WERE THERE FIVE CROSSES ON CALVARY’S HILL?
by Shawn Brasseaux
Years ago, I was introduced to the above question by a so-called “grace Bible teacher.” For some time, I wondered about its likelihood. Having never heard it before (and never heard it since), and having recently left denominationalism, I was willing to be taught if it was what the Bible said. Were there the traditional three crosses? Or, were there really five crosses? Being very weak in the Bible at the time, I did not have a clear answer, so I just pushed it aside in my mind. All these years later, I have decided to reexamine the matter by studying my Bible. This study is the fruit of that study. As always, we search the Scriptures to see what the Bible actually says instead of carelessly believing and parroting what a Bible teacher or preacher says.
The “five-crosses-on-Calvary” idea is predicated upon the following verses and logic.
Matthew 27:38,44: “ Then were there two thieves crucified with him, one on the right hand, and another on the left.  The thieves also, which were crucified with him, cast the same in his teeth.”
Mark 15:27: “And with him they crucify two thieves; the one on his right hand, and the other on his left.”
Luke 23:32-33,39: “ 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, there they crucified him, and the malefactors, one on the right hand, and the other on the left.  And one of the malefactors which were hanged railed on him, saying, If thou be Christ, save thyself and us.”
PRETTY SIMPLE, RIGHT?
While the above verses are straightforward, leave it to denominationally-minded people to confuse what God Almighty has stated so simply. Here comes a mouthful!
FOUR INDIVIDUALS—TWO MALEFACTORS AND TWO THIEVES? OR, TWO INDIVIDUALS—TWO MALEFACTORS WHO WERE THIEVES?
As usual, when people “run to the Greek,” they run into problems. They point out that “malefactor” in the “original Greek” is kakourgos while “thief” is lestes. Then, they argue that this change in nouns must indicate two individuals who were malefactors and two other individuals who were thieves. These four people—not two—were crucified with Jesus Christ. Consequently, it is said that there were five crosses on Calvary’s mount (instead of the traditional three). Is this a sound conclusion? (No!)
MAKING SENSE OF IT ALL
While the above people may be sincere, it just shows us that “turning to the original Greek for nuggets” is not as beneficial as we have been led to believe. In fact, it can be quite detrimental! They have used the Greek language to introduce a bias, a tradition of their own! Beloved, we are dealing with an English Bible, so we just need to get an English dictionary and get some English definitions instead of relying on a preacher’s opinions concerning a Greek dictionary and Greek definitions.
The Oxford American English Dictionary says a “malefactor” is “a person who commits a crime or some other wrong” (male meaning “ill,” and facere meaning “do”). It defines a “thief” as “a person who steals another’s property, esp. by stealth and without using force or violence.” No theological degree or linguistic degree is needed to understand that “malefactor” is general and “thief” is specific. All criminals are malefactors, but not all malefactors are thieves.
Now, John settles the matter as to how many individuals were crucified with Jesus. We read in John 19:18: “Where they crucified him, and two other with him, on either side one, and Jesus in the midst.” They crucified Jesus and “two other with him.” The “two other” is neutral: they are not described with specificity (“malefactors” or “thieves”). This little clue, paired with a little common sense, will now work wonders! If there were two “thieves” (mentioned in Matthew and Mark only) and two “malefactors” (mentioned in Luke only), and John says two “other” were crucified with Jesus in the middle, it becomes frighteningly clear. Blending all four descriptions we conclude: “Jesus Christ was crucified between two individuals, no more and no less. These two men were ‘malefactors,’ for they were criminals. These two individuals were also thieves, for they had stolen someone else’s property.” (Could they be “thieves” only and not “malefactors?” Of course not! Theft is a crime, and a malefactor is a criminal. Being two thieves automatically qualified them to be two malefactors!) How simple!
SUPPLEMENTAL: SOME FURTHER DEBUNKING
The “four-crucified-with-Christ” belief simply does not add up when closely scrutinized. That supposition greatly damages simple passages. Permit us to demonstrate. Let us handle the “Barabbas” verses in the same manner the “four-crucified-with-Christ” adherents use the verses about “malefactors” and “thieves.” We read the following about Barabbas: a “notable prisoner” (Matthew 27:16), “made insurrection and committed murder in the insurrection,” (Mark 15:7), cast into prison for “a certain sedition made in the city, and for murder” (Luke 23:18), and a “robber” (John 18:40).
Handling these verses in the same manner the “four-crucified-with-Christ” people use the “malefactors” and “thieves” verses, we ask, were there four Barabbases instead of the traditional one? Was there one Barabbas guilty of “insurrection and murder?” Was there another Barabbas known as a “notable prisoner?” Was there yet another Barabbas in the prison, a “robber?” Was there a fourth Barabbas held prisoner, one who was a seditionist and murderer? See, it gets sillier and sillier when we carry the concept all the way throughout the Bible. Here is the simple truth. There was one Barabbas freed when Jesus was condemned. Barabbas, one man, fit all four descriptions. There were no four criminals crucified with Christ any more than there were four Barabbases who were released when Jesus was condemned. In the case of the thieves and malefactors, there were two people—two malefactors who were also thieves.
One more example of how the “four-crucified-with-Christ” mindset is dangerous. What did the sign above Jesus’ head read on the cross?
- Was it, “THIS IS JESUS THE KING OF THE JEWS” (Matthew 27:37)?
- Or, was it, “THE KING OF THE JEWS” (Mark 15:26)?
- Maybe it was, “THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS” (Luke 23:38)?
- Or was it, “JESUS OF NAZARETH THE KING OF THE JEWS” (John 19:19)?
Perhaps there were four signs on Jesus’ cross, one bearing each different phrase? Of course not! Again, beloved, we need not complicate Scriptures. People are confused enough about them. There was only one sign above Jesus’ head, and it read in full “THIS IS JESUS OF NAZARETH THE KING OF THE JEWS.” We just combine all four accounts. Each writer is viewing Jesus’ life from a different perspective, but remember it is the same life! All four Gospel records complement one another in that they read differently. Their testimony is more reliable when they do not read word-perfect. Exact phraseology throughout would likely indicate collaboration (and the critics would love that so they could discredit it!).
All religious confusion aside, the testimony of the Bible is clear. Unless we have a tradition to uphold, we will agree with the Scriptures. There were two and only two individuals crucified with the Lord Jesus Christ. Both of these criminals (“malefactors”) had been guilty of thievery (“thieves”). What they stole must have been of great worth, or had belonged to some elite citizen or leader. Maybe they committed other crimes as well to receive the death penalty with Jesus. Who knows, and frankly, who cares! It makes no eternal difference where the Bible is silent.
Perhaps in a sincere effort to smooth over diverse Bible terms that describe the same event, or to discover something new no one else has, people quickly fall into wacky ideas. To Satan’s delight, they greatly damage the Bible’s testimony and thus destroy people’s faith in it. If we stumble over something as simple as the number of crosses on Calvary’s hill, do we have any hope of understanding the deeper (and more important!) concepts of God’s Holy Word? We do not!