Errors in the New Testament? The Centurion’s Servant

The Centurion’s Servant


posted by Clark Bates
February 1, 2017

The Dilemma

In the Gospel According to Matthew we read of a moment in the healing ministry of Jesus that involved a centurion and his servant (8:5-13).  In this account, a Roman centurion in the city of Capernaum has a servant who is sick, presumably unto death (some translations say that the servant is paralyzed).  The centurion hears of Jesus’ ability to heal the sick and comes to the Lord in an appeal for his servant’s healing.

Most people who have spent time in church or have read through the gospels are familiar with this story because it is a demonstration of great faith.  Much is made (rightly so) about the centurion’s statement that he is not worthy to have Jesus come to his home, but that he knows Christ only needs to say that his servant is healed and it will be done (vv.8-10), but what many in the faith tend to overlook, and what many opposed to it tend to highlight, is that difference in this same account found in the Gospel According to Luke.

We find a parallel account of this same incident in Luke 7:1-10, but in this account, it is not the centurion who comes to Jesus but elders of the Jews, whom the centurion sent.  According to Luke it is the Jews who plead for Jesus to heal the servant because the centurion has done a great deal for the community (vv.3-5).  After Jesus takes a course toward the centurion’s home, several of his friends approach the Lord and only then relay the famous saying that Matthew places upon the mouth of the centurion himself (vv.6b-8).  Was it the centurion who asked Jesus to heal his servant, or was it his servants?  After all, it is often claimed, if Luke and Matthew can’t get this story straight there’s very little reason to think that they were concerned with accuracy, let alone inerrancy.

The Centurion or His Servants?

 

A classical approach to correcting this discrepancy is known as harmonization.  A harmonization of the gospel accounts is the process by which all four records of the ministry of Christ are collated in such a way as to create one large, overarching story.  This practice can be traced back to the mid-second century with the writing of Tatian’s Diatesseron (160-175).[1]  Harmonizations of the Gospel have been produced in recent years by A.T. Robertson, Robert L. Thomas and Vern Poythress, all seeking, just as Tatian did, to demonstrate that the gospel records correspond to one another rather than contradict.  An example of a harmonization response to this apparent dilemma is found in the work of Jack Shaffer.  In Shaffer’s account, again very similar to Tatian’s, the story of the centurion begins with the account given by Luke and the approach of the elders and servants of the centurion, but continues as the centurion himself eventually comes to meet with Jesus, delivering his famous message of faith.[2]

While it’s certainly not improbable that the events could transpire in such a way as Shaffer records, it is difficult to accept that the verbatim speech recorded by Matthew and Luke would have been used.  Given that the use of harmonization is to protect the inerrancy of the text, if the speech recorded is not verbatim, the purpose of the harmonization is still lost.  While there is certainly an appropriate place for acknowledging a harmonization in the biblical text[3], to do so here seems to be mechanical and unnecessary.

A Proposed Solution

Earlier on in this series I discussed the approach that ancient writers often implemented when recording historical, or biographical, material.  In short, ancient writers exercised a level of freedom in their cataloging that could include the omitting of material, or even using a specific literary convention that describes the action of one person acting by means of an intermediary.  Now, before the objection is raised that I’m trying to take an easy escape or creating an all-to-convenient answer to this discrepancy, we use this same convention today.  How often have we heard a news channel report that, “the President announced that. . .” but when the story cuts to the announcement, it is not the President himself, but his Press Secretary?  To make the matter deeper, often the Press Secretary isn’t even reading a statement written by the President, but by a speech writer.  In this instance, the statement, “The President announced . . .” is twice removed from the actual Head of State.  Yet we do not balk at this; in fact, we understand quite clearly that this is a figure of speech, and that the President had involvement in the process, making the announcement “under his authority”.

Both in English and in Greek there is the common use of the causative active voice.  What this means is that an action is said to take place by an individual but caused by another.  Grammarians of Hellenistic Greek regularly speak of this form of the active voice.[4]  If you recall in Mark 15:15 and John 19:1, we are told that Pontius Pilate flogged Jesus.  However, no one, especially reading in the first century, takes this to mean that the Roman prefect would have personally taken a whip and beat the prisoner.  Rather, what is meant, and immediately understood, is that Pilate caused Jesus to be flogged.  This is the causative use of the active voice in Greek Grammar.

No Gospel writer even appears to contradict Mark 15:15, but if we apply the same reasoning used there and in John 19 to the story of the centurion’s servant in Matthew and Luke, we discover a far more probable solution to this apparent contradiction.[5]  Luke’s account, is likely the more detailed and literal, given its inclusion of the various elders and servants, whereas Matthew has chosen the more literary approach by describing the visits of the centurion’s emissaries as a visit by the centurion himself.

Conclusion

For some, this explanation may seem to challenge the idea of an inerrant Scripture, but only if we restrict the definition of inerrancy to a modern standard of precision.  This would be an anachronistic method of evaluating Scripture and is the primary basis for the claims made against Scripture.  It does not benefit the church to attempt to defend Scripture with the same method used to attack it.

I would even be willing to concede that my proposed solution would be questionable if it were the only instance in the Word of God where it can be found.  However, this very same explanation can be applied to the account of the mother of James and John requesting Jesus allow her sons to sit on thrones beside him in heaven (Matthew 20:20-21/Mark 10:35-37).  In the variant account of Mark, we read that it is James and John themselves who approach the Savior.  Knowing that one of the only ways a woman in a patriarchal society could exercise power would be through her influence on adult sons, it is more likely that Mark records what actually occurred (James and John approaching the Lord), whereas Matthew records who was actually behind the request (their mother).[6] [7]

What matters above all else is that we seek to know what the authors intended when they wrote.  It is only then that we can see the divinely inspired message placed upon them.  It is commendable that others have sought to defend passages such as this in a manner that appeals to their concept of inerrancy, but we must strive to apply a method that not only corresponds to that doctrine, but does so in a way that respects the message as it was intended at the time it was written.

 

[1] The passage in question here is found in Diatesseron,XI,xii.

[2] Jack R. Shaffer, “A Harmonization of Matthew 8:5-13 and Luke 7:1-10,” Master’s Seminary Journal 17 (2006): 35-50.

[3] See the parable of the wicked tenants.

[4] Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 411-412.

[5] Craig L. Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the New Testament: Countering Challenges to Evangelical Christian Beliefs, (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2016), 71.

[6] John Nolland, The New International Greek Testament Commentary: The Gospel of Matthew, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 819.

[7] It would be worth noting as well that even in Matthew, Jesus’ response to the mother records the plural use of the word “you”, suggesting that it was not a single individual who had approached him.

2 thoughts on “Errors in the New Testament? The Centurion’s Servant”

  1. Couldn’t it have just been that Mark and Luke heard it told differently because they were recording events secondhand?

  2. Andrew, Thank you for your comment. While it’s certainly possible that Luke heard a different account, the parallel story is in Matthew who was a firsthand observer of the events. His account would not be secondhand.

    But even so, the question for me is not just what is possible but what is most likely given the writing and examples in the rest of the text. After all, if it’s a matter of hearing a different story, the question then becomes who’s account is right, and then what do we do about other differences.

    Hope that clarifies where I’m coming from!

    Blessings

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