There was an apocryphal gospel claimed to have been derived from an original Hebrew work written by Nicodemus, who appears in the Gospel of John as a follower of Jesus. Centuries later, this work later became known as the Gospel of Nicodemus, which is also known as the “Acts of Pilate” The work is basically orthodox in nature and was likely composed in the early-mid fourth century. The first part of the work happens to be a translation of the official trial record of Jesus’ crucifixion, written by Pilate.

This Acts of Pilate was likely written in the late second century. Earlier, around 155, Justin Martyr wrote:

And that these things did happen, you can ascertain from the Acts of Pontius Pilate. (The First Apology, Ch. 35)

thus suggesting his reader consult the official trial log of Pilate. Whether such a log actually existed or Justin Martyr just assumed it did cannot be known. Either way, scholars generally think the Acts of Pilate were written to answer critics who were calling for the document to be produced.

There are two thief passages of the Gospel of Nicodemus, both found in the Acts section. The textual tradition of the Gospel of Nicodemus is fairly corrupt, resulting in two fairly different readings.

The first passage reads, in the better attested (Greek) version of Nicodemus:

Then Pilate ordered the curtain of the tribunal where he was sitting to be drawn, and says to Jesus: Your nation has charged you with being a king. On this account I sentence you, first to be scourged, according to the enactment of venerable kings, and then to be fastened on the cross in the garden where you were seized. And let Dysmas and Gestas, the two malefactors, be crucified with you. (Ch. 9)

The other version is not significantly different. The second passage reads:

And one of the malefactors hanging up spoke to Him, saying: If you are the Christ, save yourself and us. And Dysmas answering, reproved him, saying: Do you not fear God, because you are in the same condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we receive the fit punishment of our deeds; but this man has done no evil. (Ch. 10)

the other (Latin) version reads more straight-forward, not incorporating the Gospel-like language:

And in like manner did they to the two thieves who were crucified with him, Dimas on his right hand and Gestas on his left.

Also, The Narrative of Joseph of Arimathea, date unknown but probably later than that, greatly expands the story.

The Narrative of Joseph of Arimathea is probably dependent on the Gospel of Nicodemus. It contains some details about Demas’ (so spelled in this account) life:

He was called Demas, and was by birth a Galilæan, and kept an inn. He made attacks upon the rich, but was good to the poor— a thief like Tobit, for he buried the bodies of the poor. And he set his hand to robbing the multitude of the Jews, and stole the law itself in Jerusalem, and stripped naked the daughter of Caiaphas, who was priestess of the sanctuary, and took away from its place the mysterious deposit itself placed there by Solomon.

Analytically it seems nearly every account gives different names to the thieves. This highly suggests that the names were made up. They probably were not known even in the very early church, as there really would have been little reason for anyone associated with Jesus to have known the other criminal’s. They were just random criminals – not associated with Jesus’ trial or anything like that.

Additionally, there is a strong tendency in apocryphal texts to give names to nameless figures and otherwise fill in “missing” details of the canonical Gospels. The same thing almost certainly happened here. The Greek name Dysmas, perhaps derives from the word dysme which means “sinking” or “setting”, thus suggesting “dying”. This suggests that the name may have been invented to fit the context.

So the real answer is, “It’s not known.” If we insist on names then Dismas (or Dysmas) for the repentant thief and Gestas for the unrepentant one is the best we can do. It is the earliest account and there is a small chance the Acts of Pilate has a historical core.

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