Difficult issues series
This one’s been around for a while, but I hadn’t seen it until recently, so maybe you haven’t either.
When Jesus healed a centurion’s servant in Matthew 8:5-13 & Luke 7:1-10, the Greek word pais is used and translated as “servant”. The word pais had several meanings, including young boy or son, but also had a common meaning as the younger partner in a same sex relationship. So, it is said, Jesus blessed this same sex couple by healing the servant, likely just a teenager.
For many people, there’s a bit riding on this. Gay christians understandably are looking for Jesus’ support for same sex relationships. Traditional christians, equally understandably, are looking to uphold the traditional view which opposes these relationships. Who’s right?
Homosexuality in the Roman Empire
Sexual morals and mores in the Roman Empire were very different to today. Homosexuality vs heterosexuality wasn’t a major issue – the main issue was whether one took the dominant role in a sexual relationship (considered quite acceptable, and generally performed by the older and more wealthy or powerful person) or the subservient role (generally looked upon as shameful for a Roman citizen, and hence mostly reserved by a younger, teen, slave). The sex was often not consensual – slaves were simply owned by their masters, who could do as they wished with them (more or less). It was acceptable for a married man to also have sex with male or female slaves. Most free men would have thus been “bisexual” by our standards.
At the time of Jesus, serving Roman soldiers were forbidden to marry, so they had less permanent sexual relations with both women and boys – but not fellow soldiers, which was heavily punished. It is thus quite likely that a centurion might have had sex with teenage boys, including perhaps a servant, provided that servant was not a soldier himself.
Edit, 20 July: Additional reading (e.g. this book by Sara Elise Phang) suggests that scholars are now tending to think that centurions were allowed to marry – the ban applied to lower ranks. This doesn’t change the rest of the text below.
Some examples of what people are saying
Here is a small sample of websites giving different views on this topic:
In favour of the identification of a gay couple:
- Slacktivist – a thoughtful christian gay view.
- GayChristian101 – slightly more ideological gay christian view, and less well argued.
- Would Jesus discriminate? – a well-referenced gay christian site that says Jesus affirmed and restored this gay relationship.
- HuffPost Gay Voices – Jay Michaelson is a pro-LGBTI activist, author and (I think) of Jewish heritage.
Opposed to the identification of a gay couple
- The Biblical World – a thoughtful and sensitive assessment by a christian scholar (John Byron).
- P.ost – a progressive christian author, missionary and sometime academic.
- Robert Gaghnon – a conservative and traditional response from a New Testament scholar.
- Denny Burke – another conservative and traditional Bible scholar.
So, did Jesus endorse a centurion’s gay relationship?
Here’s my very inexpert assessment based on an assessment of websites from both sides.
We don’t know if the servant was a homosexual partner or not
You can read the arguments about the exact meaning of pais, where it is used with different meanings, and why Luke uses two different words in the one passage, but I’m not sure that those arguments can ever be fully settled. Some say pais definitely means “lover” but there are enough other possible meanings to make this claim questionable. It does seem that scholarship is on the side of the traditional view, though that may simply reflect the predominance of traditionalists among scholars.
We just don’t know, that’s the plain fact. People who express greater certainty on this matter probably are defending a viewpoint.
We don’t know if the centurion was gay
Since homosexual sex was acceptable for married men without the man being necessarily labelled as “homosexual”, we can’t apply our modern categories. The centurion may have engaged in gay sex, but he probably wouldn’t have identified as “gay”. Since in Luke’s version of the story the centurion was well-regarded by the Jews, we may argue that they wouldn’t have regarded him so well if he was gay, but we still don’t really know.
It is unlikely they were in a consensual relationship
If the servant was a sexual partner, it was most likely that he had little choice in the matter. In most cases, they wouldn’t have been considered to be a “couple”, and the centurion could well have had many partners.
Jesus didn’t make any comment about sexuality
There is no record of Jesus questioning the relationship. This may have been because wasn’t concerned about this, or he assumed the relationship was non-sexual, we just don’t know. But we may be fairly sure that Jesus wouldn’t have approved of a coercive sexual relationship where the servant was little more than a victim.
Jesus might have healed the servant regardless
Jesus is recorded as having offered loving forgiveness to two sexually promiscuous women, perhaps prostitutes, but also perhaps victims of a patriarchal society. If we assume a similar attitude here, it seems likely that Jesus would have been sympathetic to the servant’s situation regardless of any perceived sexual activity. It is apparent that Jesus’ love, forgiveness and acceptance was readily given to the victims in society while he reserved his strongest criticisms for the powerful and oppressive. But Jesus certainly didn’t “affirm” any relationship.
There is uncertainty about almost every aspect of this incident. A sexual relationship between a centurion and his “servant” was probably fairly common, but it was generally coercive and it is unlikely that they would have been considered a “couple”. There is no indication that Jesus affirmed anything, and it is unlikely he would have affirmed a coercive relationship.
So either way, it seems the pro-gay side claims too much. The conservative side seems more likely to be right in this case, but they sometimes claim too much certainty too.
Whatever the rights and wrongs about christian gay marriage (and I will be returning to that thorny topic in a future post in this Difficult issues series), this passage doesn’t really address anything that is relevant to that issue today.
Except of course that Jesus’ love, acceptance and forgiveness are available to anyone who seeks them.