TWH: One of the many interesting facets of Fernando's article "(Why) Was Jesus Crucified Alone?" is the discussion about how the Gospels refer to the men crucified at the same time. Matthew and Mark both refer to the men who were crucified at Golgotha as λῃσταί (Matt. 27:38; Mark 15:27); Luke refers to them as κακοῦργοι (Luke 23:33); and John simply says that Jesus was crucified with two other men, and Jesus was in the middle of the two (John 19:18). Here are the respective verses that we are discussing:
Matt. 27:38:Τότε σταυροῦνται σὺν αὐτῷ δύο λῃσταί, εἷς ἐκ δεξιῶν καὶ εἷς ἐξ εὐωνύμων.
Mark 15:27: Καὶ σὺν αὐτῷ σταυροῦσιν δύο λῃστάς, ἕνα ἐκ δεξιῶν καὶ ἕνα ἐξ εὐωνύμων αὐτοῦ.
Luke 23:33: Καὶ ὅτε ἦλθον ἐπὶ τὸν τόπον τὸν καλούμενον Κρανίον, ἐκεῖ ἐσταύρωσαν αὐτὸν καὶ τοὺς κακούργους, ὃν μὲν ἐκ δεξιῶν ὃν δὲ ἐξ ἀριστερῶν.
John 19:18: ὅπου αὐτὸν ἐσταύρωσαν, καὶ μετʼ αὐτοῦ ἄλλους δύο ἐντεῦθεν καὶ ἐντεῦθεν, μέσον δὲ τὸν Ἰησοῦν.What do the lexemes utilized by the Synoptics mean? Why do we have this lexical change from Matthew/Mark to Luke, and why does John not make use of one of them in his description?
The word used by Matthew and Mark is λῃστής. General English glosses for this word include robber (cf. κλέπτης ["thief"] and see John 10:1, 8 for a place where they occur in close proximity), bandit, plunderer, pirate, etc. The word used by Luke is κακοῦργος. General English glosses for this word include wrongdoer, evildoer, criminal, malefactor, villain, etc. Personally, I think these are two ways of referring to the same types of individuals. One helps us understand a little more about the nature of the crime, while the other generally let's us know that they were dangerous and lawbreakers. There is no real issue present with the shift from λῃστής to κακοῦργος. In fact, if the traditional order of the Gospels is understood, the second use of λῃστής (Mark 15:27) occurs after Luke's use of κακοῦργος; Peter opted for λῃστής when preaching in Rome. But that says nothing about whether or not one better represents the identity of these individuals. I would argue that they both describe who these individuals are. While they are not synonyms, they are in one way or another semantically associated. The former speaks to the criminal act, the latter (1) just might speak to the fact they were criminally tried and received a guilty verdict or (2) that they had committed a crime without specifying the type of crime involved.
So, what happens with John? Did he depoliticize the whole Golgotha account by saying nothing about the two robber/criminals, only that two were crucified there with Jesus and Jesus was in the middle? Is John washing the narrative from any hints of a seditious Jesus? I don't think so. My guess is it was not entirely necessary. None of the Gospel authors wrote comprehensively regarding Jesus' life or ministry. Each of them is focused on a different aspect and, we can presume, audience and time period. For example, Luke did not need to repeat everything in the Sermon on the Mount. Why? Because he wasn't attempting to replace it. Peter, when he preached in Rome, didn't feel it necessary to cover Jesus' teaching on the Mount/Plain at all. Why? It didn't serve his purpose with the specific audience he was addressing at that time. This is what we can say about the mention of the two men crucified at the same time as Jesus in account by John.
It is interesting that the number two is consistent in each account. Well, Matthew, Mark, and John each say "two" (δύο); Luke says mentions them one at a time ("one on the right and the other on the left"). If John were making the narrative into a theological masterpiece and using characters and details of the storyline like colors and brushes, how do we explain the Synoptics attention to a specific reference to two individuals being crucified with Jesus? I think it is a better argument to take the Gospels at their word. Doing so, we can understand them as presenting historical accurate information.
Attempts to show Jesus as the ringleader of the two robber-criminals fall short in my opinion. There is a better explanation for why Jesus is crucified with them that day and why he is in the middle of the two. The better explanation is this: Jesus was not supposed to be crucified on that day, at least from the perspective of Pilate and Roman authorities. The two individuals were probably scheduled for crucifixion on that day, and it is possible that there was a third individual who was found guilty and sentenced to death with them. That person's name is Barabbas. We could say that Pilate had every intention of putting Barabbas to death along with his two rebel-accomplices, the former being the leader of the group. That explains why Barabbas is on hand for Pilate to present the crowd with an opportunity to spare Jesus or free Barabbas. Barabbas is close because he was scheduled to be put to death along with the members of his gang. Jesus is crucified in the middle because he takes Barabbas' place. Barabbas would have been crucified in the middle of his two men, but since the crowd opted for his release, that cross and the hole in which it was set went to Jesus.