Note: This is an FAQ to the article written here.
What is this claim about Jesus saving a gay couple?
In the Gospels, a story is found of Jesus being approached by a centurion. The centurion is trying to get Jesus to heal his servant, who is back home dying. Jesus rushes to help, but the centurion says that he (Jesus) doesn’t have to go all the way; if he just says the word, the servant will be healed. Jesus marvels at the centurion’s faith and says the servant is healed. And so he was.
Matthew 8:5-13, Luke 7:1-10, John 4:46-54
How do the versions of the story differ?
The shortest version of the story is found in Matthew and is basically reported in shorthand above. It ends with an anti-Semitic rant about the grim future of the land of Israel that is missing in the other two versions and is characteristic of Matthew.
The story in Luke is very similar to that in Matthew, except it introduces elders who plead with Jesus on the centurion’s behalf and vouch for him, as he has been generous to the (Jewish) community. Also, while in Matthew Jesus and the centurion talk directly and freely, in Luke the centurion sends friends to talk with Jesus, who though say exactly what the centurion said in Matthew.
In John, the story is modified, to the point that most commentators deny it’s the same miracle. In it, the centurion becomes a royal official, while the servant, the official’s son. Also, the comment on the centurion’s faith turns into a simple statement about the whole household converting.
Why would the story in John refer to the same incident as the ones in Matthew and Luke?
The stories are very similar, with only details differing. More importantly, neither Matthew nor Luke report the different version in John, nor does John report the version in the other two Gospels. If this is about two different miracles, one wonders why two gospels report one miracle, one gospel the other, and there is no mention of both in one gospel. That would be expected, especially since it would be about two miracles very similar to each other.
Also, the argument that the stories must be referring to different miracles hinges only on the differences in detail. This argument leaves out the differences in details between the stories in Luke and Matthew, which then also would have to be two different miracles.
What is the common/orthodox reading of this story?
The differences in detail between Matthew and Luke on one side and John on the other make many commentators think this is about two different miracles that simply share some commonality.
The stories in Matthew and Luke refer to the healing of a servant/slave of no particular importance to the centurion.
It is generally thought unimportant that the two stories contradict each other on whether Jesus talked with the centurion in person.
It is also generally not remarked upon that the anti-Semitic verse in Matthew is missing from Luke.
What speaks against the idea that the centurion and the servant were a couple?
Prejudice and homophobia. There is absolutely no theological or historical reason to believe this could not have been the case.
Why would anyone think that the centurion and the servant were a couple?
There are three main arguments in favor:
- It is highly improbable that an officer of the Roman Empire would have gone to a Jewish faith healer for a random slave; the particular slave must have been of special importance (as Luke explicitly states)
- The centurion talks about the particular servant as (literally) my boy, implying a relationship deeper than that between master and servant; the word used for the “boy” by other people is that typically also used for male lovers
- Successive revisions of the story become more and more relationship-neutral as time went on. The King James Bible, for instance, tries to hide the implication by using the same word, servant, for two different words in the original (boy and slave)
Why is it remarkable that a centurion would ask Jesus to heal his “servant?”
Officials of the Roman Empire did not interact much with the Jewish population, and the Gospels record no encounters between Jesus and Roman soldiers except in their official, military capacity during his final days, with this exception.
Jesus himself seems not to have had an adversarial relationship with the Roman Empire: he famously said to “give Caesar what is Caesar’s,” which is now commonly read as separating the divine from the mundane, but on closer inspection was a concession to the civil, i.e. Roman authorities; he was also reported to surround himself with tax collectors (Roman collaborators) and sinners. Finally, Roman authorities (Pontius Pilate) were loath to punish him, even though the crime of which he stood accused was sedition, a very dangerous charge.
In that regard, Jesus was very different from the dominant Jewish culture of his time, which despised the Roman occupation and collaborators. One would think that a story about Jesus talking with a centurion would hinge on the political, since that is what contrasted Jesus from his culture. That is not the case, though: the version in Luke makes clear that the elders were very much in favor of helping the centurion for his generosity towards the community.
In fact, the most plausible plot reason why the centurion had to be Roman is that it would have been implausible for the centurion and the servant to have a relationship had the centurion been Jewish.
What is this about the two different words being used?
The stories in Matthew and Luke both mention the “servant” using the Greek word (transcribed in Latin characters) doulos. This word refers to slaves, i.e. property.
When the centurion speaks of this servant, he uses the phrase (again transcribed) o pais mou, which literally translates to, “my boy.”
This difference is retained in the Vulgate (the common Latin version of the Bible), where the words used are servus (Latin for “slave,” without the connotation of servant) and puer (Latin for “boy,” as in young human male, without the connotation of servant).
It is important to note that the centurion himself uses the word doulos when referring to his slaves in general, so he does not generally refer to his servants as “his boys.”
Finally, the word doulos was also used for the inferior partner in a romantic homosexual relationship, as recorded in the first history of the church (by Eusebius, quoting Hegesippus about the emperor Hadrian and his doulos / lover, Antinous).
What is this about a cover-up?
Homophobia seems to have entered the Christian community early on, and the traces of this can be seen in the evolution of this story.
The Gospels of Matthew and Luke seem to have been written around the same time, in the second half of the first century. The Gospel of John, on the other hand, was probably authored later, towards the end of that century.
It is easy to interpret the main difference between the stories of Matthew and Luke, namely that Jesus meets the centurion in Matthew but not in Luke, as discomfort with the idea that Jesus would have met a man involved in a “distasteful” relationship. The difference is quite remarkable, in that the version found in Luke has the centurion say almost the same exact thing using the same words as in Matthew, with the intervening artifact of friends sent to talk with Jesus.
The version in John would have been informed by stronger homophobia, to the point of removing the controversial elements of the story, namely the support for a gay couple, the Roman angle, and the highlighting of the centurion’s faith. Without them, the story become just an incidental miracle without any teaching ability, whereas the versions in Matthew and Luke emphasize two important parts of Jesus’s mission: its universality (since the non-Jew’s faith is highlighted) and its focus on sinners.
As mentioned, the later evolution of the story sees the Latin translation remove the romantic aspect of it and replace it with the notion that the slave was an actual boy. The main English translation, the King James Bible, goes in the completely opposite direction and uses the same word (servant) to cover both words in the original. This despite the fact that the words pais and boy both have the same three (relevant) connotations in their respective languages: (1) young male, (2) male object of affection, and (3) male performing a menial service.
What does it mean if Jesus healed one half of a gay couple and said that the other half had more faith than anyone he’d ever seen in the land of Israel?
It would generally just be a confirmation of Jesus’s stated mission: “But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire compassion, and not sacrifice,’ for I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:13)
The Gospels report that Jesus was repeatedly rebuked by the Pharisees for the sinning of his disciples. Not only did the Pharisees complain about that, they also drew a comparison between John the Baptist and his fasting ways with Jesus and his relative gluttony.
Whatever the reality, Jesus and his disciples had a reputation for “sinning,” the formal breaking of the Law. Jesus preferred sinners greatly, and performing a miracle for a sinner because that sinner has faith in him fits perfectly with the remainder of his mission. In fact, the chapter in Luke that begins with the story of the centurion ends with the story (Luke 7:36-50) of a different sexual sinner, a woman whose faith Jesus exalts compared to that of the Pharisee that invited him.
Whatever the speculation, isn’t it true that the story doesn’t explicitly say that Jesus healed a gay man and called that man’s lover faith, exceptional?
It is absolutely true, the story doesn’t say anything explicit. There are two important considerations to make, though:
- The Bible in general, and the Gospel text in particular, do not use explicit references to sexual activity; famously, words traditionally interpreted to mean “having sex” include “know” and “lie,” neither of which is an explicit reference. In particular, none of the Bible verses traditionally interpreted to refer to homosexuality even remotely come close to being explicit. The closest it gets is the Leviticus reference to “lying with a man like with a woman,” but even that one leaves us slightly perplexed, as it is not possible to lie with a man like with a woman, since a man lacks the anatomical feature required. Thus, the lack of explicit reference in the story of the centurion is perfectly in line with Bible text.
- Anyone hearing about the story in the first century would have automatically assumed it is about a gay couple. We can infer this from the words used, but even more so by the progressive drifting of the story away from the original. The fact that the story has been mutated over the centuries to hide its relationship implications indicates very strongly that the those implications were widely perceived.
To conclude, while the story itself doesn’t say anything about the centurion or the servant being gay, its history implies that it was widely perceived as a story about a gay couple.
It is unlikely that anyone reading this story wouldn’t have understood that the main character was implied to be in a homosexual relationship. It is extremely unlikely that the two authors of the Gospels relating it wouldn’t have known that this was implied. That they recorded it implies and means that they saw its relevance to Jesus’s mission.
Hence, Jesus saved one half of a gay couple from certain death and called out the faith of the other half as extraordinary.