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gay-friendly texts: The centurion’s servant

August 2, 2015


every one of the first 14 Roman emperors carried on an intimate homosexual relationship with his chosen male companion. The Greek and Roman poets extol the pleasures of homosexual love. It appears that homosexuality was accepted as a matter of course, although it was often regarded with amusement or condescension.

It was not at all unusual for a Greek man to have his “boy” and a young lad who had not been chosen for a lover by an older man might even develop feelings of inferiority and might come to doubt his own physical attractiveness.

Paul Veyne A History of Private Life: From Pagan Rome to Byzantium: “Nearly anyone can enjoy sensual pleasure with a member of the same sex, and pederasty was not at all uncommon in tolerant antiquity. Many men of basically heterosexual bent used boys for sexual purposes. It was proverbially held that sex with boys procures a tranquil pleasure unruffling to the soul, whereas passion for a woman plunges a free man into unendurable slavery.” However when a man married, he was expected to be faithful to his wife and to give up former homosexual relations.

To our modern minds, the idea of buying a teen lover seems repugnant. But we have to place this in the context of ancient cultural norms. In ancient times, commercial transactions were the predominant means of forming relationships. Under the law, the wife was viewed as the property of the husband, with a status just above that of slave. Moreover, in Jesus’ day, a boy or girl was considered of marriageable age upon reaching his or her early teens. It was not uncommon for boys and girls to marry at age 14 or 15. Nor was it uncommon for an older man to marry a young girl.

Greek καὶ λέγων κύριε ὁ παῖς μου βέβληται έν τῇ οἰκίᾳ παραλυτικός δεινῶς βασανιζόμενος

The centurion refers to his “servant” with ὁ παῖς (shown in bold). The argument is that παις (pais) is usually translated as “servant” often means “boy”

pais had three possible meanings depending upon the context:

“son or boy;”


a particular type of servant — one who was “his master’s male lover.” Often these lovers were younger than their masters, even teenagers.

in the Luke passage, several additional Greek words are used to describe the one who is sick. Luke says this pais was the centurion’s entimos doulos. The word doulos is a generic term for slave, and was never used in ancient Greek to describe a son/boy. Thus, Luke’s account rules out the possibility the sick person was the centurion’s son; his use of doulos makes clear this was a slave.

However, Luke also takes care to indicate this was no ordinary slave. The word entimos means “honoured.” This was an “honoured slave” (entimos doulos) who was his master’s pais. Taken together, the three Greek words preclude the possibility the sick person was either the centurion’s son or an ordinary slave, leaving only one viable option — he was his master’s male lover.

verse 9 of Matthew’s account-the centurion says, “When I tell my slave to do something, he does it.” By extension, the centurion concludes that Jesus is also able to issue a remote verbal command that must be carried out. When speaking here of his slaves, the centurion uses the word doulos. But when speaking of the one he is asking Jesus to heal, he uses only pais. In other words, when he is quoted in Matthew, the centurion uses pais only when referring to the sick person. He uses a different word, doulos, when speaking of his other slaves, as if to draw a distinction. (In Luke, it is others, not the centurion, who call the sick one an entimos doulos.) Again, the clear implication is that the sick man was no ordinary slave. And when pais was used to describe a servant who was not an ordinary slave, it meant only one thing — a slave who was the master’s male lover.

this story is the only example of someone seeking healing for a slave. The actions described are made even more remarkable by the fact that this was a proud Roman centurion (the conqueror/oppressor) who was humbling himself and pleading with a Jewish rabbi (the conquered/oppressed) to heal his slave. The extraordinary lengths to which this man went to seek healing for his slave is much more understandable, from a psychological perspective, if the slave was his beloved companion.

concordances and lexicons:

child, maiden, servant, young man. – Perhaps from paio; a boy (as often beaten with impunity), or (by analogy), a girl, and (genitive case) a child; specially, a slave or servant (especially a minister to a king; and by eminence to God) — child, maid(-en), (man) servant, son, young man. [Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance]

Definition – a child, boy, youth [NAS Exhaustive Concordance]

Definition: (a) a male child, boy, (b) a male slave, servant; thus: a servant of God, especially as a title of the Messiah, (c) a female child, girl. []

The Greek term here is παῖς (pais), often used of a slave who was regarded with some degree of affection, possibly a personal servant… [from the NET notes on Matthew 8:6]

a young man or “boy.” John Gill and A.T. Robertson likewise say that the word παῖς is used here in reference simply to a youth, with no sexual connotations.


Kenneth J. Dover, noted authority on ancient Greece, in Greek Homosexuality, tells us the younger partner in a homosexual relationship is called pais or paidika.

Tom Horner Summer 1978 issue of Insight: A Quarterly of Gay Catholic Opinion, supposes that the servant of the centurion at Capernaum (Matthew 8:5–13) was the centurion’s means for sexual satisfaction. Why else, Horner asks, would the Roman officer have been so concerned about the mere boy? Jesus no doubt would have been aware of the sexual liaison between the centurion and his “boy.” Yet Jesus healed the boy without raising a question and so restored him to the enjoyment of the Roman officer.

Jay Michaelson: pais used in both Matthew and Luke. He argues that it does not mean “servant” here but “lover” and he quotes

Thucydides, Plutarch and “countless other Greek sources.”
translating pais as “servant” makes no sense since one would not expect a Roman solider to beg on behalf of a slave, although Luke calls the person in question a “slave” (doulos) the centurion calls him pais; it was a common practice for Roman soldiers to have servants/lovers based on the Greek model

Robert Gagnon: pais is used in the New Testament 24 times and has a range of meanings that include “adolescent,” “child” and “servant.”  In the LXX (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) it appears numerous times and it always refers to a “servant.” There are no occurrences of the term anywhere in the Bible that can be interpreted a referring to the junior partner in a homosexual relationship.

five other references to παῖς

  • In Matthew 12:38, in reference to Christ
  • In Matthew 17:18, in reference to the young man whom Christ expelled a mute demon from for the boy’s father
  • In Luke 2:43, in which it talks of “the boy Jesus” staying behind in Jerusalem
  • In Luke 8:54, in reference to the young girl whom Christ raises from the dead
  • In John 4:51, in reference to the nobleman’s child rising at Christ’s command

none of them deal with a young homosexual lover.

it is true that pais could be used as a term of endearment for slaves e.g a letter sent by Augustus to one Stephanos of Laodicea. In the letter Augustus says “you know how fond I am of my Zoilos.” This Zoilos was a former slave of Augustus who apparently became very close with the emperor. But no one is suggesting that the two were lovers in a same-sex relationship. Zoilos was apparently very valuable to Augustus and the emperor developed affection for him.

The Greek word used in Luke 7:2 which the author translates as “have much love for” is actually ἔντιμος, which means “to regard or value highly.” Many translations – such as the NASB, NIV, NRSV and ESV – translate the word in Luke 7:2 in such a manner. Various cases of the word are used across the New Testament, including 1 Peter 2:4 and 6, Luke 14:8, and Philippians 2:29. A quick examination of the context of all these passages will show that it does not refer to the kind of eros love which the article’s author is trying to promote. When the passage says that the Centurion had much ἔντιμος for his servant, it meant that the Centurion had much respect and care for those who worked under him – not that the Centurion had any kind of sexual interest in him.

  1. Like pais, the word boy can be used to refer to a male child. But in the slave Southern USA in the nineteenth century, boy was also often used to refer to male slaves. The term boy can also be used as a term of endearment e.g. a man refers to his mother as “his girl.” He doesn’t mean that she is a child, but rather that she is his “special one.” The term boy can be used in the same way, as in “my boy” or “my beau.” In ancient Greek, pais had a similar range of meanings.

Sex with male slaves not a universal phenomenon. Not every provincial or Roman officer was having sex with his slave so Jesus could hardly have assumed such behavior was going on. This is especially true in Luke’s version where the centurion is portrayed as a paradigmatic “God-fearer.”

Jesus would have had to have been endorsing rape in this case. We know that the form which much master-slave homoeroticism took in the Greco-Roman world included not only coerced sexual activity but also forced feminization, up to and including castration. By the reasoning of those who put a pro-homosex spin on the story, we would have to conclude that Jesus had no problem with this particularly exploitative form of same-sex intercourse inasmuch as he did not explicitly tell the centurion to stop doing it.

Jesus’ fraternization with tax collectors and sexual sinners does not suggest support for their behaviour. The fact that Jesus healed the centurion’s “boy” (pais) in Matt 8:5-13 and Luke 7:1-10 communicates nothing in the way of approval of any potential sexual intercourse that the centurion may have been engaging in, whether with his “boy” or anyone else. Jesus also reached out to tax collectors. Yet he certainly was not commending their well-deserved reputation for collecting more taxes from their own people than they had a right to collect. Jesus reached out to sexual sinners yet, given his clear statements on divorce/remarriage, he certainly was not condoning their sexual activity. Why should we conclude that Jesus’ silence about the centurion’s sexual life communicates approval?

The Jewish elders in Luke 7 could not have supported a homosexual relationship. Luke adds the motif that Jewish elders interceded on the centurion’s behalf (7:3-5). Should we argue that these Jewish elders had no problem with same-sex intercourse, when every piece of evidence that we have about Jewish views of same-sex intercourse in the Second Temple period and beyond is unremittingly hostile to such behaviour (The Bible and Homosexual Practice, 159-83)?

Q, Matthew, and Luke did not interpret Jesus’ healing as support for same-sex intercourse. There can be no question of Matthew or Luke reading into the story a positive view of same-sex intercourse on the part of Jesus. The same holds for the Q source before them (i.e. the sayings source consistent of sayings of Jesus common to Matthew and Luke but not found in Mark). If even Paul, the most vigorous Jewish proponent in the Bible of the abrogation of the Mosaic law, was strongly opposed to same-sex intercourse, what chance is there that Matthew, the most vigorous proponent in the New Testament of the retention of the Mosaic law, would have recognized in this story a pro-homosex element? Even less likely would be a positive spin on same-sex intercourse by the Q community—still more conservative on the question of the law than Matthew’s community. Luke’s reference to the Apostolic Decree in Acts 15, with its prohibitions drawn from those enjoined on the resident alien in Lev 17-18, including the one against porneia (sexual immorality), could not have read an affirmation of homosexual behavior in the story. So if three of the earliest extant interpreters of the story, those in closest proximity to Jesus’ views and time, did not detect any pro-homosex content in it, it is likely that contemporary interpreters who do are simply reading their own biases into the story.

Historical Jesus study does not support a pro-homosex reading. The final blow to all pro-homosex theories is that, from a tradition-historical point of view, the earliest recoverable version of the story probably did not contain the requisite elements for a pro-homosex spin.

The pais was originally a son of the official. In a forthcoming work on the tradition history of the story of Jesus and the Capernaum official, I will argue (inter alia) that it is likely that the “boy” (pais) originally meant a “child” or “son” of the Capernaum official. The Q and Matthean versions are equivocal. They mention only a pais, which could mean “boy” in the sense of “child, son” or in the sense of “slave.” Luke interprets the pais to be a “slave” (doulos, 7:2-3, 10), but this is a product of later Lukan redaction and cannot tell us what Q or Matthew understood the pais to be. John 4:46-54 represents an independent variant version of the same account and there the pais is viewed as a “son” (huios) of the official (pais in John 4:51 = huios in 4:46-47, 50, 53). Probably Matthew (and thus Q) interpreted pais in a similar manner, given not only John’s version but also Matthew’s probable insertion of pais in the miracle story of the epileptic boy/son in Matt 17:18 (cf. 2:16 where he also uses pais of a “boy” or “child”).  In 14:2 (Matthean redaction of Mark) and possibly also in the citation of Isa 42:1 in Matt 12:18 Matthew uses pais in the sense of “slave”; however, these uses, unlike those in John 4:51 and Matt 17:18, have nothing to do with a person being healed and so are rather remote as parallels.  Prof. David Catchpole’s comment is helpful here: “pais and huios are equivalent in normal Josephus usage. . . .  Significant above all is the use of pais/paidion with a clear sense of one’s own child in the related traditions of Jairus and the Syrophoenician woman:  Mark 5:39-41/Luke 8:51,54; Mark 7:30. The appeal of the parent, not the master, seems to be a standard feature of this family of traditions.” Moreover, as I note below, the version of the Capernaum official story in Q is likely to have come about through contact in oral transmission with the story of the Syrophoenician woman, so that the image of intercession for a distance healing of one’s own child (not slave) in the latter is particularly significant. Needless to say, it is not very likely that Jesus would be commending an incestuous union between a father and his son.

The petitioner was originally a Jew. In addition, my own reconstruction of the earliest recoverable version of the story suggests that the meeting involved a non-descript Capernaum official who was probably neither a military officer nor a Gentile but a Galilean Jew in the employ of Herod Antipas. This is what John’s version suggests. Like the Judean Nicodemus (John 3) and the Samaritan woman before him (John 4:1-42), the Galilean official is initially a representative of his region’s shallow sign faith.  In the new setting which the Fourth Evangelist gives the story, it is evident that he intends the reader to view the royal official in light of his introduction to the story:  as representative of the “Galileans” who “had seen everything that Jesus did in Jerusalem at the [Passover] festival, for they too had gone to the festival” (4:45).  At the festival “Jesus would not entrust himself to them (i.e., to the ‘many’ who ‘believed in his name because they were seeing the signs that he was doing’) because of him knowing…what was in humans” (2:23-25).  It is this role played by the royal official, the role of a Galilean with shallow ‘sign-faith’, that explains Jesus’ abrupt chastisement of the official in 4:48 (“unless you see signs and wonders…”).  This role also suggests that the Fourth Evangelist did not perceive the official as a Gentile but as a Jew (or, at most, a nondescript representative of all Galileans, not Gentiles per se).  The trilogy of ‘Nicodemus – woman at the well – royal official’ is not the ethnic one of ‘Jew – Samaritan – Gentile’ but the regional one of ‘Judean – Samarian – Galilean.’  John reserves Gentile contact with Jesus until after his glorification in the cross/ascension.  When at a later Passover festival the request is made to see Jesus by “Greeks” (Gentiles or at least all non-Palestinians) this signals the “hour” for the Son of Man to be “lifted up from the earth” so that he may “draw all people to” himself (12:20-24, 32-34).

In the Q/Matthew and Q/Luke the centurion is indeed identified as a Gentile. However, a story exalting Gentile faith is more likely to be a later creation than a story which leaves ambiguous the ethnic status of the petitioner, precisely because the direction of the church was to maximize in the tradition what little involvement Jesus might have had historically with Gentiles. I will argue in my forthcoming work] that the changes between the version in John 4:46-54 and in Q (Matt 8:5-13; Luke 7:1-10) came about when an early version of the story in John 4:46-54 was interpreted in the light of oral knowledge of the story of the Syrophoenician woman which, like the Q version of the centurion at Capernaum, involves a Gentile whose exhibition of faith and acknowledgement of Gentile unworthiness leads to a distance-healing from Jesus for a child. If this reconstruction of the tradition history of the story of the Capernaum official is accurate, then it is certainly improbable that a Jewish man would be having sex with a male (indeed, with his son), given the views that prevailed everywhere in Second Temple Judaism about homosexual practice. So if one is concerned with historical Jesus issues—as apparently are those who use the centurion story to say that Jesus supported homosexual practice—this text lends absolutely no support for a pro-homosex view on Jesus’ part. And there is obviously no support for a pro-homosex reading from any of the subsequent trajectories of the story’s tradition history (Johannine Signs Source to John, Q to Matthew, Q to Luke).

Other arguments for Jesus’ opposition to homosexual practice. In addition to all of these arguments one could add about a dozen other arguments, unrelated to the centurion story, showing why Jesus was not supportive of homosexual practice.[6] Briefly, these include:

Jesus’ adoption of a back-to-creation model for sex in which he predicated marital monogamy and indissolubility on the ‘twoness’ of the sexes brought together in a sexual union in Genesis 1-2.

Jesus’ retention of the Law of Moses even on relatively minor matters such as tithing, to say nothing of a foundational law in sexual ethics; and his view of the Old Testament as inviolable Scripture, which Scripture was absolutely opposed to man-male intercourse.

Jesus’ further intensification of the Law’s sex-ethic in matters involving adultery of the heart and divorce (Matt 5:27-32), suggesting a closing of remaining loopholes in the Law’s sex-ethic rather than a loosening and, in his saying about cutting off body parts, warning that people could be thrown into hell precisely for not repenting of violations of God’s sexual standards (5:29-30).

The fact that the man who baptized Jesus, John the Baptist, was beheaded for defending Levitical sex laws in the case of the adult-incestuous union between Herod Antipas and the ex-wife of his half-brother Philip, a woman who was also the daughter of another half-brother.

Early Judaism’s univocal opposition to all homosexual practice.

The early church’s united opposition to all homosexual practice (completing the circle and underscoring the absurdity of positing a pro-homosex Jesus without analogue in his historical context: cut off from his Scripture, from the rest of early Judaism, from the man who baptized him, and from the church that emerged from his teachings).

Jesus’ saying about the defiling effect of desires for various forms of sexual immoralities (Mark 7:21-23), which distinguished matters of relative moral indifference such as food laws from matters of moral significance such as the sexual commands of his Bible and connected Jesus to the general view of what constitutes the worst forms of porneia in early Judaism (same-sex intercourse, incest, bestiality, adultery).

Jesus on the Decalogue prohibition of adultery, which in its Decalogue context and its subsequent interpretation in early Judaism as a rubric for the major sex laws of the Old Testament presupposed a male-female prerequisite for valid sexual bonds.

Jesus’ saying about Sodom which, understood in the light of Second Temple interpretations of Sodom (Matt 10:14-15 par. Luke 10:10-12), included an indictment of Sodom for attempting to dishonor the integrity of the visitors’ masculinity by treating them as if they were the sexual counterparts to males.

Jesus’ saying about not giving what is “holy” to the “dogs” (Matt 7:6), an apparent allusion to Deuteronomic law (Deut 23:17-18) and texts in 1-2 Kings that indict the qedeshim, self-designated “holy ones” identified as “dogs” for their attempt to erase their masculinity by serving as the passive-receptive partners in man-male intercourse.

Jesus’ comparison of “eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven” with “born eunuchs” (persons who are asexual and/or homosexual), a comparison that presumes that “born eunuchs” are not permitted sexual relationships outside a man-woman bond (Matt 19:10-12).

The fact that Jesus developed a sex ethic that had distinctive features not shared by the love commandment (love for everyone does not translate into having sex with everyone), reached out to tax collectors and sexual sinners while simultaneously intensifying God’s ethical demand in these areas, insisted that the adulterous woman stop sinning lest something worse happen to her (i.e., loss of eternal life; cf. John 8:3-11; 5:14), appropriated the context of the “love your neighbor” command in Lev 19:17-18 by insisting on reproof as part of a full-orbed view of love (Luke 17:3-4), and defined discipleship to him as taking up one’s cross, denying oneself, and losing one’s life (Mark 8:34-37; Matt 10:38-39; Luke 14:27; 17:33; John 12:25).


Jesus speaks again in verse 11: “I tell you, many will come from the east and the west [i.e., beyond the borders of Israel] to find a seat in the kingdom of heaven, while the heirs [i.e., those considered likely to inherit heaven] will be thrown into outer darkness.” By this statement Jesus affirmed that many others like this gay centurion — those who come from beyond the assumed boundaries of God’s grace — are going to be admitted to the kingdom of heaven. And he also warned that many who think themselves the most likely to be admitted will be left out.

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