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I recently ran across this answer on C.SE reconciling Luke’s account of the repentant thief on the cross (Luke 23:40) with Mark’s statement - also present in Matthew - that both thieves reviled Jesus (Mark 15:32, Matthew 27:44). One solution proposed is that the plural form in Mark represents a figure of speech known as synecdoche, with the implication that a singular referent is intended. The reference cited from apologeticspress.org states that examples of this technique include:

  • The singular can be put for the plural.
  • And the plural can be put for the singular.

I wasn’t aware of this type of synecdoche. I don’t see it mentioned in the Wikipedia article (for whatever that’s worth), and neither are these examples mentioned in this explanation and enumeration of synecdoche and metonymy in the NT. In support of their idea, the Apologetics Press article* mentions two passages in the Hebrew bible:

  • Genesis 8:4: Noah’s ark rested “on the mountains of Ararat.”
  • Genesis 21:7: Sarah asked, “Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children...?"

However, a bit of digging suggests that these fall under the rubric of “weird plurals” in Hebrew. This is my technical term for Gesenius §124, which actually mentions both of these examples in §124 o: “the plural is used to denote an indefinite singular.” This seems different from the idea proposed above (whatever we call it) in the gospels because:

  • It’s not obvious to me that this should extend to Greek.
  • The thief seems not really indefinite.
  • My impression is that in general “weird plurals” in Hebrew that refer to singular entities take singular verbs/attributives, although this cannot be seen in either of the HB examples given. The examples in Mark and Matthew both take unambiguously plural verbs (ὠνείδιζον, they reviled).

Can the plural nominatives in Matthew and Mark (οἱ συνεσταυρωμένοι σὺν αὐτῷ | οἱ λῃσταὶ οἱ συσταυρωθέντες, the thieves crucified with him) be explained by synecdoche?

-or-

Is there another literary or linguistic device at play to suggest that these phrases may plausibly refer to a singular person?


*Citing Dungan, D.R. (1888), Hermeneutics (Delight, AR: Gospel Light).

Note: Just to be clear, I don't have any problem reconciling these accounts without invoking this theory. I'm simply interested in whether it's a plausible one.

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There were two thieves reviling Jesus; one then repented.

John Chrysostom, who was fluent in, and therefore familiar with, the Koine Greek of the New Testament, made no mention of the use of the grammar with regard to the apparent confusion and contradiction between the gospel accounts.

Instead, he noted the following -

Now that you may understand what is the difference between statements which are diverse and contradictory, one of the evangelists has stated that Christ carried the cross, another that Simon the Cyrenian carried it: but this causes no contradiction or strife. “And how,” you say, “is there no contradiction between the statements that he carried and did not carry?” Because both took place. When they went out of the Prætorium Christ was carrying it: but as they proceeded Simon took it from Him and bore it.

Again in the case of the robbers, one says that the two blasphemed: another that one of them checked him who was reviling the Lord. Yet in this again there is no contradiction: because here also both things took place, and at the beginning both the men behaved ill: but afterwards when signs occurred, when the earth shook and the rocks were rent, and the sun was darkened, one of them was converted, and became more chastened, and recognized the crucified one and acknowledged his kingdom. For to prevent your supposing that this took place by some constraining force of one impelling him from within, and to remove your perplexity, he exhibits the man to you on the cross while he is still retaining his former wickedness in order that you may perceive that his conversion was effected from within and out of his own heart assisted by the grace of God and so he became a better man. (Italics and bold emphasis added)


Reference:

  • P. Schaff (Ed.), W. R. W. Stephens (Trans.)(1889). Saint Chrysostom: On the Priesthood, Ascetic Treatises, Select Homilies and Letters, Homilies on the Statues (Vol. 9). New York: Christian Literature Company, 214.
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    It seems simple enough. Both initially reviled him, but after a while in his presence, one of them had a change of heart. – superluminary Feb 11 '15 at 9:53
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The literary device at play here is not synecdoche, but literary dependence and elaboration. When the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke are laid side by side and read synoptically ('with the same eye') in the original Greek language, it is clear that there is a literary dependency among them. Further study shows that Mark was the first to be written, with Matthew and Luke substantially copied from Mark. Synecdoche would not explain the apparent contradiction between Matthew and Luke, nor the simplicity of Mark.

Mark's Gospel, the first account to be written, merely says that the thieves reviled Jesus, as those passing by did. The key issue was (Mark 15:27-28) that Jesus was crucified between two thieves, one on his left hand and one on his right hand, so that the scripture be fulfilled as Jesus was numbered among the transgressors. In copying this, the authors of Luke and Matthew chose to elaborate on the role of the thieves. Luke's is the theologically most important account and thus the account most Christians prefer.

Luke's Gospel says (Luke 23:39-43) that one of the malefactors mocked Jesus, while the other repented:

"And one of the malefactors which were hanged railed on him, saying, If thou be Christ, save thyself and us. But the other answering rebuked him, saying, Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss. And he said unto Jesus, Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom. And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with me in paradise."

Matthew's Gospel says both thieves mocked Jesus, with no suggestion that either malefactor repented, and no likelihood that Jesus would have promised he would be in paradise. (Matthew 27:44):

"They cast the same [mocking - see 27:41-43] in his teeth."

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    Thanks! Mark’s Gospel....does not actually say that the thieves reviled Jesus? That’s sort of the starting point of the question so I thought I should clarify....15:32: καὶ οἱ συνεσταυρωμένοι σὺν αὐτῷ ὠνείδιζον αὐτόν trans: and those co-crucified with him reviled him. Are we talking about the same thing? – Susan Feb 10 '15 at 22:52
  • @Susan Sorry! I made the same mistake I often counsel against, by not looking a few verses ahead. I will fix this. – Dick Harfield Feb 10 '15 at 22:56
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    @fdb - I’d love it if I could get someone to explain the linguistic impossibility, if that’s what it is. There are other explanations for the apparent discrepancy, fine, but that I knew when I started. I just want to know if this particular explanation is even plausible. Is this a valid category of synecdoche? Is the extrapolation from Hebrew reasonable? (I’m gathering not, but none of the answers has actually addressed it directly.) – Susan Feb 10 '15 at 23:00
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It seems to me the more probable explanation is that Luke (written later) was embellishing the earlier Markan story for dramatic purposes, just as Mark 16:9-20 embellishes the original ending of Mark, and just as Matthew embellishes and corrects Mark. Occam's razor prefers this hypothesis, since there's no need to propose an unknown literary device to explain the difference.

  • This answer is really short and doesn't directly address the question except to say it isn't the simplest explanation. The question was whether it was even possible, not whether it was probable... Do you think you could expand your answer to more thoroughly cover the question? – ThaddeusB Nov 27 '15 at 23:14
  • Dick Harfield's answer is a good expansion on what I was saying. I don't have anything more to add right now. – matt2000 Nov 28 '15 at 2:47

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