Those who were crucified with Him also spoke abusively to Him. – Mark 15:32b (NET)
In recounting the story of the crucifixion, Mark’s Gospel tells us “they crucified two outlaws with Him, one on his right hand and one on his left. Those who passed by defamed Him, shaking their heads and saying, ‘Aha! You who can destroy the Temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself and come down from the cross!’ In the same way even the chief priests---together with the experts in the law---were mocking Him among themselves: ‘He saved others, but He cannot save Himself! Let the Christ, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, that we may see and believe!’ Those who were crucified with Him also spoke abusively to Him” (15:27-32).
Matthew’s description of the horrid event, which is generally understood to rely upon the account of Mark, is quite similar in its details. However, the author, after reporting the mocking statement of “If he comes down now from the cross, we will believe in Him” (27:42b), adds “He trusts in God---let God, if He wants to, deliver Him now because he said, ‘I am God’s Son’” (27:43). Matthew also adds to the description of those crucified with Jesus, elaborating on the fact of their being “outlaws,” by adding “The robbers who were crucified with Him also spoke abusively to Him” (27:44). Though this particular translation uses “outlaws” and “robbers,” it is the same Greek word that is being translated, which is “lestai.” This word does not denote a common thief or criminal, but rather, somebody that is a revolutionary---a rebel. The same can be said of Mark, as “outlaw” is the translation of “lestai.” Consequently, those looking at Jesus on the cross would consider Him to be a “lestai” as well, especially considering the fact that crucifixion was used as the death penalty for rebellious subjects.
Looking to Luke’s record, as he is also widely believed to base his report largely on that of Mark, we read “Two other criminals were also led away to be executed with Him. So when they came to the place that is called ‘The Skull,” they crucified Him there, along with the criminals, one on His right and one on His left… The people also stood there watching, but the rulers ridiculed Him, saying, ‘He saved others. Let Him save Himself if He is the Christ of God, His chosen one!’” (23:32-33,35). Here we add that John does not include a record of the activities of those crucified with Jesus. Staying with Luke then, interestingly, at this point, Luke’s story diverges from that of Mark and Matthew. Whereas Mark and Matthew make mention of Jesus being spoken to in an abusive manner “by “those who were crucified with Him,” Luke informs his audience that “One of the criminals who was hanging there railed at Him, saying, ‘Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!’ But the other rebuked Him, saying, ‘Don’t you fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we rightly so, for we are getting what we deserve for what we did, but this man has done nothing wrong.’” (23:39-41)
Though this is not especially pertinent to this study, when we hear this, we need to keep in mind that for which they are being condemned, which is rebellion. So the revolutionary that speaks to Jesus and the other man in this way is not speaking to the idea of Jesus being without sin. He is acknowledging, in a way that would have been particularly useful for those being instructed, through Luke’s telling of the Jesus story, as a community that looks to Jesus as King and Lord of the world’s true and legitimate kingdom, contra Caesar and Rome, that Jesus was not hanging on the cross for the reason that landed the others on a cross. Pertinently then, we must bear in mind the meaning of the cross in that day, the types of people that landed on crosses, and the message that was being sent. These things would have been well known to a first century observer or to one that heard the story of Jesus’ crucifixion.
It must be said that crucifixion was a highly effective tool in the hands of all that used it. The Romans, as others, employed it to make public examples out of those who resisted or sought to usurp Roman rule. It also had the useful function of warning spectators against making the same type of fatal error as that of their fellow countryman now hanging naked for all the world to see---a testament to the power and glory of Rome. A portion of the public ceremony of crucifixion was the employing of a “titulus,” which was a placard hung above the head of the victim that stated his crime. We see this in the record of Jesus’ crucifixion, and the sign which read “King of the Jews.” This was yet another way of confirming, as if the fact of the crucifixion was not sufficient, that the one being crucified, Jesus in this case, was presumed to be guilty of sedition against Rome. It should be added that crucifixion was also employed as a punishment for slaves that committed crimes against their masters. Either way, the message of the cross was quite clear, whether employed against a revolutionary against Rome or a slave that countered his master’s wishes, that usurpation of order, be it public or private, was not going to be tolerated. When employed against a potential revolutionary, the message was clear---all were slaves of Rome.