In the past few decades, there has been a slow rise of queer biblical scholarship and queer theological exegesis. Though little of this scholarship has gotten much attention in mainstream biblical scholarship, queer interpretations of one particular narrative defy this tendency: Matthew 8:5-13/Luke 7:1-10, Jesus’ healing of the centurion’s slave.
While little about the passage would initially suggest a queer or homoerotic subtext, commentators build their argument upon three primary features of the story.
1) The centurion uses two words for “slave” in the passage: when referring to a slave in a general sense, he uses the standard Greek word doulos, but when referring to the slave who is ill, he uses the word pais. Though pais often meant “slave” in antiquity, it was also used to designate the younger partner in a pederastic same-sex relationship.
2) The centurion in one passage refers to the slave in question as entimos (Luke 7:2), a word meaning “dear” or “honoured.” Though it might refer to usefulness as a slave for labour, it could also designate something or someone emotionally significant.
3) Finally, there is ample evidence of same-sex eroticism in the Roman military.
Though none of these points necessitates a queer or homoerotic subtext to the story, many argue that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, thereby indicating a sexual relationship between the centurion and his slave. The centurion is thus proclaimed an exemplar of queer discipleship by various theologians, as Jesus seems to interact with him and his slave without either judgment or condemnation.
On this basis, for instance, Tom Hanks contends that “by blessing the Capernaum centurion’s relationship with his beloved slave, Jesus flaunted the common prejudices of his countrymen and furthered his reputation as a ‘friend of tax collectors and sinners’”; Theodore Jennings likewise suggests that “the episode may be termed the ‘centurion’s boyfriend’.”
The purpose of this post is not to argue one way or the other over the plausibility and politics of this reading, something I have done elsewhere. Rather, I would like to observe how this reading, in its praise of a relationship between the centurion and his slave, “forgets” the rape culture of antiquity.
First, this reading overlooks the obvious fact that consent – sexual or otherwise – was not part of a slave’s vocabulary. Ancient sources are almost unanimous on the matter. Seneca writes that “unchastity is a crime in the freeborn, [but] a necessity for a slave” (Controversies 4 praef. 10); and the fictional Jewish man named Trimalchio, a former slave, claims that “for fourteen years I pleasured him; it is no disgrace to do what a master commands. I also gave my mistress satisfaction” (Petronius, Satyricon 75.11). Numerous other examples could be cited. It is clear that every aspect of a slave’s body was at his master’s disposal.
Second, this reading forgets that instances of male-male intercourse between soldiers and civilians are inseparable from the asymmetrical relationship between the Roman army and the regions that army conquered. Particularly vivid is an example from Tacitus: “Whenever a young woman or a handsome youth fell into their hands, they were torn to pieces by the violent struggles of those who tried to secure them….” (Histories 3.33) The Roman army was a force of conquest and imperial domination, not only in combat, but also in the social relations between soldiers and civilians in frontier regions during peacetime situations.
In short, there is little or nothing to suggest a mutually caring romantic-sexual relationship (let alone same-sex marriage!) between the centurion and his slave – a slave presumably born in that very frontier region of Palestine. If anything, recalling Tacitus’ brutal description, the story possibly bears a greater resemblance to the Mahmudiyah rape and killings – a tragedy where American soldiers occupying Iraq raped a 14-year-old girl, then murdered her and her family – than to same-sex marriage of the 21st century.
Christopher B. Zeichmann is a sessional instructor at Emmanuel College in the University of Toronto and Ryerson University. He is at the present under contract to publish A Guide to the Military and the New Testament with Fortress Academic/Lexington Press.