c. 30-33 AD|
Golgotha Hill outside Jerusalem
Eastern Orthodox Church|
March 25 (Roman Catholic)|
Good Friday (Eastern Orthodox)
Prisoners (especially condemned)|
San Dimas, Mexico
The Penitent Thief, also known as the Good Thief or the Thief on the Cross, is one of two unnamed persons mentioned in a version of the Crucifixion of Jesus in the New Testament. The Gospel of Luke describes one asking Jesus to "remember him" when Jesus will have "come into" his kingdom. The other, as the impenitent thief, asks Jesus why he cannot save himself.
He is officially venerated in the Catholic Church. The Roman Martyrology places his commemoration on March 25, together with the Feast of the Annunciation, because of a Medieval Catholic hypothesis that Christ (and the penitent thief) were crucified and died exactly on the anniversary of Christ's Incarnation.
He is given the name Dismas in the Gospel of Nicodemus and is traditionally known in Catholicism as "Saint Dismas" (sometimes Dysmas; in Spanish and Portuguese, Dimas). Other traditions have bestowed other names:
Gospel of Luke
Two men were crucified at the same time as Jesus, one on his right hand and one on his left (Matthew 27:38, Mark 15:27–28,32, Luke 23:33, John 19:18), which the Gospel of Mark interprets as fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah 53:12. According to the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, respectively, both of the thieves mocked Jesus (Matthew 27:44, Mark 15:32); Luke however, mentions that:
39 Now one of the criminals hanging there reviled Jesus, saying, "Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us."
40 The other, however, rebuking him, said in reply, "Have you no fear of God, for you are subject to the same condemnation? 41 And indeed, we have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes, but this man has done nothing criminal." 42 Then he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." 43 He replied to him, "Amen I say to you today you will be with me in Paradise." 23:39–43
"Amen ... today ... in paradise"
The phrase translated "Amen I say to you today you will be in paradise" in Luke 23:43 ("Ἀμήν σοι λέγω σήμερον μετ’ ἐμοῦ ἔσῃ ἐν τῷ παραδείσῳ.") is disputed in a minority of versions and commentaries. The Greek manuscripts are without punctuation, so attribution of the adverb "today" to the verb "be", as "Amen I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise" (the majority view), or the verb "say", as "Amen I say to you today, you will be with me in paradise" (the minority view), is dependent on analysis of word order conventions in Koine Greek. The majority of ancient Bible translations also follow the majority view, with only the Aramaic language Curetonian Gospels offering significant testimony to the minority view. As a result, some prayers recognize the good thief as the only person confirmed as a saint—that is, a person known to be in Paradise after death—by the Bible, and indeed by Jesus himself. Thomas Aquinas wrote:
The words of The Lord (This day ... in paradise) must therefore be understood not of an earthly or corporeal paradise, but of that spiritual paradise in which all may be, said to be, who are in the enjoyment of the divine glory. Hence to place, the thief went up with Christ to heaven, that he might be with Christ, as it was said to him: "Thou shalt be with Me in Paradise"; but as to reward, he was in Paradise, for he there tasted and enjoyed the divinity of Christ, together with the other saints.
Only the Gospel of Luke describes one of the thieves as penitent, and that gospel does not name him.
Augustine of Hippo does not name the thief, but wonders if he might not have been baptized at some point.
According to tradition, the Good Thief was crucified to Jesus' right hand and the other thief was crucified to his left. For this reason, depictions of the crucifixion of Jesus often show Jesus' head inclined to his right, showing his acceptance of the Good Thief. In the Russian Orthodox Church, both crucifixes and crosses are usually made with three bars: the top one, representing the titulus (the inscription that Pontius Pilate wrote and was nailed above Jesus' head); the longer crossbar on which Jesus' hands were nailed; and a slanted bar at the bottom representing the footrest to which Jesus' feet were nailed. The footrest is slanted, pointing up towards the Good Thief, and pointing down towards the other.
According to John Chrysostom, the thief dwelt in the desert and robbed or murdered anyone unlucky enough to cross his path. According to Pope Gregory I, he "was guilty of blood, even his brother's blood; (fratricide)".
The thief's conversion is sometimes given as an example of the necessary steps one must take to arrive at salvation through Christ: awareness of personal sin, repentance of sin, acceptance of Christ and salvation's promise of eternal life. Further, the argument is presented that baptism is not necessary for salvation since the thief had no opportunity for it. However, in some church traditions he is regarded as having a "baptism of blood".
Luke's unnamed penitent thief was later assigned the name Dismas in the Gospel of Nicodemus, portions of which may be dated to the 4th century. The name "Dismas" was adapted from a Greek word meaning "sunset" or "death". The other thief's name is given as Gestas. In Syriac Infancy Gospel's Life of the Good Thief (Histoire Du Bon Larron French 1868, English 1882), Augustine of Hippo said; the thief said to Jesus, the child: "O most blessed of children, if ever a time should come when I shall crave Thy Mercy, remember me and forget not what has passed this day." Anne Catherine Emmerich saw the Holy Family "exhausted and helpless"; according to Augustine of Hippo and Peter Damian, the Holy Family met Dismas, in these circumstances. Pope Theophilus of Alexandria (385–412) wrote a Homily on the Crucifixion and the Good Thief, which is a classic of Coptic literature.
In Coptic Orthodoxy, he is named Demas. This is the name given to him in the Narrative of Joseph of Arimathea.
The apocryphal Syriac Infancy Gospel calls the two thieves Titus and Dumachus, and adds a tale about how Titus (the good one) prevented the other thieves in his company from robbing Mary and Joseph during their Flight into Egypt.
The Catholic Church remembers the Good Thief on 25 March. In the Roman Martyrology, the following entry is given "Commemoration of the holy thief in Jerusalem who confessed to Christ on the cross and merited to hear from him: 'Today you will be with me in Paradise.'" A number of towns, including San Dimas, California, are named after him. There also exist parish churches named after him, such as the Church of the Good Thief in Kingston, Ontario, Canada—built by convicts at Kingston Penitentiary, Saint Dismas Church in Waukegan, Illinois, the Old Catholic Parish of St Dismas in Coseley and the Church of St. Dismas, the Good Thief, a Catholic church at the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York.
Eden's locked gates the Thief has opened wide,
By putting in the key, "Remember me."
He is commemorated in a traditional Eastern Orthodox prayer said before receiving the eucharist: "I will not speak of Thy Mystery to Thine enemies, neither like Judas will I give Thee a kiss; but like the thief will I confess Thee: Remember me, O Lord in Thy Kingdom."
In the Eastern Orthodox Church, one of the hymns of Good Friday is entitled, The Good Thief (or The Wise Thief, Church Slavonic: Razboinika blagorazumnago), and speaks of how Christ granted Dismas Paradise. There are several compositions of this hymn which are used in the Russian Orthodox Church and form one of the highlights of the Matins service on Good Friday.
In Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, the main characters Vladimir and Estragon briefly discuss the inconsistencies between the Four Evangelists' accounts of the penitent and impenitent thieves. Vladimir concludes that since only Luke says that one of the two was saved, "then the two of them must have been damned [...] why believe him rather than the others?"
In popular culture
As part of Christ's story the good thief often appears in cinematic portrayals though with varying degrees of importance. He sometimes appears as just a background character whose presence in the film is limited to his role in the Gospel of Luke, if that much. One exception was Cecil B. DeMille's 1927 film The King of Kings where his fate is compared to Jesus'. While in one scene people are mourning for Jesus as He is en route to Golgotha, in the next scene the very same people are throwing garbage at the two thieves. Later, when all three men are crucified, the good thief defends Jesus from Gestas' insults and asks to be forgiven for his own crimes. Jesus forgives the good thief. Later when the two men are dying, Mary is mourning at the foot of her Son's cross. She notices that at the foot of the thief's cross is a disheveled old woman, crying for him and offering him water. A soldier pulls the old woman from the cross; she runs into Mary, to whom she says "That one is my boy!" The two mothers embrace and console each other. In the 1961 film King of Kings, the two thieves, along with Barabbas, are awaiting their fates. The two thieves are appalled when Barabbas compares himself to them. They say "We're only thieves! You're a murderer!"
The Penitent thief is named Jobab in the miniseries Jesus of Nazareth.
The thief features also in Christian popular music, as in Christian rock band Third Day's 1995 song "Thief", and the name of the Christian rock band Dizmas. The thief also is the narrator in Sydney Carter's controversial song "Friday Morning".
In 2013, author Don Willis wrote about the two thieves crucified with Jesus in his novel Tale of the Penitent Thief. The book went on to be awarded as a Finalist in the 2014 International Book Awards, Religious Fiction category.
Dismas is featured as an integral part of the storyline of the video game Uncharted 4: A Thief's End.
The Hollywood classic movie "The Hoodlum Priest" directed by Irvin Kershner mentions Dismas, in several instances.
- Lawrence Cunningham, A brief history of saints (2005), page 32.
- Gabra, Gawdat (2009). The A to Z of the Coptic Church. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press. p. 120. ISBN 9780810870574.
- Ehrman, Bart; Plese, Zlatko (2011). The Apocryphal Gospels: Texts and Translations. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 582. ISBN 9780199732104.
- Renate Gerstenlauer, The Rakh Icon: Discovery of its True Identity, Legat Verlag, 2009 (ISBN 978-3932942358). Cited at "The Repentant Thief Who?". Icons and their interpretation. 17 December 2011. Retrieved 26 April 2014.
- SBL Greek New Testament. Cited according to https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=luke+23%3A43&version=SBLGNT
- Metzger, Bruce M. (2006). A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. Hendrickson Publishers Marketing, LLC. ISBN 978-1-59856-164-7.
- The Life of The Good Thief, Msgr. Gaume, Loreto Publications, 1868 2003.
- Catholic Family News, April 2006.
- Christian Order, April 2007.
- Stanley E. Porter, Anthony R. Cross Dimensions of baptism: biblical and theological studies 2002 Page 264 "It is interesting to notice, in this connection, that in his Retractions, Augustine wondered whether the thief might not in fact have been baptized at some earlier point (2.18)."
- The Life of the Blessed Virgin Mary, from the Visions of Ven. Anne Catherine Emmerich, TAN Books, 1970.(No.2229)/(No.0107).
- "Common Prayers - Before and after Holy Communion". oca.org.
- The text of the hymn (translated into English): "The Wise Thief didst Thou make worthy of Paradise in a single moment, O Lord. By the wood of thy Cross illumine me as well, and save me"
- One of the most notable versions of the hymn is Pavel Chesnokov's Razboinika blagorazumnago (The Wise Thief)
- Beckett, Samuel. The Complete Dramatic Works. Faber & Faber. p. 15.
- Sydney Carter, obituary Daily Telegraph, March 16, 2004
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