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