That Centurion Wasn’t Necessarily Gentile!

That Centurion Wasn’t Necessarily Gentile! July 19, 2020

Israelite Centurion
Centurion / Image by Andrew Martin from Pixabay

The centurion of Matthew 8:15-13 does not prove “Matthew” or Jesus gave Good News to non-Israelites.

Last time, after a story about a certain angry young man, we discussed how “Matthew” the Gospel is thoroughly Israelite. It was not written for, by, or about Americans. The Matthean Jesus had no concerns for non-Israelites. “Matthew” preserves quite well in his tradition that the historical Jesus was a Middle Eastern master of the insult. And there was no worse insult, no more degrading label in the Matthean Jesus’ repertoire, than “Gentile.” This is the picture “Matthew” paints.

Today let’s deal with the supposedly Gentile Centurion and the monkey wrench that detail throws into these observations made last post. Except that it’s no problem at all. By the way, who said all first century Centurions had to be ethnically Roman people, or other Gentiles for that matter? To think that demonstrates sheer ignorance of first century Roman military service.

To see why, consider three Gospel stories and their contradictory differences. Please watch the video below and see why a first century centurion in Palestine was not necessarily a Gentile:

The Centurion in Matthew 8

The amazing story of Matthew 8:5-13 has a centurion who addresses the Galilean Jesus as “lord” (8:6). Following scholars Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh, this is a most unusual self-abasement! This man is an officer of Rome, among many things a broker for imperial resources to assist the local populace. As such, he is acting most inappropriately as if he were Jesus’ social inferior (Matthew 8:5-6).

Please note that “Matthew” never informs his readers as to exactly what ethnic group this centurion belongs. Nevertheless, many a Christian fills in that gap with error. “He’s a centurion! That means he must be a Roman, and therefore a Gentile!” sings spurious familiarity.

So the Matthean Jesus is surprised by the behavior of the centurion. He marvels at the officer’s apparent loyalty toward the God of Israel. And what does the Matthean Jesus say to this? Depends on how you work the translation. And here, sadly, more betrayals lie—

RSV Matthew 8:10b
“Truly, I say to you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.

NRSV Matthew 8:10b
“Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith.”

NABRE Matthew 8:10b
“Amen, I say to you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith.”

How about those translations? Truly, I tell you, they all are horrible with this passage. All of them inaccurately render the Greek and leave the impression that this centurion must be a Gentile. Two thousand years of theological freight is a severe mistress, even to translators!

Better Translation

Improved translation of Matthew 8:10b
“Truly, I tell you, among no one else have I found such loyalty in Israel.”

Nothing in the text implies this centurion was a non-Israelite. Moving on to the following verses, 8:11-12, always and invariably the term “many” in “Matthew” refers to many Israelites. Definitely it’s the same case here. Hence the Matthean Jesus says that many Israelites will journey to the land of Israel enjoying table fellowship with the Fathers of their ethic group in the forthcoming Theocracy.

Therefore, the contrast presented in Matthew 8:11-12 is not that between Gentiles and Israelites (and certainly not between Gentile Christians and Jews!). Rather, it is that between loyal Israelite emigres residing outside of the Land of Israel and those sons (or heirs) of Theocracy, barbarian Israelites, who were disloyal and thus will suffer public shame.

Gentile Salvation & an Israelite Centurion

In its literal sense, this passage has nothing whatsoever to do with Gentile salvation, whether or not the centurion is Gentile. But after Constantine, evangelization became a heterophilous affair and passages like these were re-contextualized accordingly. Ultimately, things evolve, and we often miss the steps for the destination. But as the Church teaches, first comes the literal sense.

Today, we remember this centurion for what he became known as: a symbol for Gentile Christians. But neither “Matthew” (8:5-13) nor “Luke” (7:1-10) specify whether the centurion in question was an Israelite or a non-Israelite. Indeed, we have evidence that Israelites did serve in the Roman army. Consider this second century inscription found in Jaffa—

“Thanoum, son of Simon, grandson of Benjamin,
the centurion [centenarius] from Parembole. Shalom.”

(second century)

Consider that in the Lukan version, the centurion built a synagogue (Luke 7:5). No temple in the region is mentioned. Wouldn’t that suggest the centurion was Israelite? Keep in mind also that the tradition out of which two, possibly three contradictory stories grew must have been augmented. Did Jesus really have such an exchange with an actual centurion?

By the way, in context, “world” (kosmou) Matthew 5:14 doesn’t mean “whole wide world” or “Planet Earth” or any “world” of which you and I, 21st century Western people, are familiar. “World” is high context—it means, in “Matthew,” the world of first century Israel. Likewise, there are no concerns for universalism in the literal sense of Matthew 13:37-38. The concern behind the text is Israelites-only.

The Foreign “Dog” Has Her Day

Some wrongly think that the foreign woman in Matthew 15:28 proves that “Matthew” and his Jesus were universalists. Perhaps they forget that the Matthean Jesus, following the pattern set by Mark 7:24-30, calls her a dog (Mark 7:27 = Matthew 15:26)? And don’t think dog as pet—in traditional Palestine, dogs ran wild and were seen as vermin. Recall the English word for female dog? It would mean something even lowly in this culture.

And yet this extraordinary foreign woman is the only person in the Gospels who ever beat Jesus at his own social game of challenge-and-riposte. This is an unusual story, and the criterion of embarrassment illuminates the high improbability of it being an invented fiction by later authors. It smacks of historicity. Would later followers of Jesus invent a story about a foreign woman defeating him publicly? Hardly.

How amazing that our Lord could acknowledge and learn from foreign women, huh? Take care to watch your mental idols and cultural congenial Jesuses, my Conservative and Liberal Christian friends. You might just miss the real Jesus!

By the way, where does this story say that this unnamed foreign woman was included into the Jesus group? Sure, the Matthean Jesus acknowledged righteous Gentiles. When Theocracy comes, they can stay in their own lands and applaud the God of Israel safely from there. The Son of man and the hosts of sky vault won’t destroy them.

Hope & Judgment for the Gentiles

Our English translations absolutely wreck attempts to understand Matthew 12:15-21 also. Briefly, Deutero-Isaiah describes the loyal servant of God (42:1-2) proclaiming “judgment to the Gentiles.” In Matthew 12:18 and 20, the RSV, NRSV, and NABRE all botch things up by mistranslating the Greek krisis (meaning “condemnation” and “just judgement”) into “justice.” That’s not what it means.

But doesn’t Matthew 12:21 speak of Gentile hope? Sure, Gentiles will hope—for clemency. But until the servant brings just judgement of the Gentiles to victory, the faithful servant stays reticent.

When does this condemnation/judgment process rev up? According to “Matthew,” not until after the resurrected Lord issues the great edict in Matthew 28:16. Again, that’s where the eleven are commissioned to make disciples of Israelite émigrés residing among “all ethnē.” Please keep in mind that for the Matthean Jesus this work never goes beyond Israelite circles. As with the Israelite centurion, this passage is obfuscated by bad translations hampered by anachronistic theological freight.

“What about where Jesus says the Kingdom will be taken from the Jews and given to another nation??” We will get to why there is nothing Jewish in either “Matthew” or the first century Mediterranean momentarily.

Parables & Allegories

In Matthew 21:43, the Matthean Jesus insults his opponents, the chief priests (not Jews), by way of the heavily allegorized Parable of the Tenants. By the time “Matthew” received this parable (21:33-44), this story concerning labor violence and injustice in the Galilee had mutated into an allegory about the storyteller, Jesus (see Mark 12:1-11). The historical Jesus didn’t tell allegories. There is evidence for earlier, non-allegorical versions of the parable (see the pre-Gnostic Logion 65 in the Sayings Gospel of Thomas).

Anyway, going back to Matthew 21:43, how do we translate the Greek word ethnos here? The NABRE renders ethnos as “people.” But does that mean “ethnic people”? What if it meant a caste? How about a group, or a company of men, or a body of men? Its meaning depends on the context. In the context of Matthew 21, ethnos means a body of men replacing the present chief priests. This is just like Isaiah 66:18-21. In that passage, God doesn’t gather up all the ethnic groups, despite bad English translations. Instead, God gathers all Israelites from among all the different ethnic peoples. God will bring his Israelite people home in honor to his Temple City and holy mountain, Jerusalem.

Just like with the story of the centurion, in the literal sense, Matthew 21:33-44 is not talking about Gentile inclusion or salvation, folks. And we get the same thing in Matthew 24:14. Good news is proclaimed to Israelites living everywhere, NOT a welcome sign for all ethnic groups.

A Word on Universal Saving Love & Jews

Just as we explained in the previous post, it’s true that God’s saving love is made for all creation—“c” catholic in the truest sense of the word, both universal and diverse. But it is false to think that Paul, “Mark,” or “Matthew” were universalists, even if the Spirit and Risen Jesus are.

It’s also wrong—and yet very popular—to imagine these men as being Jews. Or Christians, for that matter. They were neither. Nor was Jesus, by the way. We’ve covered this ground before, at numerous times. I thank God for ongoing Jewish-Christian relations and Christian awareness of the many times our Church has bloodied its hands and spat in the face of Christ with episodes of genocidal anti-Semitism. Much healing and growth is still needed. Neither are possible in idolatry to anachronistic nomenclature.

Again I submit to you scholar John Elliott’s tour de force on the subject:

Jesus the Israelite Was Neither a `Jew’ Nor a `Christian’: On Correcting Misleading Nomenclature

Gentiles & the Jesus of History

None of the Jesuses in the four canonical Gospels are a photograph of the historical person by the same name. Even inspired, they are all interpretations. The Matthean Jesus is simply a different portrait from the one we get from “Luke” and that which we get from “John.” Those are three different takes on Jesus, right there, and please stop mixing them up like ingredients in a cake batter. Again, the Matthean Jesus has no use for Gentiles.

Matthew 10:5-6
Jesus sent out these twelve after instructing them thus, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans. But go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

Matthew 15:24

[Jesus] said in reply, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

As we said before, the worst insult of the many employed by the Matthean Jesus was “Gentile.” For him, include no Samaritans, and no Gentiles—he explicitly forbids disciples going to them! What a contrast is made when Matthew’s Jesus is compared to the Jesuses depicted by “Luke” (10:25-37; 17:11-19) and “John” (4:4-42)!

Don’t lose heart, folks. God pushes all boundaries, includes all, in God’s infinite love. And the Church keeps grappling, keeps unpacking the Mystery, and hopefully, keeps seeing the circle of inclusion is ever wider.

So what do you all think? Which Gospel-picture of Jesus corresponds more with the prepaschal Jesus (Jesus as he actually was in history)? The Jesuses of “Luke” and “John,” who include Samaritans? Or the Jesus of “Matthew,” exclusive to first century Israelites? Post your thoughts below and why you think what you do.

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