The 1st Century Centurion

Daniel Nava

One of the most fascinating aspects of the Centurion’s story from Matthew 8 and Luke 7 is that Jesus is described as “amazed.” In order to understand the amazement of Jesus we will concentrate this week’s blog post on the occupation of the Centurion. Afterall, it is the Centurion’s understanding of authority that leads him to a faith so great that Jesus had not seen the likes of it in all of Israel. So, we will look at the historical background of centurions in the Roman army, and the background of this specific Centurion.  

            

The centurion in the Roman army was a low-ranking officer. He commanded no other officer in the military, however, was himself in command of between 80-100 enlisted men. He would have reported to a cohort commander. The centurion would have had several senior enlisted men in leadership positions who reported to him. The centurion would have been a professional soldier who commanded great respect but was also the workhorse of the legion doing much of the peacekeeping work in the empire.

            

Centurions were certainly gentiles in the 1st century, but not necessarily Roman citizens. Many centurions would have been non-Romans working towards citizenship knowing that, after their service they could earn retirement and land rights. 

            

Centurions were often responsible for keeping the peace in occupied territories of the Roman empire. The soldiers the centurions commanded were the primary policing forces in Roman occupied lands, including Israel. They would have used their relative wealth (around 10-20 times what a normal citizen would have made) to keep the peace in their region using patronage. Patronage would have been what the Jewish leaders in Luke 7:5 were referring to when they said the Centurion built their synagogue.  Wealthy Romans would often support subjugated populations in building their religious and civic buildings in order to keep the peace. This patronage came with strings attached however, often adorning the buildings and civic projects with Hellenistic symbols. There is ample archeological evidence of ancient synagogues having Roman military symbols and décor. 

            

This Centurion’s post would not have been the most prestigious. He oversaw a population that was on the fringe of the empire bordering on some areas that would have had problems with the Jewish zealots of the time. The Centurion was likely working on achieving citizenship and yet came to have some affection for the Jewish people and their customs judging by the “love for the nation” section of Luke 7:5. Whether or not he was a full on “God fearer” is up for debate with scholars. “God-fearers” were gentiles who attended the outskirts of the synagogue and believed in God but were not permitted to worship in the synagogue.

            

The Centurion’s knowledge of Jewish customs, while showing incredible deference to Jesus and personal humility, is not the end of the story of the Centurion’s faith. He further states that he knows that Jesus can command healing from afar as he himself is both a person of authority, and a person under authority. This is what amazes Jesus: a combination of humble deference, and knowledge via personal experience. This gentile has more faith in the person of Jesus than Jesus had seen in all of Israel. The Jewish people were the faith community of Jesus’ time. We must learn from this story that faithful acknowledgement of Christ may come from places we do not expect, we must be ever vigilant of letting our knowledge make us too prideful, and we must learn to ask great things of God.

 

References and Additional Readings:

Howatson, M. C. "Centurion." In The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature.: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Brownrigg, Ronald. "Centurion." In Who's Who in the New Testament, Routledge. 2nd ed. Routledge, 2002.

Saddington, D. “Centurion”. In The Oxford Guide to People and Places of the Bible.: Oxford University Press. 2001.

Bertram, Robert W. “Complete Centurion.” Concordia Theological Monthly 39, no. 5 (May 1968): 311–27.

NET Bible on Luke 7, subnote 23

Divine Retribution At The Time Of Jesus

Daniel Nava


At the beginning of the story of the blind man, we see the disciples ask Jesus a question which gets to the heart of a common misconception of their and our time. The disciples ask, referring to the blind man, (John 9:2) “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” The question, and how it is phrased infers that the disciples could not imagine any other option. Either this man sinned in the womb, or his parents sinned. This is called the doctrine of temporal retribution: God punishes, in this lifetime, our sins. Jesus affirms that sin is not the cause of this malady, he states: ““Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.” This sounds like his malady happened just so that Jesus could show the work of God in him. This is not the case. We can be confident of this by looking at the next passage, which is a continuation of the answer: “As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” Also, see the story of Job for an additional example of the rebuking of temporal retribution. The idea Jesus is getting at that, since this has happened to the blind man him, the works of God can be displayed in him. God redeems the brokenness of the world. He does not cause the brokenness of the world. 


Like the other stories of healing in scripture this malady is used to the glory of God. While God certainly retains the right to use temporal retribution as a part of the divine prerogative, that is not his normal method of operation. Gustavo Gutierrez, a Latin-American theologian puts this well, “The world of retribution – and not of temporal retribution only – is not where God dwells; at most God visits it.” 


If the disciples were fully bought into temporal retribution, then the blind man himself likely did as well. The blind man from the time of his innocence as a child either carried the guilt of some unknown sin or thought that his parents were hiding some sin against God. Regardless of what he or the disciples thought, what small or large sin they may have committed, the sin was not the cause of the malady. Sin does beget sin, and must be taken seriously, but that causal relationship is not punishment from God; it is the nature of sin. The blindness of this man was not something caused by God, but rather it was caused by the brokenness of the world. This brokenness is actively being reconciled to God through Christ. The blind man must have thought that his blindness was his identity, what Jesus showed him was that he was valuable. Jesus makes his identity a beloved child of Christ. 


Here is the good news: through God’s abundant grace your suffering can be hope. As we see in Romans 5:3-5, “Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.” For some who suffer outside of Christ their progression may end at character, their sufferings, like ours, allow them to grow, but never moves to true hope. However, in the Christian world view, through the: suffering, death, resurrection, ascension and exaltation of Christ we also see hope in our suffering. Our hope is: as heirs to Christ (Romans 8:17). 


The question the disciples ask is a common one, but the wrong one. Whether our suffering comes from: sin, the broken world, or the divine prerogative, your suffering through your connection with Christ is constantly being redeemed. This blind man’s malady eventually led him to the realization of who Jesus must be, and this realization lead to his salvation. 


So, as we reflect on how the blind man’s blindness came to be, let us remember Jesus’ answer: it was not sin, but its existence means that God’s work can be displayed through his life. Jesus is the light of the world, and through the Holy Spirit He is working to redeem all brokenness towards His good purposes.  Divine Retribution is not the primary way God works in our world. 

 

Additional Readings:

“On Job: God-Talk and the Suffering of the Innocent” by Gustavo Gutiérrez. An excellent book that does a thorough reflection on the subject matter. 

“The God I Don’t Understand: Reflections on Tough Questions of Faith” by Christopher Wright

Tax Collector

Daniel Nava

As is mentioned in the sermon this week, no one is excited if the IRS should contact you. It can mean that you are being audited or may need to provide more information about your taxes. In most cases this just means an inconvenience and possibly having to pay a bit more in your taxes. It is a legal process with some structure to it even if it is something we disagree with. Now imagine if the tax collector was collecting taxes, not for your government, but for a hostile foreign occupier. What if, adding salt to the wound, the tax collector was a fellow countryman who was collaborating with that foreign power and the amount you were paying was much more than you owed? As we examine in more detail the role of the tax collector in Jesus’ time, we can get an idea to exactly what lengths Jesus went to challenge the preconceptions of the Jewish ruling classes. 


To first get a lay of the land of who tax collectors were, we should take a short look at recent Jewish history and what lead up to the political situation of Jesus’ time:


 

332 BCE: The area of the Mediterranean where the Jewish people lived was conquered by Alexander the Great and was allowed to remain a Jewish theocracy under a Seleucid (Syrian) governor.

 

166 BCE: The Seleucid government prohibited the practice of Judaism. This caused the Jewish people to revolt in what was called the Maccabean Revolution. 

 

164 BCE: The Maccabees took Jerusalem, and purified the Temple. (This is commemorated with Hanukkah) 

 

147 BCE: The Maccabees achieved autonomy from the Seleucids.

 

129 BCE: The Seleucids Kingdom collapsed, and the Jewish Kingdom was restored. 

 

60 BCE: The Romans come on the scene and began a hostile takeover of the Jewish Kingdom. 

 

40 BCE: Finally, the Romans killed the last Maccabean King. The Romans occupy the former Jewish kingdom and install Herod, a nephew of the former Maccabean king as the governor of the Roman territory. 

 

(Taken mostly from JewishVirtualLibrary.org)

 

When Jesus was born Israel had been occupied by the Romans for 40 years. During this time of Roman rule, the Jewish people had some autonomy and was able to practice their faith. However, their culture was also being encouraged to adopt Roman customs (a process called Hellenization). This caused a split within the Jewish people. The leaders were split into several groups, but the three most mentioned in scripture were:

 

Pharisees: This is the group that most often interacts with Jesus in the Gospels. They were the religious leaders looking to reclaim traditional Jewish customs and preserve them from Hellenistic influence. They would have been the most knowledgeable in scripture and educators in local synagogues.

 

Sadducees: This is the group that was primarily interested in the administration of the Jewish state and the maintenance of the temple. They would have been the ones in charge of the temple when Jesus upended the tables in witnessing the money-changers and their corrupt systems. They were less concerned with the law of Moses as much as doing everything they could to maintain their power within Roman law. 

 

Zealots: Zealots were a group of Jewish leaders who were concerned with regaining Jewish independence from Rome. Whereas the Sadducees worked to preserve Jewish autonomy within Roman rule by cooperating, the Zealots were looking to gather support for a military uprising. 

 

Knowing all of this is important as tax collectors fully bought into Roman society, unlike all the other groups. Not only were they assisting in the collecting of taxes for the Roman government, but the position of tax collector was known for being “crafty, unscrupulous, and unjust in their official duties.” (Okorie) So, they not only conspired with the foreign occupation, but further oppressed their own people by taking more taxes than they were required (See Luke 3:12-13). The tax collector would have been seen as someone who not only sold out to a foreign occupier, but added to the oppression more than they needed to, they were seen as truly despicable people looking out only for number one. This background explains why it was such a scandal that Jesus associated with tax collectors, it was a betrayal of the Jewish people in a deeply profound way. 

 

If you look at the account of Matthew we see the Pharisees, who were trying desperately to preserve the Jewish way of life, wondering how it is that this man (who just healed a paralytic) would turn around and have table fellowship with tax collectors. What Jesus is doing through this association is telling the Pharisees to let go of their desperate grip on what they think they know so well. The work of God is to challenge theological norms, to seek the lost and, to realize that the work of God is so much bigger than they dreamed it could be. 

 

It is difficult at times to imagine the outrage that the tax collectors would have caused the Jewish people of the time. Today we can scarcely know what it is like to live under foreign occupation, nor can we fully know how sharp the betrayal would ring if a countryman would conspire with such an enemy contributing to your oppression. What we can imagine is injustice, the idea that someone who has done something evil could get away with it, this happens all the time. What Jesus shows us is that by associating with those who have done something awful, he validates the value of their soul and in doing so inspires them to repent. In the case of Matthew and Zacchaeus they: leave the oppressive job, or reform it. This would not be possible without seeking out, associating, and building relationships with them via the table of fellowship. 

 

 

Citations:

 

Walker, William O, Jr. “Jesus and the Tax Collectors.” Journal of Biblical Literature 97, no. 2 (June 1978): 221–38.

 

Okorie, A M. “The Characterization of the Tax Collectors in the Gospel of Luke.” Currents in Theology and Mission 22, no. 1 (February 1995): 27–32. 

 

Donahue, John R. “Tax Collectors and Sinners an Attempt at Identification.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 33, no. 1 (January 1971): 39–61.

 

 

Table Fellowship

Daniel Nava

Growing up in the 1990’s was a special time. No Facebook, no Twitter, and no smartphones meant that we were not connected in the same way as we are now. However, there was still busy schedules and many of the distractions of modern life. So, the primary way that I communicated with my family was over dinner. We would sit around the table and just talk about our day, our plans, and life. While this modern-day routine helped me feel connected with my family. Meals were a very important part of ancient society as well, they helped people feel connected and a part of a group. 

 

In ancient society, meals known as “table fellowship” were a ritualistic meal that served many purposes in society. The people who allowed you at the table accepted you as one of them it was a symbol of where you belonged. While this may seem a lot like school lunch time where students break off into groups based off interests and social standing. Table fellowship indicated what religious, ethnic and societal boundaries as well was conferred honor upon the host based on who would accept your dinner invitation. 

 

The Pharisees of the time were fighting to maintain traditional Jewish tradition against the influence of the Roman culture. The Roman efforts to influence the cultures of conquered peoples was called Hellenization. While Roman rule allowed, and even helped preserve (Luke 7:5), Jewish customs it did so while encouraging the adoption of Hellenist influence. Some of that influence was simply the engagement of Roman celebrations, and honor rites, others like Caesar worship, would rub violently against the traditions of the local Jewish customs. 

            

Unlike the Pharisees who fought to maintain Jewish custom, other pragmatic Jewish people of Jesus’ time embraced Hellenization. These people did so either by choice or by situation. These included but were not limited to: those who would take jobs within the Roman government (often as tax collectors), people who were deemed ritually unclean due to disease (such as the bleeding woman in Matthew 9:20-21), and those who were excluded from Jewish society due to sin (the sinful woman of Matthew 7:36). These people started doing their own table fellowship as they were typically excluded from Jewish table fellowship, these types of meals are in scripture such as Matthew’s (Matthew 9:10) and Zacchaeus’ Luke 19:5-9 implied in scripture).

 

Knowing what we know about table fellowship above makes Jesus’ association with “Tax Collectors and Sinners” all the more a scandalous. By association with tax collectors and sinners, the Jewish leaders saw Jesus as endorsing their situation. What Jesus saw is an opportunity to heal those who need him most. Jesus was showing that, only through association could the lost find him. Table fellowship is not to be used as a method of exclusion, but as a venue for reconciliation.

 

The recontextualization of table fellowship for Christians today is a deep reflection of who we deem worthy of inclusion of God’s grace. Jesus works throughout the gospels to up-end the traditional faith community’s ideas on inclusion as we will see throughout this sermon series. By studying these scriptures, it forces us, as God’s people of today to constantly re-evaluate our own thoughts of inclusion.

So how do we avoid, as the religious community, falling into the trap that the Pharisees of the time did? 

 

1) We have to have the humility to be vigilantly self-aware and repentant. We must think about our theology of people. How can we better see people of all stripes the way Jesus sees them?

 

2) We must be more concerned with people than our own traditional sensibilities. The pharisees problem was that they were so concerned with maintaining their old traditions that there were incapable of seeing their own law in the proper way. The law was concerned about people (Jeremiah 22:16, especially 16b). Jesus encourages the Pharisees using scripture as a corrective of their own priorities. In this same way we have to evaluate our own notions of “the other” from the point of view of Jesus in scripture. If our interpretation of scripture is stopping us from being available to people or including people, then we need to reevaluate our interpretation of scripture. 


3) Work to seek out outcasts, and showing (through example) who Jesus is. The encounter with Jesus that triggers faith is through showing who Jesus is through healing and presence. If we exclude people or judge people before knowing them as is displayed in the parable of the weeds in Matthew 13 then we could “uproot” potential believers.

 

Primary Reference:

 

Perrin, Nicholas, Jeannine K. Brown, and Joel B. Green. 2013. “Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels”. IVP Bible Dictionary Series. Downers Grove, Ill: IVP Academic. p 925-931 on “Table Fellowship”

 

Further reading on table fellowship:

 

Articles: 

Pao, David W. 2011. “Waiters or Preachers: Acts 6:1-7 and the Lukan Table Fellowship Motif.” Journal of Biblical Literature 130 (1): 127–44.

 

Books: 

Jerome H. Neyrey, "Ceremonies in Luke-Acts: The Case of Meals and Table Fellowship,"


Robert L. Kelley, "Meals with Jesus in Luke's Gospel”