Saturday, 18 August 2012

Jesus and the Centurion's boy

There's been a great deal of huff and puff over a story in the Huffington Post about the healing of the centurion's servant by Jesus.
The story of the faithful centurion, told in Matthew 8:5-13 and Luke 7:1-10, is about a Roman centurion who comes to Jesus and begs that Jesus heal his pais, a word sometimes translated as "servant." Jesus agrees and says he will come to the centurion's home, but the centurion says that he does not deserve to have Jesus under his roof, and he has faith that if Jesus even utters a word of healing, the healing will be accomplished. Jesus praises the faith of the centurion, and the pais is healed. This tale illustrates the power and importance of faith, and how anyone can possess it. The centurion is not a Jew, yet he has faith in Jesus and is rewarded. But pais does not mean "servant." It means "lover."
In Thucydides, in Plutarch, in countless Greek sources, and according to leading Greek scholar Kenneth Dover, pais refers to the junior partner in a same-sex relationship. Now, this is not exactly a marriage of equals. An erastes-pais relationship generally consisted of a somewhat older man, usually a soldier between the ages of 18 and 30, and a younger adolescent, usually between the ages of 13 and 18. Sometimes that adolescent was a slave, as seems to be the case here.
The article continues: "And what is Jesus's response? Does he spit in the centurion's face for daring to suggest that he heal the soldier's lover? Hardly. He recognizes the relationship and performs an act of grace."

After the predictable gasps of disbelief, it seems that even some more conservative academic bibliobloggers have agreed that this is indeed the most likely meaning.  Who'd have thought this old Sunday School stand-by could be so controversial?

But then, the Bible comes to us from a "far country," both in terms of time and culture.  Mores vary from society to society, and we are fools to project our own assumptions onto an ancient text in an unthinking way (which is, of course, exactly what most Christians delight in doing!)  What should outrage us more; that the centurion's servant was his bed warmer, or that he was forced into that role through the institution of slavery?

What is just as surprising is that this explanation of the passage has apparently come as a blast out of the blue to some working in the field of biblical studies.  Feeling somewhat smug, I dusted off a copy of The Bible Tells Me So (Hill and Cheadle, Anchor Books, 1996) and found this quote which left me stunned a full decade ago.
Matthew 8:5, in which Jesus healed the centurion's "servant" (the original Greek reads "beloved boy"), suggests a homosexual relationship... (p.74)
And that's in the Bible?

Yup.  No wonder the standard translations and commentaries massage it into something safe and innocuous for the folk in the pews. 

I'm not sure the story actually has much value in terms of current debates on homosexuality.  The Hellenistic world is obviously (and thankfully!) not ours, slavery has disappeared from Western consciousness, and youngsters are protected from abuse and exploitation by the laws of our lands.  In that sense our post-modern societies are better places than anything the Bible writers envisioned as remotely possible, short of the magical millennium.

The point here is that the Bible can still surprise us, once the devotional veneer is peeled away, even when the surprise comes in less than edifying form. 


  1. It's hilarious when liberal Christians try to interpret this story as Jesus being OK with homosexuality. Because in Lk (IIRC) the "boy" is clearly called a slave.... so one can only assume that Jesus was OK with sex slaves. :P

  2. Here is a well-done examination of the Huff Po piece. This NT scholar has written on biblical slavery and takes a very balanced approach to looking at the question of Matt. 8:6. He reasons, with evidence, that the Huff Po author makes valid points but that the conclusion of homosexuality is ultimately unsupported.

  3. Don't let Roderick Meredith find out.

    Ooh! And I'll bet that Centurian was so masculine!

  4. Over the years in business, selling and servicing capital equipment, by the law of averages, some of the customers have been openly gay. I was quite surprised to learn that some of them consider themselves to be Christian. There is an entire alternative school of thought that they claim to obtain from the Bible, and it is much different from what most of us have been taught or believe. I suspect that the material in this latest blog entry could figure prominently into their theology.

    I've always been thankful that God didn't make me gay. It's not just like being born left-handed. The compassion normally expected of Christians often goes haywire whenever this topic comes up.


  5. In a way I agree, yet... It might tell us something about Jesus attitude to slavery and sexuality, neither seems as important as the more immediate issue of a lad on his death-bed. "Ordinary" compassion takes precedence over potential social or religious issues. Many on both sides of the current debates could learn from that!

  6. I went reaching for my Strong's Concordance on this one, to check other uses of "pais" in the N.T.

    Would you consider David the same-sex partner of God (Luke 1:69) - or the tribe/nation of Israel (1:54)?

    And would anyone dare declare Jesus the same-sex lover of God the Father (Matthew 12:18; Acts 3:13, 26)?

    Sorry, but I'm skeptical. Very skeptical.

    1. More troubling would be the concept of being the "Bride of Christ".

      We're still all waiting for an explanation on that one.

      I guess we'll have to wait....

      Or maybe I should be skeptical. Very skeptical.

  7. You mean to say the centurion was a pedophile.

  8. very amusing to refer to James McGrath as a "more conservative academic biblioblogger".

  9. In the 2011 book, "Jerusalem, the Biography" by Simon Sebag Montefiore, in a footnote at the bottom of page 140 (in my printing, Chapter 14 is pages 135 to 147) is this quote: "However, in a reversal of today's morality, Romans believed it was acceptable to have sex with boys but not with adults." This was about AD123, less than a century later after the centurion.

  10. This page is lit my dude, thanks for the facts. You are very helpful, but I don't know how to pronounce the name of the website. I'm religious, can I get an AMEN, thank you Jesus.

  11. This website is big, you know what else is big...
    My love for Jesus Christ, Can I get an Amen