. (Matthew 27:38, Mark 15:27) Luke's use of the word "criminal" (Gk. kakourgous) added to their description of criminal behavior.(23:32) Malefactors, evil doers. One crime does not a criminal make. They were habitual evil doers. Their character was demonstrated on the cross by their cursings! (cussing)

But one criminal came to his senses and recognized the Kingship if Jesus...and His innocence. (Luke 23:39-43). And few recognize the awesome gift of mercy Jesus ministered to him. With just one response of Amazing Grace, the rap sheet of this criminal was wiped clean! His past was not to be his destiny. With His last ounce of strength, Jesus took one of His last gulps of breath, and in pain turned His face to the criminal and managed to say:

Jesus answered him, "I tell you the truth, today you will be with Me in Paradise."

Convict to Convert A criminal to Paradise? Oh, excuse me, an EX-CON! He was no longer a sinner, but a redeemed, born again, convert. He had just become the first sinner to be cleansed by the blood of the Lamb! And now he was headed to Paradise...not sheol...not hades...but Paradise! And that was not the only honor he was to receive.

Jesus met him on the other side of the veil of death, in the dimension of eternal life...and they hot-footed it up to Paradise side-by-side. What happened next is recorded in Daniel 7:9-14. Jesus was Coronated! He received authority, glory, and sovereign power, and a kingdom that was not going to pass away. {We know that this was His time of coronation, and not after His Ascension, because before His Ascension He told the disciples that all authority in heaven and on earth had been given Him. (Matthew 28:18)}

Front Row Seat But who got to see all this royal ceremony...this pomp and circumstance...this Coronation of the King of kings? It wasn't the high priests. It wasn't Peter, Paul, and John. It wasn't any Roman general or Emperor. It was the EX-CON! The criminal was so sanctified by the shed blood of Jesus that he was witness to the most awesome Coronation in the universe! He had a front row seat with a ticket paid for by the heir apparent Himself. Such is the unending love of God.

"Specified crimes" are not recorded in Paradise. Jesus doesn't even remember what evil deeds this man had done. He had cast them all into the sea of forgetfulness.

{See a companion Question on Hermeneutics SE #59787, Is the thief on the cross the first person saved under the New Covenant?}

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The answer is rather simple: there was no need.

However, this is a good question and deserves some context. Because Jesus was crucified on bogus charges, case can be made they too could be innocent of the crimes they were punished for.

The answer to the question is in Luke. This is the only Gospel relaying the words of both of the criminals, one of which clearly states that they deserved the punishment.

Crucifixion was a punishment for very few crimes in Roman law, neither of which would be crimes for either of the criminals crucified with Jesus. That one acknowledges their punishment is enough, as this fulfills the Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah.

To expand on the answer a bit by going off on a tangent... We can assume we know with good confidence not only the crimes, but also names of those criminals, as they were recorded in The Gospel of Nicodemus.

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  • @AcePL-This answer contradicts itself: A case for innocence...versus...clearly stated deserved punishment! The difference between "common thief" and "cruel armed robber" must be considered in this discussion. The crimes of these two were "specified."
    – ray grant
    Aug 4, 2023 at 20:27
  • @raygrant - Be more specific, please. I wrote what I wrote and I believe I was clear. Maybe I should edit it a bit to be more clear? Not an English native speaker, so maybe something eludes me? As far as mentioned diff between "common thief" and "cruel armed robber" - it is not germane, as in this specific instance, Luke is clear one of them acknowledge the punishment they received as just.
    – AcePL
    Aug 7, 2023 at 8:09
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Different versions use different terms to describe the two individuals crucified with Jesus. Some call them 'rebels', some 'thieves' and some others 'robbers '. As for traditional images, we know them as Good Thief and Bad Thief.( As St Augustine quipped, the Good Thief stole during his entire life and went on to steal a place in Heaven right before his death !) A rebel is not likely to have repented on the cross since he stood for an ideology .A robber might have committed murders during his act, thereby meriting death under eye-for-eye law. And, as the question rightly observes, deeds of a thief would not per se, warrant death sentence. We are, therefore, inclined to conclude that traditions have been ' kind' to Jesus in the same manner they 'covered' him with a loin cloth, though the Gospels say he was stripped naked before the crucifixion. With a similar gesture of kindness,even though the two individuals may have been murderers , traditions toned down their personalities to picture them as ordinary thieves, just to give a shade of decency to Jesus' companions in Calvary.(Imagine the situation if they had been pictured as serial killers, rapists, or drug addicts ! ) Hope this explains.

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  • @"Deeds of a thief"? The Greek word used is not common "thief" but "robber", which is a much stronger word, implying force to the point of murdering the victim. There was no minimizing the evil character of these criminals. In fact they are called criminals, not Saturday night pranksters. "Tradition" is not a reliable source of understanding. Stick to the Greek definitions. Peace.
    – ray grant
    Aug 4, 2023 at 20:37
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    Thanks, ray grant. There is no doubt that the two had been criminals, and one repented on the cross. He is venerated as St Dismas by some denominations. Aug 6, 2023 at 8:35

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