At the end of May, Jeffrey John, Dean of St Alban’s, preached at Liverpool Cathedral on the healing of the centurion’s servant in Luke 7. You can listen to the sermon on the Cathedral’s Soundcloud stream. John is a consummate orator, and he begins with a story from his teenager years, when his vicar refers to the question of homosexuality of ‘that filthy business.’ In this way he builds a powerful, emotive case, that Jesus includes the excluded, and that if you oppose this you are unreasonable and prejudiced—and that gay people are amongst this excluded-now-included group. You might have rejected them (he comments at 14.33) ‘but these are the ones God wants, Jesus says, these are the ones I have come for, these are the ones to whom the kingdom belongs.’ The rhetorical move here, via the story in Luke 7, is that, far from the traditional reading of the NT where same-sex relations are rejected as incompatible with the kingdom, gay people don’t simply become acceptable in the kingdom; they become the archetypal members, in much the same way that Jesus holds children before the disciples as archetypes of kingdom membership. So rejecting this is not just a problem of rights; it is rejecting the central way that God pursues his kingdom purposes. It is about ‘doing what Jesus did’—which rather suggests it will not be acceptable to ‘agree to disagree’.
A key question in all this is whether the text in question supports John’s position. John cites the ‘sober German scholar’ Gerd Theissen, who pointed out ‘long ago’ that the word entimos (‘highly prized’) used to describe the value of the servant to the centurion in Luke 7.2, would have been understood by any Jew to mean that the slave was the centurion’s gay lover. There are a number of issues here.
First, John misquotes the word as atimos, which means either worthless or beyond value (lit. ‘without price’) instead of entimos, ‘highly valued’, but the point remains the same. Second, I don’t think Theissen puts the significance of the word to the same use that John does. The reference comes from his landmark work The Shadow of the Galilean where he makes a point about the impact of Jesus’ action amongst his fellow Jews. He imagines a Pharisee named Gamaliel who disparaged Jesus thus:
One day a Gentile centurion living here in Capernaum came to [Jesus]. He asked him to heal his orderly. Of course you have to help Gentiles. But why this one? Everyone knows that most of these Gentile officers are homosexual. Their orderlies are their lovers. But Jesus isn’t interested in that sort of thing. He didn’t ask anything about the orderly. He healed him—and the thought didn’t occur to him that later someone might think of appealing to him in support of the view that homosexuality is permissible. (p 106).
Theissen is here not so much interested in careful scholarship (though he is a scholar) as imaginative reconstruction. In the course of this, he has first-century Jews believing that ‘all Gentile officers are gay’. Quite apart from the completely anachronous projection of modern categories of sexuality on the first century, Theissen doesn’t make clear whether the Jews were correct in this—in fact, both issues (the uniformity of Jewish views of Gentiles, and actual Gentile behaviour) are contested. Christopher Zeichmann (‘Rethinking the Gay Centurion’, The Bible and Critical Theory, 11.1 2015) raises questions about the uniformity of Jewish views—though at the same time noting that all the texts we have do express strong rejection of same-sex sexual relations.
To be sure, surviving evidence of ancient Jewish writings overwhelmingly criticises same-sex intercourse when the topic arises. Philo of Alexandria (e.g., Abr. 135; Spec. 3.36), rabbinic literature (e.g., t.Kid. 5.9-10), Josephus (e.g., Ag.Ap. 2.199), and others offer negative assessments of same-sex intercourse between Jews. (See also Sib.Or. 3.595-600; Jub. 20.5-6; Rom 1:26-27; Jude 7.)
But if (like Paul in Romans 1) Jews characterised Gentiles as obsessed with same-sex relations, this doesn’t mean that the Jewish rhetoric offers a dispassionate description of historical reality. As Peter Ould points out:
Phang, in The Marriage of Roman Soldiers argues coherently that in the period of Roman history this passage occurs, it would have been inconceivable that a Roman soldier would have been permitted to have had a sexual relationship with either another soldier, any freeman, or even a male slave. There is however evidence that some Roman soldiers bought slave boys in order to have sex with them, but the documentation of this phenomenon is scarce. In some parts of the Empire at this time (i.e. Egypt) it was already unheard of for a free Roman to enter into pederasty with a junior. By the middle to end of the third century it was almost eliminated from the life of the army across the Empire.
We must take context seriously (‘a text without a context is a pretext’)—but we need to actually look at the text as well! The word entimos occurs in four other places in the NT (Luke 14.8, Phil 2.29, 1 Peter 2.4, 6) as well as 28 times in the LXX, the Greek version of the OT which the NT frequently cites. These are much more important contexts for understanding the word—and of course there is no hint of sexual overtones in any of the other occurrences. It has been argued that the phrase entimos doulos (‘prized servant’) has the particular sexual meaning—but this phrase does not occur in Luke 7, and the word comes not from the centurion himself, but from Luke. It is worth noting that Matthew does not include the description in his (typically) more abbreviated account, so I wonder whether Luke is adding this term to bring out the poignancy of the story. Theissen is correct to point out that a sexual relationship is possible, but the good standing of the centurion with the local Jewish community makes it unlikely, and the vocabulary and shape of the story make it clear that, even if is the case, this aspect is of no interest to the gospel writers.
In fact, both Luke and (even more emphatically) Matthew do make it clear what they think the significance of the story is. Luke records Jesus’ amazement at the faith of the centurion: ‘I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel’ (7.9). But Matthew includes an expansion on this, so we can see why he has abbreviated the actual details of the event itself (including omitting reference to the messengers).
Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith. I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matt 8.10–12).
This is one of the early anticipations of the Gentile mission that we find in Matt 28 embedded within an otherwise Israel-centric account of Jesus’ ministry. And this is the key point of the story.
For Jeffrey John to use the text in the way he does, he has to do several things. First, he sets aside the shape of the text itself and the clues that the gospel writers give as to the significance of the event. Second, he has to take one possible but unlikely meaning of a key word and make it the only possible meaning. Third, he then connects that with other unlikely meanings of other texts in order to form a patchwork picture which makes his point. He is ‘quite confident’ that, had Paul known about faithful same-sex relations, he would have approved of them—but that is only because John has remade Paul in his own image as someone who thought marriage was about being ‘faithful, stable and permanent’ but, bizarrely and against the evidence, didn’t think marriage was about sex differentiation and procreation. This is the Dan Brown approach to reading a text: there is a secret meaning, which has not surfaced in the history of interpretation, but with some expert knowledge (which I have access to and which you, the ordinary reader, cannot question), I will excavate the real meaning of this text which has been hidden from you (and is hidden even from Luke and Matthew themselves) which will prove my case beyond any doubt.
This text has been used in this way many times before, though in most discussions the focus is on the word pais which can mean ‘child’, ‘boy’, ‘slave’ or (it is claimed) the younger partner, possibly a pre-pubescent boy, in a pederastic same-sex relationship. For good discussions of this parallel issue see James Byron, Peter Ould or Andrew Perriman. Byron sums it up nicely:
It is a story about a servant and a master and we know nothing about how they interacted with one another in the bedroom or out.
And the central mistake involved is nicely highlighted by a pro-gay-reading website:
When we see the word pais in the Greek New Testament, context determines when it means child, servant, girl, boy or a male lover. Words do not always mean the same thing. The fact that the Greek word pais sometimes means same sex lover does not indicate it always carries that meaning.
It is worth thinking one stage further about all this. Suppose John is right about the relationship involved—after all, even if unlikely, it is not impossible, and it should surely not surprise us if a Roman soldier holds to a different sexual ethic from orthodox Jews. John himself draws the parallel with the women healed of an issue of blood; the real import of that story is not the one healing, but the effective declaration that she (and others like her) should not be considered unclean. That parallel works if being gay is like being a woman (in effect arguing that God made four sexes and not two) and that engaging in same-sex sexual activity is like menstruating—it is something that you just cannot help, and is an inevitable part of who you are, an argument that has its own problems. A more obvious parallel, in its historical and social context, is Jesus’ inclusion of prostitutes, as Jay Michaelson pointed out in the Huffington Post:
In addition to Jesus’ silence on homosexuality in general (he never mentions same-sex intimacy, not once, despite its prevalence in his social context), it speaks volumes that he did not hesitate to heal a Roman’s likely same-sex lover. Like his willingness to include former prostitutes in his close circle, Jesus’ engagement with those whose conduct might offend sexual mores even today is a statement of radical inclusion, and of his own priorities for the spiritual life.
So the key question is: what does Jesus’ inclusion signify in relation to the approval of sexual ethics? If Jeffrey John is right, then Michaelson suggests Jesus is approving of prostitution. Worse than that, if the relation between the centurion and the slave was sexual, and Jesus’ healing did signal approval, then it was approval of a non-consensual, unequal, probably abusive and most likely pederastic relationship. More generally, it suggests Jesus’ general approval of slavery, since he offers no critique of that institution. Jeffrey John’s reading, quite apart from imposing his own sexualising agenda on the text (where there is no evidence for it) is either morally repugnant or logically incoherent.
In closing, I would like to make three final observations. First, I keep being told that there are ‘good arguments’ for the Church to change its teaching on this issue. If there are, then where are they? Jeffrey John is a leading figure in this debate, so how come he offers us here such a poorly researched, implausible and incoherent case? Why is the case being made by SEC, a sister church in the Communion, so thin?
Secondly, what is Jeffrey John doing from the pulpit? He consistently makes the claim that texts ‘must mean this’ when they probably don’t, that Paul ‘certainly would have thought this’ when the majority think he wouldn’t, and that ‘this is what Jesus does’ when the gospels writers suggest the opposite. It is one thing to make a case, even a contentious one; it is quite another to disguise from your listeners that there is another possibility. It is a bit like saying ‘I am not interpreting the Bible; I am simply telling you what it says.’ It is a naked power play, and is wrong whoever does it. Some would call this dishonest; others might label it deceptive. It doesn’t seem to me to be a legitimate way to feed sheep.
Christopher Zeichmann goes further than this, and identifies such homonormative readings with neo-liberalist militarism, where all alternative views are unacceptable and should be eliminated.
Ward Blanton writes: “As if through a reflective play of mirrors, the ‘truth’ of any given depiction of ancient Christianity emerges only in that same moment in which an audience recognises this depiction to be an exemplary embodiment of those distinctions in terms of which it desires to identify itself” (2007, 6). I have suggested that among interpreters of the Healing of the Centurion’s Slave these “desired distinctions” consistently include the sexual exceptionalism of the geopolitical west, a distinction that tacitly flatters colonial ambitions through its implied counterpart of Islamic degeneracy…
The isolation of political issues in contemporary LGBT activism (and academic production attending to these concerns) often results in campaigns for what is “good for gays” that overlook their normalisation of neoliberal militarism…This is not a uniquely (or even especially) queer shortcoming, but rather a cultural logic in which we are all implicated.
Finally, I wonder what is the significance of John preaching this sermon in Liverpool Cathedral. Its bishop, Paul Bayes, has just appointed an active advocate of same-sex marriage as Assisting Bishop in the diocese, and last year he spoke at a service for LGBT Christians at St Bride’s Church. Are these the signs that a diocese in the Church of England is beginning the process of fracture which has marked the Anglican Communion? I fear so—though I pray not.
A good deal of discussion in this area makes broad assumptions about sexuality and sexual behaviour in the ancient world, and there needs to be some essential clearing of the air on this. Zeichmann mentions two articles in JBL recently, one proposing the kind of reading that Jeffrey John here is proposing (‘Mistaken Identities but Model Faith: Rereading the Centurion, the Chap, and the Christ in Matthew 8:5-13,’ in JBL 123 (2004): 467-94, Theodore W. Jennings, Jr., and Tat-Siong Benny Lieu) and a short note completely refuting the assumptions made there: ‘The Centurion in Matthew 8:5-13: Consideration of the Proposal of Theodore W. Jennings, Jr., and Tat-Siong Benny Lieu’ by D. B. Saddington, JBL 125.1 (Spring, 2006), pp. 140-142. Saddington points out the reality of what was allowed for centurions:
To bolster [their] interpretation they point to factors in the Roman army that promoted homosexuality. They quote the Roman ban on soldiers marrying, but the ban operated mainly as a status determinant and in the area of inheritance law. Soldiers might, and did, form customary unions and raise families while on service; however, from a legal point of view, the relationship was not a proper marriage (iustum matrimonium), nor the partner a “wife,” and the children were illegitimate. This applied to Roman citizens serving in the legions. The soldiers serving in Judea at this time were not legionaries but auxiliaries. Auxiliary unions were officially acknowledged: after twenty-five years of service, an auxiliary was granted Roman citizenship not only for himself but for his children as well and, in addition, conubium, or a legally valid relationship, with his partner. The implication of the citation of the ban on marriage seems to be that homosexuality was more prevalent in Roman than in other armies, but at least ancient Greek armies seem to have been more given to it than the Romans.
In other words, the situation is much less clearcut than Jennings and Lieu have suggested. But Saddington goes on to point out that most of this is irrelevant—since the ‘centurion’ wasn’t even a Roman soldier, nor even an auxiliary.
But it is the basic irrelevance of the proffered analogies to the passage in Matthew that is the least convincing aspect of the article. The centurion is portrayed as a Roman. He is called [by Jennings and Lieu] a “Roman centurion.” He shares “Roman attitudes” (p. 491). “We have been talking about the centurion and the Roman military in this paper” (p. 493 n. 65). As noted above, however, the soldiers stationed in Judea in the first century ce. were non-Roman auxiliaries, not legionaries. Moreover, the incident took place not in Judea but in Galilee, which at the time was a nominally independent kingdom of the Herodian Antipas. Client kings of the time certainly modeled their armies on that of Rome. For example, in that of Nabataean Arabia (against whom Antipas fought after the death of John the Baptist) chiliarchs and centurions appear. Antipas himself used this terminology.
All that can be definitely said is that the centurion in Matthew was a Gentile: his actual ethnicity cannot be determined. He may have had a homosexual relationship with his pais—who can tell? But that he might have is not supported by suggestion that his behavior was similar to that of upper-class society in Rome itself or to that of officers in crack regiments stationed at key points on the frontiers of the empire. One needs rather to know how captains in the armies of the petty kings of the East thought and behaved.
In other words, Jennings and Lieu’s argument (and with it Jeffrey John’s) lacks the essential historical elements it needs to come anywhere near to being at all plausible.
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