Did Jesus endorse a centurion’s gay relationship?

Difficult issues series

Centurion

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.

Conclusion

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.

Graphic: FreeBibleImages.

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7 thoughts on “Did Jesus endorse a centurion’s gay relationship?

  1. Michael Snow says:

    When I saw the title, I thought it was some sort of joke!

    Pais is used here as a synonym for doulos (slave)–the word used in this story in Luke 7:2,3,8, 10, while Pais is used in verse 7. See I. Howard Marshall, in the New Inernational Greek Testament Commentary.

    There was no Roman garrison in Galillee before A.D. 44, so this centurion would have been part of the forces of Herod Antipas.

    It is amazing to what lengths some will go to distort Scripture in order to further their agenda. https://textsincontext.wordpress.com/2012/12/29/homosexuality-false-contexts-and-perverting-scripture/

    You do a good job of pointing out the uncertainties in such an imaginative interpretation (which is called eisegesis, as opposed to exegesis).

    Like

  2. unkleE says:

    Hi Michael, thanks for your comment. I think the argument about the meaning of pais is unresolvable – it could mean a passive homosexual partner, but it has several other meanings too. But we can say that soldiers and more powerful people having same sex relationships was common, so quite possible in this case. But not necessarily so either.

    The key point for me is that if we say this was quite possibly the case, we have to say that it was most likely not consensual. So how could Jesus or anyone today support that?

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  3. rwwilson147 says:

    I too commend your tentativeness regarding conclusions about the “debate” regarding the meaning of particular words in scripture. That is at least better than arguing tendentiously for possible nuances of meaning that don’t correspond to historical realities. Entertaining “uncertainties” about particular texts is certainly a major modus for those committed to the agenda of full acceptance of homosexual relations. Unfortunately, most of these arguments ought to be considered most fully committed to the school of thought enshrined in Genesis 3 in which the archetypal question was asked: “did God actually say….” this or that? Yes, in this case he really did, and any mucking about with doubts about that ought to be squashed by admitting that 3500 years of Judeo-Christian tradition hasn’t expressed any doubt about the meaning of God’s prohibitions concerning homosexual relationships. Even if one only considers the 2000 years of Christian teaching and tradition as significant, it should be admitted by all those who are honest that there hasn’t been any questioning of that tradition until this generation, since the sexual revolution of the 60’s and 70’s, (and 80’s, 90’s, 00’s, and teens.) It is all to easy and all to erroneous to argue that Jesus didn’t say anything about homosexuality as we know it, as though God couldn’t possibly know anything about what we think we know, and that we know better than God could have known back then, and ignore the fact that there wasn’t any significant debate about the question at the time of Christ, so there was no reason for anyone to even bring up the question in Jewish debate. The question posed in your title: “Did Jesus endorse a centurion’s gay relationship?” is so preposterous that it beggars the mind–apparently except for the minds of those who are constantly challenging every aspect of the holiness God requires of those who love him.

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  4. unkleE says:

    Thanks for your comment and your commendation. Of course you realise I didn’t say anything one way or another about the larger issue that you have mostly written about. That’s for another time.

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  5. Ryan Robinson says:

    I’ve never actually encountered that argument. At most, it’s an argument from silence. It’s analogous to how some argue that since Jesus helped centurions without calling out their violence he therefore encouraged serving in the military. That just doesn’t make any sense unless you presuppose that Jesus will only help sinless people.

    Even if it was a consensual gay relationship, all we know is that Jesus wasn’t so judgemental as to avoid helping them out. That’s an important message when many Christians do see gay couples as less than human, but it’s not like there’s a shortage of other stories of Jesus loving outcasts from which we should draw that message already.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. unkleE says:

    Yes, I hadn’t seen the argument until now. And I agree with most of what you say. But it does seem that christians treat LGBTI people differently to other minorities and “outcasts”, so I think the point about Jesus caring for a gay guy, if true, would be worth making. Thanks.

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