Thief - Trench's New Testament Synonyms
Thiefkleptes (G2812) Thief
lestes (G3027) Robber
The occurrence of kleptes and lestes together in John 10:1, 8 does not constitute a tautology there or elsewhere or a mere rhetorical amplification.The kleptes and the lestes both appropriate what is not theirs, but the kleptes does so by fraud and in secret; the lestes does so by open violence. The former is the "thief" who steals, the latter is the "robber" who plunders, as his name (from leis or leia) indicates. They are respectively the Latin fur (thief) and latro (robber). As Jerome said: "Thieves [fures] deceive craftily and by secret fraud, robbers [latrones] audaciously snatch away what belongs to others." The French larron, however, has come to refer to a thief who steals secretly and through cleverness, despite larron's relation to latro (robber). Wycliffe's translations of "night-thief" and "day-thief" are not adequate.
Our translators have always translated kleptes as "thief." Unfortunately, they were not as consistent with lestes, and translated it as "robber" and as "thief," thus abolishing the distinction between the two words. However, we cannot charge them with carelessness, since in their day thief and robber did not have the distinct meanings they now have. With open violence, Falstaff and his company rob the king's treasure on his highway and are called "thieves" throughout Shakespeare's Henry IV. Nevertheless it is unfortunate that on several occasions our Authorized Version uses "thieves," not "robbers." In Matthew 21:13 we read: "My house shall be called the house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves. " It is robbers and not thieves, however, that have dens or caves; the original King James correctly translated "den of robbers" in Jeremiah 7:11, the origin of the quotation. Again, Matthew 26:55 in the KJV reads: "Are ye come out as against a thief with swords and staves for to take Me?" But a party armed with swords and clubs would come against some bold and violent robber, not against a lurking thief. The poor traveler in the parable (Luke 10:30) fell not among thieves but among robbers, who are revealed as such by their violent and bloody treatment of him.
No passage has suffered more seriously by confusing thief and robber than Luke 23:39-43. The previous moral condition of "the penitent thief" is obscured by the associations that cling to this name. Both malefactors crucified with Jesus (one was inflexible, the other penitent) probably belonged to the band of Barabbas who had been cast with his fellow insurgents into prison for murder and insurrection (Mark 15:7). Barabbas himself was a lestes (John 18:40), not a common malefactor but "a notorious prisoner." The fierce enthusiasm of the Jewish populace on his behalf, combined with his imprisonment for an unsuccessful insurrection, leads to the conclusion that Barabbas was one of the Zealots. The Zealots encouraged resistance against the Roman domination by flattering and feeding the futile hopes of their countrymen, who still hoped they could break Roman supremacy. When hard pressed, the Zealots would retreat to the mountains and wage petty wars against their oppressors, living by plundering their enemies when possible, or by plundering anyone within reach. The history of Dolcino's "Apostolicals," as of the Camisards in the Cevennes, illustrates their downward progress as they receive and deserve the name robbers. The Romans called them by this name and dealt with them accordingly. In the great French Revolution, the Vendean royalists were styled "the brigands of the Loire"; perhaps in the moral perversion of this period the name of robber, like klept among the modern Greeks, ceased to be dishonorable and would have been acceptable to them.
The character of the Zealots, the men who maintained the last protest against foreign domination, probably was quite different from that of the mean and cowardly purloiners called "thieves." The bands of these lestai contained some of the worst people but probably included some that originally were among the most noble spirits of the nation. The latter had mistakenly sought by the wrath of man to work out the righteousness of God. Perhaps this was the character of the penitent lestes. Should there be any truth in this view of his former condition, it is certainly obscured by the name thief. He would more appropriately be called "the penitent robber."