Did Both Thieves Revile Christ?
by Eric Lyons, M.Min.
Very likely, the most well-known, nameless person in the Bible is “the thief on the cross.” The Lord demonstrated His mercy one last time before His crucifixion by pardoning the thief who begged Jesus, saying, “Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom” (Luke 23:42). Having the “power on Earth to forgive sins” (Matthew 9:6), and an overflowing amount of compassion, Jesus told him: “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43).
After rehearsing the story of “the thief on the cross” countless times from Luke’s gospel account (a story that, sadly, has been misused by many to justify that a person today can be saved without being baptized “for the remission of sins”—Acts 2:38; cf. 22:16), some Bible students are puzzled when they eventually compare the “beloved physician’s” account with what Matthew and Mark recorded. Whereas Luke wrote: “Then one of the criminals who were hanged blasphemed Him, saying, ‘If You are the Christ, save Yourself and us’ ” (23:39), Matthew and Mark stated the following:
“Even the robbers who were crucified with Him reviled Him” (Matthew 27:44)
“Even those who were crucified with Him reviled Him” (Mark 15:32)
The obvious question is, why did Matthew and Mark indicate the “thieves” (plural) reviled Jesus, while Luke mentioned only one who insulted Him?
First, it is quite possible that, initially, both thieves reviled Christ, but then one of them repented. After hearing Jesus’ words on the cross, and seeing His forgiving attitude, the one thief may have been driven to acknowledge that Jesus was indeed the Messiah. How many times have we made a statement about someone or something, but then retracted the statement only a short while later after receiving more information?
A second possible explanation for the minor differences in gospel accounts regarding the two thieves who were crucified next to Jesus involves the understanding of a figure of speech known as synecdoche. Merriam-Webster defines this term as “a figure of speech by which a part is put for the whole (as fifty sail for fifty ships), the whole for a part (as society for high society)…or the name of the material for the thing made (as boards for stage)” (italics. in orig.). Just as Bible writers frequently used figures of speech such as simile, metaphor, sarcasm, and metonymy, they also used synecdoche. As seen above (in the definition of synecdoche), this figure of speech can be used in a variety of ways (see also Dungan, 1888, pp. 300-309):
A whole can put for the part.
A part may be put for the whole.
Time might be put for part of a time.
The singular can be put for the plural.
And the plural can be put for the singular.
It is feasible that Matthew and Mark were using the plural in place of the singular in their accounts of the thieves reviling Christ on the cross. Lest you think that such might be an isolated case, notice two other places in Scripture where the same form of synecdoche is used.
Genesis 8:4 indicates that Noah’s ark rested “on the mountains of Ararat.” Question: Did the ark rest on one of the mountains of Ararat, or did it rest on all of them at the same time? Although the ark was a huge vessel, it obviously did not rest on the many mountains of Ararat; rather, it rested on one.
In Genesis 21:7 Sarah asked, “Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? For I have borne him a son in his old age.” Anyone who knows much about the Bible will remember that Sarah had but one child. In certain contexts, however, one might use a synecdoche and speak of one child (as did Sarah) by using the word children.
We must keep in mind that the biblical apologist does not have to pin down the exact solution to an alleged contradiction; he need show only one or more possibilities of harmonization in order to negate the force of the charge that a Bible contradiction really exists. The skeptic cannot deny that both of the above options are plausible explanations to the question of why Matthew and Mark wrote of “thieves” reviling Christ, instead of “thief.”
Dungan, D.R. (1888), Hermeneutics (Delight, AR: Gospel Light), reprint.