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Mark 11:17 reads (NET emphasis mine):

καὶ ἐδίδασκεν καὶ ἔλεγεν αὐτοῖς· οὐ γέγραπται ὅτι ὁ οἶκος μου οἶκος προσευχῆς κληθήσεται πᾶσιν τοῖς ἔθνεσιν; ὑμεῖς δὲ πεποιήκατε αὐτὸν σπήλαιον λῃστῶν.

Then he began to teach them and said, “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have turned it into a den of robbers!”

The same word is used of the men crucified alongside Jesus in Mark 15:27.

Καὶ σὺν αὐτῷ σταυροῦσιν δύο λῃστάς, ἕνα ἐκ δεξιῶν καὶ ἕνα ἐξ εὐωνύμων αὐτοῦ.

And they crucified two outlaws with him, one on his right and one on his left.

Were these common thieves stealing from the marketplace or peoples' homes? Or is "outlaws" a better rendering? What kind of criminal does this refer to (specifically I'm interested in 11:17)?

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The definition of λῃστῶν is:

λῃστής, οῦ, ὁ (ληϊς, epic form of λεία ‘booty, spoils’; Soph., Hdt.+; ins, pap, LXX; ApcSed 15:3; Joseph.; loanw. in rabb.; Ar. 3, 2; Just., Tat., Ath., R. 19 p. 72, 25; Theoph. Ant. 3, 14 [p. 232, 13]).

robber, highwayman, bandit (in Palestine: Jos., Bell. 2, 125; 228 al.) Lk 10:30, 36; 2 Cor 11:26 (Chariton 6, 4, 6 λῃσταῖς θαλάττῃ); Mt 26:55; Mk 14:48; Lk 22:52; so also MPol 7:1. Crucified w. Christ Mt 27:38, 44; Mk 15:27. W. κλέπτης (Pla., Rep. 351c; Ep. 63 of Apollonius of Tyana [Philostrat. I 363, 21]) J 10:1, 8. σπήλαιον λῃστῶν a bandits’ cave or hideout (Jer 7:11) Mt 21:13; Mk 11:17; Lk 19:46; 2 Cl 14:1 (GBuchanan, HUCA 30, ’59, 169–77: ‘cave of brigands’; s. ἱερόν b, end; Schürer II 600).—This mng. was extended to signify

revolutionary, insurrectionist, guerrilla (Jos., Bell. 2, 254=σικάριος; 253; 4, 504, Ant. 14, 159f; 20, 160f; 167) of Barabbas (cp. μετὰ τ. στασιαστῶν Mk 15:7) J 18:40 (HRigg, Jr., JBL 64, ’45, 444 n. 95; HWood, NTS 2, ’55/56, 262–66 and JTwomey, Scripture (Edinburgh) 8, ’56, 115–19 support this, but see MHengel, Die Zeloten, ’61, 25–47; 344–48); prob. also in the words of Jesus Mt 26:55; Mk 14:48; Lk 22:52; MPol 7:1 (cp. Mt 26:55).—More precise def. depends on assessment of ‘social banditry’, s. RHorsley, Josephus and the Bandits: Journal for the Study of Judaism 10, ’79, 37–63; RHorsley/JHanson, Bandits, Prophets, and Messiahs ’85.—B. 791. DELG s.v. λεία. M-M. TW. Spicq.1

Of the 15 occurrences of λῃστής in the New Testament, all major translations render the word as "robber" or "theif" in most cases and this seems to be the clear meaning in each instance. The word is a Greek translation of the Hebrew word פָּרִיץ (this is a direct quote from Jeremiah 7:11), which means "brigand, thief, [or] robber."2

The word σπήλαιον is defined as:

σπήλαιον, ου, τό (Pla. et al.; Sb 5295, 7; LXX, TestSol, Just.) prim. ‘cave’; as a σπήλαιον λῃστῶν, a robbers’ hideout (Jer 7:11; cp. Jos., Ant. 14, 415; 421; Field, Notes 15) Mt 21:13; Mk 11:17; Lk 19:46 (s. on ἱερόν b): 2 Cl 14:1. As a place of refuge (Cornutus 27 p. 50, 5; Jos., C. Ap. 1, 292; 300) B 11:4 (Is 33:16); Hb 11:38; Rv 6:15. As a place of birth GJs 18:1; 19:1 (codd.), 2f; 20:4; 21:3 (Just., D. 78, 5). Of tombs (TestReub 7:2; TestIss 7:8; ViEzk 4 [p. 74, 10 Sch.]; ViDan 20 [p. 79, 11 Sch.]) J 11:38.—HLavagne, Operosa Antra, Recherches sur la grotte à Rome de Sylla à Hadrien ’88.—DELG. M-M. Sv.3

This phrase (σπήλαιον λῃστῶν, and its corresponding Hebrew construction: מְעָרַת פָּרִצִים) is probably best translated as "robbers' hideout" (maintaining the genitive plural construction of λῃστής; note the plural placement of the possessive apostrophe), and is verbatim from the Septuagint (LXX) translation of Jeremiah 7:11.

The IVP commentary points out:

Jesus cites two texts as the basis for his attack. The first is Isaiah 56:7. God’s house was intended to be for all peoples (1 Kings 8:41–43; Is 56:7), and in the Old Testament the only separation in the temple was between priests and people. But in Jesus’ day the temple was also segregated by race and gender for purity reasons, with Jewish women on a lower level outside the Court of Israel and non-Jews in the outermost court. Jesus shows his concern for the worship of the Gentiles and protests racial segregation in a religious institution.

The second text he cites is from Jeremiah 7:11, where Jeremiah condemns the idea that the temple is a safe haven for Judah in its sin; although those who have exploited the poor think that the temple will protect them, God will destroy his temple (Jer 7:3–15). Robbers’ “dens” were where robbers kept their loot; in A.D. 66 rebel brigands or “robbers” (for whom Josephus uses the same term as Mark) took possession of the temple and slaughtered the priests, further inviting God’s impending wrath....4

The NET translators offer some commentary as to the possible meaning of this term in this context:

The meaning of Jesus’ statement about making the temple courts a den of robbers probably operates here at two levels. Not only were the religious leaders robbing the people financially, but because of this they had also robbed them spiritually by stealing from them the opportunity to come to know God genuinely. It is possible that these merchants had recently been moved to this location for convenience.5

Sources

1 William Arndt, Frederick W. Danker and Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 594.

2 Ludwig Koehler, Walter Baumgartner, M. E. J. Richardson and Johann Jakob Stamm, The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, electronic ed. (Leiden; New York: E.J. Brill, 1999), 968.

3 Arndt, Danker, and Bauer, 938.

4 Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), Mk 11:17.

5 Biblical Studies Press, The NET Bible First Edition Notes (Biblical Studies Press, 2006), Mk 11:17.

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The word derives from booty or plunder, so the connotation is theft from the vulnerable.

The link between the Temple and the thieves at the crucifixion is implicit (not explicit in the text as such) but obvious once we take sacred architecture into account, which is a foreign idea to moderns, but nonetheless a consistent type as far as the Bible is concerned.

The first theft occurred in the Garden of Eden, in the sanctuary. It was theft from God, with consequences outside the Garden, that is, in the Land then in the World. The Temple itself replicated these three domains: the Most Holy (Garden), the Holy Place (the Land/Israel) and the Gentile Courts (the Nations/World).

Because the Herodian High Priesthood had usurped the authority of God's commandments, the outflow corrupted the sacrifices and then Israel's Covenant witness to the nations. The imaging of Yahweh to the nations by His people (as a kind of corporate "Adam") was inaccurate, corrupt.

We can see this reflected in the structure of the Ten Commandments, which echo the events of Genesis 1-3. Adam stole from God, and God asked Adam for a legal confession of what he had done, that He might show mercy. Theft and legal witness are consecutive commands, followed by commands concerning "house and contents," or Israel as a shelter, a "Booth" for the Gentiles. (Remember also the true testimony of Jesus and the false witnesses brought against Him by the priesthood.)

The same architecture is inherent in the crucifixion, where the two robbers are "blessing and cursing," two Covenant witnesses. Christ is the High Priest and these two men take the roles of the two goats on the Day of Atonement. The one who humbles himself "unto death" in a priestly fashion is the one who will be exalted in the kingdom. The other, who exalts himself as a usurping "king" against the Son of God is the one who will be humbled and receive nothing. So once again we have theft and legal witness tied together.

Finally, "plunder" is a Covenant concept which is also both positive and negative. Obedience to God's Laws brings a "multiplication" of the heart of those under Covenant. Obedience brings plunder from God's hand. Disobedience brings plagues from God's hand. Plunder and plagues were tied together as "swarms" in Egypt (with Israel herself as a kind of "swarm" which plundered the Egyptians). We see it again in the "multiplication" of the victory of the Ark of the Covenant in Philistia, where the gold they sent with Ark (as plunder) was actually fashioned in the shape of plagues, (bubonic?) tumors and rats.

The theme of vulnerability in all cases is "bridal," that is, those who are under the priestly representation (of Adam, or Israel), whose offspring, as the future, are at stake in Adam's mediation on her behalf before God. In Eden, this was Eve, the great "multiplier," the mother of all. In Israel, it was the tribes under the mediation of a faithful High Priest. In the world, it was all nations under the ministry and witness of Israel as a corporate Adam, "cut" and bloodied to bring the kings of the nations -- and their riches -- in willing submission to God. The flipside of "Adamic" theft is "Christian" generosity. What goes on in the World and the Land (from petty crime right up to theft by the state) is a result of what goes on in the Sanctuary. Cultus inevitably informs culture.

"Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need." - (ESV) Ephesians 4:28

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There's a lot here that doesn't address the questions: 'Were these common thieves stealing from the marketplace or peoples' homes? Or is "outlaws" a better rendering? What kind of criminal does this refer to (specifically I'm interested in 11:17)?' –  Frank Luke Apr 12 '13 at 17:25
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