Monday, May 23, 2016

A Pious Centurion, His Beloved Slave and the Imperial Command Structure

Below is a rough translation and some initial comments regarding Luke 7:1-10, the Gospel reading for the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost, June 2, 2013 in the Revised Common Lectionary. Your comments are welcomed.

1  Ἐπειδὴ ἐπλήρωσεν πάντα τὰ ῥήματα αὐτοῦ εἰς τὰς ἀκοὰς τοῦ λαοῦ, εἰσῆλθεν εἰς 
When he completed all of his sayings in the ears of the people, he entered into Capernaum.
ἐπλήρωσεν: AAI 3s, πληρόω, 1) to make full, to fill up, i.e. to fill to the full  
εἰσῆλθεν: AAI 3s, εἰσέρχομαι, 1) to go out or come in: to enter

1. Jesus, in Luke’s gospel, had spent some time in Capernaum and had done things there that gave him a reputation (4:23) and he returned there after being rejected in Nazareth (4:31).

2  Ἑκατοντάρχου δέ τινος δοῦλος κακῶς ἔχων ἤμελλεν τελευτᾶν, ὃς ἦν αὐτῷ ἔντιμος. 
Then an ill slave of a certain centurion was being about to die, who was precious to him.
ἔχων: PAPart nsm, ἔχω, 1) to have, i.e. to hold 
ἤμελλεν: IAI 3s, μέλλω, 1) to be about  1a) to be on the point of doing or suffering something  1b) to intend, have in mind, think to
τελευτᾶν: PAInf, τελευτάω, 1) to finish, bring to an end, close  2) to have an end or close, come to an end 
ἦν: IAI 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
1. The construction ἔχων ἤμελλεν τελευτᾶν is a little difficult to navigate because the primary meaning of ἔχων is ‘to have.’ But, it looks like a secondary meaning can have a ‘to be’ sense and that seems to be how it translates best here.
Update: I got a helpful note via email noting: The verb ἔχων plus an adverb is an idiomatic construction in Greek. It's equivalent to "to be" plus the adjective that corresponds to the adverb. (See Smyth's Greek Grammar, article 1438). 
2. However, because ἔχων is a participle (‘being’), this verse translates as an incomplete sentence. Therefore, many translations make it a simple past tense verb “was.”
Further Update: That same helpful note argued that ἤμελλεν is the finite verb in this clause, making it a complete sentence with the verb "was about to die." 

3 ἀκούσας δὲ περὶ τοῦ Ἰησοῦ ἀπέστειλεν πρὸς αὐτὸν πρεσβυτέρους τῶν Ἰουδαίων, ἐρωτῶν αὐτὸν ὅπω ἐλθὼν διασώσῃ τὸν δοῦλον αὐτοῦ. 
Yet having heard about Jesus he sent to him elders of the Judeans, beseeching him that having come he might make his slave well.
ἀκούσας: AAPart nsm, ἀκούω, 1) to be endowed with the faculty of hearing, not deaf 
ἀπέστειλεν: AAI 3s, ἀποστέλλω, 1) to order (one) to go to a place appointed
ἐρωτῶν: PAPart nsm, ἐρωτάω, 1) to question  2) to ask  2a) to request, entreat, beg, beseech
ἐλθὼν: AAPart nsm, ἔρχομαι, 1) to come  1a) of persons
διασώσῃ: AASubj 3s, διασῴζω, 1) to preserve through danger, to bring safely through  1a) to save, i.e. cure one who is sick, bring him through  
1. I follow Richard Horsley’s argument that Ἰουδαίων is best translated as Judeans, rather than Jews, although Horsley’s argument is specific to the Gospel of Mark and he might not make the same argument for Luke. Probably here ‘Jews’ is perfectly fine.
2. The verb ἐρωτῶν (beseeching) is singular, indicating that it is the Centurion who is asking, through the elders. It seems that the comment in v.2 about the slave being ‘precious’ to the Centurion suggests a verb stronger than ‘requested.’ “Beseech” sounds ancient to me, but “begged” almost sounds too desperate.
3. The verb διασώσῃ is made up of the prefix δια and the verb σῴζω. I typically make σῴζω “to make whole” because I think it is often translated too narrowly as “to save.” In this case, because the slave has been identified as sick and near death, “to make well” seems warranted. Some translations interpret the prefix to indicate “thoroughly heal.” I am not using “heal” here, because of a different word (ἰαθήτω)that I am translating as “heal” in v.7 below.

4 οἱ δὲ παραγενόμενοι πρὸς τὸν Ἰησοῦν παρεκάλουν αὐτὸν σπουδαίως, λέγοντες ὅτι Ἄξιός ἐστιν ᾧ παρέξῃ τοῦτο,
Yet the ones having come to Jesus summoned him instantly, saying “He is worthy to whom you shall offer this,
παραγενόμενοι: AMPart npm, παραγίνομαι, 1) to be present, to come near, approach 2) to come forth, make one's public appearance 
παρεκάλουν: IAI 3s, παρακαλέω, 1) to call to one's side, call for, summon 
λέγοντες: PAPart npm, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak 
ἐστιν: PAI 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
παρέξῃ: FMI 2s, παρέχω, 1) to reach forth, offer 
1. Now we hear the voice of the messengers, not merely the message that they bring on behalf of another. They say two things: A) The Centurion is “worthy,” or “deserving” of what is requested; and B) they assume that Jesus will indeed honor the request, using the future indicative and not a subjunctive voice in the verb παρέξῃ.
2. These are elders of the Jews, speaking on behalf of a worthy Roman Centurion acknowledging Jesus as a healer. That is a rare convergence in the gospels.

5 ἀγαπᾷ γὰρ τὸ ἔθνος ἡμῶν καὶ τὴν συναγωγὴν αὐτὸς ᾠκοδόμησεν ἡμῖν. 
For he loves the our nation and he built the synagogue for us.
ἀγαπᾷ: PAI 3s, ἀγαπάω, 1) of persons  1a) to welcome, to entertain, to be fond of, to love dearly  2) of things  2a) to be well pleased, to be contented at or with a thing
ᾠκοδόμησεν: AAI 3s, οἰκοδομέω, 1) to build a house, erect a building 
1. Here, the messengers describe what it is about this Centurion that makes him worthy of Jesus’ response. It is very similar to the Centurion Cornelius that Luke writes about in Acts 10, who is described as “a devout man who feared God with all his household; he gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God.”
2. When the messengers say “our nation,” it is not clear to me whether they mean “our” to refer to themselves and their people or if they are including Jesus in that reference. Since ἔθνος could mean things other than “nation,” it could be a reference to the Judeans, which would not include the Galilean Jesus. I would assume that they are speaking of greater Israel, including Jesus (for it certainly was his nation as well), which would give him all the more reason to look favorably on the Centurion’s request.

6ὁ δὲ Ἰησοῦς ἐπορεύετο σὺν αὐτοῖς. ἤδη δὲ αὐτοῦ οὐ μακρὰν ἀπέχοντος ἀπὸ τῆς οἰκίας ἔπεμψεν φίλους ὁ ἑκατοντάρχης λέγων αὐτῷ, Κύριε, μὴ σκύλλου, οὐ γὰρ ἱκανός εἰμι ἵνα ὑπὸ τὴν στέγην μου εἰσέλθῃς
So Jesus was going with them. Then being not yet distant greatly from the house the Centurion sent friends saying to him, “Lord do not be troubled, for I am not deserving that you should enter under my roof;
ἐπορεύετο: IMI 3s, πορεύομαι, 1) to lead over, carry over, transfer
ἀπέχοντος: PAPart gsm, ἀπέχω, 1) have  1a) to hold back, keep off, prevent  1b) to have wholly or in full, to have received  1c) it is enough, sufficient  2) to be away, absent, distant  3) to hold one's self off, abstain
ἔπεμψεν: AAI 3s, πέμπω, 1) to send  1a) to bid a thing to be carried to one  1b) to send (thrust or insert) a thing into another
σκύλλου: PPImpv 2s, σκύλλω, 1) to skin, flay  2) to rend, mangle  2a) to vex, trouble, annoy  2b) to give one's self trouble, trouble one's self 
εἰμι: PAI 1s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
εἰσέλθῃς: AASubj 2s, εἰσέρχομαι, 1) to go out or come in: to enter
1. “being not yet distant greatly” is awkward, but it shows that the participle here is ἀπέχοντος, which I am translating as ‘being distant.’ It includes a negative particle and an adverb. The fact that ‘distant’ is the participle is lost in some translations which make it ‘a great distance.’
2. The Centurion now sends ‘friends,’ after earlier sending ‘elders of the Judeans.’ I’m not sure what the significance is, but it feels significant.
3. Contrary to the report earlier from the elders, the Centurion himself declares that he is not deserving. Some translations use “worthy” to capture both the adjective Ἄξιός in v.4 and ἱκανός here. I am using ‘deserving’ just to show that they are different words. My sense is that Luke is not using the same word to set up a contrast between the Centurion and the elders, but is demonstrating the humility of the Centurion.
4. Not to belabor the analogy between this Centurion and Cornelius of Acts 10, but the first thing Cornelius does when Simon Peter enters his house is to fall at his feet to worship him. A jaded view would be that Centurions got to their position by knowing when to grovel, but my sense is that Luke has a less jaded view and sees these men of enormous power and influence lowering themselves appropriately.

7 διὸ οὐδὲ ἐμαυτὸν ἠξίωσα πρὸς σὲ ἐλθεῖν: ἀλλὰ εἰπὲ λόγῳ, καὶ ἰαθήτω ὁ παῖς μου. 
Wherefore I did not judge myself worthy to come to you; but say a word, and my boy will be healed.
ἠξίωσα: AAI 1s, ἀξιόω, 1) to think meet, fit, right  2) to judge worthy, deem, deserving
ἐλθεῖν: AAInf, ἔρχομαι, 1) to come  1a) of persons
εἰπὲ: AAImpv 2s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak 
ἰαθήτω: APImpv 3s, ἰάομαι, 1) to cure, heal  2) to make whole  2a) to free from errors and sins, to bring about (one's) salvation
1. The Centurion now relates, via his friend, why he has sent messengers instead of coming himself to Jesus. In this explanation Luke uses another word that indicates unworthiness, ἠξίωσα. This particular word signifies ‘judging’ something unworthy, as opposed to being unworthy. The stem of ἠξίωσα is the same as  Ἄξιός, the word for “worthy” in v.4. This is the Centurion’s second expression of humility. He is not deserving that Jesus should enter under his roof; and he is not worthy of approaching Jesus personally.
2. The Centurion’s reference to Jesus saying a word and having the result might be an echo of the creation story in Genesis 1, where God says and it happens. If that is an intentional echo on the Centurion’s part, it would be quite a statement of faith.
3. I am translating the word ἰαθήτω as ‘heal’ here, which is why I used “make well” for διασώσῃ in v.3.
4. The word παῖς has a curious history and wide sense of meaning. It can be translated ‘servant,’ and is the LXX word for עבד, which in most cases seems to mean servant. It can also mean “child,” and in this verse would be “my child.” But, that might give the impression that the Centurion is the father and it seems that conclusion is not warranted. There are other less ambiguous words for ‘son.’ What seems warranted is a word for “slave” (δοῦλος) who is “precious” (ἔντιμος) to the Centurion. (V.8 makes it abundantly clear that a δοῦλος does what a δοῦλος is told.) I think the phrase “my boy” carries both the endearing and the demeaning sense that a precious slave might have. I might be wrong here, given the torturous history of the word “boy” in the US. He is precious. But, he is a slave. And he is young.

8 καὶ γὰρ ἐγὼ ἄνθρωπός εἰμι ὑπὸ ἐξουσίαν τασσόμενοςἔχων ὑπ' ἐμαυτὸν στρατιώτας, καὶ λέγω τούτῳ, Πορεύθητι, καὶ πορεύεται, καὶ ἄλλῳ, Ἔρχου, καὶ ἔρχεται, καὶ τῷ δούλῳ μου, Ποίησον τοῦτο, καὶ ποιεῖ
For I am also a man being appointed under authority, having soldiers under myself, and I say to this one, “Go,” and he goes, and to another “Come” and he comes, and to my slave, “Do this,” and he does.  
εἰμι: PAI 1s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
τασσόμενος: PPPart nsm, τάσσω, 1) to put in order, to station  1a) to place in a certain order, to arrange, to assign a  place, to appoint
ἔχων: PAPart nsm, ἔχω, 1) to have, i.e. to hold 
λέγω: PAI 1s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak 
Πορεύθητι: APImpv 2s, πορεύομαι, 1) to lead over, carry over, transfer 
πορεύεται: PMI  3s, πορεύομαι, 1) to lead over, carry over, transfer 
Ἔρχου: PMImpv 2s, ἔρχομαι, 1) to come  1a) of persons
ἔρχεται: PMI 3s, ἔρχομαι, 1) to come  1a) of persons
Ποίησον: AAImpv 2s, ποιέω, 1) to make, to do
ποιεῖ: PAI 3s, 1) to make, to do
1. There are two correlative ways of reading this verse. In the first place, it is indicative of the command structure of the Roman Empire. The Centurion is appointed (that word could be ‘ordained’) under authority. He does not simply establish that authority for himself or by himself. Yet, it grants that when he speaks to those under him, he speaks with the authority of the Empire and so they do exactly what he says. In the second place, the Centurion is describing this command structure as an analogy for how he understands Jesus’ authority. Jesus is given his authority by another, yet when Jesus speaks he speaks with the absolute authority of the other.

9 ἀκούσας δὲ ταῦτα ὁ Ἰησοῦς ἐθαύμασεν αὐτόν, καὶ στραφεὶς τῷ ἀκολουθοῦντι αὐτῷ ὄχλῳ εἶπενΛέγω ὑμῖν, οὐδὲ ἐν τῷ Ἰσραὴλ τοσαύτην πίστιν εὗρον
Yet having heard these things Jesus marveled at him, and having turned to that crowd who was following him said, “I say to you, not in Israel have I found such great faith.”
ἀκούσας: AAPart nsm, ἀκούω, 1) to be endowed with the faculty of hearing, not deaf 
ἐθαύμασεν: AAI 3s, θαυμάζω, 1) to wonder, wonder at, marvel  2) to be wondered at, to be had in admiration
ἀκολουθοῦντι: PAPart dsm, ἀκολουθέω, 1) to follow one who precedes, join him as his attendant,  accompany him
στραφεὶς: APPart nsm, στρέφω, 1) to turn, turn around
εἶπεν: AAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak 
Λέγω: PAI 1s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak 
εὗρον: AAI 1s, εὑρίσκω, 1) to come upon, hit upon, to meet with
1. The Centurion’s blend of humility and his trust that Jesus has the authority to heal analogous to the command structure of the Empire is deemed exemplary faith by Jesus.
2. For those of us who invest in ‘empire studies’ (from New Testament scholars like Warren Carter, John Dominic Crossan, William Herzog, Ched Myers, Walter Wink, etc.) it is very difficult to hear trust in the command structure of the empire being exalted as exemplary faith. But, as Warren Carter has effectively argued in many places, the Synoptics have an admixture of resistance to the empire, as well as conformity, as well as co-existence, as well as outright defiance, etc. Carter points to the word βασιλεία, which is translated “reign” as in “reign of God,” as a term that is borrowed from the empire. In fact, to make this point, Carter often translates that phrase “the empire of God.”

10καὶ ὑποστρέψαντες εἰς τὸν οἶκον οἱ πεμφθέντες εὗρον τὸν δοῦλον ὑγιαίνοντα
And having returned to the house the ones who were sent found the slave in good health.
ὑποστρέψαντες: AAPart npm, ὑποστρέφω, 1) to turn back  1a) to turn about  2) to return
πεμφθέντες: APPart npm, πέμπω, 1) to send  1a) to bid a thing to be carried to one
εὗρον: AAI 1s, εὑρίσκω, 1) to come upon, hit upon, to meet with
ὑγιαίνοντα: PAPart asm, ὑγιαίνω, 1) to be sound, to be well, to be in good health  2) metaph.  2a) of Christians whose opinions are free from any mixture of error  2b) of one who keeps the graces and is strong 
1. This conclusion leaves no doubt that the slave – while in good health – is a slave. It may be unfair to have the American experience of slavery in mind as the experience of slavery in all times and places, but it would be even more unfair to treat slavery as an occupational form of domestic service akin to the Downton Abbey crew.
2. The word ὑγιαίνοντα is the 3rd term in this pericope that means to restore health, along with διασώσῃ from v.3 and ἰαθήτω from v.7.
3. Jesus found great faith in the Centurion, the ambassadors found the slave well.


  1. Thanks for getting to the nuances in this gospel!

    1. I've overlooked a ton of them, I'm sure. Feel free to chime in if you wish. And thanks for the note.

  2. The American Standard version gives an alternate translation of the word translated here as "slave" as "bondservant." According to my (very limited!) knowledge of slavery in the Roman Empire, this would make the "slavery" of the person in question less than absolute. Since it's a child, apparently, he might have been sold into slavery by his family, who couldn't afford to support him, but the term of service might not have been permanent. There could have been a time limit, or the person could have had the option of buying his contract (with money legally earned on the side) and being free. I don't know to what extent this might affect the meaning of the passage as a whole, but it does kind of take the word out of its highly-charged American history.


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