Friday, June 20, 2008

Jesus and the Centurion (Part 1)

Recently on the blogsite Bessemer Opinions, Joe Openshaw shared an excerpt from The Children Are Free: Reexaming the Biblical Evidence on Same-Sex Relationships by Jeff Miner and John Tyler Connoley.

I’d not heard of this book before, though was familiar with the idea that the Roman centurion who begs Jesus to cure his servant, may well have been what we call today a gay man.

Here’s the excerpt of The Children Are Free that Openshaw shares on his blog.


When Jesus Met a Gay Man
By Jeff Miner and John Tyler Connoley

From our days in Sunday School, many of us are familiar with the Gospel story where Jesus healed the servant of a Roman centurion. The story is recorded in Matthew 8:5-13 and Luke 7:1-10. In Matthew, we are told that the centurion came to Jesus to plead for the healing of his servant. Jesus said he was willing to come to the centurion’s house, but the centurion said there was no need for Jesus to do so. He believed that if Jesus simply spoke the word, his servant would be healed. Marveling at the man's faith, Jesus pronounced the servant healed. Luke tells a similar story.

Just another miracle story, right? Not on your life!

In the original language, the importance of this story for gay, lesbian and bisexual Christians is much clearer. The Greek word used in Matthews account to refer to the servant of the centurion is pais. In the language of the time, pais had three possible meanings depending upon the context in which it was used. It could mean son or boy; it could mean servant, or it could mean a particular type of servant one who was his master’s male lover. (Footnote 18) Often these lovers were younger than their masters, even teenagers.

To our modern minds, the idea of buying a teen lover seems repugnant. But we have to place this in the context of ancient cultural norms. In ancient times, commercial transactions were the predominant means of forming relationships. Under the law, the wife was viewed as the property of the husband, with a status just above that of a slave. Moreover, in Jesus’ day, a boy or girl was considered of marriageable age upon reaching his or her early teens. It was not uncommon for boys and girls to marry at age 14 or 15. (Footnote 19) Nor was it uncommon for an older man to marry a young girl. Fortunately civilization has advanced, but these were the norms in the culture of Jesus day.

In that culture, if you were a gay man who wanted a male spouse, you achieved this, like your heterosexual counterparts, through a commercial transaction purchasing someone to serve that purpose. A servant purchased to serve this purpose was often called a pais.

The word boy in English offers a rough comparison. Like pais, the word boy can be used to refer to a male child. But in the slave South in the nineteenth century, boy was also often used to refer to male slaves. The term boy can also be used as a term of endearment. For example, Jeff’s father often refers to his mother as his girl. He doesn’t mean that she is a child, but rather that she is his special one. The term boy can be used in the same way, as in my boy or my beau. In ancient Greek, pais had a similar range of meanings.

Thus, when this term was used, the listener had to consider the context of the statement to determine which meaning was intended. Some modern Christians may be tempted to simply declare by fiat that the Gospels could not possibly have used the term pais in the sense of male lover, end of discussion. But that would be yielding to prejudice. We must let the word of God speak for itself, even if it leads us to an uncomfortable destination.

Is it possible the pais referred to in Matthew 8 and Luke 7 was the Roman centurion’s male lover? Lets look at the biblical evidence.

The Bible provides three key pieces of textual and circumstantial evidence. First, in the Luke passage, several additional Greek words are used to describe the one who is sick. Luke says this pais was the centurion's entimos duolos. The word duolos is a generic term for slave, and was never used in ancient Greek to describe a son/boy. Thus, Luke’s account rules out the possibility the sick person was the centurion’s son; his use of duolos makes clear this was a slave. However, Luke also takes care for indicate this was no ordinary slave. The word entimos means honored. This was an honored slave (entimos duolos) who was his master’s pais. Taken together, the three Greek words preclude the possibility the sick person was either the centurion’s son or an ordinary slave, leaving only one viable option: he was his master’s male lover. (Footnote 20)

A second piece of evidence is found in verse 9 of Mathew’s account. In the course of expressing his faith in Jesus’ power to heal by simply speaking, the centurion says, “When I tell my slave to do something, he does it.” By extension, the centurion concludes that Jesus is also able to issue a remote verbal command that must be carried out. When speaking of his slaves, the centurion uses the word duolos. But when speaking of the one he is asking Jesus to heal, he uses only pais. In other words, when he is quoted in Matthew, the centurion uses pais only when referring to the sick person. He uses a different word, doulos, when speaking of his other slaves, as if to offer a distinction. (In Luke, it is others, not the centurion, who call the sick one an entimos duolos.) Again, the clear implication is that the sick man was no ordinary slave. And when pais was used to describe a servant who was not an ordinary slave, it meant only one thing: a slave who was the master’s male lover.

The third piece of evidence is circumstantial. In the Gospels, we have many examples of people seeking healing for themselves or for family members. But this story is the only example of someone seeking healing for a slave. The actions described are made even more remarkable by the fact that this was a proud Roman centurion (the conqueror/oppressor) who was humbling himself and pleading with a Jewish rabbi (the conquered/oppressed) to heal his slave. The extraordinary lengths to which this man went to seek healing for his slave is much more understandable, from a psychological perspective, if the slave was his beloved companion.

Thus, all the textual and circumstantial evidence in the Gospels points in one direction. For objective observers, the conclusion is inescapable: in this story Jesus healed a man’s male lover. When understood this way, the story takes on a whole new dimension.

Imagine how it may have happened. While stationed in Palestine, the centurion’s pais becomes ill experiencing some type of life threatening paralysis. The centurion will stop at nothing to save him. Perhaps a friend tells him of rumors of Jesus’ healing powers. Perhaps this friend also tells him Jesus is unusually open to foreigners, teaching his followers that they should love their enemies, even Roman soldiers. So the centurion decides to take a chance. Jesus was his only hope.

As he made his way to Jesus, he probably worried about the possibility that Jesus, like other Jewish rabbis, would take a dim view of his homosexual relationship. Perhaps he even considered lying. He could simply use the word duolos. That would have been accurate, as far as it went. But the centurion probably figured if Jesus was powerful enough to heal his lover, he was also powerful enough to see through any half-truths.

So the centurion approaches Jesus and bows before him. “Rabbi,” my the word gets caught in his throat. This is it the moment of truth. Either Jesus will turn away in disgust, or something wonderful will happen. So, the centurion clears his throat and speaks again. "Rabbi, my pais, yes, my pais, lies at home sick unto death.” Then he pauses and waits for a second that must have seemed like an eternity. The crowd of good, God fearing people surrounding Jesus probably became tense. This was like a gay man asking a televangelist to heal his lover. What would Jesus do?

Without hesitation, Jesus says, “Then I will come and heal him.”

Its that simple! Jesus didn’t say, “Are you kidding? I’m not going to heal your pais so you can go on living in sin!” Nor did he say, "Well, it shouldn't surprise you that your pais is sick; this is God’s judgment on your relationship.”

Instead, Jesus’ words are simple, clear and liberating for all who have worried about what God thinks of gay relationships. “I will come and heal him.”

At this point, the centurion says there is no need for Jesus to travel to his home. He has faith that Jesus’ word is sufficient. Jesus then turns to the good people standing around him those who were already dumbfounded that he was willing to heal this man’s male lover. To them, Jesus says in verse 10 of Matthews account, “I have not found faith this great anywhere in Israel.” In other words, Jesus holds up this gay centurion as an example of the type of faith others should aspire to.

Jesus didn’t just tolerate this gay centurion. He said he was an example of faith someone we all should strive to be like.

Then, just so the good, God-fearing people wouldn’t miss the point, Jesus speaks again in verse 11: “I tell you, many will come from the east and the west (i.e., beyond the borders of Israel) to find a seat in the kingdom of heaven, while the heirs (i.e., those considered likely to inherit heaven) will be thrown into outer darkness.” By this statement Jesus affirmed that many others like this gay centurion, those who come from beyond the assumed boundaries of God’s grace are going to be admitted to the kingdom of heaven. And he also warned that many who think themselves the most likely to be admitted will be left out.

With this story, we rest our case. Who could ask for more? In this story, Jesus restores a gay relationship by a miracle of healing and then holds up a gay man as an example of faith for all to follow. What more do our fundamentalist friends want? Who is Lord? Jesus or cultural prejudice?

18. K. J. Dover, Greek Homosexuality (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1978), page 16; Bernard Sergent, Homosexuality in Greek Myth (Beacon Press, Boston, 1986), page 10.

19. Mercer Dictionary of the Bible (Mercer University Press, Macon, 1994), page 554.

20. For an excellent and thorough discussion of the terms pais and entimos duolos in these two gospel accounts, see Donald Mader’s article The Entimos Pais of Matthew 8:5-13 and Luke 7:1-10, (Source: Homosexuality and Religion and Philosophy, Harland Publishing, Inc, New York, 1998).


Interestingly, in the November-December 2007 issue of The Gay and Lesbian Review – an issue devoted to the theme “Eros and God” – Jack Clark Robinson had an article entitled “Jesus, the Centurion, and His Lover.”

Toward the end of this article Robinson discusses the implications of the story of the centurion and his servant for the lives of Christians today.

“Christians by definition ponder the words and actions of Jesus,” he writes. “For all of the statements over the centuries justifying the Christian condemnation of homosexuality, no one has ever quoted Jesus himself making such a pronouncement, because he never did. Instead, in his one encounter with what may well have been a homosexual man, Jesus offered no harsh judgment but instead went to unusual lengths to heal the man’s sick companion. . . . Historically, homosexuality has not been condemned by the Christian community because Jesus condemned it, but because the community inherited a condemnation of homosexuality from a worldview that did not understand the incidence, provenance, or nature of any form of human sexual attraction. The Gospel of Jesus should mean that the condemnation of anyone or of their relationship cannot be based on prejudice.”

Robinson also notes “one final irony.” “In the Roman Catholic Communion rite,” he reminds us, “the last words said by every communicant before receiving Holy Communion are: ‘Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but say the word and I shall be healed.’ These words may sound familiar now. They paraphrase the centurion’s words as recorded in Matthew. How surprised many of those who condemn homosexuality in Christ’s name would be if they realized that every time they take Holy Communion, the words on their lips are those of a gay man.”

Robinson’s article ensured some interesting letters-to-the-editor in the next issue of The Gay and Lesbian Review. Although they didn’t disagree with his overall thesis, all of the letter writers took Robinson to task for insufficiently referencing his article. For instance, Donald Mader (author of the 1987 article, “The Entimos Pais of Matthew’s 8:5-13 and Luke 7:1-10”) wrote: “I am not suggesting plagiarism; rather, it would appear that [Robinson] has been guilty of sloppy research.”

And apparently, there’s quite a bit of “research” out there on this particular gospel story – research that’s surveyed in some detail by another letter writer to the Gay and Lesbian Review, William A. Percy of Boston.

NOTE: Percy’s response to Robinson’s article can be found in
Part 2 of “Jesus and the Centurion.”

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
The Bible and Homosexuality
Song of Songs: The Bible’s Gay Love Poem
On Civil Unions and Christian Tradition
St. Francis of Assisi and Human Sexuality
The Sexuality of Jesus
The Many Manifestations of God’s Loving Embrace


Anonymous said...

CDE said...

The anachronisms in this interpretation are remarkable. The term "gay" is a 20th century political construct. Comparing Jesus to a televangelist also demonstrates the eisegetical (rather than exegetical) approach of this interpretation... In other words, a modern point of view is the lens by which an ancient text is being interpreted.

Also, if Jesus' behavior with the centurion was a revolutionary gesture to condone homosexuality/pederasty, why do the scriptures not record an objection from the Pharisees?

Anonymous said...

I've encountered this argument before. It raises way more problems than it helps in any real way. The possible arguments from silence are myriad, and simply choosing ones we might like is rather adolescent. This is not an empowering or liberating exegesis at all.

Anonymous said...

Addressing Clayton's issues, the word "gay" as a referent, true, is recent, but the referent is not. Homophilia, gynophilia, androphilia, or simply erotic love was understood in Greek times to mean same-sex love as well as opposite-sex love. Names change, referents do not. Senses change. Referents do not. This distinction is basic to any understanding of language.

For example, "sin" would not have been understood in Greco-Roman society: It is a Hebrew invention. Divine Obedience is foreign to the Creco-Roman Civilization. Like "chutzpah," words assume significance only upon their "use."

Beloveds (pais, eromenos, etc) were well understood then and now. But you would have to go "outside" approved texts of SCFD to discover that. Michael's subsequent post is not stunningly new. Wait till Zionists freak when the harsh reality of their illusion shines the light of day, but as you know, religion is dark. You demonstrate it.

Anonymous said...

Gay Species says to Clayton:
but as you know, religion is dark. You demonstrate it.

Anyone who knows Clayton knows how rediculous this statement is.

Michael- maybe it is time for you to chang ethe title of your blog to:"the whole world is gay but just doesn't know it."

One could speculate over and over again about areas where scripture is silent- but in the end- scripture is still silent.

there are so many other relationships that could have been possible in this story that are seemingly ignored- trusted military aide or other imposition of servitude. The centurion quite possibly be demonstrating a compassion beyond the confines expected of his rank- nothing more.

Certainly, he was not your typical centurion sinc ehe did indeed seek out Jesus- as an act of faith.

The seeming willingness to force homosexuality into this context demonstrates nothing about scripture or even Jesus. It does, however, say mush about our willingness to tell our story instead of the story of Christ.

Anonymous said...

I would further caution that the attempt to read back modern gay relationships into those of antiquity is precisely wrongheaded. If there is going to be a "development" concerning the moral theology of sexual orientation, it would come from distinguishing the same-sex activities that were condemned in antiquity from newer circumstances. In other words, new facts. That's how new facts came to be seen as not covered by the ancient ban on usury, and how chattel slavery of the modern era came to be seen as not covered by the tolerance of pre-modern slavery in scripture, et cet.

So, this attempt to read the present into the past is unwittingly designed to secure the exact opposite result its proponents imagine it will secure. Such is human nature, it would seem.

Anonymous said...

I notice, in passing, that no readers of the Wild Reed had the courage to read "Test Everything." Being deliberately blinded to textual fact is precisely why religion is dark. It took 450 years to admit heliocentrism. Can it get darker? Yes, pedophile priests abusing children, funded by parishioner enablers.

Anonymous said...

You know, TGS, you'd have a better point if pedophilia was limited to a minority of Roman Catholic priests. But we both know that hideous abuse of children is all too common - and not limited only to a few Catholic clerics.

Does the Church need reform and accountability because of the misdeeds of its ministers? Of course it does, and it will take generations of demonstrable progress to rebuild the trust that was lost. Some of that trust may never be regained, either. Perhaps that's the price to pay for hubris.

That said, don't pin pedophilia on the Church only. If you're going to condemn it, it rightly stands condemned EVERYWHERE IT OCCURS.

Joe said...

Thanks for posting this. I get hits every day from people doing a google search or somehow, it seems to be a popular subject.

And it seems that not all are convinced by the author's research and telling of the story.

Two things are sure. We will never be completely sure of scripture and it's meanings, and we each will interpret things as we will.

For me, one who was created gay, there is no other way to interpret it.

I hope you read the entire book.

Kittredge Cherry said...

Thanks for an insightful post on an important topic. The centurion’s story has gotten surprisingly little attention throughout history considering that Jesus himself was impressed by his faith. But the Roman soldier has always been an unlikely role model. Jesus’ contemporaries were probably shocked that the great healer would praise a military man who enforced Roman occupation of their land. Today people may find the centurion unappealing because he may have been gay, or a slave owner, or both. It was just like Jesus to take someone disreputable and praise them as holy.

I included a link to your website in my post today about the gay Centurion at the Jesus in Love Blog.

Gay centurion: Jesus heals a soldier’s boyfriend in the Bible