Saturday, June 21, 2008

Jesus and the Centurion (Part 2)

In my last post I shared a tract entitled “When Jesus Met a Gay Man,” excerpted from the book The Children Are Free: Reexaming the Biblical Evidence on Same-Sex Relationships by Jeff Miner and John Tyler Connoley. As its title suggests, this tract explores the contention that the Roman centurion who pleads with Jesus to cure his servant, may well have been what we today call a gay man. I also highlighted Jack Clark Robinson’s treatment of this matter as published in the November-December 2007 issue of The Gay and Lesbian Review.

article elicited a number of responses from readers, which were published in the January-February 2008 issue of the magazine - the editors of which note how “the critiques focus on the originality of the author’s thesis . . . [while the] additional letters confirm that it’s a thesis that has a history and a small but respectable body of literature behind it.”

One of the letter writers was
William A. Percy , who provided a detailed outline of the history and development of the thesis that the Roman centurion was what we’d now call gay.

Following is the full text of Percy’s letter in response to Robinson’s piece in The Gay and Lesbian Review. As you will see, this letter serves well as an insightful and scholarly article in and of itself.


In attempting to discuss Jesus and homosexuality, Friar John Robinson could have greatly improved his insufficiently referenced article, “Jesus, the Centurion and His Lover,” (The Gay and Lesbian Review, Nov.-Dec. 2007) by citing Donald Mader’s closely argued “The Entimos Pais of Matthew’s 8:5-13 and Luke 7:1-10,” first printed in the now-defunct Paidika (1, 1987), and then reprinted in Wayne Dynes and Stephen Donaldson’s Homosexuality and Religion and Philosophy (XII of their thirteen-volume Studies in Homosexuality, Garland, 1992, now available at He would also had benefited from awareness of Theodore Jennings Jr. and Tat-Siong Benny Liew’s meticulously sourced “Mistaken Identities But Model Faith: Rereading the Centurion, the Chap, and the Christ” in The Journal of Biblical Literature (123:3, 2004).

Or, for that matter, Robinson could have noted Tom Horner’s Jonathan Loved David (1978), written at the height of the gay liberation movement. Both Mader and Jennings and Liew credit Horner with being the first theologian (at least in the English language) to suggest that the Centurion and his “boy,” whom Jesus cured from near death, is a text about pederasty, although Horner does not attempt an analysis of the text himself. Despite Mader’s and Jennings & Liew’s assertion, it was apparently one of Fr. Robinson’s own co-religionists, Dr. John McNeill, S.J., to whom the honor should actually go. Two years prior to the publication of Horner’s book, in an obscure interview published in Christopher Street magazine, “God and Gays: A New Team” (interview with J.J. O’Neill by Charles Ortleb, Christopher Street, October, 1976), McNeill says: “The four gospels are totally silent on this issue of homosexuality. There is no explicit reference to it whatsoever. There is one curious story of the Roman centurion whose boy servant is ill. Jesus is asked to cure him. It is said that the centurion loved the boy very deeply; one could read into it a homosexual relationship.”

In 1987, Mader argued that the texts of Matthew and Luke, whose gospels present the story of Jesus healing the centurion’s pais or doulos, both obtaining it from the common source “Q,” demonstrate a pederastic relationship between the centurion and his sick companion. In 2004, Theodore Jennings Jr. and Tat-Siong Benny Liew, both at the Chicago Theological Seminary, endorsed Mader’s conclusion but argued that the method of comparative exegesis by which he arrived at it was not sound. Mader had argued that Luke cleaned up Matthew’s language, replacing the word used by Matthew, pais, meaning “boy” or “child,” with another Greek word which specifically meant slave, doulos, in an attempt to tone down the pederastic relationship between the centurion and his esteemed slave boy that was suggested by pais – a connotation that revealed too much about the sexual connection between the centurion and the boy and Jesus’ attitude about pederasts.

Matthew, more at home in Aramaic, was, Mader claims, less attuned to the pederastic connotations of pais than was Luke. Jennings and Liew maintain that because the order in which Luke and Matthew were written cannot be ascertained with certainty, such an argument is invalid, and base their case on an analysis of the key word in Matthew alone – ending, however, with the same conclusion regarding the centurion, his boy, and Jesus’ attitudes.

Fr. Robinson discusses another converted centurion, Cornelius, from the Acts of the Apostles 10:1-38, centurions being something of a trope in the New Testament for gentiles who were nevertheless people of faith. He does not take up, however, Morton Smith, as did W.V. Harris recently in “The Case of the Fake Gay Gospel” (Times Literature Supplement, Oct. 19, 2007), who claimed his Secret Gospel of Mark (the text of which has Jesus spending the night with a naked, newly converted youth) may be early and authentic. Smith’s argumentation is summarized in Dynes, vol. XII. Nor does Robinson deal with Warren Johansson’s masterly article, “. . .whosoever shall say to his brother, racha” (also in volume XII of the Dynes/Donaldson collection, reprinted from the Caberion and Gay Books Bulletin, No. 10, 1984). There, citing a German source, Johannson loosely explains that racha is an Aramaic word meaning something like queer or faggot today. This puzzling word was never translated by St. Jerome, Martin Luther, the translators of the King James Version, or the French Roman-Catholic Douai. If it had been, Jesus would be on record as having said, “Don’t put down fags.”

In short, Robinson’s piece lacks the serious scholarship required to make a strong case about Jesus’ attitude towards homosexuality. Had this foundation been there, it would have been clear that Jesus opposed the homophobic condemnations of St. Paul and St. Clement. Nearly two centuries ago, in 1814, Jeremy Bentham wrote that “Jesus has on the whole field of sexual irregularity preserved an uninterrupted silence” (cited in Louis Crompton, Byron and Greek Love, 1985); scholarship today gives plenty of reason to believe that far from being silent about homosexual relations, including age-differentiated relationships, Jesus viewed them at least with toleration, if not approval, so long as they were conducted ethically.

Jesus, most scholars believe, was literate in Hebrew and/or Aramaic, though not in Greek. The Septuagint, however, was in Greek. According to legend, the Septuagint was the product of a “seminar” in Alexandria, circa 250 BCE, when King Ptolemy had the Hebrew scriptures translated into Greek by seventy rabbis in seventy separate cubicles. All seventy rabbis came up with identical renderings, word for word – a feat of divine inspiration. Like St. Paul, Josephus (Contra Apionem, 2) and Philo Judeaus (De specialibus legibus, 3), all of whom used the Septuagint, other Jews who used the Hebrew text interpreted the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, as shown in the Mishnah, as a transgression of lust and not of inhospitality. The case that Jehovah destroyed Sodom because of inhospitality can indeed be plausibly deduced from the Hebrew scriptures, but that interpretation was certainly abandoned during the intertestamental period (that is, between the canonization of the Old Testament around 200 BCE and that of the New Testament, around 200 CE), in such texts as the Book of Jubilees, the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, and the Secrets of Enoch. Warren Johannson convinced me that Canon Derrick Sherwin Bailey was instructed by higher-ups in the Church of England to minimize the Jewish argument that God destroyed Sodom for sexual acts rather than for inhospitality, in order to reduce hostility to the Wolfenden Commission’s recommendation to decriminalize consensual sex between males over 21 in England. Accepting Bailey’s claims without question, John Boswell went so far as to claim that the medieval Orthodox Church developed rituals for same-sex unions, which his admirers assumed to be same-sex marriages.

Many of these arguments are summarized in the Encylopedia of Homosexuality, edited by Wayne Dynes with Associate Editor Warren Johannson and William A. Percy (two volumes, Garland, 1990). But Johannson’s book-length manuscript, published posthumously just this year on my website, gives a more profound and original interpretation. Along with many other authorities, Johannson maintains that a group of scholars under Ezra created the Hebrew Bible in the 5th Centurt BCE under Persian rule, condemning “males who lie with males” as the Zoroastrians did. When Alexander conquered Palestine in 330 BCE, bringing with him the Greek pederastic tradition, apocryphal and pseudo-epigraphical writings registered Jewish condemnation and reinterpreted the Sodom legend to make it divine retribution not for inhospitality but for homosexual lust. In the first century CE, Josephus (Contra apionem, 2) “categorically condemned sexual relations between males,” so that on the subject nothing remained for Christian theologians to do.

Christians did add an elaboration for unnatural behaviors, that is to say all sexual activity not leading to procreation, as “the sin of the sodomite,” fusing the Greek philosophical concept with the Jewish legend. Mainstream Judaism proper, however, never fully abandoned the old notion that the Sodomites violated inhospitality and justice, as the Talmud had recorded.

William A. Percy

Recommended Off-site Links:
The Historical Jesus and the Slave of the Centurion: How the Themes of Slavery, Sexuality, and Military Service Intersect in Matthew 8:5-13
– Eric Koepnick. (NOTE: This is a pdf document.)
The Gay Centurion: The Day Jesus Blessed a Gay Relationship
– Rick Brentlinger (

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Jesus and the Centurion (Part 1)
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
Alexander’s Great Love

Image: Ernest Borgnine as the Roman centurion and Robert Powell as Jesus in Franco Zeffirelli's Jesus of Nazareth (1977).


Anonymous said...

Fr McNeill's quote gets the palm for epistemological candor - he is honest that he's simply reading something into the text.

A text that, btw, could with much less strain be viewed as Jesus's approval of enslavement of people. Hey, you know, he doesn't condemn the centurion's enslavement of others. Yet he heals the enslaved one without it being recorded that he required the centurion to free him.

So, that means Jesus approved enslavement, right?

The feeble (and that is being charitable) attempts at exigesis here, despite the lacquer of scholarship, are in the end rather embarrassing.

Michael J. Bayly said...


Regardless of whether or not the centurion and his "boy" were lovers, Jesus does not insist that the centurion free him. Indeed, no where in the gospels does Jesus condemn the practice of slavery that was common and widespread in his time. Why is this?

Was he insensitive to the issue? Or did he know his limitations within the society of his time? Or was his condemnation simply not recorded?

Of course, it could be said that the Church followed Jesus' lead, as it wasn't until the 1860s that it officially condemned the practice of slavery (see here.

Perhaps Jesus was limited by his time and culture. I'm not suggesting that he supported slavery, but that it was such an embedded institution within his society and time that the thought of it not being in existence may have been beyond the historical Jesus' comprehension - as it was beyond Paul's. Then again, maybe he had to choose his battles, and he left the issue of slavery for those after him, infused with the same Christos that liberated and empowered him, to take on this particular issue.

For truly, the Christ Spirit is alive in all of our various journeys of awareness. I believe this Spirit was operational in Jesus as fully as it could be given the cultural and temporal limitations - and clearly, in some ways it transcended these limitations, e.g. Jesus' egalitarian stance with regards women, and, according to some scholars, his recognition and tolerance of the loving relationship between the Roman centurion and his beloved slave - whom, let's face it, may have been a lot better off in that particular situation than not. We simply have no conception, I feel, of the brutality and hardships of those times. Some may well have preferred to be "owned" and taken care off by a master then left to their own devices.

We must be very careful when we seek to project our sensibilities and concepts onto the lives of the ancients.

I'm curious, how do you explain Jesus' lack of condemnation of slavery?



Anonymous said...


By the exact same logic, one could say Jesus merely did not rebuke a Gentile for a sinful cultural custom of his (pederasty of an enslaved younger male). In the case of pederasty, Jewish law was emphatically negative, whereas it was not regarding slavery. So, if there is going to be an argument from silence, it would be much harder to argue that pederasty was more OK than slavery here....

So we don't even reach why Jesus didn't comment on slavery as such.

And, if progressives have a hard time with the argument that the relatinship of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings was freely and mutually loving without a coercive element, there is no way to argue that here. Roman masters had the power of life and death over their slavers, and a centurion all the more so.

Again, I am astounded how anyone finds anything liberating about this pathetic excuse for exegesis. It's appalling.

Anonymous said...

Whatever Fr O'Neil's personal integrity or limited assets, his inane confusion over the church's natural law tradition (NLT) had many Jesuits in a twit, because NLT is easily refuted.

When asked to decode O'Neil's eisegesis of NLT, clearly O'Neil did not know or understand NLT, much less address its manifold fallacies conspicuous to philosophers millennial ago. Like many, he was confused over NLT and the "laws of nature." In O'Neil's defense, the Gregorian Pontificate knows better, even if Rottweiler Pope thinks his Prada Dancing Shoes will win the night's favor.

Thomists, Russell Hittinger, Jesuits, Franciscans, and most catholic scholars saw the NLT absurdities, and in the hands Grisez, Boyle, and Finnis, they have witnessed bishops, nuns, priests, give their absurd fealty's to the Pope of Nazi Youth, in which his "pride of place," was so "insularity" as to be demonic.

NLT is bunk. So are the four humours. So are the Pscyhes. So are Marx, Freud, and Spitzers, as are the hypocritical faithful, bearing witness to NLT that is patently FALSE, as is earth is FLAT, the Holocaust REAL, and the rabbis confused into oblivion.

WITH the CENTRAL axiom of Roman Catholic immoral theory since Aquinas exposed as exceedingly CONFUSED by Aquinas' perversion of Aristotle Fact/Value Divide, one wonders whether "Abba" is "Fuhrer" and whether Aquinas's otherwise salient modernization, was STILL 2,000 years too late?

Princeton's Robert George is trying again, to put NLT at the forefront, where it does not EXIST, much less lead, or STAND in the nonsense of HMC. I must sound like a broken record, echoing Hume and Moore: FACTS do not VALUES make, and VALUES do not FACTS make. Not even by Popes, POTUS, or Televangelists listen, because they are too busy TELLING.

NLT may "bother" the German Rottweiler esp. when G.W.B. (despite his Catholic brother's "lil brown babies") thinks Domino's Pizza, Fr.
Fessio, and Rabid Ratzinger "got milk." They got nothing but power others give them, because as today's gods, their wealth and trappings proves the gods approve? Lions, tigers, and bears, oh my. No! Oh, Liza.
, so that "straw man" would have been a hollow victory.

CDE said...

The arguments from silence are especially weak when you consider the witness of the early Christian tradition, beginning with the Didache, which is not at all silent on the matter:

You can argue that the early Church's position is culturally conditioned on this issue, but then you've basically called into question the continuity of the Church's teaching on faith and morals, at which point everything is up for grabs.

Michael J. Bayly said...

Hi Clayton,

Perhaps I’m mistaken, but it seems as if you’re equating the Church’s capacity to grow and change, its capacity to develop its understanding and teachings, to everything being “up for grabs.” I think that such a way of thinking about this capacity (and thus, by extension, our living tradition) is rather negative. After all, it could be seen as a denial of the Spirit present and active in our pilgrim church.

Teaching on various issues of faith and morals have evolved and changed. As I and other members of the editorial team of The Progressive Catholic Voice noted in January 2008: “Truth is discovered through time. Tradition evolves. [In relation to homosexuality, for instance] the Church is currently teaching in Section 2358 of the Catechism, that homosexuals should be treated with compassion and sensitivity. That represents evolution of the tradition. There is no reason that the moral teaching on this matter of ‘intrinsic disorder’ should not evolve further, and there is plenty of scientific evidence and moral/pastoral reasoning that it should evolve quickly.”

Also, Robert McClory recently spoke in the Twin Cities and reminded Catholics of how the Church’s understanding and teaching on moral issues such as slavery and usury have developed and changed. In writing about his presentation in a previous Wild Reed post, I noted how “McClory insists that any educated Catholic knows that the Church at one time held some things to be doctrinally absolute, and that these things turned out to be wrong. Accordingly, ‘one cannot be an intelligent Catholic’ he insists, ‘without saying that doctrine can be wrong in the future and, more to the point, can be wrong in the present.’ ”

Does this mean that “everything is up for grabs”? Again, I feel that’s a pessimistic way to view things – especially when these things are related to the complex reality of human sexuality. In relation to this particular reality I believe we’re still very much a pilgrim, learning church. There’s simply too much faithful dissent around issues related to sexuality for us to say that the Church has all the answers, here and now. Rather, we’re still in process, still on the journey toward the fullness of truth regarding these issues. I find that hopeful.



Michael J. Bayly said...


I notice that the Didache condemns “pederasty,” defined by the early Church as “the homosexual corruption of boys by men.” It definitely sounds like they’re describing an abusive situation. To my mind, and I think most others’, we should indeed speak out against all such abusive situations – regardless of the sexual orientation and gender of those involved.

Yet does the Didache speak of and/or condemn the loving and committed relationships between two adult males? Do any subsequent Church documents bear witness to such relationships? If not, why not? Are lesbians free to love one another and form intimate relations? There seems to be no prohibition against them. Why is male homosexuality singled out for condemnation so much more often than female homosexuality? What role does patriarchy play in the marginalizing of women’s experience and thus the lack of the same level of condemnation meted out to men? What about bisexuality, intersexuality, and transgenderism?

For me, the quote from the Didache raises more questions than answers.



Anonymous said...

Usury was a mortal sin. Today the Vatican Bank is.

Anonymous said...

For a counter-argument see this essay by Bob Gagnon:

Anonymous said...

More Gagnon here:

People may not find his arguments convincing, but he deserves credit for taking counter-arguments seriously. Gagnon is also familiar with Sacred Scripture in Hebrew & Greek, which is helpful in addressing appeals to the scriptures.

My only complaint about Gagnon so far is what I'll call an "arithmetic" approach to exegesis which can be off-putting. Of course, many will find Gagnon off-putting for more reasons, and more quickly, than his exegesis along.

Anonymous said...

Oops, I meant to say "than his exegesis alone" above.

Michael said...

I know it's almost a year later but you might be interested in this piece on my blog