Healing the Centurion's Slave

Jeffrey Glen Jackson


Luke Matthew
Healing the Centurions Slave
7:1 After Jesus1 had finished teaching all this to the people,2 he entered Capernaum.3 8:5 When he entered Capernaum,9
7:2 A centurion4 there5 had a slave6 who was highly regarded,7 but who was sick and at the point of death. a centurion10
7:3 When the centurion8 heard9 about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders10 to him, asking him to come11 and heal his slave. came to him asking for help:11   8:6 “Lord,12 my servant13 is lying at home paralyzed, in terrible anguish.”
7:4 When12 they came13 to Jesus, they urged14 him earnestly,15 “He is worthy16 to have you do this for him,
7:5 because he loves our nation,17 and even18 built our synagogue.”19
7:6 So20 Jesus went with them. 8:7 Jesus14 said to him, “I will come and heal him.”
When21 he was not far from the house, the centurion22 sent friends to say to him, “Lord, do not trouble yourself,23 for I am not worthy24 to have you come under my roof. 8:8 But the centurion replied,15 “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof.
7:7 That is why25 I did not presume26 to come to you. Instead, say the word, and my servant must be healed.27 Instead, just say the word and my servant will be healed.
7:8 For I too am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me.28 I say to this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes,29 and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”30 8:9 For I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me.16 I say to this one, ‘Go’ and he goes,17 and to another ‘Come’ and he comes, and to my slave18 ‘Do this’ and he does it.”19
7:9 When Jesus heard this he was amazed31 at him. He turned and said to the crowd that followed him, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.”32 8:10 When20 Jesus heard this he was amazed and said to those who followed him, “I tell you the truth,21 I have not found such faith in anyone in Israel!
13:29 Then98 people99 will come from east and west, and from north and south, and take their places at the banquet table100 in the kingdom of God.101 8:11 I tell you, many will come from the east and west to share the banquet22 with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob23 in the kingdom of heaven,
13:28 There will weeping and gnashing of teeth94 when you see Abraham, Isaac, Jacob,95 and all the prophets in the kingdom of God,96 but you yourselves thrown out.97 8:12 but the sons of the kingdom will be thrown out into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”24
7:10 So33 when those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave34 well. 8:13 Then Jesus said to the centurion, “Go; just as you believed, it will be done for you.” And the servant25 was healed at that hour.


The Request for Help (Lk 7:1-5)

Capernaum was Jesus' base of operations in Galilee. The local centurion could hardly have failed to hear about Jesus. This centurion appears to have been what is called a God Fearer, a Gentile who worshipped the Jewish God, but had not fully converted. Luke says he loved the Jewish nation and had built the local synagogue. Thus the Jewish elders happily spoke to Jesus on his behalf So that Jesus might heal the centurion's slave.

The Humble Centurion (Lk 7:6-7)

The centurion is an officer of an occupying army. The Romans felt their civilization superior to that of all others, especially that of a little backwater place like Judea. It is remarkable that this centurion would feel that he was unworthy to approach or be approached by Jesus personally.

Authority (Lk 7:8)

The centurion, being an army officer, understands the power of authority. By his use of the word ''also", he is acknowledging Jesus' authority. He also is willing to rely on, that is, put his faith fully in, that authority.

Great Faith (Lk 7:9)

Jesus here publicly praises the centurion's faith, and by implication, chides the crowd's lack of faith by holding up the centurion, a Gentile, as one having greater faith than any Israelite. In spite of the fact that the centurion was such a friend to the Jews, he still was a representative of the hated Romans. Stated in such absolute terms, I doubt this sat well with the crowd.

Healed (Lk 7:10)

Jesus' power to heal does not require physical proximity or contact (although he does frequently touch those he heals). When Jesus touched the leper, for example, the touch itself was more about letting the leper know that he loved and accepted the untouchable outcast. Jesus need only have spoken to effect the healing.

Synoptic Issues

The Request for Help (Lk 7:1-5 || Mt 8:5-6)

Matthew's version of these verses are characteristically shorter. There are two striking differences. First, the centurion comes to Jesus and speaks directly with him. Second, the specifics of the slave's illness are described in more detail, but omitting that he was near death. The import of the contradiction will be discussed in great detail below.

The Humble Centurion (Lk 7:6-7 || Mt 8:7-8)

Matthew continues the story as a direct conversation between Jesus and the centurion. Consistent with this difference, the centurion says he is not worthy for Jesus to come into his house, but that he is not worthy to come to Jesus in person is omitted, for obvious reasons.

Authority (Lk 7:8 || Mt 8:9)

There are none in this verse. Both Matthew and Luke have almost identical wording.

Great Faith (Lk 7:9 || Mt 8:10)

Once again there are no problems to deal with here. The wording of the two versions is nearly identical.

Healed (Lk 7:10; Lk 13:28-29 || Mt 8:11-13)

Matthew has characteristically added to this episode some related sayings of Jesus that further illustrate the teaching of the passage in question. Here the issue is acceptance of gentiles into the Kingdom of God, while the sons of the kingdom, the Jews, are rejected. One must be cautioned against taking this as an anti-Semitic rant. It is a provocative hyperbole intended to incite a reaction. It does not mean that all Gentiles are saved and all Jews are condemned to hell.

Luke's version has some minor differences. First, he puts the saying in the context of a different group of sayings. Second, he has the order of the two verses reversed. Third, in Luke's version, Jesus addresses the Jews with the second person pronoun, while Matthew's version uses the circumlocution ''sons of the Kingdom". None of these effect the meaning of the saying.

Are These Accounts of the Same Episode?

These contradictions might most easily be dismissed by assuming these are two separate episodes. However:

Matthew's deviations from Luke's version are part of a pattern.

There is no doubt that both events are describing the same episode.


Harmonization is the technique of constructing a third version of an episode to account for all the details of the original, seeming to contradict, versions. While this can be a useful technique, it must be used with extreme caution as there are several problems with it.

Ultimately, the technique only demonstrates that some such solution may be possible. Harmonizations are all too often contrived and unlikely. Worse, proposed harmonizations sometimes end up contradicting all the original versions. The ad hoc nature of the technique, makes it amenable to contriving a harmonization of almost any contradiction, apparent or actual.

For example, some commentors harmonize the two passages under study here by proposing Jesus was approached three times: twice by proxy (Luke's Jewish elders and friends) and once in person by the Centurion (Matthew's account).

This harmonization has two significant problems, however. First, there is the contradiction with Luke 7:6-7. In Luke, the centurion did not approach Jesus himself because he felt himself unworthy to do so. It would be strange then for him to then change his mind and come to him anyway. The other problem is the repetitiveness it introduces into the story. Much the dialog would now occur twice: once by proxy and again in person. In isolation, that might not seem like such a big deal, but it happens frequently enough in harmonization proposals that its occurrence reduces the credibility of any harmonization that requires it.

Meaning of Error

We can't talk about if something is errant or inerrant without first understanding what the word "error" means. This isn't just some petty slight of hand debating over what the meaning of the word ''is" is either. The word "error" can be used with several different nuances of meaning.

A statement of fact is either right or in error, is it not? Consider, is it an error for me to say I am 37 years old when in fact 37 years, 9 months, and 11 days and a few hours old? Or is it an error to use 3.141592635 as the value of pi when doing computations for building a bridge, say? Of course not! There is built into conversational English the implicit assumption of a certain amount of approximation.

Or consider Solomon's descriptions of the Shulamite's breasts:

Your two breasts are like two fawns,
Twins of a gazelle
Which feed among the lilies.
[Song of Solomon 4:5]

Was he in error because her breasts did not actually grow fur and have a cold wet nose? Of course not. We understand that certain forms of literature and figures of speech are not to be taken literally.

Now let us imagine a reenactment of Luke's account. We have four actors portray the Jewish elders. The text does not tell us how many there were, so there may have in fact been only three, or maybe five, or six even. Is that such an egregious error that it completely discredits our portrayal of the events? Of course not. In fact, we know that it is in the nature of theatrical performance to take artistic license with such minor details. It is not an error on the producer's part to use four actors to portray the Jewish elders because it was not his intent in doing so to make the claim that there were exactly four Jewish elders involved.

Intent is the key here.  When I say I am 37 years old, we know implicitly that my intent is to convey the number of whole years since my birth, leaving some fraction of a whole year unstated.  Similarly, with a figure of speech we know not to take a statement literally, but to see behind the figure to what the author's intent actually was.  Finally in a dramatization, we know that many details of the presentation are approximations.  We know that we aren't seeing what a video camera would have seen; that the number of elders, to use the example of a dramatization of this passage, unless the director intended to imply the number of friends.  The same could be said of costumes, positions of the actors, incidental dialog etc.

Historian vs. Theologian

A historian is interested in the chronological sequence of past events and the cause & effect relationship between them: in other words, the sociological sciences. A theologian, on the other hand, is interested in the ultimate meaning of events: in other words, the cause & effect relationship between the events and us.

The Gospel writers are first and foremost theologians, not historians. Note how the Gospels do not always agree on the sequence of events and how they place sayings in different groupings. The details of the development of Jesus' teaching and what did or did not influence him did not interest them, as it would a historian. The Gospel writers' concern was having Jesus' teaching cause an effect on their readers.

However this does not mean that the Gospel writers had free reign to invent anything they wanted Jesus to say or do. One does encounter the attitude that objective truth did not matter to the ancients in much of modern scholarship unfortunately. For example, Barry Hoberman writes:

The best way for an author or editor to reach a wide readership in antiquity was not to sign his own name to his work, but to attribute it to some revered figure from the past instead. From our twentieth-century vantage point, this seems a dishonest and oddly self-abasing practice, a bizarre kind of inside-out plagiarism. But in the ancient world, it was evidently a common and perfectly acceptable custom.

However true this may, or may not, be of the pagan ancient world in general, it is demonstrably not true of the early church.  Some examples from the early church's writings include:

In the New Testament itself, the reality, in actual space and time, of the events of Jesus' life was of great importance to Paul:

12 Now if Christ is preached, that He has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 But if there is no resurrection of the dead, not even Christ has been raised; 14 and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain. 15 Moreover we are even found to be false witnesses of God, because we testified against God that He raised Christ, whom He did not raise, if in fact the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised; 17 and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. 19 If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied. [1 Co 15:12-19]


So what may we conclude then? The actual historicity of the events described was important to the Gospel writers . They believed that what the wrote really happened. This is in contrast to the cults such as the Gnostics. Cult leaders used deception, made-up stories, to control their followers and were criticized for doing so by the orthodox Christians.

However, the concern of the Gospel writers was to communicate the theological import of what Jesus said and did, not the nitty-gritty historical details. They were therefore free to use what may be termed ''artistic or dramatic license" in writing their accounts.

We see the effects of this when comparing the Synoptic parallels.

What the Gospel writers do not do is make material changes that effect the theological import of the passage or create material out of whole cloth. They were faithful to Jesus' message.

In the passage we are examining today, Matthew has omitted the extra characters then used artistic or dramatic license to gloss over their absence. They are not necessary to make the point that this foreigner had more faith than any Jew. But note how the central aspects of the story are not modified. Except for the omission necessary to gloss over the exclusion of the minor characters, the centurion's words that establish his humbleness and faith are virtually unmodified. Matthew has similarly condensed nearly every passage he takes from Mark and Q, and even doing this, his is still the longest of the Synoptic Gospels.

Jesus' response about his faith is reproduced verbatim by Matthew as well included with it is a related saying about the contrast between Gentiles and Jews that Luke attaches to a different, but topically related, block of sayings.

It would be a mistake to call these inconsistencies between the synoptic accounts errors. They are no more errors than the non-literalness of a figure of speech. The Gospel writers are allowed this degree of artistic license because the genre of their writing is more theological than historical in nature, but the early church made it clear that it is the historical truthfulness of the events that gives the Accounts authority. They are not fiction.

Post Script

One may well ask why spend so much time focusing on this issue?  The reason is that skeptics will point to a whole list of such minor inconsistencies, then jump to the erroneous conclusion that the Gospel writers had no interest in what really happened, but could make up or reshape any story they wished to influence the beliefs their followers.   An incorrect understanding of inerrancy and unconvincing harmonizations will not convince such a skeptic otherwise, and may mislead the believer as well.

The real fact of the matter is that Matthew has portrayed the Centurion as a man of faith and humility, just as Luke has, and has reproduced the same teachings of Jesus as Luke has.  He did not reshape the material to say something different nor invent material to say something additional, neither here, nor elsewhere.  He did not have that freedom because he, as a theologian, was intending for the historical teaching of Jesus to have an effect on the reader, not a cult leader, intending to have power over his followers.


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