A month or so ago I visited the Orthodox Church of the Virgin Mary in Beit Jala, Palestine. I captured a picture of this stone (see image below and the original post here) but struggled to capture the story.
Yesterday I got the skinny from Father Yusef, a local priest. He was waiting to perform a baptism and was happy to chat while the family gathered. What I learned turned out to be an interesting mix of gospel and tradition. It goes like this:
When Joseph, Mary, and Jesus fled the wrath of Herod, they stopped to rest by this stone. Thieves attacked them but found that the Holy Family had no possessions but the donkey. So they took it.
Later, one of the thieves, named Thismas (or Dismas, according to the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus), was confronted by an angel. He was told that if he returned the stolen donkey, something good would happen to him. So he did.
It was this thief, my new friend told me, who was crucified next to Jesus. Now that hardly sounds like a good thing, save for the fact that this man turned out to be "the penitent thief" who asked to be remembered by Jesus and was promised paradise (See here for Luke's account of that moment).
If I had been thinking more quickly I would have asked Father Yusef what offense earned him a death penalty at the hands of the Romans some 30 years later.
The stone was originally in the Church of Elias in Jerusalem, but after that structure was damaged by the Turks it was brought it to Beit Jala. You can find it there to this day.
Dr. Mark Ziese, Dean of the School of Bible and Theology at Johnson University, manages the website Bible Land Explorer and teaches regularly in the Biblical heartland. You are invited to join Mark and Vicki for a Mediterranean Cruise aboard the Celebrity Reflection in October, 2018. Onboard lectures will focus on Paul's fourth missionary journey. See the link here for details.