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The Blue Letter Bible

Synonyms of the New Testament :: Richard C. Trench

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xliv. κλέπτης, λῃστής.

These words occur together John 10:1, 8; but do not constitute there1 or elsewhere a tautology, or mere rhetorical amplification (cf. Obad. 5; Plato, Rep. i. 351 c). The κλέπτης and the λῃστής alike appropriate what is not theirs, but the κλέπτης by fraud and in secret (Matt. 24:43; John 12:6; cf. Exod. 22:2; Jer. 2:26); the λῃστής by violence and openly (2 Cor. 11:26; cf. Hos. 9:1; Jer. 7:11; Plutarch, De Super. 3: οὐ φοβεῖται λῃστὰς ὁ οἰκουρῶν); the one is the ‘thief’ and steals; the other is the ‘robber’ and plunders, as his name, from ληΐς or λεία (as our own ‘robber,’ from ‘Raub,’ bootyEtym. Note. 24), sufficiently declares. They are severally the ‘fur’ and ‘latro;’ ‘fures insidianter et occultâ fraude decipiunt; latrones audacter aliena diripiunt’ (Jerome, In Osee, 7:1). ‘Larron,’ however, in French, ‘voleur qui dérobe furtivement et par adresse,’ notwithstanding its connexion with ‘latro,’ has slipt into the meaning of ‘fur.’ Wiclif, who renders the words, ‘night-thief’ and ‘day-thief,’ has not very happily distinguished them.

Our Translators have always rendered κλέπτης by ‘thief;’ they ought with a like consistency to have rendered λῃστής by ‘robber;’ but it also they have oftener rendered ‘thief,’ effacing thus the distinction between the two. We cannot charge them with that carelessness here, of which those would be guilty who should now do the same. Passages out of number in our Elizabethan literature attest that in their day ‘thief’ and ‘robber’ had not those distinct meanings which they since have acquired. Thus Falstaff and his company, who with open violence rob the king’s treasure on the king’s highway, are ‘thieves’ throughout Shakspeare’s Henry IV. Still one must regret that on several occasions in our Version we do not find ‘robbers’ rather than ‘thieves.’ Thus at Matt. 21:13 we read: “My house shall be called the house of prayer, but ye have made it a den of thieves; ” but it is ‘robbers,’ and not ‘thieves’ that have dens or caves; and it is rightly “den of robbers” at Jer. 7:11, whence this quotation is drawn. Again, Matt. 26:55: “Are ye come out as against a thief with swords and staves for to take Me?”; but it would be against some bold and violent robber that a party armed with swords and clubs would issue forth, not against a lurking thief. The poor traveller in the parable (Luke 10:30) fell, not among ‘thieves,’ but among ‘robbers;’ violent and bloody men, as their treatment of him plainly declared.

No passage has suffered so seriously from this confounding of ‘thief’ and ‘robber’ as Luke 23:39-43. The whole anterior moral condition of him whom we call ‘the penitent thief’ is obscured for many by the associations which almost inevitably cling to this name. The two malefactors crucified with Jesus, the one obdurate, the other penitent, in all likelihood had belonged both to the band of Barabbas, who for murder and insurrection had been cast with his fellow insurgents into prison (Mark 15:7). He too was himself a λῃστής (John 18:40), and yet no common malefactor, on the contrary ‘a notable prisoner’ (δέσμιος ἐπίσημος, Matt. 27:16). Now considering the fierce enthusiasm of the Jewish populace on his behalf, and combining this with the fact that he was in prison for an unsuccessful insurrection; keeping in mind too the moral estate of the Jews at this period, with false Christs, false deliverers, every day starting up, we can hardly doubt that Barabbas was one of those wild and stormy zealots, who were evermore raising anew the standard of resistance against the Roman domination; flattering and feeding the insane hopes of their country-men, that they should yet break the Roman yoke from off their necks. These men, when hard pressed, would betake themselves to the mountains, and from thence wage a petty war against their oppressors, living by plunder,—if possible, by that of their enemies, if not, by that of any within their reach. The history of Dolcino’s ‘Apostolicals,’ as of the Camisards in the Cevennes, illustrates only too well the downward progress by which such would not merely presently obtain, but deserve, the name of ‘robbers.’ By the Romans they would be called and dealt with as such (see Josephus, Antt. xx. 8, 6, in fine); just as in the great French Revolution the Vendean royalists were styled ‘the brigands of the Loire;’ nay, in that great perversion of all moral sentiment which would mark such a period as this was, the name of robber, like ‘klept’ among the modern Greeks, would probably have ceased to be dishonorable, would not have been refused by themselves.

And yet of stamp and character how different would many of these men, these maintainers of a last protest against a foreign domination, probably be from the mean and cowardly purloiner, whom we call the ‘thief.’ The bands of these λῃσταί, numbering in their ranks some of the worst, would probably include also some that were originally among the noblest, spirits of the nation—even though these had miserably mistaken the task which their time demanded, and had sought by the wrath of man to work out the righteousness of God. Such a one we may well imagine this penitent λῃστής to have been. Should there be any truth in this view of his former condition,—and certainly it would go far to explain his sudden conversion,—it is altogether obscured by the name ‘thief’ which we have given him; nor can it under any circumstances be doubtful that he would be more fitly called ‘the penitent robber.’ See my Studies in the Gospels, 4th edit. pp. 302, sqq.; Dean Stanley, The Jewish Church, vol. iii. 466.

1 Grotius: ‘Fur [κλέπτης] quia venit ut rapiat alienum; latro [λῃστής] quia ut occidat, ver 10.’

[The following Strong's numbers apply to this section:G2812,G3027.]

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