[This is a post in a series expanding themes encountered in the novel, In the Mission.]
There were many passages in the Gospels that I didn’t understand, as a child. I would read them with my mother, she would explain them, and they still didn’t make a lot of sense to me. I decided that I’d just have to wait to understand them, just like when the adults talked about sexy things. There was going to be a time when I’d understand all these things that were adult-only.
One of the passages I didn’t understand is the following:
The Faith of the Centurion
5 When Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, asking for help. 6 “Lord,” he said, “my servant lies at home paralyzed, suffering terribly.”
7 Jesus said to him, “Shall I come and heal him?”
8 The centurion replied, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. 9 For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”
10 When Jesus heard this, he was amazed and said to those following him, “Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith. 11 I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. 12 But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
13 Then Jesus said to the centurion, “Go! Let it be done just as you believed it would.” And his servant was healed at that moment.
As I child, I always wondered why the centurion cared so much about this particular slave. I mean, by all accounts a slave was considered simple property at the time, dehumanized in a way we cannot quite understand any longer today. Whichever way the slave became such, he or she lost their human personhood. Even the laws on the books in the Old Testament were meant to be lenient and just, and yet sound harsh and inhumane today.
I didn’t know much about those laws. I did know a lot of Hollywood movies that showed the treatment of slaves in ancient times. It wasn’t pretty. With that “knowledge” in mind, I wondered what could have made this centurion go out of his way to ask Jesus for a favor.
I grew up in Rome, so I was brought up feeling the sense of superiority that the mighty Roman Empire felt. I could see the monuments, larger than anything else built at the time. I could see the capital, could imagine how a Roman centurion would feel in Judea. Probably like the British Raj in India. Looking down upon a culture infinitely older than his own, considering the local faith a quaint superstition. For the centurion to seek out a Jewish healer and tell him that he didn’t deserve him under his roof was strange at best. The whole story reeked of an act of desperation: this slave was immensely important to the centurion, and he would have done pretty much anything to save him, even make a fool of the empire he represented. But why?
Fast forward 20 years to present times. I had noticed a strange fact, namely that the two versions of this story in the Gospels, one in Matthew, the other in Luke, differed in important, though subtle ways. Here is Luke’s version:
1 When He had completed all His discourse in the hearing of the people, He went to Capernaum.
2 And a centurion’s slave, who was highly regarded by him, was sick and about to die. 3 When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders asking Him to come and save the life of his slave. 4 When they came to Jesus, they earnestly implored Him, saying, “He is worthy for You to grant this to him; 5 for he loves our nation and it was he who built us our synagogue.” 6 Now Jesus started on His way with them; and when He was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends, saying to Him, “Lord, do not trouble Yourself further, for I am not worthy for You to come under my roof; 7 for this reason I did not even consider myself worthy to come to You, but just say the word, and my servant will be healed. 8 For I also am a man placed under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to this one, ‘Go!’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come!’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this!’ and he does it.” 9 Now when Jesus heard this, He marveled at him, and turned and said to the crowd that was following Him, “I say to you, not even in Israel have I found such great faith.” 10 When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.
The stories are essentially identical, with two major differences: in Luke, Jesus never talks with the centurion; and Matthew has one of his usual screeds against the Jews that Luke tellingly does not report.
The first difference was important to the plot of In the Mission, so I started reading about the passage in general. You see, to Luke it seems very significant that the centurion never talked to Jesus directly, because he comes up with the friends that come to talk in the centurion’s stead. The friends, in this narrative, talk to Jesus as if the centurion was talking himself, unlike the elders who plead on his behalf. So, while the story is almost identical, in one case it is significant that the centurion didn’t talk with Jesus, while in the other Jesus and the centurion talked directly and freely. This is a contradiction in an important detail, which was significant to the plot.
While reading about the passages, I started noting that they were quoted on a lot of different web sites. The common thread that connected all these pages was that the centurion was a person of faith, and that his faith showed itself in his self-abasement. Additionally, many of those pages remark on the surprise that Jesus felt ministering to a non-Jew, considering how his mission was for the Jews.
That reading didn’t add up to me. First, it didn’t explain why the centurion was so interested in the healing of this particular slave. Second, it didn’t explain the discrepancy between the stories of Luke and Matthew. Did the centurion meet Jesus or not? Were there elders involved or not?
I went in and read the passages in the original. I wanted to know what was going on, and how the story unfolded in the original meaning. There, I noticed that two different words are used where the translation uses, “servant.” One word is doulos, which is the correct term for a slave – so much so that in the sado-maso community, the tattoo “doulos” is frequently used to mark a “slave” to this day. The other is the term pais, which doesn’t really mean servant, and doesn’t mean slave at all. We are familiar with the term pais, since it found its way into English as the root ped- at the beginning of the words pediatrics and pedophile. Pais in Greek means simply, boy.
English is remarkable, in that it uses the word “boy” in a way very similar to the Greek. In that, the two languages are probably unique. In both, a boy/pais is primarily a young male. A secondary meaning is that of a term of endearment, as we use in “boyfriend;” the “boy” in there clearly doesn’t imply age, but simply affection. The same is true for Greek. Finally, and that’s where the reading “servant” comes from, boy/pais can be used to designate someone who is performing a menial and subservient task. A busboy in a restaurant, or a bell boy in an elevator might be examples.
Well, I heard the complaint, so two different terms are used. Who cares?
We need to care, because the placements of the two words are not used at random. Doulos is used throughout the passage, except where the centurion is talking about the sick boy/slave. Then he uses the phrase, “o pais mou,” my boy. And it’s not just a matter of him using a different word to refer to his servants in general: when he tells Jesus that he easily commands his soldiers to do this and his servants to do that, he uses the term, doulos.
We know from history that it was fairly common for Roman military officers to take slaves as lovers, since they weren’t really jeopardizing their marriages. Since a slave was property, you could do whatever you wanted with them. In fact, the term doulos was used as a euphemism for lover quite commonly. One of the earliest Church writers, Hegesippus, tell us that:
One of these [idols] was Antinous, a slave of Hadrian Caesar’s, in memory of whom the Antinoian Games are held.
(Quoted from Eusebius, Church History)
Now, Antinous was not a slave of Hadrian’s in any other sense than as lover. We have no record of his being owned, and he came from a part of the Empire (Bythinia) that was Hellenized and free. So we need to assume that the reference to slave (doulos) indicates the sexual relation between the two.
Did Jesus save the gay lover of a Roman soldier? Hard to tell, since we do not have really good sources. We can for sure say that someone reading the passage in the first century would have assumed that’s what it was talking about, because when people of the time talked about a gay lover, they used the terms used in this story.
But it’s more than just my reading of the story and of the circumstance. Homophobia seems to have entered Christianity early on, and this story has always made some people uncomfortable. How do we know? Because we can follow its evolution. In Matthew, we hear (aside from the anti-Semitic screed) the basic, unvarnished version. It sounds authentic and plausible. Luke’s version, with the weird friends sent to talk in the stead of the centurion, sounds very fishy, especially when it quotes the friends talking as if they were the centurion himself.
It gets worse. The Gospel of John, written much later than Matthew or Luke, was already written in an environment where it was impossible to have Jesus heal one half of a gay couple, so the “boy” was conveniently turned into a son. This discrepancy was so strong that a lot of bible commentators claim it’s two separate incidents – despite obvious parallels and the small number of miracles reported that didn’t really allow for parallels that wouldn’t go remarked on.
What happened after that? Again, it gets worse. We saw that the original of the story (in Greek) has two terms for the lover: doulos and pais, the latter only used by the centurion about “my boy.” The most important early translation of the Bible, that in Latin (the Vulgate) retains that distinction. The centurion talks about the lover as “puer meus” (Latin for “my boy / young male”), while others call him “servus” (which in Latin means slave, not servant). In that sense, the Latin translation overcorrects and must have sounded a little creepy.
Later translations, like the King James Bible, try their best to hide the distinction. Suddenly, the two words pais and doulos are conflated into servant. The farther you go from the story, the less it is about a gay lover. It’s not the “crime” of homophobia that is easy to prove, but the attempt to cover up.
Read the passage in Matthew above, with the correct terms inserted, and feel the discomfort that must have arisen in homophobes:
5 When Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, asking for help. 6 “Lord,” he said, “my boy(friend) lies at home paralyzed, suffering terribly.”
7 Jesus said to him, “Shall I come and heal him?”
8 The centurion replied, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my boy(friend) will be healed. 9 For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”
How does our perception of the story change if it was indeed about a gay lover? For one, the reference to a centurion isn’t necessarily about a non-Jew anymore. Jewish society didn’t accept gay couples of any form, especially not pederastic ones, and the fact this couple was not Jewish may just have been to explain why they existed as a couple in the first place.
This reading would also explain a lot of things about the story itself. First of all, it would explain why the centurion is so interested in healing this servant – his lover. Then, it also conveniently explains why Luke doesn’t want Jesus to talk with the centurion directly, maybe a scandal too big for the author of that Gospel. Finally, this version of the story also explains why the screed against the Jews is present only in Matthew (who loves that weeping and gnashing of teeth!): it’s not about the Jews vs. the Romans, it’s about Jesus reasserting the notion that sinners can be closer to God than the righteous.
This last fact is one of the most frequently suppressed notions of the Gospels. Jesus again and again engages with sinners – or what passed as sinners at the time, e.g. lepers – and reunites them with God. On the other hand, he condemns the righteous over and over. This story of Jesus being pleased with the faith of a sinner fits into that narrative perfectly: faith trumps sin, compassion trumps sacrifice, any day for Jesus.
[All Bible quotes from the New American Standard Bible]