Source:Echoes:Ch11:12:Theft versus robbery

Legal Terminology for Theft and Robbery

Legal Terminology for Theft and Robbery

Although there is only little difference between a thief and a robber in most modern minds, there were considerable differences between the two under ancient Near Eastern and biblical law. A thief (ganab) was usually a local person who stole from his neighbor. He was dealt with judicially, and he was tried and punished civilly, most often by a court composed of his fellow townspeople. A robber (gedud), on the other hand, was treated as an outsider, as a brigand or highwayman. He was dealt with militarily, and he could be executed summarily.

The legal distinctions between theft and robbery, especially under the laws of ancient Israel, have been analyzed thoroughly by Bernard S. Jackson, an English barrister, professor of law, and former editor of the Jewish Law Annual. In his treatise Theft in Early Jewish Law, Jackson shows, for example, how robbers usually acted in organized groups rivaling local governments and attacking towns and how they swore oaths and extorted ransom, a menace worse than outright war. Thieves, however, were a much less serious threat to society.44 Precisely the same thing can be said of the Gadiation robbers.

In my own research, I have shown in detail how these ancient legal and linguistic distinctions are also observable in the Book of Mormon.45 For example, this ancient factor explains how Laban could call the sons of Lehi "robbers" and threaten to execute them on the spot without a trial, for that is how a military officer like Laban no doubt would have dealt with a robber. It also explains why the Lamanites are always said to "rob" from the Nephites but never from their own brethren—that would be theft, not robbery. Furthermore, it explains the rise and fearful menace of the Gadianton society, whose members are always called "robbers" in the Book of Mormon, never "thieves."

Other significant details also emerge. It is probably no coincidence that the Hebrew word for "band" or "bandits" is gedud, and the most famous Book of Mormon robbers were known as Gadianton's "band."

The importance of this ancient legal tradition in the Book of Mormon is further enhanced by the fact that Anglo-American common law would have provided Joseph Smith with quite a different understanding of the legal definitions of the terms theft and robbery, inconsistent in many ways with the dominant usages found in the Book of Mormon. In ordinary American usage, the two terms are nearly synonymous.

Moreover, if Joseph Smith had relied on the language of his King James Bible for legal definitions of these terms, he would have stumbled into error, for that translation uses the English words thief and robber indiscriminately. For example, the same phrase is translated inconsistently from the Hebrew or Greek of Jeremiah 7:11 as "den of robbers" and yet from the identical Greek in Matthew 21:13 as "den of thieves," even though Jesus was quoting Jeremiah on that occasion, to say nothing of the fact that thieves do not have dens. In addition, the same word for robbers in the Greek New Testament (lestai) is sometimes translated as "thieves" (crucified next to Jesus in Matthew 27:38) and other times as "robber"(describing Barabbas in John 18:40). Nevertheless, there was indeed an important ancient distinction between thieves and robbers that no translator should neglect, and over which Joseph Smith did not blunder.[1]


  1. John W. Welch, "A Steady Stream of Significant Recognitions," in Echoes and Evidences of the Book of Mormon, edited by Donald W. Parry, Daniel C. Peterson, and John W. Welch (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2002), Chapter 11, references silently removed—consult original for citations.