Ancient History

Dimas and Gestas: Bandits Crucified with Christ

By Stephen Basdeo

Banditry and outlawry always flourish whenever and wherever the state is weak and/or unwilling to enforce its laws. Medieval England is a prime example of this, and of course it is during this period that stories of Robin Hood first emerge, evident by William Langland’s allusions to ‘rymes of Robyn Hode’ in The Vision of Piers the Plowman (c. 1377). However, let me take you even further back than the medieval period and into the ancient world, to the time when the Roman Empire ruled Europe and the Near East, and when a young, upstart religious leader was causing a stir in the somewhat backward province of Judea.[1]

Most people will be familiar with the story of Jesus’s last hours on earth; he had been arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane; he was brought before the Sanhedrin; then taken to stand trial before Pontius Pilate; and then the crowd demanded his blood by ordering Pilate to crucify him. Jesus was then ordered to carry his cross to Calvary where he was to be crucified (there are very few historians who doubt that Jesus actually existed, but of course, whether one believes he was the Son of God or not is entirely a matter of faith and, thankfully, not a subject which this website deals with).[2]

bandits-on-cross

17th-century illustration of Jesus and the bandits being crucified (c) Wikimedia Commons

Nails were hammered into his hands and feet and he was placed upon the cross. Yet Jesus was not the only person to be crucified that day. The Gospel of Luke tells us that on either side of him were two robbers. One believed Jesus was innocent of any crime, while the other goaded Jesus:

One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong” (Luke 23: 39-41 NIV).

We know very little about the two thieves from the four canonical gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. However, more light is shed on their identity in the apocryphal Book of Nicodemus, which gives us the two men’s names:

But one of the two thieves who were crucified with Jesus, whose name was Gestas, said to Jesus, “If thou art the Christ, deliver thyself and us.” But the thief who was crucified on his right hand, whose name was Dimas, answering, rebuked him, and said, “Dost not thou fear God who art condemned to this punishment?” We indeed receive rightly and justly the demerit of our actions, but this Jesus, what evil has he done?”

While the apocryphal sources give us the names of the two thieves executed with Jesus, we know little about their actual crimes. One thing is for certain, however: they were not simply petty thieves as implied by many modern English translations who simply use the word “thief” or “criminal”. The punishment for petty theft and even some larger thefts (what Americans might call “grand larceny” today) in the Ancient Roman world was usually a fine and an order to repay four times the value of the stolen goods to the victim by way of restitution. Historians generally report that these punishments were fairly standardized throughout the Roman Empire. If a criminal could not pay the debt, a further punishment might be ordering the offender to serve a period of indentured servitude.

killed-by-bandits1

(c) B. D. Shaw

Instead it is more likely that the men were bandits or highwaymen, which is what B. D. Shaw argues in his article ‘Bandits in the Roman Empire’, where he translates this passage using the term ‘bandits’.[3] The Roman state enacted a number of measures to deal with bandits; Shaw notes that the construction of watchtowers and military posts throughout the empire were not simply a means of subduing potentially hostile local populations but also to protect travellers from robbers. Similarly, Roman soldiers were not just instruments of conquest but also provided a rudimentary form of policing, functioning as detectives, law enforcers, torturers, executioners, and gaolers. Having said this, this form of policing was only effective in the highly militarised parts of the empire, but there were many areas where the arm of the state could not fully penetrate. For this reason numerous laws were also passed which encouraged local people (whom the Roman state knew would often give tacit approval to the actions of bandits) to betray them in return for a reward. Furthermore, citizens were exempted from homicide laws if they killed a bandit.

Ancient Roman bandits were a class apart from common criminals. The justice meted out to them, if they were caught, was summative (i.e. judgment against them was declared on the spot). The punishment ranged from being thrown to wild beasts in the amphitheatre, to being burned alive or being crucified. Although the punishment of crucifixion has been held up by Christian scholars throughout history as an example of the savagery of the Romans’ punishment of Christ, it was actually quite a rare punishment in the Roman Empire, which further suggests that the men crucified alongside Jesus were not simply common thieves but bandits or brigands. Banditry was endemic in the Roman Empire and the men who turned to it often belonged to the same insurrectionary groups who wished to overthrow Roman rule, which was often the case with bandits in pre-modern societies, as illustrated by Eric Hobsbawm.

One translation of the New Testament, in fact, in its rendering of Matthew 27: 44, renders that passage as follows:

“Even the revolutionaries who were crucified with [Jesus] ridiculed him in the same way” (New Living Translation)

The word used in that passage, according to Benjamin Wilson’s Emphatic Diaglott, is λῃσταὶ (‘léstés’) meaning ‘brigand, robber’. And this of course is the same word used in Jesus’s parable of the Good Samaritan who helps the victim of a robbery by λῃσταῖς (‘lēstais’), the plural of ‘brigand’. Whether or not Dimas and Gestas were truly revolutionaries is beside the point; the fact is that the Roman state viewed such highway robberies to be subversive and dangerous enough to warrant that most savage form of execution: crucifixion.

In spite of the measures enacted against it, banditry continued to be a problem throughout the entire Roman Empire, from Judaea to Britannia, and the three most common causes of death were old age, sickness, and attacks by bandits. Travelling on the country roads from town to town presented the greatest threat to coming into contact with bandits. Contemporary records reveal that high status Roman citizens could often simply disappear if they travelled beyond city walls without adequate protection. Another sign of the ubiquity of bandits in Roman life is the fact that “killed by bandits” appears as an inscription on several tombs of Roman citizens.

Little more will ever be known about the lives of Dimas and Gestas (and there is no compelling reason to doubt their existence); while Gestas was unrepentant, Dimas seems to have had a conscience and perhaps he may also have been an archetypal noble robber in the style of Robin Hood or Bulla Felix, the Ancient Roman Robin Hood.


Works Cited

[1] Further information on Dimas and Gestas will be briefly considered in my forthcoming book: The Lives and Exploits of the Most Noted Highwaymen, Rogues, and Murderers (Barnsley: Pen and Sword, 2018).

[2] James D. G. Dunn, Jesus Remembered (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2003), p. 339 states of baptism and crucifixion that these “two facts in the life of Jesus command almost universal assent.

[3] B. D. Shaw, ‘Bandits in the Roman Empire’, Past and Present, 105 (1984), 4-52 (p. 4).

Further Reading:

Christopher J. Fuhrmann, Policing the Roman Empire: Soldiers, Administration, and Public Order (Oxford: OUP, 2011)

Thomas Grunewald, Bandits in the Roman Empire: Myth and Reality Trans. J. Drinkwater (London: Routledge, 2004)

Hone, William, trans. The Apocryphal New Testament (London: W. Hone, 1820)

 

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