Icon researchers have their pet mysteries — unanswered questions about icons or icon painting that tend to frequently occupy their thoughts. For me, one of these bothersome unanswered questions was for a long time 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 the tale is told in the 23rd chapter of the Gospel called “of Luke” (no one really knows who wrote it). And of course Luke just calls him a “malefactor,” κακουργος — kakourgos, meaning one who does bad, a criminal — not specifically a thief, which notion arises elsewhere.
32 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 Matthew. In Matthew 27 we are told that two thieves (lestai) 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 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 fulfil supposed prophecy. They neither scorn Jesus nor does either “repent”:
27 And with him they crucify two thieves; 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.
Now interestingly enough, the Greek word used in Mark and Matthew for the two “thieves” crucified with Jesus is λησταί/lestai (in the form λῃστάς/lestas in Mark), which in the writings of the Jewish historian Josephus is the term commonly used for Jewish rebels against Rome, who likely had robbery as part of their anti-Roman activities. So it is possible that instead of simply “thieves,” we should understand the two crucified with Jesus to be anti-Roman rebels. In the Gospel of John, the Barabbas who was released in place of Jesus is called a λῃστής/lestes, so it is very possible that he also was an anti-Roman rebel.
However, regarding the crucifixion, 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 other with him, on either side one, and Jesus in the midst.
So we see that only “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:
5 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 history, but rather with hagiography — pious writings written for a purpose other than literal history. People often just “made things up.” 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.
That is the name we find, for example, on the title of the missing figure at right on this remnant of a 9th century Crucifixion icon from the Monastery of Saint Catherine at Sinai. We see the still remaining image and title of Gestas at left:
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 where the mystery comes in. 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?
That mystery has puzzled me for decades, but finally I came across what seems 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 may have happened.
In Russian the title of the Penitent Thief is generally:
BLAGORAZUMNUIY RAZBOINIK RAKH — “THE WISE THIEF RAKH”
In Cyrillic it looks like this:
БЛАГОРАЗУМНЫ РАЗБОЙНИК РАХ
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
БЛАГОРАЗУМНЫ РАЗБОЙНИК В РАЮ — BLAGORAZUMNUIY RAZBOINIK V RAIU
It is in the last three words that the problem seems to have occurred. Instead of reading them as РАЗБОЙНИК В РАЮ, they were somehow misread as РАЗБОЙНИК РАХ, which could easily have happened if the inscription has been damaged, with the В disappearing and the word РАЮ — “paradise” — misread as РАХ — “Rakh,” with the transliteration “kh” pronounced as the gutteral “ch” in the German name Bach. Rakh rhymes with Bach.
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 that pestered my mind for many long years.
I hope the reader has noticed by now that icons have a very spotted history. In this case, the Penitent Thief arose because one gospel writer — whom we now call Luke — somehow got the idea that one of the two thieves mentioned in the Gospel of Mark should have repented. Where he got this idea we do not know, because Matthew obviously did not hold the same view. And then, some three hundred years later, this thief was given the name Dismas in the Gospel of Nicodemus. There are also other variant names in circulation from other apocryphal works, but only Dismas seems to have stuck. The noted exception, of course, being Russian iconography, where many centuries later he was named Rakh, apparently due to a mistake. It is all a rather touchy, haphazard business, but that is how religious stories and traditions arise. One should not take them too literally.
In Russian iconography, Rakh may be found in his own icons, carrying a cross. He is also a notable figure in Russian icons of the Resurrection, which in its traditional version is Christ’s descent into Hades, also taken from apocryphal sources. In that icon Rakh is at the head of a long line of saints winding up from Hades to the Gates of Paradise, and Rakh is generally the first at the door (I will probably discuss this type in some future posting). Some icons also show him within paradise, still holding his cross, thus a variant of the title inscription discussed above — “The Wise/Prudent Thief Rakh in Paradise.” Such icons have lots of odd little “Dr. Seuss-like” trees around Rakh, as in the example at the top of this page.
Here is a 14th century example from the Gračanica Monastery, Serbia:
The inscription reads:
ПРАВЕДНИ РАЗБОИНИК — PRAVEDNI RAZBOINIK — “Righteous Thief.”
I could not possibly end this little discussion without mentioning that the home town of Bill and Ted in the movie Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure is San Dimas, California — and San Dimas is just the Spanish form of Saint Dismas, the old name of the Repentant Thief in the Gospel of Nicodemus. Life is strange. And the holy word according to Bill and Ted saith “Be excellent to each other.”