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. 6 Comments.

  1. I am looking into the possibility of this word “Lestes” as being part of the root for the word (or group of letters) lesia. This would be in conjunction with “ek” or “ekk” as you probably already guessed. I am well aware of how the experts translate ekklesia, but see a possibility that there may be something more there? The other words with the root of “ekk” all look eerily like words describing Christ and His followers… “purge, strong desire, weary, pierced, broken, excluded, turn aside, swim away, carried out, cut-off, hang upon (consider deeply), & to tell”. The idea of placing the word “assembly or church” in the midst of all these seems a little out of place. Seems like “undesired, or outcast” would fit better in light of all this?

  2. Hi John. Thank you for the question. The Greek word “ekklesia” means “assembly”. For example, in Athens 400 years before Jesus’ birth, the “ekklesia” of all adult male citizens would meet in the Agora to discuss public business. The word was secular, w/o any sort of religious connotations. Any group assembled for any purpose could be called an “ekklesia”, which is how it became used for an assembly of Christians. There is a big cluster of words, mostly relate to legal procedures that are derived from the idea of an “ekklesia”. In Athens and some other cities, trials took place before an assembly of citizens.

    Another such example is the Latin word “basilica”, which was a specific style of a Roman governmental building. After the collapse of the empire in the west, the bishops were the only person of recognized authority, religious or civic. They took up residence in the basilicas, and the word came to mean a church that was the seat of a bishop.

    Greek was a written language for 700 years before Jesus, so most of the words you run across are very old. Meanings change with time, which is why I recommend consulting the on-line Liddell & Scott when looking up a definition. And a lot of words that have become “religious” in Christian usage were not at all religious in their origin. Good examples are “angel” and “baptize”. The King of Persia could send an angel, which simply means “messenger” to a city in Greece. A cup can be baptized, which simply means being dunked in water. So “ekklesia”, “baptize”, “angel” and “basilica” were all common secular words for a very long time before Jesus was born.

    Can you provide some examples of the Greek words you refer to? That would help me speak in more specific terms. Don’t know if you saw it, but I put up a post last week about etymologies. They can be very tricky. One thing to be conscious of is that there are two Greek letters that transliterate to “E”; there is the long “E” eta, and the short “E” epsilon. So whether the word has and eta or an epsilon can also provide clues. That being said, vowels are among the most fluid sounds in all languages. Vowel pronunciation can and does change more rapidly and radically than consonants.

    So I’ve talked a lot. I hope I’ve addressed your question. But send me some of the words you refer to, and I’ll take a closer look.

    • Thanks James, I appreciate your time and effort with this – and quick response. I was referring to the “strongest Strong’s” concordance. I see the English translated “assembly” is used sparingly in the NT. And it appears as though it is always in a context that refers to NON-Christians unless you count the single usage in James 2:2 but that Greek word is “synagoge – 4864”. Maybe James was referring to Jewish Synagogue and NOT a Christian Assembly? Acts 19 uses “ekklesia” but obviously is not in the context of a Christian gathering. I understand this could mean possibly some other “religion” and so the translators refused to use the English word “church” there? That is not really a concern for me but could be notable.

      The only other time “assembly” is used is in Heb 12:23 and is stated as “general assembly (panegyris – 3831)” and follows with the phrase “and the church (ekklesia) of the first born”. In modern English people tend to not understand that these apparently two separate groups are actually speaking about the SAME group. Is that what is going on here or do you believe it is speaking to two separate groups of people?

      While writing this, I noticed there are many different words in Hebrew which are translated as “assembly” – I know that is not your area but could be interesting. I bring it up because the NT was written by Jews who became “Christians” and so I think I could find some interesting correlations. (Know any Hebrew specialists?)

      The translations of the other “ekk” words I gave you before are from Strong’s (1571-1582). The word “ek” is said to be a separation or disassociation. All the “ekk” words carry that thought. Ekkathairo, Ekkaio, Ekkakeo, Ekkenteo, Ekklao, Ekkleio, Ekklino, Ekkolymbao, Ekkomizo, Ekkopto, Ekkremannymi. Maybe I am reading too much into it, but it appears to me that the word “church” was something created by those in power around the time that the translations were being made (the “dark ages” and time of the Catholic church having great power and influence over the entire world)? Whether the root is “kaleo” or “klesis” does not matter – I think they are the same? But, do you think “ekklesia” would refer more to the ones who are “called” or does it refer to those who are “separated from” those who are called? Sorry to make you go through all that other stuff but I guess talking it out has helped me narrow everything down to that one question. I think it is logical to assume that the “ekklesia” are those who are separated from the Jews who are the “called and chosen people of God” who meet in synagogues?

      Thanks again for your time.

  3. That’s funny. It never occurred to me to check out Strong! Talk about missing the forest for the trees. The one other thing to remember is that ek- is a very common prefix. It’s also a free-standing preposition meaning, more or less, “out of”, but don’t take that too literally. As English speakers, we take for granted the variety and depth and sheer volume of the words we have at out disposal. Most other languages do not have that same richness, and especially not older ones that didn’t accumulate lots of words from lots of different languages the way English has. What this meant was that to provide nuance to a word, a common practice was to add a prefix, like sun-, or ek-, or para-. This would change the base word somewhat and allow a different shading. “Ekklesia” is ek-klesia, which means a “calling from” or more idiomatically in English, a “calling out”. The citizens were called out to join the assembly. And BTW, Paul was kind of big on piling prefixes onto verbs to give new shading to an old word. Can’t recall any examples off the top of my head, but there were several times when such a compound word was invented by Paul. So yes, kaleo and klesis are related. Kaleo is to call (verb), klesis is the call (noun). And recall that, in Greek usage, “ekkesia” was a purely secular word. There were no over- or undertones of religion attached to it. So the Assembly in Acts 19 was the body of citizens led by the magistrates who were gathering for a civil judgement of Paul.

    The other thing is that the concept of the body of Christians as an assembly had not really taken hold in the era of the NT. All of that was still forming, and would not start to coalesce fully until the end of the First Century, when something like a “church” could be said to exist. As such, the ekklesia, of “ecclesiastical” did not exist. So naturally they would not have been using the term “ekklesia” when the gospels and epistles were written.

    As for Hebres 12:23, I can see where it is confusing, but only if you read certain translations. I see the KJV and the NASB translate as “assembly and church”, but the NIV and ESV just say “assembly of the firstborn”, which is what the Greek says. There is only one word used. The Vulgate is the same, the Latin form “ecclesiam”. This is odd that the KJV adds the word “church” for two reasons. First, 9 times of 10 the KJV has maintained the best sense of the Greek. But second, “church” is an anachronism in this context. There was no “church”. It had not developed. I suspect it was added to get the point across that we were talking about a religious group and not a civic assembly. “Church”, BTW is from German kirke. So all the more reason it’s out of place.

    Finally, not sure I can agree with you on your thesis of ekklesia as those separated from the Jews. The word was too old. It had definite meanings, and a long history of usage in any number of pagan authors. And while ek- does mean from when used, “calling out” is probably closer to the meaning of the full Greek word (a compound word is often different than the sum of its parts). The base meaning is “an assembly duly summoned”, and “summoned” is a way of saying “calling out”. But then, you could argue that the ekklesia of believers had been called out from the Jews. Except, honestly, by the time Mark wrote his gospel, I suspect most new Christians came from pagan backgrounds. Paul’s missionary efforts paid off, and the Jerusalem Assembly led by James, brother of the Lord (as Paul calls him in Galatians 2) had been destroyed by the death of James and then the sack of Jerusalem by the Romans. So Paul’s foundations sort of took a much more significant role, and they were composed mainly of former pagans.

    • Wow, thanks so much for all that information. It has helped me a lot. I saw you mentioned the word “church” actually comes from a German word “kirke”. I have heard that and the source said it is also the root for the word “circus” and has its origin from the Roman event which occurred in what is now “St. Peter’s Square” (I think it is called that) in front of the Vatican. It was generally 4 horses running the circuit (laps) 7 times? It was also the place where they actually killed “Christians”. If all that is true, then it would be very ironic.

      And yes, I have noticed many words in the NT that are single usage or have no other reference. I have an old Greek Lexicon to help get other uses outside of the Bible for some words.

      Thanks again, I am happy to have found you online and hope to have other questions for you.

      God Bless.

  4. That’s interesting. I had not heard that German kkrke came from “circus”, which is a different form of “circle”. Since churches existed in the Roman world and not in the German when the Germans moved into the empire, it makes sense that they would adopt the local word. The did the same with “muenster”, derived from “minister/minster”.

    Thanks for the comments. I enjoy the discussion, and I’m glad you like the site!

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