It’s common for more progressive Christians to defend LGBTQI people by saying that Jesus said nothing about homosexuality. But is that true, if we’re referring to the versions of Jesus that have made it down to us in the collections of stories found in the institutionally-approved Gospels?
Granted, the concept of sexual orientation and, thus, of homosexuality as a category, did not exist until identified by Western psychologists in the late nineteenth century. Until then, same-sex sexuality was thought of in terms of actions rather than orientations.
But biblical scholars for the last forty years or so who aren’t bent on protecting their homophobic conditioning have called our attention to another possible understanding of a well-known episode found in the canonical Gospels of Matthew (8:5-13) and Luke (7:1-10), a story usually known as Jesus’ meeting with the centurion.
In those texts, an unnamed centurion comes to Jesus in the city of Capernaum on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee to ask him to heal the centurion’s boy who is lying paralyzed and suffering in pain back at a home they shared.
Jesus offers to come right away. But the centurion convinces him that it would be better for Jesus to heal his boy without actually entering their home. And Jesus promptly heals him from a distance.
Both versions end the story by portraying Jesus as praising the centurion for his unique faith: “Truly, I say to you, I have not found such great faith not even in Israel.”
Remember that a centurion (identified in these Gospels only by his title, not a personal name, as if to emphasize his place as an outsider in the society) was a well-paid professional officer in the powerful Roman army that was a dreaded occupying force in the Near East. The designation referred to the fact that centurions commanded 100 men, which included about 80 soldiers and 20 support staff.
These officers were feared, not revered, by the people of the nation they occupied. They were known for looking down upon their subjects and dealing out harsh punishments even to their own men.
They often attained a high social status with political power within Roman society. But there was little love for them among the everyday people of Palestine because of their ruthless control as well as the fact that they lived “dirty” lives.
They were not governed by any religious purity laws followed by local religion and enforced by local religious leaders, especially rules inspired by the holiness code of the Hebrew Bible and its contemporary interpreters. In fact, they flaunted that fact.
Luke’s version of the story tries to distance itself from all of this. In an interesting twist that reminds us that not everything in the Bible syncs, Luke’s version justifies Jesus’ upcoming praise of the centurion by saying that the centurion sent Jewish elders to make the request, and that these elders cleared the centurion for Jesus’ healing and awkward praise by portraying the centurion as a “lover of Israel” and one who paid for their synagogue.
In contrast to Matthew’s version that doesn’t try to clean up the centurion for approval, Luke’s centurion himself never even meets Jesus! All of this protects Jesus from any of the centurion’s “dirt” that would have rubbed off from him, and it makes Luke’s version sound like a sanitized one.
The fact that Luke’s version does this, makes one suspicious that it’s a later revision than Matthew’s version. On the other hand, for Matthew to change Luke’s version to the way Matthew presents it, would be to make an even queerer moral in the story.
However, what might a reader of these stories – these two versions that were written a couple of generations after Jesus probably lived – have expected about who this centurion’s “boy” was, a “boy” whom Luke’s version says was “intimate” (éntimos) to the centurion? And how would this relate to the common expectation that Roman elite often took gay lovers?
This “boy” might have been younger than the centurion but not someone we’d consider under-age. He’s nowhere described as a youth and the word for “boy” in Matthew’s version (païs) can refer to a junior partner in a relationship, even one who’s full-grown. That was how it was used in numerous Greek sources such as Thucydides, Plato, and Plutarch.
Usually the word païs in Matthew is translated into the English as “servant” to settle the matter without fear that Jesus was affirming a same-sex sexual relationship. But it’s not the usual word for servant, nor is it the usual word for “son,” uìós.
In fact, its particular usage in Matthew’s version stands out from Matthew’s actual use of that common word for servant (doülos) in 8:9 when the centurion argues that he knows Jesus can heal his païs from afar because Jesus can command obedience just as the Centurion does. The Centurion explains that he gives an order “to my servant (doülos) ‘Do this!’ and he does it.”
We know nothing about the actual historical reality of these stories. We don’t know why there are deviations between the two versions – one that looks as if it’s trying to clean the story up.
We can only look back at them through our current understandings and make decisions about how we want to hear them.
But, one possible understanding of the story of Jesus healing the centurion’s païs is that these gospels not only saw no problem with their same-sex relationship but actually made Jesus praise the faith involved with the concern of the centurion for his lover.
This incident, of course, could have been used by these writers as the perfect chance for Jesus to rail against the whole idea of the thing, but neither text does that. Quite the opposite – they just talk about Jesus healing the centurion’s païs and highly praising the centurion for persistently asking.
Interesting, isn’t it? And if that’s how we are to understand these passages, then, though Jesus might not have said anything about sexual orientation, Jesus’ actions as portrayed here actually could speak louder than words?
Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at the University of Kansas where he taught for 33 years and was department chair for six years, Robert N. Minor, M.A., Ph.D is the author of 8 books as well as numerous articles and contributions to edited volumes. He is an historian of religion with specialties in Biblical studies, Asian religions, religion and gender and religion and sexuality. His writing has been published in Whosoever since 2005 and he continues to speak and lead workshops around the country. In 1999 GLAAD awarded him its Leadership Award for Education, in 2012 the University of Kansas named him one of the University’s Men of Merit, in 2015 the American Men’s Studies Association gave him the Lifetime Membership Award, and in 2018 Missouri Jobs with Justice presented him with the Worker’s Rights Board Leadership Award. He resides in Kansas City, Missouri and is founder of The Fairness Project.