Recently, Mark Bilby successfully defended his PhD dissertation at the University of Virginia (advisor: Harry Y. Gamble). Mark’s thesis is entitled As the Bandit Will I Confess You: Luke 23.39-43 in Early Christian Interpretation. He was kind enough to use in his work my edition of the Coptic sermon attributed to Theophilus of Alexandria on the Cross and the Thief, which is forthcoming in Zeitschrift für antikes Christentum. At some point in the near future, Mark is also planning to publish a companion volume of Patristic homilies on the Good Thief. Below you can find the abstract of his dissertation, which he agreed to publish on this blog:
This dissertation comprises the first thorough, critical analysis of the early Christian interpretation of Luke 23.39–43 (up to 450 CE). Tatian’s Diatessaron is its earliest plausible reception, while the Gospel of Peter does not depend on Luke here but instead attests to an earlier, simpler apologetic narrative used by Luke. Contrary to the implication of modern commentaries, harmonization of Luke’s divergent criminals with the Markan/Matthean reviling bandits is not a major concern, nor do ancient views fit neatly into chronological vs. sylleptical positions. Several find intentional cooperation among the Evangelists, while early Syriac interpreters, starting with the Diatessaron itself, dismiss or ignore the Markan/Matthean tradition altogether.
Eschatological dissonance proves a far more prevalent concern. Origen’s interpretation—which provokes considerable criticism late in his own life—makes this apparent. Origen remains pivotal in eschatological debates for the next two centuries, though he is criticized for very different reasons.
By far the most common mode of interpretation finds in the second criminal a self-representative figure who models many Christian practices, beliefs and virtues, including prayer, beatitude, supersession, Nicene orthodoxy, faith, justification by faith without works, conversion, catechesis, confession, martyrdom, asceticism, simple speech, and penitence.
Augustine is the first on record to gainsay the traditional idea of the bandit as a martyr—an interpretation perhaps embedded in the original Lucan story—, though he reverses his position late in 419 CE. This shift calls for late dates for Sermons 53A, 285, 327, and 335C. Ephrem emerges as the most creative and influential purveyor of devotional, liturgical and typological readings. On the other hand, Chrysostom’s two Good Friday sermons on the bandit are the most influential texts in the early history of interpretation as they inspire Greek, Syriac, Coptic, Armenian and Latin imitations. By the late 4th century, Luke 23.39–43 appears as a standard lection (or part of a lection) during Good Friday noon services in the East. Despite the exclusive use of Matthew’s passion in the West, the influence of Eastern homilies helps carve out a place for the Lucan story in Western homilies during Holy Week and Easter Octave.