It is commonly believed that our Lord Jesus Christ was crucified along with two other men and that his cross was between theirs. This belief has been portrayed in many different ways, including pictures, television, movies, bumper stickers, crosses along the roadside, and crosses in church yards. If we look more deeply into the Word of God, however, we learn that there were not two other men crucified with Jesus, but four other men, two on each side of Jesus. Although this may seem like a minor point, there is value in truth, and much value in being able to read and understand the whole Bible and see that it does not contain contradictions. If there were only two men crucified with Jesus, then there are verses in the Four Gospels that would contradict each other. Realizing that there were four men crucified next to Jesus gets rid of the apparent contradictions and difficulties and, very importantly, gives us a true picture of what the crucifixion scene was like.
God exhorts us to be workman of the Word of God and to “rightly divide” it (2 Tim. 2:15 – KJV). When it comes to events in the Four Gospels, this means that we have to read any given record in all four Gospels and pay close attention to the details. We have to note events, times, and places. Sometimes different Gospels give differing details of the same event, but sometimes events that seem quite similar are actually different. Using the different information in each of the Gospels to arrive at a clear picture of the whole event is known as “narrative development.”
It takes careful reading of a good translation, and paying attention to detail, to realize the truth that the Word of God is presenting. We must always keep in mind that the Word of God cannot contradict itself. Also, it takes some courage to challenge long-held traditions. During the Reformation many traditions that had been held for hundreds of years were recognized to be only tradition and not truth, and the traditions that were done away with were replaced with truth. That kind of reformation needs to continue today. Jesus challenged the traditions of his time (Matt. 15:1–3), and when traditions do not fit with the Word of God, we must be willing to change them.
When we first start to piece together the whole narrative, the whole record, of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion, we will note that there are some significant differences between the Gospel records. Sometimes this is just different detail, but sometimes the difference is so great that the information cannot be about the same thing or event. At first, we may not really know whether we are dealing with just differences in detail or completely different things, so we just make note of the differences and see how important they are as the whole picture develops.
One difference that we should note as we read the crucifixion records is that Matthew 27:38 (ESV) and Mark 15:27 (ESV) clearly state that there were “two robbers” crucified, while Luke 23:32 (ESV) says there were “two criminals” crucified. Other versions, such as the NIV, NASB, and RSV, also use the translations “robber” and “criminal,” while other versions use different words, such as “thief” and “malefactor” (KJV). While it is clear that a robber is a criminal, and so these might be the same set of two men, it should nevertheless catch our attention that the Bible uses different Greek words, lēstēs (robber) and kakourgos (criminal), to describe them, so perhaps they are different sets of men. It becomes much more likely that they are two different sets of men when we add the piece of evidence that Matthew says the robbers (lēstēs) reviled Christ, but Luke says that only one of the criminals (kakourgos) did.
Matthew 27:44 (ESV)
And the robbers who were crucified with him also reviled him in the same way.
Luke 23:39 and 40 (ESV)
(39) One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!”
(40) But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation?
It has sometimes been taught that one of the criminals started to revile Jesus, but then changed his mind and rebuked the other criminal instead. However, the substance of what this criminal said does not support that. The priests, robbers, and one criminal were reviling Jesus because they thought he was a fake, an imposter. They said such things as, “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross…let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him… let God deliver him now, if he desires him. For he said, ‘I am the Son of God'” (Matt. 27:40–43 – ESV abbreviated). It is very unlikely that Jesus could have done anything on the Cross that would have totally changed the mind of a criminal who believed he was a fake and get him to believe he was the Promised Messiah instead.
What the criminal said both to the other criminal and to Jesus reflects a deep fear of God and recognition of who Jesus Christ was. This is especially true in light of the fact that a few verses later he asks Jesus to remember him when he comes into his kingdom, and Jesus says the man will be saved and be in Paradise (Luke 23:42 and 43). It is very unlikely he recognized who Jesus was while hanging in pain on the cross, and much more likely that he always had some fear of God and some knowledge of who Jesus was. Thus, there now seems to be quite clear evidence that the two “robbers” are not the same men as the two “criminals.”
Another very important and powerful piece of evidence that leads to the conclusion that the robbers and criminals are not the same men is that they were not crucified at the same time. A careful reading of the biblical text shows that the two criminals were crucified at the same time Jesus was, but the two robbers were crucified later in the day. The criminals were led away to be crucified with Jesus and were immediately crucified next to him.
Luke 23:32 and 33 (ESV)
(32) Two others, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him.
(33) And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right and one on his left.
In contrast to these two criminals who Luke says were crucified with Jesus, Matthew 27 says the two robbers were crucified after Jesus had been crucified and the guards had divided his garments by casting lots and had sat down to keep watch over him. This would have taken some time, and the soldiers would not have done those things if they had other men waiting there to be crucified. Note the flow of events as told by Matthew:
Matthew 27:35–38 (ESV)
(35) And when they had crucified him, they divided his garments among them by casting lots.
(36) Then they sat down and kept watch over him there.
(37) And over his head they put the charge against him, which read, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.”
(38) Then two robbers were crucified with him, one on the right and one on the left.
The word “then,” which starts verse 38, is very important. It was after the soldiers divided Jesus’ garments and watched him for awhile that the two robbers were crucified. Had Matthew wanted to communicate that the robbers were crucified at the same time Jesus was, he would have used the word “and,” not the word “then.”
What we have seen so far is that the gospel of Luke tells us that two criminals (kakourgos) were led with Jesus when he was led forth to be crucified. Matthew and Mark stated that there were two robbers (lēstēs) crucified with Jesus after the garments had been parted and the soldiers had sat down and watched, or guarded, him. Matthew and Mark record that both “robbers” reviled Christ, while Luke tells us that one criminal reviled Christ while the other rebuked the criminal and asked Christ to remember him.
It seems that from reading Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and by using the principle of narrative development, we can conclude that there were four other men, not just two other men, who were crucified with Jesus. Now we turn our attention to the gospel of John. John seems to be less interested in the timing of the flow of the events and more concerned with the “where” of the crucifixion because John 19:18 opens with the word “There” (which is even better translated “Where,” as in the KJV). Thus, rather than recount the flow of events as they happen, John gives us more of a “summary statement” of the situation.
John 19:17 and 18 (ESV)
(17) and he went out, bearing his own cross, to the place called The Place of a Skull, which in Aramaic is called Golgotha.
(18) There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, and Jesus between them.
Whoa! If John 19:18 is accurate in the ESV, then we must be wrong about there being four others crucified with Jesus because it clearly says there were two others with him, one on each side. When we come to a situation where there seems to be a problem that we cannot resolve in the English, we must check the Greek text to see if the translation is correct. If you have a Greek text available, or if you have a Greek Interlinear translation available, you can check the Greek for yourself. What we find is that there is no word “one” in the Greek text. It simply reads:
kai meta autos allos duo enteuthen kai enteuthen mesos de ho Iēsous
and with him others two on this side and on that side middle but the Jesus.
The Greek word order is slightly different than the English word order so we could literally translate that as: “and with him two others on this side and on that side, but Jesus in the middle.” This would make it clear that there were two others “on this side” and two others “on that side.” However, the phrase enteuthen kai enteuthen is somewhat idiomatic and is perhaps better translated into English as “on either side.” It is helpful to know that the phrase enteuthen kai enteuthen appears one other time in the Bible, in Revelation 22:2, which is referring to the tree of life growing “on either side” of the River of Life. If John 19:18 was translated the same way as Revelation 22:2, but with the recognition that duo, “two,” immediately precedes enteuthen kai enteuthen, we would have, “two on either side.” Actually, the ESV version would be very accurate if the commas, which are not in the Greek text, but were added by translators, and the word “one,” which was also added, were omitted. It would read, “There they crucified him and with him two others on either side and Jesus between them.” This is the simple truth of Scripture. There were four others crucified with Jesus as John says, two others on either side.
The fact that almost every modern version of the Bible adds the word “one” to John 19:18 when it is not in any known Greek text is a testimony to the power of tradition. The tradition that there were only two men crucified with Christ leads translators to support that tradition even though the textual evidence is against it. Interestingly, Young’s Literal Translation is one of the few English translations that does not add the word “one” and without punctuation it reads: “where they crucified him and with him two others on this side and on that side and Jesus in the midst.”
There is another piece of very solid evidence that there were four others crucified with Jesus not just two and it has to do with the soldiers breaking the legs of the men who were crucified.
John 19:32 and 33 (ESV)
(32) So the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first, and of the other who had been crucified with him.
(33) But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs.
John 19:32 and 33 do not make any sense if there were only two men crucified with Jesus. If that were the case, the soldiers would break the legs of the first man and then come to Jesus. But that is not what these verses say. If we can get a mental picture of the five men being crucified, here is what we would see: Jesus would be in the middle and next to him, on both sides, would be the criminals who were crucified at the same time he was. Then, on the outside of the criminals and further from Jesus would be the two robbers. If we read the verses with that picture in mind, they fit perfectly. The soldiers were commanded to break the legs of those who were being crucified so they would die faster. Naturally, they started on the outside and then went down the line. They broke the legs of “the first,” that is, the first man they came to. Then they broke the legs of the next man, “who had been crucified with him.” That is exactly correct! The criminal next to Jesus had indeed been crucified with him while the robber, the first man to get his legs broken, had been crucified much later. Then, when the soldiers “came to” the third man in line, which was Jesus, they found him already dead. Jesus was the focal person, so there was no need for John to say that the soldiers then went around Jesus and broke the legs of the other two men.
Here is a graphical representation of the five crosses that will help us replace the traditional mind picture with the biblical one:
It is significant that the soldiers did not break Jesus’ legs just to “make sure” he was dead. The Bible prophesied that none of the bones of the Savior would be broken. The Passover lamb was not to have any broken bones, and Jesus was the Passover lamb that year (Exod. 12:46; Num. 9:12; Ps. 34:20).
The record of the four others crucified with Jesus is similar to other records in the Gospels where all the Gospels must be read and compared to get the full picture of what really happened. A good example is Jesus meeting the men from the tombs who were controlled by demons. If we read only Mark 5 and Luke 8, we are convinced that when Jesus landed on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, one fierce man controlled by demons and who lived in the tombs met him, and he cast the demons out of that man. However, when we read the same record in Matthew 8, we find there are two men, not just one. Mark and Luke simply never mention the second man. In the same way, when it comes to the crucifixion, Matthew and Mark focus only on the two robbers while Luke focuses on the two criminals, and only the gospel of John speaks of all four men.
God places great truths in His Word, but sometimes it takes some searching to find them. However, the diligent student of Scripture works the Word very hard to ferret out truth. It is sad that sometimes people take the traditions of man as truth and then see “discrepancies” in the Bible rather than remembering that the Word of God does not contain any contradictions, so apparent contradictions will disappear if we keep studying. E. W. Bullinger writes: “…From this evidence, therefore, it is clear that there were four “others” crucified with the Lord; and thus, on the one hand, there are no “discrepancies,” as alleged; while on the other hand every word and every expression, in the Greek, gets (and gives) its own exact value, and its full significance” (Bullinger, The Companion Bible, Appendix 164).
This study of the five crucified shows how to work God’s Word from the inside to the outside and discover the truth of the Word. Once we grasp that concept, we can begin a journey into the Bible that will answer many, many questions for us and help us to see why God magnified His Word above His name.
Psalm 138:2 (KJV)
I will worship toward thy holy temple, and praise thy name for thy lovingkindness and for thy truth: for thou hast magnified thy word above all thy name.