Robber or Rebel? The Meaning of “lestes”

During the course of the two gospels, we’ve touched on the book by Reza Aslan, Zealot: The Life And Times Of Jesus Of Nazareth. In that book, Aslan claims that Jesus was indeed a zealot, and that he was crucified for his rebellious activities. Two key props for his argument are that crucifixion was reserved for rebels, and that the word used to describe the two men crucified with Jesus << lestes >> specifically meant rebel.

At this point I have not done a summary view of all records of crucifixion, and have not performed a statistical analysis on the reasons why the Romans crucified these people. A famous example is the mass crucifixion of thousands of rebels following the suppression of the rebellion of Spartacus. Certainly, these men were rebels, and they were crucified in punishment. But saying only rebels were crucified is a bit of a black swan argument: no number of examples of white swans can prove that black swans don’t exist; one black swan, however, proves that they do. So, no number of crucified rebels will prove that only rebels were crucified, but even a handful of non-rebels will prove that this punishment was not reserved for this class of individuals.

The other argument he uses is that the word “lestes” specifically means ‘rebel’. Liddell and Scott, who have to be considered THE authoritative source for Greek vocabulary, disagree. So do Lewis and Short, who hold the same position for Latin vocabulary. In the Vulgate translation of this section, St Jerome translated “lestes” as “latro, latronis“*. As I have mentioned before, given that the sample size of Latin texts is much larger than that of Greek texts, seeing how the Vulgate renders a specific word can give us some clues to the meaning of the underlying Greek word, especially if the latter is rarely used. Now, the Greek word “lestes” is not terribly unusual, but I think it is still useful to see how it gets translated into Latin by St Jerome. Bear in mind that Jerome was bilingual; he was adept in Greek, even if Latin was his primary language. What word does he use?

First, I also want to point out that we have the episode of the Cleansing of the Temple to consider. Recall the “den of thieves” declamation used by Jesus? Well, the word there is “lestes“, the same word as is used of the two men crucified with Jesus. To the best of my knowledge, this passage has never been translated as “den of insurrectionists”. So this alone is almost a mortal wound to Aslan’s argument. And again, the Vulgate renders the Greek with the Latin word “latro, latronis”.

The final nail in the coffin is provided by the Latin author Apuleius. He wrote, among other things, a work called Metamorphoses, a Greek word that got taken wholesale into Latin via transliteration. It means pretty much what it does in English: a change in shape. In the Penguin edition that I have, the title is rendered as The Golden Ass, because the main action of the book involves the adventures of the main character after he has been magically, and mistakenly, transformed from a person into a donkey. In any case, shortly after his transformation, he is stolen by some bandits, who use him to haul away stolen goods. The word used? Latro, latronis. This example is even more useful than the Vulgate because it was written in the Second Century, much closer to Matthew than it was to the Vulgate. So we can have a substantial level of certainty that the word had not changed, had not undergone a metamorphosis, coming to mean simply “bandit/thief” whereas in NT times it had meant rebel.

As of this writing, I have no idea how Aslan’s book has been received in circles of biblical scholarship. I don’t know if it has been thoroughly refuted and rejected by most biblical academics. I do know, however, that it has seeped into popular consciousness. I recently had a Facebook debate with someone who put Aslan’s thesis forward as accepted fact. This is truly unfortunate. It’s also pretty much dead wrong. If this thesis has been absorbed into biblical scholarship, I despair of it even more than I did before.

* The base meaning of “latro, latronis” is “mercenary soldier”. From there it turned into “freebooter”; unpaid mercenaries had a tendency to extract their arrears of wages by plundering whomever was unfortunate enough to be at hand. This tradition was alive and well during the Thirty Years War. From there, it came to be “robber”. “bandit”, “thief”. These words are not completely interchangeable, but close enough. In particular, “bandit” has the sense of a group of outlaws living in desolate places where they’re hard to find, preying on unsuspecting travelers. Aslan tries to suggest that such bandits were actually insurrectionists, but that is simply stretching the word past its breaking point,


About James, brother of Jesus

I have a BA from the University of Toronto in Greek and Roman History. For this, I had to learn classical Greek and Latin. In seminar-style classes, we discussed both the meaning of the text and the language. U of T has a great Classics Dept. One of the professors I took a Senior Seminar with is now at Harvard. I started reading the New Testament as a way to brush up on my Greek, and the process grew into this. I plan to comment on as much of the NT as possible, starting with some of Paul's letters. After that, I'll start in on the Gospels, starting with Mark.

Posted on December 17, 2016, in General / Overview, gospel commentary, gospels, Matthew's Gospel, Special topic and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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