In Dr. Bullinger's fine book, "How to Enjoy the Bible" he endeavoured to prove (pages 345/348) that at the crucifixion of Christ, there were crucified with Him two malefactors and also two robbers. Much the same is to be found in Appendix No. 164 of his Companion Bible, part V., but there is shewn also a small picture of five stone crosses which are to be seen in Brittany. These five crosses, however, tell us nothing.
I do not know who started this idea, or whether the Doctor copied it from some older source. Some of his ideas were certainly somewhat far-fetched. For example, he stated that the sense of Gen. 11:4 is not "whose top (may reach) unto heaven, but "and its top with the heavens," that is, "with the Zodiac depicted on it." He meant that the Tower of Babel contained in its roof the signs of the Zodiac, which revealed the future of the race. What the builders intended to do was to build a high tower with its top in the heavem, or rather in the sky.
As far back as May, 1896, Dr. Bullinger wrote on this subject of the crucifixion in "Things to Corne." He tried to prove that five persons in all were crucified, the Lord being in the middle, with a malefactor on each side of Him, and a thief or robber at each extremity. He claimed that both of the robbers reviled the Lord, but only one of the malefactors did so. The facts are found in Matt. 27; Mark 15; Luke 23; and John 19.
Under Matt. 27:44 the Concordant Version has a note, "There were four others crucified with Christ. Two were malefactors. Two were robbers. One of the malefactors believed on Him. The robbers reproached Him." Much the same is stated in "Unsearchable Riches," Vol. 1947, pages 40 and 44. No proof or demonstration however is given.
Much has been made of the word "Then" which begins Matt. 27:38; "Then (tote; at that time) two robbers are being crucified together with Him." This comes just after the inscription is placed over the Lord's head. Bullinger said that in Luke's account, the two malefactors were led forth with Christ from Pilate's presence; whereas, in Matt. and Mark, the two robbers were not brought to the place of crucifixion until after the dividing of Christ's garments.
But we must take a close look at Matt. 27:44. This informs us that the two thieves or robbers were "together crucified together" with the Lord. That is to say, at the same time as the Lord. So the word "then" in verse 38 does not necessarily means afterwards, but rather, at that time. Verses 35 to 37 seem to record events which occurred at one and the same time: the fixing of the Lord upon the stake by some of the soldiers; others dividing His garments; others sitting to watch that He was not stolen away; others affixing the inscriptions. And, at that time also, two robbers being fixed on to stakes, one on His right and one on His left.
If four soldiers attended to each cross, as was usual, Bullinger's theory would require twenty of them. Otherwise, there would be only twelve soldiers. Even with twelve, various tasks could be performed at one and the same time. In order to break the legs of those crucified, some soldiers might have approached from one side, and some from the other side, before coming to Jesus. In fact the Greek here leads one to see in the approach to Jesus an action more deliberate, literally, "Yet onto (or, up to) Jesus coming," they find He had died already, so do not break His legs. (John 19:33). Bullinger says the soldiers broke the legs of two men (one malefactor and one robber) before coming to the Lord. Where do we read of the other two men having their legs broken? John is the only one who tells of this incident. The Jews had asked Pilate that the legs of the men might be broken so that their bodies might be removed soon. That means the legs of all the men who were crucified. John tells us of two men who were thus treated. Bullinger tried to make out that John 19:18 means, "where they crucified him, and with him, others, two on this side and on that side, and Jesus in the midst." The Concordant Version is not so reckless, but reads, "and with Him two others, hence and hence, yet Jesus (in the) midst." Of the word for "others" (Gk. allous) Bullinger says this "is the other (the second) of two when there are more." He cites as examples Matt. 10:23 and other verses. But he fails to cite Matt. 5:39, where one who gets his right cheek slapt should turn the other also. As for Luke 23:32, "and others (heteroi here) also, malefactors two, were led with Him," Bullinger gives to the word heteros a meaning which suits his theory, but just as impossible as the meaning he gives to allos.
It was unfortunate that Bullinger (and apparently "Unsearchable Riches", January, 1947, page 40) missed the idiomatic meaning of the word for "then" in Matt. 27:38, and took the Greek word to signify "thereupon" or "thereafter," which in Greek would have been eita or epeita. The King James version at Matt. 26:16, instead of reading the unenglish "And from then he sought opportunity to betray him," puts "And from that time. . . .." Matt. 2:17 says "Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremy the prophet," but the word then refers to what has just happened, not to what followed. The Greek word tote is used of past, present and future. In Matt. 27:38 the word then does not mean thereupon, as obviously Bullinger understood it, wrongly.
If the two robbers came upon the scene somewhat later than the malefactors, why should they be said, in this verse, to have been crucified together with Christ, and not together with the previously crucified two malefactors? In other words, why are the malefactors not even mentioned here? Once we recognize that only three persons were crucified, all is clear. Bullinger claimed that his solution perfectly harmonized the Scriptures and established the Divine accuracy of every word and every expression. But he only accomplished this by destroying the true meanings of a number of Greek words.
The Diatessaron (Between Four) of Tatian (circa A.D. 160) states, in the English translation from the Arabic, "And they brought with Jesus two others of the malefactors to be put to death. . . . . With him they crucified those two malefactors, one on the right and the other on the left." No others are mentioned by Tatian. In his work he endeavoured to put into one narrative the contents of the Four Gospels.
Godet's volumes on Luke suggest that Matthew and Mark were in ignorance of the fact that one of the malefactors had been struck all at once with the contrast between the holiness which shone in Jesus and the evils of his own crimes. The meekness of Jesus in letting Himself be led to punishment, and especially His prayer for His executioners, had struck into the heart and conscience of the wrongdoer. His fatih in the title, King of the Jews, inscribed on the Cross, was the result of his impressions.
Over one hundred years ago Greswell (Harmony of the Gospels) pointed out that none of the four Gospels has the account of the inscription on the Cross in the same order, except Matthew and Mark. John mentions it before the garments are divided. Luke mentions it just before he mentions the two malefactors, and their different conduct towards the Lord.
If we must take the events exactly in the order detailed, and if as Bullinger said, two pairs were crucified along with Christ, one pair on each side of Him (John 19:18), this would not tally with an earlier crucifixion of the two malefactors, and a later crucifixion of two robbers.
Thus we are shut up to the clear fact that the robbers were the same men as the malefactors. Matthew and Mark mention only two wrongdoers called robbers, but miss the other two supposed wrongdoers, which seems very strange. Luke mentions two wrongdoers, but fails to mention two other supposed robbers, which also is very strange. John mentions two others in addition to the Lord, and no more.
It is all too easy for a wrong theory to get into print. It is next to impossible to get it out of print, or to get the error admitted and withdrawn, especially by those who will only learn from their own friends or followers. We must get into a habit of accepting what is clearly proved to be true even from those of whom we do not approve. But that is a test much too severe for many believers.
A.T. Last updated 24.9.2005
Return to Differentiator Revisited