7 - The Faith of the Centurion

August 22, 2020 Thomas Ziegert Season 2 Episode 1

Many years ago, as a Catholic celebrating communion I chanted along with the others at mass, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should come under my roof. Speak but the Word and my soul will be healed.” Later I found out that the phrase was adapted from a story told in the gospel of Matthew, a story of love between two men. Today I’ll read that story from the gospel of Matthew chapter 8 verses 5 through 13. Then I will tell you a story about those men and their encounters with Jesus and Matthew. A similar but different story is told in the gospel of Luke and then in the gospel of John. The differences tell just as much of the story as the similarities do.

With respect to the tradition of midrash which responds to contemporary problems and crafts new stories. Midrash is meant to make connections between new Jewish realities and the unchanging biblical text. I’m adapting the tradition to do something similar for Christian realities using texts from the New Testament, particularly, the gospels.

The story I’m going to base my story on is from the Gospel of Matthew about the Centurion and his pais.  For those unfamiliar with Centurions, they were professional Roman officers that led a century – a troop of foot soldiers of 80 to 100 men. The Classical Greek word pais (παῖς) refers to “adopted son.” It has been interpreted into English in the Bible as servant. If it were servant or slave, the translation would be from the word dulos, as it is in the gospel of Luke. Luke uses the phrase, referring to the ill man, “entimos dulos” or “dear slave”. John, instead of referring to the Centurion directly, calls him a Roman official and refers to the sick man as his son, in Greek huios.

Here is Matthew’s story: 

When [Jesus] entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, appealing to him and saying, “Lord, my pais is lying at home paralyzed, in terrible distress.” And [Jesus] 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 pais will be healed. For I also am 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 [centurion’s] pais was healed in that hour.

So, as a last preamble to my story, here is something that I learned from the highly reputed historian, John Boswell: In Ancient Rome, it was the practice of prominent male citizens who fell in love with their male slaves to adopt them as a way of giving them Roman citizenship rights and responsibilities. The word used for the adopted son in this relationship was the word pais. One of those rights was inheritance. The other was Roman justice. (see addendum text supplied at  on the Blog page, with the heading: "The Love Connection..." .

Now for my midrash-type story of Centurion Junius Alus Gabinius and his pais, Tukulti.

In the year 4 of the Common Era, 9-year old, Junius Alus Gabinius, rode beside General Tiberius Caesar Augustus, the future Emperor of Rome.  Tiberius was leading a relief legion to Germania, where Tiberius would take over command of the Roman army there. The boy, the great grandson of a famous general, praetor and consul of Rome, Alus Gabinius, carried his patrician heritage well. He was tall for his age, comely of face, still carried some baby fat, but was strong and well-coordinated. He sat his horse well and didn’t complain of any hardships he endured. Junius was on this journey with Tiberius because his mother had intervened with Tiberius’ wife to help the boy make a name for himself and make inroads toward regaining his family’s former status. 

Due to a lack-luster grandfather and even less ambitious father, the family name had been relegated to obscure memory, instead of prominence. When Junius was introduced to him  Tiberius saw intelligence and respectable potential in the boy’s manner. With that observation and out of respect to the boy’s great grandfather, Tiberius took Junius as his “Equis errant”, a kind of aide-de-camp, where Junius could begin his journey to success. In three generations Junius’ family had made the descent from patrician to senatorial to eques class. That was still better than being the lowest, plebeian class. Junius wasn’t sure, now far from home and saddle-sore, whether to bless or curse his mother. 

Junius served Tiberius meticulously, took well to his lessons in war-craft, the Roman way of fighting, strategy, poetry, and politics.  By the time Junius was 17 he was known among his peers and supervisors as a reliable, courageous, and a cunning principales – or common soldier. Tiberius returned victorious to Rome that year and Junius was granted a slave and a place in General Germanicus’ army.  By the time he was 20 years old, Junius had been promoted to lead his own maniple, similar to a squad with up to 10 men. That made him a non-commissioned officer by today’s standards.

It was while he and his squad were reconnoitering in the Teutoburg Forest that they discovered the lost Aquila, a Legionary Eagle, of the 18th Legion. It had been lost six years prior along with the aquilas of the 17th and 19th legions when they had suffered defeat to the combined Illyrian forces while in rebellion against the empire. As a result of this find, Junius brought glory to Germanicus, reestablished the honor of the 18th Legion and was on his way to becoming an officer. 

At 22, now a Princeps prior, a high-ranking centurion, Junius, with his, by now, dear and personal slave, Tukulti, fair haired and blue eyed,  tall, strong willed, for a slave, intelligent and a handsome man in his own right, followed Germanicus to Syria where Germanicus was to serve as Legate of the province, which included the sub-province, Judea.

In time, as he became comfortable with himself, Junius was known among his men and peers to be gregarious, have a good sense of humor and a loyalty to his men as inbred as his loyalty to Rome. To Junius they were undifferentiated. His men were Rome, at its finest. By this time, Junius had become a trusted friend to Germanicus, who was intent on Junius’ successful progression through the ranks. So it was a great blow to Junius, both professionally and personally, when Germanicus died in Antakya, Syria in 19 CE by suspicious circumstances. Junius had held the rank of Primus pilus for six months now, also known as First Spear, the senior centurion of the legion, commander of the first cohort, and official advisor to the Legate.

With that promotion, Junius had felt confident that he could support and protect the love of his life and their relationship publicly. He made his move and asked Tukulti to freely belong to him. So it was in his 23rd year that Junius declared his love and devotion and adopted his slave and granted him his freedom, Roman citizenship, the right to inherit both Junius’ name and honor, and gave him his name, Tukulti Junius, translated from the hybrid of Akkadian-Latin languages, as “Trust in Junius.”  It was Germanicus himself who signed the adoption certificate and celebrated the joy brought to his friend and advisor’s life.

After Germanicus’ death politics moved fast for a few years than ground to a halt. The Governor of Syria at the time of Germanicus’ death, was recalled to Rome, accused of poisoning Germanicus, and committed suicide, so they say. For the next thirteen years Junius would be the de facto law by his presence in the province because the official Legates had overriding responsibilities and interests in Rome.

In 26 CE, the despicable head of the Praetorian Guards, Sejanus, with Emperor Tiberius in self-exile on Capri, was in effect the ruling Consul of the empire. That year he appointed Pontius Pilāte prefect and governor of Judea. With an absentee Legate, Pilāte was without regional oversight, except as Primus pilus Junius might exert. 

In 28 CE Pilāte caused a riot when he showed up in Jerusalem after using a vast amount of Temple funds to pay for an aqueduct to be built for that city. As a result, he called for Primus pilus Junius to send forces to keep the peace. Junius accompanied the 10th Legion to Judea to see for himself the condition of the province. Over the next eight years Junius would visit the province so many times that he established a household in Capernaum. 

Quite often, Tukulti would stay to oversee the running of the Capernaum household while Junius returned to his duties in Antakya. It was upon his arrival on one of his frequent homecomings to Capernaum that Junius discovered Tukulti ill with fever and in a state of paralysis. He called in the imperial physicians, to no avail. 

Junius had been keeping informed of the political currents and players over the years. He was acquainted with the tax collector, Matthew, a disciple of Jesus’. In fact Junius and Tukulti were not only aware of Jesus of Nazareth but they had ventured to listen to Jesus teach on several occasions. Matthew had been to dinners at their home on a few occasions. They enjoyed listening to Matthew talk about the afterlife and a god of compassion and justice that wasn’t as capricious as the Roman gods.

 It would have been difficult to miss the very Roman looking centurion who was always accompanied by the tall very Germanic looking man, of whom the centurion was obviously protective. They would occasionally sit and listen for hours as Jesus spoke. Jesus was aware of the couple. Tukulti was fascinated by the man’s teachings and apparent integrity. Junius and Tukulti had many engrossing conversations about the man’s ideas and resistance to the local corrupt Caiaphas, the Chief priest of the temple, who achieved his position through Pilāte’s application of his influence. 

Junius, on his way into town, had seen Jesus at the fountain in the plaza that their estate overlooked in the distance. He went to find Jesus. He found him surrounded by a crowd, as usual, sitting by a well talking about divorce and marriage, ... and eunuchs.

Junius approached Jesus with a mix of reticence and urgency. Jesus looked up at him. Recognizing the centurion and the absence of his pais, Jesus nodded to him, as if to give him permission to speak. He told Jesus of his need and his hesitancy for Jesus to enter his home. Junius was ashamed of his duty to support Pilāte as well as his offerings to the gods of Rome. Even though he was a man of honor and power, he felt humbled and unworthy of this humble man’s attention.

So it was that this Jesus both praised Junius and saw to his need. Junius arrived home to a smiling Tukulti, already in recovery. A year later Junius would be in Antakya and hear of the judgement of Jesus by Pontius Pilāte, and rush to use his tenuous power to command it be rescinded, only to arrive too late.

Four years later after Junius retired from military life he and Tukulti would establish their fifteen hundred-hectare villa rustica northwest of Antakya, midway between the provincial capital and the Mediterranean Sea. When Matthew established his community in Antakya, a few years later, Junius and Tukulti joined and were welcomed. The couple used their influence and wealth to assist the community of new followers of Jesus. Matthew became a regular to dinner parties. His support of the couple was as genuine as their support of him and his burgeoning community of Christians. Soon Scribes in the ever expanding Christian community would begin writing about Matthew’s experiences with Jesus. 

There it was that Junius and Tukulti and Christianity lived and thrived for many days. Was it them Jesus had in mind when he spoke of the “eunuchs born that way,” do you think?