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The Healing of the Centurion’s Slave

The Euaichme Painter, ca. 470 BCE, attic red-figure stemmed pottery cup depicting a courting scene. Courtesy The Ashmolean Museum.
This article is sponsored by SBL Press, the publisher of Christopher B. Zeichmann’s Queer Readings of the Centurion at Capernaum: Their History and Politics.

Did Jesus endorse a same-sex relationship?

There is a widespread sense that Jesus had nothing to say about same-sex romantic relationships, whether by way of endorsement or condemnation. But since 1950, a number of queer interpreters and their allies have argued that Jesus tacitly endorsed such relationships in his encounter with a centurion at the village of Capernaum (Matt 8:5-13; Luke 7:1-10).

There are three primary reasons that some interpreters believe this to be the case. First, the Greek word used for the young man (pais) was commonly used to refer to younger partners in a sexual capacity. Attic Greek pottery with homoerotic art, for instance, commonly uses the phrase ho pais kalos (“the young man is beautiful”), and the term retained such connotations in the first centuries CE. Second, in Luke 7:2, the centurion says that the young man is entimos to him, a word commonly translated “dear.” Third, and finally, there was a pervasive culture of homoeroticism in the Roman military. Roman legionaries were prohibited from marrying while serving, and same-sex intercourse between two male Roman citizens (and thus between legionaries) was criminal, so soldiers commonly found liaisons among civilians living in or near their garrison. Evidence for homoeroticism in the military abounds. For instance, the playwright Plautus depicts characters teasing Harpax, an officer’s slave, for sleeping with his master: “When the soldier went to keep watch at night and you were going with him, did his sword fit into your sheath?” (Pseudolus 1180–1181). Or one might consider a male brothel that seems to have been identified near the Roman fortress at Vindolanda.

This interpretation of the passages from Matthew and Luke has been controversial, though, with other interpreters objecting to it on various historical grounds. Is it plausible, for instance, to imagine the Jewish delegation at Capernaum praising a man flouting the torah prohibition on same-sex intercourse (Luke 7:3-5)? Is the similar story in John 4:46-54, where the royal official’s son is healed, more original than that in Matthew and Luke?

Rather than attempting to resolve this debate here, we might notice how readers have interpreted the centurion in ways that are remarkably distinct from one another, usually bound up in the legal situation of queer people in an interpreter’s context. Some recent interpreters sought to legitimize gay marriage by making the relationship between the centurion and his pais resemble that of a marriage—a lifelong, monogamous commitment between two peers. Others sought to validate the presence of queer people in the military by appealing to the centurion as an exemplary queer military officer (one is reminded of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”). Conversely, those who reject the homoerotic interpretation of this story often do so in ways that resemble arguments against same-sex marriage, appealing to the “biblical” values of Jews and Christians against “secular” sexual ideologies of Roman gentiles.

The debate over whether there is something romantic or sexual in this story is quite obviously more about sexual politics today, divorced from the social and cultural context of first-century Palestine. It often seems interpreters assume they already know without bothering to investigate a variety of issues: evidence of homoeroticism among first-century Jews, the meaning of the words pais and entimos, Jewish perceptions of gentile sexuality, what exactly homosexual relationships entailed in ancient Rome, among many other issues. These matters are often uncertain or go in directions that defy common wisdom, which complicate straightforward claims that Jesus endorsed same-sex relationships. As others have noted on Bible Odyssey, inhabitants of the early Roman Empire understood sexuality in very different ways from how we do today; many acts offensive to us would be acceptable to them, and the notion of sexual orientation was entirely foreign to how they understood sexuality. In short, the debates about sexuality in this story often indicate much more about present-day politics than they do about the first-century, both from those advocating and those dismissive of homosexual interpretations.

  • Zeichman-Christopher

    Christopher B. Zeichmann teaches at Toronto Metropolitan University. He has authored and edited several books, including The Roman Army and the New Testament (Lexington/Fortress Academic, 2018), Recovering an Undomesticated Apostle: Essays on the Legacy of Paul (McGill-Queen’s University Press, forthcoming), and The Database of Military Inscriptions and Papyri of Early Roman Palestine (Madrid: Signifer, 2022).