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?
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.