ST LUKE’s account of the two thieves crucified alongside Jesus forms a glorious conjunction for my twin research interests: the trial of Jesus, and New Testament textual criticism. So I pored expectantly over Graham Reeves’s book, heightened for me by reading it in the headiest of Holy Weeks in Llandaff.
Launching a firework display of themes, Reeves shows how the two thieves are important players in the apocryphal gospels, where the good thief, Dismas, helps out the Holy Family on their flight to Egypt, and (anachronistically) is cured of his childhood leprosy by sharing Jesus’s bath water.
Reeves rightly sets Dismas’s welcome into paradise as the climax of Luke’s Gospel, which focuses on pardons and healings. One thief’s being saved and the other damned epitomises the stark choice of the human condition.
Other Lucan pairings mirror this motif, including Zechariah and Mary, John the Baptist and Jesus, the Pharisee and the tax collector, Dives and Lazarus, and, supremely, the Prodigal Son and his elder brother, à la Henri Nouwen.
Too much is made of iconography, as well as Jungian psychology, in which the thieves typify opposite poles of human behaviour, and even Christ’s own shadow side. Reeves sees Dismas’s being spattered with the water and blood flowing from Christ’s pierced side as a quasi-baptism, which nicely circumvents the canon law that no unbaptised person can be saved.
It all seemed a bit speculative, and I yearned for the thorough scholarship of Raymond E. Brown’s seminal work The Death of the Messiah, or Paul Winter’s bracing The Trial of Jesus, both of which are catastrophically omitted from Reeves’s bibliography.
Brown spends pages carefully weighing up why the poorly attested reading “into your kingdom” is to be preferred over “in your kingdom”, which is the reading used in the majority of manuscripts that are too obsessed with flagging up the Parousia. Now that’s a Holy Week read worth dying for!
The Rt Revd David Wilbourne is a former Assistant Bishop of Llandaff.
Two Other Men: Lessons from the thieves in the crucifixion narrative of St Luke
Instant Apostle £8.99
Church Times Bookshop £8.10