Between Thieves

It occurs to me that there is something unique about the two thieves between whom Christ is said to have been crucified.

There were certainly those who believed in Christ before these thieves, those who believed in him as the fulfillment of Jewish messianic prophesy, those who believed in him as the promised Messiah who would reign as king over Israel.  They chose to believe in a man who would defeat their enemies, who would raise up their nation, who would offer them  political and military as well as spiritual salvation.

There were also certainly those who believed in Christ after these thieves, those who believed in him as the originator of a new Messianism, those who believed in him as a Messiah who would inaugurate and rule over a spiritual kingdom.  They chose to believe in a man who could pardon their sins, who could raise up a new kind of faith, who could offer salvation to the Jews first but also to the gentiles.

It is only the two thieves, however, who are asked to believe between these two Messianisms, between a triumphal Judaism on one hand and a triumphal Christianity on the other.  It is only they who encounter him solely in the moment between, where he appears to have failed in every respect, where he is broken and bleeding and dying.  Is it any wonder then, despite two thousand years and more of Christian condemnation, that one of the thieves is recorded as mocking Christ?  Mockery was the only logical response to a man who had claimed to be the Messiah and who was dying like a common thief.  Such a man deserves only mockery, or perhaps pity, but certainly not belief.

Yet, in this very same moment, in those hours between the Messiah that Christ had been and the Messiah that he would be, in the time when he was nothing more than a common criminal, in the moment when no one claimed him or made any claims on his behalf, the other thief believed.  What could account for this?  Surely it is the most remarkable act of faith every recorded.  This second thief has as little reason to believe as the first.  He too has encountered Christ in the moment of his failure, and yet he chooses, against all logic and sense, to believe.

This choice is indefensible.  It is either the most faithful or the most foolish choice there has ever been.

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9 comments
  1. d said:

    Jesus, as described in the New Testament, does not meet the ‘basic requirements’ (explained most clearly by Maimonides) of the Jewish Messiah (Mashiach):

    1) Be a descendant of David
    2) Study and obey Torah
    3) Rebuild the Temple
    4) Reunite the people of Israel
    5) Bring back The Law
    6) Not die (“…only since he was killed, they knew that he was not.”)

    This last point is important and is a clear division between Judaism and Christianity. Aside from some elements of the Chabad sect, a dead Mashiach is not the Mashiach.

    In any case, the story of the thieves is interesting. What is the importance of them being thieves, rather than some other sort of criminal?

  2. john Jantunen said:

    Having two thieves, one who believes and one who doesn’t believe, is useful strictly from the point of view of creating a narrative. Thieves are lacking in morality, more so than say, murderers or heretics whose crimes might be based on something rather than mere greed (that is, as long as they are not stealing bread with which to feed their families). They are disinterested parties and therefore seemingly have no hidden agenda (being criminals also raises the stakes in regards to them making the right choice, the basis for almost every cops and robbers movie since the dawn of cinema). The fact that one chooses to believe and the other does not, highlights only that a choice must be made, in this case a choice to believe. This places the onus of particpation on the reader and/or believer, forcing him/her to get involved in the story. Sowing doubt (ie faith or folishness) has always been the foremost means of creating suspense (the reader/viewer knows something the charaters don’t or the vice versa), which in itself is the easiest way to get a reader engaged in the story. From the point of view of crafting an engaging story then, the thief does not choose against all logic, but makes the choice he was strung on the cross to make (free will does not exist in the confines of the narrative, but is seen as an expression of the myriad of choices characters with no free will are forced to make by their creator). Caught within the gap between the choice the thief makes and the reveal (ie Christ rising from the grave or say, Catherine Trammel as the murderess in Basic Instinct) the reader/viewer/believer can’t help but be pulled along; a device that apparently worked as well for Joe Esterhas as it did for The Almighty.

  3. d, Maimonides was a Jew who lived in the Medieval era of history, so, exactly how his post conditional requirements are doing anything that can apply to Jesus in any way other than direct, disqualification by imposition, I have no idea. For instance, you have a Messiah figure in a time when you have a temple- well then, suddenly no one who comes in a time with a temple qualifies- yet the historical sentiment was not along those lines, people were looking for the Messiah everywhere during the Roman occupation, hoping he would expel Rome. It’s very easy for someone to come along 1200 years later and set conditions that purposely don’t apply to the main religion of Europe. Second, Maimonides is not a reliable source, he is very much divorced from the Jewish traditions of not only Jesus’ era, but of his own, being much much more a gnostic thinker than anything else. This is understandable since he is well studied, but his writings and thoughts don’t add up historically with Judaism at its roots.

    John, I think you’re putting way too much stock into looking at this story in the way our culture and our time tell stories.

  4. John, in other words, I think you’re distracted in approaching the story with modern lenses instead of thinking how the original audience would have viewed it, which is very much not going to be the same.

  5. d said:

    Curtis,

    Maimonides is arguably the greatest commentator on Torah and Talmud who ever lived. His ‘rules for Messiahship’ were not new or specific to when he lived. He restated clearly what had already been written, and for this he is now standard voice on the subject, from the perspective of (contemporary and historical) Orthodox Judaism.

    I think any reading and commentary on Jewish Messianism (outside of the Chabadists) is clear that the Messiah cannot die.

    See Berger’s 2001 article ‘The Rebbe, the Jews, and the Messiah’ from Commentary Magazine: http://www.commentarymagazine.com/viewarticle.cfm/the-rebbe–the-jews–and-the-messiah-9349

    The article is specifically about the apparent heresy of (some of) the Chabad Hasidim, but it speaks to the more general issue of the differences between Jewish and Christian Messianism.

  6. I will read your article of course, but I do have this question: Since it would be outrageous for any Jew to claim to be God, how exactly can the Messiah not die? If he cannot be God and cannot die, then, does the claim mean he cannot be murdered, or what is going on?

    Second I have great reservations with Maimonides, because he is very much about gnostic teaching, which as I understand it is very non-Jewish.

  7. d said:

    Well, he has to complete all of the Messianic tasks, bring on the golden age, the dead must rise, etcetera while still alive.

    (I should note here that I am not an Orthodox or Hasidic Jew and do not believe in the traditional Jewish messianic vision. However, I do find Jewish messianism more compelling than Christianity, which continues to baffle me.)

  8. d said:

    As for Maimonides, he is well regarded and cited constantly (often by his Hebrew name – Rambam). His ‘Mishneh Torah’ is a classic work of Jewish law, and his ’13 articles of the Jewish faith’ is a defining document of Jewish orthodoxy. Honestly, he’s probably the most important Torah scholar after Rashi.

  9. John Jantunen said:

    Curtis,

    The bag of tricks that a storyteller has at his disposal is quite limited, and always has been; it is how the storyteller uses them that allows for infinite variations. So I must protest when you say that I am putting too much stock in the way our time tells stories. Who, after all, do you suppose we learned from? My point, really, was only that it is a story, something many of us often forget.

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