Homosexuality in the Bible: The Centurion's Servant by Isabella Green
The discussion of the relationship between sexuality and religion is an extensive one, ranging from detailed linguistical analyses of biblical passages to the more generalised moral teachings which are preached in certain religious settings. The debate today carries as much weight as it did in 2013, when same-sex marriage was legalised in the UK. Recently, a petition calling for LGBTQ+ conversion therapy to be made illegal in the UK surpassed 100,000 signatures, a benchmark which means that the government is required to consider the topic for debate in parliament. As such, it is more relevant than ever to scrutinise the reasoning behind religious condemnation of same-sex practices.
Despite the clarity of the Christian church’s stance towards homosexuality, there are a number of stories throughout the Bible which, on closer examination, reveal a potentially homoerotic undercurrent. I will consider one of these stories, and how it interacts with Christian teachings about homosexuality.
Leviticus’ Law on Homosexuality
The condemnation of homosexuality in Christianity and Judaism is ultimately rooted in this teaching from Leviticus, the third book of the Old Testament and the Torah:
“Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is detestable.”
Leviticus 18.22, New International Version (NIV)
This is placed within a list of several other sinful acts that God tells to Moses, but it is by far the most famous teaching, and the most widely debated and contested. The law is later repeated in chapter 20, along with a punishment for its perpetrators:
“If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.”
Leviticus 20.12, NIV
Although this appears to be a conclusive condemnation of homosexuality, there is some evidence to suggest that the Book of Leviticus was composed over time by a multitude of writers, as is true of many ancient texts; if this was the case, there may have been a version of the book which stayed silent on the issue of homosexuality, as some scholars argue. In light of this possibility, I will now consider a story from the New Testament, in which Jesus appears to allow, and even endorse, a homosexual relationship.
The Story of the Centurion and his Servant according to Luke 7.1-10 and Matthew 8.5-13
When Jesus entered Capernaum, a fishing town located on the sea of Galilee, he was approached by a centurion soldier who appealed to him about a servant [pais] who was dying from an illness in his home. Jesus agreed to help him but the centurion said he was not worthy to take Christ under his roof; if he would only say the word, however, his servant would be healed. The centurion used an analogy of the power of his own word:
“For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant [doulos], ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”
Matthew 8.5-13, NIV
Jesus was amazed at the strength of the centurion’s faith, which he had never encountered, even in Israel. He spoke the word and the servant recovered from his illness.
A Homoerotic Interpretation
Many scholars have highlighted the connotation of the Greek noun pais, which the centurion uses to describe his ill servant. It has a number of different meanings, such as ‘boy’ or ‘slave’. When referring to a ‘slave’ in the analogy he presents to Jesus, however, the centurion uses the standard Greek doulos, supporting the critical interpretation that his pais is no ordinary servant. Scholars have likewise suggested that it would be unlikely for a centurion to go to such lengths for a normal member of his household staff, and therefore their relationship must have been something more than that of master and servant.
One theory is that the pais was not the centurion’s servant or slave, but his ‘son’. However, a law introduced by the Emperor Augustus in 13 BC, which banned soldiers below the rank of officer from marrying, undermines this interpretation: although soldiers would father children outside of marriage, it was unlikely that he would have had an illegitimate son living in his home. Instead, many have suggested a reading of the pais as his male lover, due to literary evidence of homosexuality in the Roman military. Moreover, pais was sometimes used in Ancient Greek texts as a label for the younger partner of a same-sex relationship, alongside expressions of love or desire. In the Luke version of the passage, the centurion labels his servant entimos, which can mean ‘honoured’ or ‘cared for’, but may also signify emotional closeness in a romantic partnership.
The scholars Theodore W. Jennings and Tat-Siong Benny Liew have suggested that the dynamic between the centurion and his pais was more of a patron-client relationship; in this case, the centurion takes on the role of an influential patron, while his lover is a younger, less powerful man who relies on him like a client. This theory may provide an answer to a puzzling element of the story: why did the centurion not want Jesus to enter his household, despite asking for his help? Jennings and Liew explain that although the centurion is desperate in his appeal, he also fears that Jesus will come to his home in a position of authority and replace him in the role of saviour and patron to the pais. Again, the relationship lends itself to an interpretation of sexual power.
If we accept the theory that the connection of the centurion and his servant is homoerotic, then Jesus’ amazement at the centurion’s faith becomes highly significant in the discussion of religion and sexuality. Rather than recommending the death sentence that is prescribed for male homosexuality in Leviticus 20, Jesus praises the man’s faith, telling the crowd that he has never seen anything like it, and heals the pais. Far from condemning homosexuality, Jesus might be endorsing it. This reading of the centurion and his servant completely subverts the hetero-centric framework of love and relationships in the Bible, and therefore ought to be central to the discussion.
For a more detailed analysis, see:
“Mistaken Identities but Model Faith: Rereading the Centurion, the Chap, and the Christ in Matthew 8:5-13” in Journal of Biblical Literature 123 (2004), p. 467-494, by Theodore W. Jennings, Jr. and Tat-Siong Benny Liew.
An opinion piece by Idan Dershowitz on the book of Leviticus:
Images from Sweet Publishing, accessible from www.FreeBibleimages.org