The Life of the Good Thief
CHAPTER 1 - The Robbers of Judea
And there were also two other malefactors, led with Him to be put to death. And when they were come to the place which is called Calvary, they crucified Him there: and the robbers, one on the right hand, and the other on the left. And Jesus said: Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do; but they, dividing his garments, cast lots. And the people stood beholding. And the rulers with them derided him, saying: He saved others: let him save himself, if he be Christ, the elect of God (Lk 23:32-35).
And one of those robbers who were hanged blasphemed him, saying: If thou be Christ, save thyself and us. But the other answering, rebuked him, saying: Neither dost thou fear God, seeing; thou art under the same condemnation? And we indeed justly: for we receive the due reward of our deeds. But this man hath done no evil. And he said to Jesus: Lord, remember me when thou shalt come into thy kingdom. And Jesus said to him: Amen I say to thee: This day thou shalt be with me in paradise (Lk 23:39-43).
Among all the nations of antiquity highway robbery, we find, was reckoned as a capital offence. In the penal code of the Romans its punishment was crucifixion, at once the cruelest and the most shameful of deaths: the reason of which, according to St. Gregory of Nyssa, was this that the robbers thus banded together did not shrink from murder as a means to their end. They even held themselves in readiness to do it (as was proved) by their choice of arms, supplies, and places of resort. Hence it was that they were subjected to the penalty thereof.
The Life of the Good Thief
The banditti of those times behaved pretty much in the same way as do their modern successors in such countries as are unhappily still infested by this scourge of society. They lived chiefly among the mountains, dwelling in caves, prowling about armed to the teeth, or lying in ambush near the highways, attacking the passers-by, robbing and stripping and wounding them, and often leaving them half dead. Well, indeed, for them if they were not killed outright. For proof of this deplorable state of things having existed in Judea at the time of our Lord, we have only to open the Gospel. We find it there in the parable of the man who went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. Nor is this the only place where robbers are spoken of in the sacred text. In the history of the Passion we find mention of Barabbas, a robber and a murderer. And again we read that two robbers suffered death together with the Son of God. Some may wonder that the Gospel, usually so sparing of details, should make such frequent allusion to this class of evil-doers.
It may appear surprising that our Lord should take, as the subject of one of his most beautiful parables, the incident of a man falling into their hands. But if we look into history, whether sacred or profane, the reason of this is quickly to be found. In Josephus and others we read that at this time, and until after the destruction of Jerusalem, the Holy Land was completely overrun with brigands. If, on the other hand, we consult the Holy Gospels, we see that our blessed Lord and Teacher was in the habit of adapting His lessons to the capacity of His hearers, and exemplifying His doctrines by reference to those things with which they were most familiar. Hence it was natural, if we may so speak, that, in a country infested by robbers, He should make use of such a parable as that of the Good Samaritan. It may be interesting to note the causes of this so general lawlessness. They would appear to have been twofold. In the first place, the Jews, knowing themselves to be the chosen people of God, were ever impatient of all foreign yoke, and continually strove by all means in their power to throw it off. And in the next place, their alien rulers were at no pains to conciliate, but, on the contrary, cruelly oppressed them. The tyranny of the Syrian kings had been past bearing. The Roman rule was far milder, but still very galling to a free-minded people. A deep-seated feeling of hatred was continually fermenting in the hearts of the nation, and not infrequently broke out into street riots, and even open revolt. Quelled and dispersed by the soldiery, the rebels were still unsubdued. Driven out of the towns, they fled up into the mountains, and there, turning robbers, still continued to set the usurping authorities at defiance.
Herod I owed his reputation, and later on his throne, to his successful raids against these very brigands. Let us listen to the account of the struggle handed down to us by Josephus: When Herod was still quite young, his father, Antipater, confided to him the government of Galilee, albeit he was only fifteen. But his youth was more than made up by his energy and courage. He soon found occasion for giving proof of these qualities. When Ezechias, a famous brigand chief, was laying waste the coast of Syria, he rose up suddenly, fell upon him, and slew him, together with a great number of his followers. This exploit gained him the love and esteem of the Syrians, whom the brigands had held in a sort of thraldom, and in every town and village he was praised and sung forth as the savior of the people, who had given them peace and security in the enjoyment of their goods. In this manner he came to be known to Sixtus Cæsar, kinsman to the great Cæsar, and at that time governor of Syria.
But the evil was not put down for long. During Pilates ten years of office, one of his chief difficulties lay in dealing with the brigands. And it was the same with his successors, Felix and Festus. When the former first came into the province, there was a very notorious robber-chief named Eleazar, who for twenty years had been the terror of the country. This was in the year of our Lord 51, the ninth of the reign of Claudius. Several expeditions had been made against him up into the mountains, but in vain; numbers of his men had been taken and executed; but Eleazar himself always contrived to escape. At last, force proving useless, Felix had recourse to treachery. He invited Eleazar to an interview, at the same time promising him protection and safety. But no sooner had the chief entered the governors tent than he was seized, loaded with chains, and sent to Rome, where, in the Mamertine prison, he was made to suffer the death reserved for the worst of criminals. But this ill-wreaked vengeance by no means stamped out the evil it was meant to deal with; far from it. Its only effect was to exasperate the surviving brigands, who now became more and more desperate. On all sides the country was laid waste, villages sacked and burnt, and their inhabitants put to the sword. Such was the pass to which things had come, when Festus succeeded Felix in the governorship of Judea, in the year of grace 58, second of the reign of Nero.
Another cause of this deplorable state of affairs was the disaffection of the Jews of Cæsarea. The population of this town was mixed part Jewish and part Syrian. For a long time all had been on a footing of perfect equality, enjoying the same rights, without distinction of race or religion. But during the reign of Nero, the Syrians, being jealous of the Jews, strove to deprive them of their right of citizenship. To this end the chief men among them wrote to Beryllus, who had been tutor to the Emperor, and bribed him with rich presents to obtain from his master the necessary permission. The imperial rescript had no sooner been obtained and published than the Jews to a man rose up in rebellion. A sort of guerilla warfare was waged in all the country round. Bands of brigands were organized in every part, and finally came together in the desert, under the command of a certain magician, who promised them entire success, which success was to be looked for through means of his pretended supernatural powers. To put an end to the civil war, Festus was obliged to send an army against the insurgents. And it was only after severe fighting that they were finally broken up, defeated, and slain.
Thus, these unhappy Jews, having rejected the promised Messias, were struck blind by the judgment of God, and ran after deceivers and set their faith on any liar. Having crucified Him who is the very Truth, they were ready to risk their lives in defense of the wildest impostures. And so it always is. Whenever a nation or an age throws off the mild yoke of the Prince of Peace, and rises up against the Living Truth, so surely does it fall a prey to the spirit of war and strife even the Father of Lies. And if God intervene not in some special and striking manner, the world thus blinded falls from error into error, escaping tyranny only to destroy itself by anarchy, and finally becoming the victim of some needy adventurer or barbaric chief. From the foregoing historic details the reader will have gathered some notion of the disorganized state of society in Judea at the time of our Lord, and will have seen how very probable it is that the two thieves who suffered with Christ on Calvary may have belonged to one of these bands of brigands. Hence he will find no difficulty in accepting the ancient and well-established tradition of which we are about to speak.
CHAPTER 2 - Traditions Concerning the Good Thief
The Massacre of the Innocents was about to take place. Hundreds of these little victims were destined to perish that One Child might not escape. But God laughs to scorn the counsels of evil men, and vainly shall the kings rage against Him and against His Anointed. Herod gained nothing by his wholesale barbarity save the curses of posterity; for being warned in sleep by an angel, Joseph took the Child and His mother by night, and fled with them into Egypt (Mt 2:11-14). There are two ways of going from Bethlehem down to Egypt the land route, and that by sea. Now, to reach the nearest port it is necessary to come by Joppa, across sixty miles of a densely-inhabited country. This would have been to run the risk of discovery and arrest. Besides, even had the fugitives arrived safely at the place of embarkation, they would probably have had several days to wait before a ship set sail, and every hour was full of danger. Finally, money would be required to pay the passage. Now, the Holy Family were very poor at this time, perhaps more so than usual. They had to start on their journey unprepared, in the middle of the night. The unexpected command had been sent from Heaven. Without a moments hesitation, Joseph had obeyed, and gone forth, probably without purse or scrip. These, and other reasons, incline us to think that the sea route was not the one chosen.
If our surmise be correct, the Holy Family must have journeyed overland. This also had its dangers. Between the southern frontier of Judea and the land of Egypt there stretches a large tract of desert, extending for 120 miles. We have already seen that Palestine was infested on every side by brigands. Much more would they be likely to be found in these wild, uninhabited places, where they would be in a position to stop and pillage caravans without fear of detection. Tradition is unanimous on the subject of this journey. Its faithful mouthpiece, Christian art, always represents the flight as taking place overland, St. Joseph leading an ass on which is seated the Virgin Mother, holding her child in her arms. Another tradition, which is found in Oriental documents as old as the third century, tells us that the Holy Family did not escape the common peril, but fell into the hands of brigands. This incident had so much influence on the life of the Good Thief, St. Dismas, (The author originally used the name Dimas instead of Dismas, as the saint is more commonly called. The name has been changed to Dismas throughout the book for the convenience of the reader. Ed. note) that, before relating it, it may be as well to give what proof we have of its authenticity. That the Holy Family should have been surprised by robbers during the flight into Egypt has, in itself, nothing incredible. On the contrary, the historic details given above serve to show that it was probable, nay, almost inevitable.
It is true that no mention is made of the event in the Holy Gospels; but this silence of the sacred writers is no proof that it did not take place. The New Testament is far from recording every incident of our Saviors life. St. John tells us that if all these things were written, the world would not be able to contain all the books so produced. (Jn 21:25) There are even most important points left unnoticed, such, for instance, as the substitution of the Sunday for the Jewish Sabbath, and the validity of baptism by infusion. But when the Holy Scriptures are silent, the voice of tradition makes itself heard. From the very earliest times this tradition was taken down in writing. We learn from St. Luke that even in his day much had already been written. (Lk 1:1) Nor is this surprising, when we consider the multitudes that flocked to Palestine from every part of the known world for the sake of seeing and hearing the Son of God, and being cured of their infirmities. Man has an inborn love of the marvelous, and we cannot suppose that these pilgrims, on their return home, were silent concerning the wonders they had seen and heard; they doubtless published them abroad, by writing as well as by word of mouth. Thus we can easily account for the origin of the many versions of our Lords life to which the Evangelist refers.
These first writings have unfortunately all perished, but much of their matter may be found in documents still extant, which, at comparatively early date, were widely circulated both in East and West. Many of these, it must be confessed, were written with more piety than wisdom. Others, again, were composed by heretics, who tainted them with an admixture of their own special errors. None of them were really composed by those whose names they bear. Hence the Church, in her unerring wisdom, has not suffered them to be incorporated in the sacred canon. Yet although declaring these writings apocryphal, the Church has never pronounced them to be altogether false. Much good grain is there, though not unmixed with chaff. There is one test by which they are easily sifted the question whether or not they are in conformity with the authorized versions. When the details they suggest are not contrary to the teaching of the Church, to Faith, or to sound reason, but rather appear probable, from their being in keeping with ancient usages and customs, they may safely be considered as a sort of supplementary tradition, which neither has been, nor can be, condemned.
The Church herself has not disdained to make use of these writings in her controversies with her rebellious children. One of them the famous letter to Abgarus although declared apocryphal by Pope Gelasius, was referred to in the following terms by St. Gregory II, When writing to the iconoclastic emperor, Leo the Isaurian: When Christ was in the neighborhood of Jerusalem, Abgarus, who was at that time King of Edessa, having heard of the fame of His miracles, wrote to Him, and received in answer a letter written by the Lord himself, together with a portrait of His sacred and most glorious countenance. Send, therefore, and go thyself, and behold this likeness not made with hands. Thither do the multitudes of the East draw nigh and pray.
And later on, another Pope, Adrian I, in recounting to Charlemagne what passed at the council held at Rome, in the year 709, says: Our predecessor, the Lord Stephen, of holy memory, who as Pope presided over the said Council, brought forward much true testimony, which he himself confirmed, teaching also that we must not omit or disregard those things which have been made known to us by the faithful of the East. That they should not be mentioned in the Holy Gospel is in no way surprising, for does not the Evangelist himself say, Many other things did Jesus which are not written in this book? Wherefore we may receive their witness, that as the time of the Passion was approaching, the Savior of mankind wrote a letter to Abgarus, King of Edessa, who had written to him expressing his desire to see Him and to provide Him with an abode, where He should be safe from the persecution of the Jews. Then follows the letter, given in full.
We must observe that these letters of St. Gregory and of Pope Adrian were official documents addressed to princes, one of whom was the avowed foe of holy images. Can we suppose that Popes would have brought forward such writings as the letter of Abgarus, and our Lords answer to it, as evidence in favor of the veneration of images, unless they carried great weight in the eyes of all? Certain modern Catholic critics are too much inclined to despise all the apocryphal writings. They might profitably learn a lesson on this subject from the great Anglican writers. Pearson, among others, has a passage upon the letter to Abgarus, as cited by Eusebius, wherein he fully accepts the tradition handed down. His comments do as much honor to his fairness and impartiality, as to his learning. The wise and learned historian, Baronius, did not hesitate to rely upon the authority of the apocryphal Gospels to prove as against St. Jerome that the Zacharias put to death by the Jews between the temple and the altar, was the same Zacharias who was the father of St. John the Baptist. The great annalist lays down an excellent rule, which all should follow in regard to these writings. He says they should be accepted with prudence and reserve caute admittenda; and not too strenuously defended mordicus defendi non debent. lt is unnecessary for me to add that I have adhered scrupulously to this rule throughout the course of this work.
I must now give a few words from Brunet on this subject. He says: The incidents and circumstances recorded in the apocryphal Gospels have not failed to bear fruit. For several hundred years they exercised a most powerful and beneficial influence on the development of art and poetry. During the Middle Ages, epics, mysteries, painting and sculpture all found in them motives for some of their best and highest efforts. To neglect the study of the apocryphal Gospels would be to renounce all hope of discovering the clue to the real meaning of Christian art; for in them is to be found the source whence, ever since the downfall of paganism, art has drawn its endless symbolism. Certain circumstances handed down in these legends have been immortalized by the brush of the great masters of the Italian school, and have suggested symbols and types which are now every day reproduced by artists of all kinds. Of these apocryphal writings it is only necessary for our purpose to single out two. The one gives us a detailed account of the meeting of the Holy Family with the robbers of the desert. The other has preserved to us the names of the two thieves crucified on Calvary.
The most ancient is called the Gospel of the Holy Childhood, which dates as far back as the end of the second century. It was first written in Syriac or Greek, and thence translated into the different languages of both East and West. It has been found in Egypt, among the Copts; in India, among the Christians of the coasts of Malabar; in Armenia, and even among the Mussulmen. In Europe, it has been widely circulated, many editions having been published in almost every language. By whomsoever this Gospel may have been written, it contains facts about which there can be no doubt, such, for instance, as the Adoration of the Magi, and the reason of the Flight into Egypt. In the seventh chapter it is said, This is what came to pass. When the Lord Jesus was born at Bethlehem, a town of Judea, in the reign of King Herod, wise men came from the land of the East, according to the prediction of Zoroaster, and they brought with them presents, gold, incense, and myrrh, and they worshipped the Child, and offered Him their gifts. And in the ninth chapter: Herod, seeing that the wise men returned not to him, began to consider in his mind how he should put the Lord Jesus to death. Then an angel appeared to Joseph in his sleep, and said to him, Arise, take the child and His mother, and fly with them into Egypt. And, at cockcrow, Joseph arose and fled.
This Gospel also contains facts belonging to, what we may call, tradition of the second order. To this category belongs the following history. It is in the twenty-third chapter:
And, presently, they came to the entrance of the desert. And, hearing that it was infested by robbers, they determined to cross it, during the night. But, suddenly, they perceived two robbers, who were lying near them, asleep, and round about were many other robbers, their associates, and they also were asleep. The names of these two robbers were Titus and Dumachus. The first said to the other, I beg thee, let these travelers go in peace, lest our comrades discover them. And Dumachus refused. Whereon Titus said to him: I beseech thee, accept of me, forty drachmas, and take my belt as security. And he, offering it, implored him not to call their comrades or give the alarm. Mary, seeing this robber so well inclined towards her, said to him, May God uphold thee with His right hand, and grant thee the remission of thy sins. And the Lord Jesus said to his mother, In thirty years time, O my mother, the Jews will crucify Me, and these two robbers shall be crucified with Me, Titus on my right hand and Dumachus on my left, and behold, that day, Titus shall be with me in Paradise. And when He had thus spoken, His mother answered Him, saying, God forbid that such things should befall Thee. And they went on their way towards the city of idols.
But, the most important of all the Apocryphal writings, is the Gospel of Nicodemus. Hardly a sentence of it, but what is reproduced by many of the early fathers, such as St. Cyril of Jerusalem, St. Chrysostom, Firmicus Maternus, and St. Hippolytus, so that its general sense is unimpeachable. It has been much read in the West, where it was known from a very early period. In its present form it is attributed to the fourth or fifth century. Gregory of Tours, Vincent of Beauvais, and many other writers of the Middle Ages, frequently quote this Gospel, without ever expressing any doubt as to its authenticity. Eusebius of Alexandria analyzed, and wrote a commentary upon it, and showed no scruple in accepting its authority. At no very distant time, the Gospel of Nicodemus was regularly read in the Greek Church, not, it is true, as forming part of the sacred canon, but as being a work full of edification, written by a holy and venerable man. It is impossible to say how many editions it has gone through. They are innumerable. Like the Gospel of the Holy Childhood, that of Nicodemus records, over and above those events of which the New Testament gives us divine testimony, certain other incidents and details not mentioned by the Evangelists, in their brief narrative. We will content ourselves with citing a single passage, which throws a light upon the subject of our history. It is from the tenth chapter:
And Jesus went forth from the Pretorium. And when He had reached the place called Golgotha, the soldiers took off, from Him, His own garment, and girded Him with a linen cloth, and put, upon His Head, a crown of thorns and a reed in His hands; and they crucified with Him two thieves, Dismas on His right hand, and Gestas on His left.
There are numerous passages in the works of the fathers in which mention is made both of the names of the two thieves and of their encounter with the Holy Family in the desert. The good faith as well as the discrimination of these writers being established beyond doubt, it matters little whether their information was derived from the above-mentioned documents, or from others which have long since perished.
Among the published works of St. Augustine is a treatise, entitled De Vita Eremitica. Until lately it was attributed to the great Bishop of Hippo. We ourselves are more inclined to the opinion of the learned Père Raynaud, who believes it to have been written by St. Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury. But, whoever the author, the work is undoubtedly old and of much weight. We quote it as confirming the tradition of which we have been speaking. Consider as true that tradition, which represents the Holy Family as falling into the hands of robbers and owing their deliverance to a young man who was the son of their chief. The legend is that, being on the point of rifling them, he suddenly caught sight of the Divine Infant, resting in His mothers arms. He was struck with awe on beholding the glorious beauty and majesty of His countenance, and believed at once that He was something more than man, and burning with love, he embraced Him, saying: O most Blessed of children, if ever a time should come when I should crave Thy mercy, remember me and forget not what has passed this day.
The same tradition goes on to say that this young man was the same as the thief, who was crucified on Christs right hand. And he, turning towards the Lord, recognized in Him the glorious Infant whose majesty he had seen long since, and, being mindful of his prayer, he said to Him: Lord, remember me when Thou comest to thy kingdom. This tradition is, I think, far from useless as an incentive to love of God, but it should be cited without too bold or positive affirmation. The learned Cardinal, St. Peter Damian, who died in the year 1072, attributed the conversion of the Good Thief to the prayers of the Blessed Virgin, who had recognized in him the young man who had protected her son in the desert. I say protected, because not only had he prevented the Holy Family from being robbed by his comrades, but he had made them pass the night in his own dwelling, and the next day provided them with all that was necessary for their journey, the safety of which he insured by sending with them an armed escort.
It would take too long to enumerate all those writers, distinguished alike for learning and holiness, who, without doubt or hesitation, have become the exponents of this tradition. We will content ourselves, therefore, with the following brief quotations from a few of those best known. The blessed James of Voragine, Archbishop of Genoa, thus mentions the legend in one of his sermons: During their flight into Egypt the Holy Family fell into the hands of robbers. One of them, ravished by the beauty of the Child, said to his companions: Verily I say to you that if it were possible for God to assume our nature I should believe this Child to be God. His companions were so much softened by these words that they allowed the Child and his mother to depart unhurt. The learned Bishop of Equilium, Peter de Natalibus, adds the following details: Not only did the young robber abstain from plundering the Child and his mother, but so touched was he by their beauty, that he begged of them to stay the night with him, he ministering unto them, and afterwards guarded them with an armed escort to the end of their journey. The great Landolphus of Saxony, in his admirable Life of Christ, also makes mention of this meeting with the robbers. It is, perhaps, unnecessary to give the quotation, as it is couched in almost exactly the same terms as that already cited from St. Anselm. (De Vita Eremitica, cited above.) We may also name the pious and learned Padre Orilia, who, having carefully studied the question, accepts the tradition as beyond reasonable doubt. He says: I might make a long list of the writers who give testimony to these things, but it seems to me superfluous. We must add that in the East this tradition is received without doubt or hesitation, by Greeks and Latins alike. One word on the slight variations to be found in the different accounts. We do not think they are considerable enough in any way to invalidate the main points of the tradition.
There is hardly a passage in history, whether sacred or profane, which has not been recorded by various writers in divers forms. It is, indeed, unavoidable that there should be slight variations, and even, sometimes, apparent contradictions, but, where these do not touch the essential parts of the event so recorded, even the severest criticism lets them pass. We must not leave unnoticed a proof (of the moral order) furnished by the agreement of this tradition with what we so often find to be the working of the providence of God. His infinite knowledge includes all things, whether past, present, or to come, and His goodness knows no bounds. The Gospel tells us of many instances where meetings with our Lord were fruitful of grace and salvation. May we not suppose that the providence of God had more influence in bringing them about than a mere blind chance? It was not surely to accident that the Samaritan woman, Zaccheus, Matthew, and others owed their conversion, or the man possessed by the legion of devils, his cure. Blind, indeed, is he who does not see in these events the working of the providence of God His mercy seeking out the sinner, whom Christ had come to save.
We therefore do not hesitate to impute the meeting in the desert to the same
divine cause, and to believe that He, Who has said: I was a stranger and
you took Me in, and Who has promised that neither this, nor even a cup
of cold water should go without its reward; that He, in His mercy, designed,
through this meeting and the good deed it gave occasion for, to implant in
the soul of the young robber a seed of grace, which should one day produce fruit
of salvation. Thus we admire on Calvary a conversion prepared many years
beforehand, and draw hence much comfort for such as seem to be hopelessly sunk
in sin, and to have let pass the accepted time. Ay, there is hope for all, and
the Day of Salvation may be at the door while yet we sorrow, thinking it afar
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