Did the centurion whose slave was paralysed speak to Jesus himself?

Posted on Feb.28, 2009. Filed in Matthew, Luke. Average rating: 6.3 / 10 (Rate It).

Both Matthew and Luke describe an incident where Jesus heals a centurion’s slave. In both accounts, the centurion confidently says that such is Jesus’ authority that he can heal the slave even from a distance, and Jesus is amazed at the centurion’s faith. The two accounts disagree, however, as to whether the centurion speaks to Jesus himself, or, being a Gentile, sends Jewish friends to do so on his behalf.

In Matthew’s account, it is the centurion himself that comes to Jesus:

When he entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, appealing to him and saying, ‘Lord, my servant is lying at home paralysed, in terrible distress.’ And he said to him, ‘I will come and cure him.’ The centurion answered, ‘Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only speak the word, and my servant will be healed. For I am also a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, “Go”, and he goes, and to another, “Come”, and he comes, and to my slave, “Do this”, and the slave does it.’ When Jesus heard him, he was amazed and said to those who followed him, ‘Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith. I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the heirs of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ And to the centurion Jesus said, ‘Go; let it be done for you according to your faith.’ And the servant was healed in that hour. [Matthew 8:5-13 (NRSV)]

Luke, however, has the centurion send first some Jewish elders to speak to Jesus, and then some friends:

After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, ‘He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.’ And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, ‘Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, “Go”, and he goes, and to another, “Come”, and he comes, and to my slave, “Do this”, and the slave does it.’ When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, ‘I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.’ When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health. [Luke 7:1-10 (NRSV)]

So did the centurion speak to Jesus himself, or did he send others to speak to Jesus on his behalf?

N.B. All posts are written in a style sympathetic to the claim of Biblical error, even in cases where the author ("Errancy") disagrees with the claim. See the About page for the site's philosophy.

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  1. 1

    There’s a standard answer to this alleged contradiction that all inerrantists seem to use: The centurion’s representatives’ actions can be attributed to the centurion. Luke’s description of the centurion’s representatives speaking to Jesus and Matthew’s description of the centurion speaking to Jesus are therefore perfectly consistent.

    I’m not quite convinced by this. I’m open to correction, but here’s my current thinking:

    It seems possible to do some things by proxy but not others. I’m happy with the idea of communicating with someone via an intermediary; if I sent a message to someone via a messenger then you could say that I said whatever was in the message, and perhaps even that I spoke to them. I’m also happy with the idea of doing something to someone via an intermediary; if I have someone killed by an assassin then you could say that I killed them. Being somewhere via an intermediary seems more problematic, though; if I sent a representative to a meeting or a class then you couldn’t say that I attended it. You can’t be somewhere by proxy.

    Matthew says that the centurion “came to” Jesus. This isn’t a metaphor for the centurion sending representatives; it means that the centurion was physically present with Jesus. To see this, look at Jesus’ final words to the centurion, recorded in Matthew 8:13, “And to the centurion Jesus said, ‘Go; let it be done for you according to your faith.'” “Go” here is the singular, ‘Υπαγε, rather than the plural ‘Υπαγετε, so this instruction is definitely addressed to the centurion as an individual, not to any representatives that might be relaying messages between him and Jesus. If the centurion were still at home with his servant, then where would Jesus send him? The centurion had to be in Jesus’ presence for this command to make sense, and that isn’t something that he could have done by proxy.

  2. 2

    As an inerrantist, I must admit that I feel the pressure on this one. With that said, the word translated from Greek as “came to” in Matthew, could also be translated as “approached”. It does not seem so odd to say that one individual approached another individual through proxies.

    I am no Greek expert, So I must admit here and now that there could be sound reasons not to translate the phrase as “approached” here. No reputable translation that I have consulted translates it as “approached” (A modernization of the Wycliffe Translation–criticized as overly literal–does say “approached to”), but the Greek lexicon suggests “approached” as a possibility nonetheless.

    As I noted in another comment, it is a very good translational principle to preserve the ambiguity of the original language. That is probably reason enough to say “came to” rather than “came up to” as some translations and paraphrases do. It might also be a good reason not to use “approached”.

  3. 3

    WL: isn’t Matthew 8:13 the more problematic verse? It’s very hard to understand it unless the centurion was physically present.

  4. 4

    I did not reply to the “Go” argument in my last comment, but it seems to me that there is also a reply there. Let us first look at what comes right after “Go”. I don’t think that “it shall be done for you as you have believed” is just about the servant. Jesus is calling the centurion to a life of faith in Him. Thus Jesus is saying to the centurion “Go; live a life of faith.” That message can be delivered in person or sent through proxies.

  5. 5

    To support the idea that “Go” means “Go home”, here’s the closest parallel to the use of ‘Υπαγε in Matthew 8:13:

    ‘Then he [Jesus] said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.’ [Mark 7:29-30]

    The situation is very similar, and the word translated “Go” is identical, but here the instructed going seems to be explicitly described as going home.

  6. 6

    There’s no doubt that “upage” often does mean “go” as used in the sentence “You are standing here with me now, go away from me to some other place.” But even in English “go” does not always have that meaning.

    I don’t think we can really tell from Matthew’s other uses of the word “upage” what meaning he intended in this case. Any more than you could for the word “go” in English. If the word involved were something metaphysically or morally subtle, like “mind” or “duty”, looking at an author’s other uses could be illuminating. The problem is that “go” is such a basic utility verb. It’s probably not reasonable to expect that an author would freight it with some special content.

    It does make sense to look at common Greek usage to determine what the possible range of meanings are. But within those constraints, the best guide to guessing the meaning of the word in this (or any) passage has got to be the context of the passage itself.

    For the sake of argument, let us assume that Jesus was talking to the Centurion _in person_. The argument I gave earlier still suggests, that Jesus does not mean to say “Go home” here. He means something more like “Go thy way” (as in the KJV). That is, I think, what the context suggests, and that meaning allows the entire interaction to occur through proxies.

  7. 7

    A somewhat different line of defense could be made by asking the question “Why did Matthew omit (or Luke add) the proxies?”

    I’ll be the first to admit that, even if the Matthew passage were translated in the most sympathetic way, if you just read it and weren’t trying to harmonize it with Luke, you would not just assume that there are proxies involved. Quite the opposite in fact.

    No doubt Matthew had some rhetorical point in mind. For now, let’s not speculate about what that point might be. Still, One thing I think we can get from Matthew’s omission is that this isn’t a garden variety error.

    Matthew was an eyewitness of the events described. Luke was recording the accounts of eyewitnesses. I can see how one eyewitness could flub details of the events in question. But whether the centurion was present at all is not a mere detail. If Matthew omitted the intermediaries from the story, or Luke added them, they didn’t do it by accident, they did it on purpose.

    Even if you assume that the authors of Matthew and Luke were later authors who pulled this story from some common Q gospel, why would the author of Matthew omit (or the author of Luke add) the intermediaries? One explanation that does not really make a lot of sense is that this was an error. The omission (or addition) was quite deliberate and done for a purpose.

    The only way you can get to ordinary error here is if you assume that at least one of the authors is recording tenth or twelfth hand information that’s gotten garbled along the way. But the agreement of Luke and Matthew on other matters tends to undercut that hypothesis.

    Given that, the question becomes one not of the _accuracy_ of the biblical record, but of the _honesty_ of the record. The issue is not whether the Matthew and Luke accounts are free of _error_, but whether they are free of _deception_. Could the omission of the proxies be made in an honest account? Could the addition of the proxies be made in an honset account?

    The main actors are Jesus and the centurion, the Jewish elders and the friends of the centurion are bit players. For that reason, adding them in if they weren’t really involved falsely diminishes the role of the main actors. On the other hand, leaving them out (but carefully using ambiguous language so as not to tell an outright falsehood) removes a distraction from the main focus of the story.

  8. 8

    My guess (based on similar reasoning to that in your last paragraph above) would be that Matthew simplified the story by leaving out the intermediaries because he didn’t think that they were important. In doing so, he introduced some incidental errors into his account. This wasn’t an attempt to deceive, and the errors aren’t significant, but the presence of the errors does suggest that God didn’t inspire the Bible in the way claimed by inerrantists.

  9. 9

    I agree: if Q is real, then the author of Matthew has simply edited it for length. But, I don’t actually think he cares if he’s recording a somewhat incorrect version of events.

  10. 10

    I think that Matthew chose to highlight the main actors of the story by leaving out some incidental characters (the proxies). I do not think that this is an error. An error is when you intend to convey a truth about something, but accidentally convey a falsehood. Matthew’s omission was quite deliberate. This is no more an error than it is an error that he didn’t describe the weather during the event. He left it out for narrative purposes.

    So I return to my earlier point that the issue is whether he deceived his readers (if even in a small way). I don’t think he did.

    2 Questions.

    Errancy: What particular tenet of the Inerrantist position (as characterized in the Chicago statement) does Matthew’s omission go against? The denial clause of Article 13 seems, in fact, to allow for just such a case as this.

    Amtiskaw: I think the argument I was making holds whether Q exists or not? Am I missing something?

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