THIEVES AND ROBBERS
Although there isn't much difference between a thief and a robber in most minds, there was a considerable difference between the two under ancient Near Eastern law. A thief (ganab) was usually a local person who stole from his neighbor. He was dealt with judicially. He was tried and punished civilly, most often by a court composed of his fellow townspeople. A robber, on the other hand, was an outsider, a brigand or highwayman. He was dealt with militarily. These outlaws could be executed summarily.
The legal distinction between theft and robbery, especially under the laws of ancient Israel, have been analyzed thoroughly by Bernard S. Jackson, Professor of Law at the University of Kent-Canterbury and editor of the Jewish Law Annual. He shows, for example, how robbers usually acted in organized groups rivaling local governments and attacking towns, how they swore oaths and extorted ransom, a menace worse than outright war. Thieves, however, were a much less serious threat to society.
In "Theft and Robbery in the Book of Mormon and in Ancient Near Eastern Law," John W. Welch shows in detail how this ancient legal and linguistic distinction is meticulously observed in the Book of Mormon. This explains how Laban could call the sons of Lehi "robbers" and threaten to execute them on the spot with a trial, for that is how a military officer like Laban no doubt would have dealt with a robber. It explains why the Lamanites are always said to "rob" from the Nephites but not from their own brethren—that would be "theft," not "robbery." It also explains the rise and fearful menace of the Gadianton society, who 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." Like gedud, the name Gadianton was spelled with two "d"s, Gaddianton, in the original manuscript of the Book of Mormon.
The importance of the presence of this ancient legal tradition in the Book of Mormon is enhanced by two further factors. First, Anglo-American common law would have provided Joseph Smith with quite a different understanding, inconsistent in many ways with usages found in the Book of Mormon. Second, if Joseph Smith had relied on his King James Bibles for such a distinction, he would have stumbled into error, for that tradition renders "thief" and "robber" indiscriminately. For example, the same phrase is translated inconsistently as "den of robbers" and "den of thieves" in Jer. 7:11 and Matt 21:13. The same word (lestai) is translated sometimes as "thieves" (Matt 27:38), other times as "robber" (John 18:40). But there is a difference between thieves and robbers which translators should not neglect.