Thursday, 15 March 2012

The Gay Centurion

In Catholic tradition, Longinus is the name given to the Roman centurion at the crucifixion who pierced Christ's side with his spear.  Some writers, like Paul Halsall of the LGBT Catholic Handbook, also identify him with the centurion who asked Jesus to heal his "beloved boy", who was ill. It is this second person that I am interested in here.  In this persona, he is one of my personal favourites, as his story shows clearly how the Lord himself is completely not hostile to a clearly gay relationship, and also because we hear a clear reminder of this every time we attend Mass - if only we have ears to hear.
It may be that you do not recall any Gospel stories about a gay centurion and his male lover, but that is because cautious or prudish translators have softened the words of the text, and because the word "gay" is not really appropriate for the historical context. You are more likely to know as the story as the familiar one of the Roman centurion and his "servant" - But this is a poor translation. Matthew uses the word "doulos", which means slave, not a mere servant.  Luke uses quite a different word, "pais", which can mean servant boy - but more usually has the sense of a man's younger male lover - or "boyfriend".
Whichever of the two words or their senses was intended by the authors, the conclusions we should draw are the same. If "pais"  was intended here to indicate a lover, the conclusion is obvious.  If the intended meaning was either "slave " or "servant" - the conclusion does not significantly change. To see this, let us consider the cultural context. For three centuries before Christ, the Jews had been under foreign military occupation, first by the Greeks (which is why demotic Greek had become lingua franca across the region, and was the language of the New Testament), then by Romans. These military overlords were about as well liked as any other military invaders anywhere - which is not at all.  The Jews hated them - but will have been quite familiar with Greek and Roman cultural (and sexual) practices.
First, consider the sense as "slave". It is important to know that as a soldier on foreign service,, the centurion will not have been married: Roman soldiers on active service were not permitted to marry.  It is also important to know that for Romans, the crucial distinctions in sexuality were not about male or female, or about homosexuality or heterosexuality, but between higher or lower status.   Roman men would have expected to make sexual use of their slaves, especially if as here they were unmarried.  Far from home, this is likely to have been a sexual relationship, which could easily have developed also as an emotional one. And if the sense was not "slave", but the softer "servant", much the same conclusion follows. Roman citizens expected to take their sexual satisfaction from anyone of lower status  under their control - including the "freedmen", or former slaves who had been released. In the words of the well known Roman aphorism,

"For a Roman citizen, to give sexual service is a disgrace; to a freedman, a duty; and to a slave, an obligation".
So, if we are talking here about a male lover, a sexual relationship is obvious.  If it is a servant boy or a slave, it is entirely probable.  But even if this is purely an arrangement about domestic service,  the conclusion does not change:   All those present and hearing the Centurion's request would have been familiar with Roman sexual practice. For the Jewish bystanders, as for Jesus himself, there will have been an assumption that a homoerotic sexual relationship was at least possible, even probable. But this did not in any way affect Jesus's willingness to go tot he centurion's house - even though this in itself would have horrified traditional Jews.
The lessons we draw from this story are two-fold:  one, that Christ was not one bit disturbed by this approach from a man for help in having his (probable) male lover healed, but instead was immediately ready to go to the couple's home.  (This of course, is entirely consistent with the rest of the Gospels. It is totally characteristic of Christ that he should be happy to talk, eat or drink with anybody, including those that were shunned or resented by mainstream Jewish society.) All those who argue that we are not welcome in God's house have completely misunderstood Scripture - as He would be completely comfortable in ours.
The second lesson is the standard one usually drawn from the story, of the importance of trust in God.   The Centurion after putting his request makes it clear that it is not necessary for Jesus to actually go to his home, for all he needs is God's word, and his servant will be healed.  Faith in Jesus in God is enough to achieve healing. This is especially important to us as gay men, lesbians or other sexual minorities. Whatever the hostility we may experience at the hands of a hostile church, we know that God will not reject us.  Further, in turning to Him in our pain of rejection, we know we can find healing.
Where is the echo in the Mass?

Right at the key moment, immediately before the Communion:
"Lord, I am  not worthy to receive you.  Say but the word, and my soul shall be healed."
This is an obvious echo of the words of the centurion, when Jesus was about to set off for his home:
"Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof.  just say the word, and my boy will be healed."
Also see:

Jack Clark Robinson:  Jesus, the Centurion, and his Lover

Bible Abuse : The Centurion

Would Jesus Discriminate?:  Jesus Affirmed a Gay Couple

LGBT Catholic Handbook: Calendar of LGBT Sainsts


  1. Thanks for an insightful post on an important topic. The centurion’s story has gotten surprisingly little attention throughout history considering that Jesus himself was impressed by his faith. But the Roman soldier has always been an unlikely role model. Jesus’ contemporaries were probably shocked that the great healer would praise a military man who enforced Roman occupation of their land. Today people may find the centurion unappealing because he may have been gay, or a slave owner, or both. It was just like Jesus to take someone disreputable and praise them as holy.

    I included a link to your website in my post today about the gay Centurion at the Jesus in Love Blog.

    Gay centurion: Jesus heals a soldier’s boyfriend in the Bible

  2. Thanks, Kitt. I've now added your link to the post, too.

    I agree that this story needs to be better known. Every summer, as Pride day rolls around, I fantasize about dressing as a centurion, and carrying a placard with the words "Jesus healed my gay lover" - but I haven't found the nerve, yet

  3. I'd love to see you in your centurion costume! Please send me a photo if you do work up the nerve to do it. And thanks for the link!

  4. I must say, this interpretation is about as interesting as I have seen. The original language inflects none of what you say, though the cultural references are indeed accurate. I think you are pinning your desire for acceptance to this in your interpretation rather than a literal translation from the Greek. I take particular exception to the Luke reference. This is not an affirmation of gay lovers but an example of faith. An example is an example,,, nothing more nor less. For a clear depiction please read the woman at the well story. Using your prooftexting, you would say that by Jesus even speaking to her was an acceptance of her lifestyle. IMO.

  5. If we surmise from Matthew 8 and Luke 7 that gay relationships are granted tacit approval by Jesus, then by the same logic, are we not missing a far more obvious interpretation of these passages: that SLAVERY is granted tacit approval by Jesus.

    Fortunately, human moral behavior is finally beginning to outgrow the need for "Biblical defense", although (if we begin counting from the spread of Christianity) it's taken us the better part of 2000 years to renounce the slavery of captives and all women.

    As humans begin to value loving, committed relationships without sexual prejudice, why look to the bible for moral defense? In the biblical view of marriage, the wife is the slave to the husband.

    You can argue that with both slaves and wives, the New Testament urges owners/husbands to "love" their slaves/wives, but loving relationships (especially sexual relationships) should always be suspect in the context of ownership.

    1. You're absolutely right that the Bible condones many things we would not condone today, including slavery and male domination over their wives - and you could add, condemned practices we approve, like charging interest on loans.

      This is not a reason to reject the Bible - just to use and interpret it with more care than the demagogues usually do.

    2. The bible may make an interesting study, as an ancient text that has exercised undue influence over human civilizations for thousands of years. But as a divine text or a text to "interpret" to gain moral values, I reject it utterly. "Interpreting" the bible to condone morality as we understand it today is not really an interpretation at all. You must reject large portions of what the bible clearly teaches about human relationships; otherwise we are left with human slavery and (really the same thing) the disenfranchising of half the population of the earth (the half with an XX chromosome).

      I haven't even mentioned the horrors of the OT genocides or the NT teachings on hell.

      We could certainly point to the golden rule as a good moral teaching in the bible; but we don't need the bible for the golden rule - the golden rule is taught by many schools of religion and philosophy throughout history, many predating and unconnected to Christianity.

      The moral failures of the bible (and they are many) show that it is hardly a divine text, much less a text to be used for moral guidance.

      The use of the bible for moral guidance is causing far too much pain and suffering in the world today, in the rejection of gay marriage, the rejection of stem cell research, the controlling of women's bodies, and in many other humanitarian issues.

  6. Because your entire life revolves around your sexual preference you take whatever opportunity no matter how absurd to try and justify your obsession. There is no suggestion of any sexual relationship in the story of the centurion other than than the suggestion in your own mind. A little personal growth and maturity would go a long way but sadly there isn't much hope of that.

    @Beau if your leading humanitarian issues are gay marriage, embryonic stem cell research and the alleged control of women's bodies you are one sick puppy.

    1. Unknown,

      Did I say that those were the "leading" humanitarian issues? Of course not. Those are the humanitarian issues that religion institutions stand against in this country. Of course, if you go to the third world, the list gets much longer and more egregious.

    2. The sexual reference does not exist in the English translation, but it does in the Greek, and with reference to the socio-historical context of the Roman military. There's more that could be said, but there's no point in presenting rational argument, when faced with one who's sole purpose appears to be to defend existing assumptions and prejudices.

      Furthermore, you are not only rude (to Beau), but you lack the courage to identify yourself with even a username - let alone your real name. Comments are useful for discussion of content, not for personal attacks on each other. I have now adjusted my comment settings to ensure that this insulting language does not again get published.

    3. @Beau, please accept my apologies for allowing this rudeness to slip by without moderation. I have now adjusted my moderation settings.