When speaking of himself as the Good Shepherd, Jesus said:
"All who came before me are thieves and robbers; but the sheep did not heed them." (John 10:8, RSV)
Historically, who were these "thieves and robbers"?
One explanation is that Jesus is speaking of Theudas and Judas, Jewish leaders who rebelled against Roman rule.
Theudas is mentioned in the New Testament in Acts 5:36-37, where he is described as a false prophet who led a revolt against the Roman authorities. The account states that Theudas was killed, and his followers scattered.
Judas of Galilee is mentioned by the Josephus in Antiquities of the Jews (18.1.1), where he describes Judas as a leader of a revolt against Roman rule who advocated for Jewish independence and the overthrow of the Roman occupiers. Judas of Galilee is also credited with founding a group called the Zealots, who were known for their violent resistance against the Roman authorities.
This explanation is put forward by John Chrysostom in his Homily LIX on John:
He does not here speak of the Prophets (as the heretics assert), for as many as believed on Christ did hear them also, and were persuaded by them; but of Theudas and Judas, and the other exciters of sedition. Besides, He says the sheep did not hear them, as praising them. Nowhere is He seen to praise those who refused to hearken to the Prophets, but on the contrary, to reproach and accuse them vehemently; whence it is evident that the, did not hear refers to those leaders of sedition. The thief cometh not but for to steal, and to kill, and to destroy, which then took place when all their followers were slain and perished.
Another explanation is that Jesus was speaking of false teachers and leaders in general. Theophylact comments:
By the thieves and robbers, Christ means the false shepherds who have gone before Him, those who have misled the people of Israel, leading them into error and false worship. He calls them thieves because they stole the glory of God by pretending to be teachers sent from God. They are robbers because they have plundered the people, taking away from them the truth and leading them to destruction (PG 124:288)
The answer to this question is Jesus' previous sentence:
John 10:7 - So He said to them again, “Truly, truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep.
Thus, when Jesus says (V8) "All who cam e before Me ..." He is clearly referring to those who presumed to be the "gate" for the sheep. In this famous metaphor, Jesus is the gate to the sheep which serves two functions:
It is in this function, that Jesus also claims to be "the good shepherd" (V10, 14).
As with much of the gospel of John, this is a very thinly disguised jibe at "the Jews", ie,
It was against such that Jesus pronounced severe condemnation:
It was against these false teachers that Jesus pronounced some of His strongest condemnation in the seven woes of Matt 23.
Later, the apostle Peter also spoke of such people as well:
2 Peter 2:1-3 - Now there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them—bringing swift destruction on themselves. Many will follow in their depravity, and because of them the way of truth will be defamed. In their greed, these false teachers will exploit you with deceptive words. The longstanding verdict against them remains in force, and their destruction does not sleep.
Thus, we are told by Jesus that there had been many false teachers, prophets and leaders before Him. Peter reminds us that there would continue to be false teachers, prophets and leaders in the church. Indeed, he reserves very harsh language for them:
2 Peter 2:12, 13 - These men [ie, false prophets, teachers and leaders] are like irrational animals, creatures of instinct, born to be captured and destroyed. They blaspheme in matters they do not understand, and like such creatures, they too will be destroyed. 13The harm they will suffer is the wages of their wickedness.
In John 10 Jesus claims to be the shepherd promised to Israel:
NIV Ezekiel 34: 23I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them; he will tend them and be their shepherd. 24I the Lord will be their God, and my servant David will be prince among them. I the Lord have spoken.
He was to replace the self-serving "hirelings" decried at length in Ezekiel 34:
NIV Ezekiel 34: 1The word of the Lord came to me: 2“Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? 3You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. 4You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally. 5So they were scattered because there was no shepherd, and when they were scattered they became food for all the wild animals. 6My sheep wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. They were scattered over the whole earth, and no one searched or looked for them.
However there is little doubt that Jesus also told this parable with the contemporary Jewish leadership ("scribes and pharisees, hypocrites") that he also considered "thieves and robbers":
NIV Luke 20: 9He went on to tell the people this parable: “A man planted a vineyard, rented it to some farmers and went away for a long time. 10At harvest time he sent a servant to the tenants so they would give him some of the fruit of the vineyard. But the tenants beat him and sent him away empty-handed. 11He sent another servant, but that one also they beat and treated shamefully and sent away empty-handed. 12He sent still a third, and they wounded him and threw him out.
13“Then the owner of the vineyard said, ‘What shall I do? I will send my son, whom I love; perhaps they will respect him.’
14“But when the tenants saw him, they talked the matter over. ‘This is the heir,’ they said. ‘Let’s kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ 15So they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.
“What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them? 16He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others.”
When the people heard this, they said, “God forbid!”
17Jesus looked directly at them and asked, “Then what is the meaning of that which is written:
“ ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone’a ? 18Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces; anyone on whom it falls will be crushed.”
19The teachers of the law and the chief priests looked for a way to arrest him immediately, because they knew he had spoken this parable against them. But they were afraid of the people.
The judgment of the shepherds of Israel that was predicted in Ezekiel 34 is what is being described in Matthew 25:
[Mat 25:31-46 ESV] (31) "When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. (32) Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. (33) And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. (34) Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. (35) For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, (36) I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.' (37) Then the righteous will answer him, saying, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? (38) And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? (39) And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?' (40) And the King will answer them, 'Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.' (41) "Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. (42) For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, (43) I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.' (44) Then they also will answer, saying, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?' (45) Then he will answer them, saying, 'Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.' (46) And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."
In addition, any false Christs that had attempted to draw the sheep away, unsuccessfully from their devotion to Yehovah would also be included.
In that Jesus says in John 10:16 : 'other sheep I have which are not of this fold' it is clear that the previous part of the section, regarding sheep and shepherding, refers to the gathering of the lost sheep of the house of Israel and that, therefore, the general context of the whole section would have an historical application regarding 'thieves and robbers'.
But in that the close context of this particular verse, 10:8, is a matter of 'any man', v 9, then I would see that there is a closer application of these particular words of Jesus.
Therefore, with regard to this closer context of the verse, I would say that the history of these thieves and robbers must be an individual matter. In other words, it is a personal matter of the history of the individual soul.
And again, in the context of the passage, all that has happend is the result of the man receiving his sight who was born blind. And who were the thieves and robbers whom he suffered from, before Jesus came ?
They come out in their true colours, first by reviling him : Thou art his disciple; we are Moses' disciples, 9:28. And then they cast him out, 9:34.
Thieving is stealing from property; robbing is a matter of the person. Those who professed to be Moses' disciples had already stolen a place which did not belong to them - the temple. And they had filled it with commerce, rather than prayer. Then they had robbed - or attempted to rob - the populace of Israel by hindering them from entering the kingdom of heaven and entering not in themselves, rejecting John the Baptist and rejecting Jesus the Christ.
These were they who loved distinctive clothing. At the time that was a matter of long robes; now it might be something different. They loved the chief seats in the assemblies, whatever that 'chiefness' maybe, whether authority, or reputation. They loved greetings in the market place; Rabbi, Rabbi. Or it might be something else - like 'Mr'.
And they just couldn't stop themselves being covetous.
Comes the wolf, and they flee away. They will leave the flock, for they are only doing it for money. They surrender everything and let whoever feels like it ravage the souls of the people. They care nothing for the immortal souls of those over whom they wish to preside.
But not so, him who comes and opens the eyes of the blind. He gives his life for the sheep.
Dost thou believe on the Son of God ? John 9:35. Who is he, Lord, that I might believe on him ? John 9:36. There is the voice of a Shepherd; and there is the voice of a sheep.
I think it helps to understand who Jesus was.
Yes He was the Creator and most likely the one walking in the garden (of Eden) but after Creation He was different from prior to Creation in light of John 17:5. He was as far as the heavenly hosts were concerned like one of them, though He was God and known as The Son of God by them. (It is possibly for this reason that Lucifer seeing Jesus looked exactly like himself desired to be God too, failing to realize Jesus removed His glory from prior to Creation. Lucifer wasn’t interested in being like the Father, the invisible God but like this Angel of the Lord that is God and from his POV was no different than he)
““Most assuredly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door, but climbs up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber.” John 10:1
Did this happen in history? Did anyone circumvent the door and stole away the sheep that belonged to the True Shepherd?
Yes actually. According to Babel the nations did not want to be governed by God, so God divided them and gave them intermediaries to represent Him before the nations.
“When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, when he divided mankind, he fixed the borders of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God. But the Lord 's portion is his people, Jacob his allotted heritage.” Deuteronomy 32:8-9
According to the OT at Babel God alloted governance over the nations the sons of God (elohim) and the Lord(Jesus) would create His own nation from scratch which was through Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
Unfortunately these elohim rebelled against the DOOR or the True Shepherd and instead of representing Him they took away the sheep and received worship onto themselves.
“God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment: "How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked? Selah” Psalms 82:1-2
Read the whole Psalm but suffice to say that these gods who initially were intermediaries between God and men, pushed God out and accepted worship onto themselves thereby becoming the gods of the nations. Note how God at Passover says He will judge the gods of Egypt, these elohim were those gods. And God judges them by removing their immortality
“I said, "You are gods, sons of the Most High, all of you; nevertheless, like men you shall die, and fall like any prince."” Psalms 82:6-7
But God prophetically speaks because according to Scripture
“"For the Lord God does nothing without revealing his secret to his servants the prophets.” Amos 3:7
And we read that Jesus will take back all the nations not just Israel.
“Arise, O God, judge the earth; for you shall inherit all the nations!” Psalms 82:8
At this point I have answered your question who are they that historically were thieves and robbers? The sons of God who later became the gods of the nations. They stole the nations away from God. That’s why for a short period of time in history after the Tower of Babel people still worshipped God even if they were allocated an intermediary an elohim per nation.
(Also note the distinction between a thief and a robber. A thief comes to take something when no one is home and a robber takes something when someone is home. The thieving was done by taking away the sheep allocated to them and the robbery by taking away ten tribes from Israel allocated to God(Jesus).)
So now consider how the elohim are referenced by Jesus
“He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them.” John 10:12
Who then is the wolf?
“Then the devil, taking Him up on a high mountain, showed Him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time. And the devil said to Him, “All this authority I will give You, and their glory; for this has been delivered to me, and I give it to whomever I wish.” Luke 4:5-6 NKJV
The devil snatched up the sheep or the nations that once belonged to Jesus from the hired hands who stole them.
How does Jesus get back all the nations especially now that the Ten Tribes are divorced
“Then I saw that for all the causes for which backsliding Israel (Northern Kingdom) had committed adultery, I had put her away and given her a certificate of divorce; yet her treacherous sister Judah did not fear, but went and played the harlot also.” Jeremiah 3:8
This is an issue because according to the OT you cannot remarry a woman once you have divorced her.
“then her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after she has been defiled, for that is an abomination before the Lord. And you shall not bring sin upon the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance.” Deuteronomy 24:4
And at this time the Ten Tribes have intermingled and intermarried with all the gentiles and were for the most part indistinguishable from the gentile nations. Partly why the Jews refused to associate with the gentiles lest they defile themselves with their divorced tribe brothers and because the gentiles were under other gods who were under God’s judgment
Apostle Paul explains that when Jesus died on the cross He released everyone from the old covenant of the Law because He the first husband who was on Mt. Sinai and it was He was the one who made a marriage covenant with the bloodline Israel and those present at the foot of the mountain.
Now through the first husband’s death Romans 7, the divorced Ten Tribes were eligible to re-enter into covenant with God(Jesus) but not by bloodline
“who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” John 1:13
We enter into Christ by grace through faith and if we persevere in the faith we will be saved, married to the coming bridegroom.
Once again the thieves and robbers were the sons of God that became the gods of the nations and when Jesus said
“And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again.” John 10:16-17
What He was saying was that the gentiles or the other nations were His and He would redeem (to buy back what is yours) them too and they will all be one flock and one Shepherd. Or as Apostle Paul says
“remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” Ephesians 2:12-13
Hence the Abrahamic promise is fulfilled
“and in your offspring (Jesus) shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice."” Genesis 22:18
And you can compare that with the passage in the NT and the text Apostle Paul explains.
God had “”loved the WORLD that He gave...” if it were only the elect then it wouldn’t read whosoever and if He only meant Israel it wouldn’t read the world.
It all comes full circle.
While people are tempted to identify the thieves and robbers as the Jewish leaders Jesus was talking to, that doesn't fit the wording "came before me." What does fit is the false messiah's that came before Jesus. Jesus was saying that he was not that type of messiah, and the people following him showed he we the true Messiah. Jesus will lay down his life for the sheep (10:17-18).
But the sheep did not heed them. Only those who were like-minded with them became their followers. But the true sheep remained constant to the good Shepherd. -- Lange, J. P., & Schaff, P. (2008). A commentary on the Holy Scriptures: John (p. 321). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.
Jesus refers to the false Messiahs and self-appointed leaders who made havoc of the flock. These are the thieves and robbers, not the prophets and sincere teachers of old. The reference is to verse 1. There had been numerous such impostors already (Josephus, Ant. XVIII. i. 6; War II. viii. I) and Jesus will predict many more (Matt. 24:23f.). They keep on coming, these wolves in sheep’s clothing (Matt. 7:15) who grow rich by fooling the credulous sheep. In this case “the sheep did not hear them” (οὐκ ἠκουσαν αὐτων τα προβατα [ouk ēkousan autōn ta probata]). -- Robertson, A. T. (1933). Word Pictures in the New Testament (John 10:8). Nashville, TN: Broadman Press.