What Can We Know about the Roman Centurion? by Helen K. Bond

As Jesus enters Capernaum in Matt 8:5-13, a Roman officer known as a ‘centurion’ begs him to heal his servant. Jesus offers to go to his house, but the centurion says that he is unworthy, and that Jesus only has to give the order and the young man will be healed. The same story is found in Luke 7:1-10, but with a few differences. Most strikingly, Jesus and the centurion never meet; instead, Jewish leaders act as intermediaries, taking this opportunity to stress the centurion’s piety and his favours to the Jewish community—even claiming that he “built us our synagogue” (Luke 7:5). In both gospels, the centurion is a paradigm of faith, reminiscent of pious Gentiles in the Old Testament (for example, Naaman the Syrian in 2Kgs 5), and points forward to the later expansion of the Church to non-Jews.

Most scholars think that the story comes from a source used by both Matthew and Luke, but unknown to Mark (a source that modern scholars call “Q”). This source tends to be largely made up of Jesus’ sayings, and it’s quite likely that both Matthew and Luke have fleshed out the Q story in their own ways and to serve their own purposes. (Some think the same story underlies John 4:46-54.)

So who was this centurion? He’s described as a hekatontarchos, the Greek equivalent to the Latin centurio. He cannot have been part of the Roman army, however, since there were no Roman forces in Galilee at the time; instead, he probably belonged to the royal troops of Herod Antipas. Rulers appointed by Rome (as was the case with Antipas) were expected to maintain an army and to provide Rome with military support when necessary. Antipas’s troops engaged in an unauthorized and disastrous war with Aretas IV of Nabataea in 36 C.E., but little else is known about them. Jews were exempted from conscription, and Antipas probably used mainly non-Jewish soldiers as his father Herod I had done. (The Jewish historian Josephus gives a description of Herod’s army in Antiquities 17.198.) The use of Roman titles suggests that Antipas organized his troops in the Roman way.

A centurion was in charge of eighty men (not 100, as the name would lead us to expect). In many ways, centurions were the real professionals of the army. Most owed their position not to family connections but to their military prowess. Centurions enjoyed a certain status and reasonably good pay. Besides a level of command on the battlefield, they engaged in a wide range of other activities: general policing (see Acts 27:1-3, Acts 27:43), customs work, and the supervision of capital penalties (Mark 15:39). The troops of Antipas seem to have been garrisoned within towns. Although centurions are presented positively in the New Testament, contemporary scholarship makes it clear that most were disliked by ordinary folk, who regarded them as cruel, violent, and self-serving.

We do not know the centurion’s nationality. He was clearly not Jewish, either by birth or conversion. Luke’s account suggests that he had some sympathies for the Jewish faith. The note that he “built our synagogue” (if true) may suggest he acted as a benefactor to the Jewish community in Capernaum. Given Matthew’s silence on the issue, however, it may be that Luke has presented the centurion in a pious light to prepare the way for other so-called ‘God-fearers’ in Acts (that is, those who are sympathetic to Jewish beliefs). On a historical level, all we can say is that the centurion belonged to the army of Herod Antipas, was based in Capernaum, and that he may have persuaded Jesus to heal his servant.

Helen K. Bond, "Roman Centurion", n.p. [cited 29 Mar 2017]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.com/en/places/related-articles/roman-centurion

Contributors

Helen K. Bond

Helen K. Bond
Senior Lecturer, University of Edinburgh

Helen K. Bond is senior lecturer in New Testament at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. She is interested in all aspects of the first-century Jewish world and the emergence of earliest Christianity. Her publications include Pontius Pilate in History and Interpretation (Cambridge University Press, 1998), Caiaphas: Friend of Rome and Judge of Jesus? (Westminster John Knox, 2004), and The Historical Jesus: A Guide for the Perplexed (Continuum, 2012).

Changing one's beliefs and self-identity from one religion to another.

A Jewish historian from the first century C.E. His works document the Jewish rebellions against Rome, giving background for early Jewish and Christian practices.

A collection of first-century Jewish and early Christian writings that, along with the Old Testament, makes up the Christian Bible.

Also called the Hebrew Bible, those parts of the canon that are common to both Jews and Christians. The designation "Old Testament" places this part of the canon in relation to the New Testament, the part of the Bible canonical only to Christians. Because the term "Old Testament" assumes a distinctly Christian perspective, many scholars prefer to use the more neutral "Hebrew Bible," which derives from the fact that the texts of this part of the canon are written almost entirely in Hebrew.

Devotion to a divinity and the expression of that devotion.

A hypothetical source of sayings about Jesus conceived to explain common materials in Matthew and Luke.

Matt 8:5-13

Jesus Heals a Centurion's Servant
5When he entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, appealing to him6and saying, “Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed ... View more

Luke 7:1-10

Jesus Heals a Centurion's Servant
1After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum.2A centurion there had a slave wh ... View more

Luke 7:5

5for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.”

2Kgs 5

The Healing of Naaman
1Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man and in high favor with his master, because by him the Lord had given v ... View more

John 4:46-54

Jesus Heals an Official's Son
46Then he came again to Cana in Galilee where he had changed the water into wine. Now there was a royal official whose son lay ill ... View more

Acts 27:1-3

Paul Sails for Rome
1When it was decided that we were to sail for Italy, they transferred Paul and some other prisoners to a centurion of the Augustan Cohort, n ... View more

Acts 27:43

43but the centurion, wishing to save Paul, kept them from carrying out their plan. He ordered those who could swim to jump overboard first and make for the land ... View more

Mark 15:39

39Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was God's Son!”

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