The Mystery of the Repentant Thief

Icon researchers often have unanswered questions about icons; one of these bothersome unanswered mysteries is the origin of the name Rakh. Who is Rakh? Well, in Russian iconography, he is the Repentant Thief, the fellow crucified next to Jesus, as is recorded is in the 23rd chapter of the Gospel of Saint Luke. Saint Luke just calls him a “malefactor” (Greek: κακούργους — kakourgos, meaning one who does bad, a criminal — not specifically a thief):

Good Thief 332 And there were also two other, malefactors, led with him to be put to death.33 And when they were come to the place, which is called Calvary, there they crucified him, and the malefactors, one on the right hand, and the other on the left…39 And one of the malefactors which were hanged railed on him, saying, If thou be Christ, save thyself and us.40 But the other answering rebuked him, saying, Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation? 41 And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss. 42 And he said unto Jesus, ‘Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom.’ 43 And Jesus said unto him, ‘Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise.’

Now interestingly, this account disagrees with that of Saint Matthew. In Matthew 27 we are told that two thieves were crucified with Jesus, but neither is repentant:

43 He trusted in God; let him deliver him now, if he will have him: for he said, I am the Son of God. 44The thieves (Greek: λῃσταὶ – lestai) also, which were crucified with him, cast the same in his teeth.

The earliest gospel — that called “of Mark” — also has thieves, but in Mark (chapter 15) they are simply there to fulfill prophecy. They neither scorn Jesus nor does either “repent”:

27 And with him they crucify two thieves (Greek: λῃστάς – listas); the one on his right hand, and the other on his left. 28 And the scripture was fulfilled, which saith, And he was numbered with the transgressors.

The gospel called “of John” (chapter 19) merely mentions two other people being crucified with Jesus. It tells us nothing whatsoever about them:

17 And he bearing his cross went forth into a place called the place of a skull, which is called in the Hebrew Golgotha: 18 Where they crucified him, and two others (Greek: ἄλλους – allous) with him, on either side one, and Jesus in the midst.

So we see that only Saint Luke tells us that one of the two crucified with Jesus was repentant, though he does not specify that the penitent was a thief. And that, combined with calling the two crucified with Jesus “thieves” in Matthew and Mark, along with the following from the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus, are the sources for icons of the Repentant Thief:

Good Thief 45 Then Pilate commanded the veil to be drawn before the judgement-seat whereon he sat, and saith unto Jesus: Thy nation hath convicted thee (accused thee) as being a king: therefore have I decreed that thou shouldest first be scourged according to the law of the pious emperors, and thereafter hanged upon the cross in the garden wherein thou wast taken: and let Dysmas and Gestas the two malefactors be crucified with thee… 2 And one of the malefactors that were hanged [by name Gestas] spake unto him, saying: If thou be the Christ, save thyself, and us. But Dysmas answering rebuked him, saying: Dost thou not at all 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: Remember me, Lord, in thy kingdom. And Jesus said unto him: Verily, verily, I say unto thee, that today thou shalt be (art) with me in paradise.

It does not take much thought to realize that we are not dealing with hagiography — pious writings written for a purpose other than literal history. But what we should note in these excerpts for our purposes here is that first, only one biblical gospel, that of Luke, tells us that one of the malefactors crucified with Jesus was “repentant” and was promised paradise. Second, we should note that this “repentant thief” is not named. Third, we find a similar, though somewhat elaborated story in the Gospel of Nicodemus, in which the repentant thief is given the name Dysmas, generally spelled Dismas.

Now we might logically expect to find, on Russian icons of the Repentant Thief, an identifying inscription such as “The Holy Repentant Thief Dismas,” or something similar. But this is the mystery. Russian icons do not call him Dismas. They call him Rakh. What makes this name even more puzzling is that the Greeks, from whom the Russians inherited a great many iconographic types, do not call the thief Rakh or even anything remotely similar. How, then, did this name arise?

This mystery seems to have a logical answer. In her book The Rakh Icon: Discovery of its True Identify, Renate Gerstenlauer gives the most reasonable explanation to date. She says it likely arose from a misreading of a title inscription, which was then perpetuated in titles given new icons of the Penitent Thief. Here is how it my have happened.

Good Thief 2In Russian the title of the Penitent Thief is generally: БЛАГОРАЗУМНЫЙ РАЗБОЙНИКЪ РАХЪ (BLAGORAZUMNUIY RAZBOINIK RAKH — “THE WISE THIEF RAKH”). Gerstenlauer theorizes that the Russian title may have come from a garbled reading [possibly due to damage of the inscription or unclear writing] of the title of a particular icon type of the Penitent Thief that is called “The Wise/Prudent Thief in Paradise,” written in Cyrillic as: БЛАГОРАЗУМНЫЙ РАЗБОЙНИКЪ ВЪ РАЮ (BLAGORAZUMNUIY RAZBOINIK V RAIU). It is in the last three words that the problem seems to have occurred. Instead of reading them as РАЗБОЙНИКЪ ВЪ РАЮ, they were somehow misread as РАЗБОЙНИКЪ РАХЪ, which could easily have happened if the inscription has been damaged, with the “ВЪ” disappearing and the word “РАЮ” (“paradise”) misread as РАХЪ (“Rakh”).

This suggested solution to the problem of the origin of the mysterious name for the Penitent Thief — a name that appeared to have been pulled out of nowhere by Russian icon painters — seems very likely to be the solution to the mystery.

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