(how to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference)

Did Jesus heal the centurion’s male sexual partner?

I asserted a while back that there is no evidence in the Gospels that Jesus had anything to say, directly or indirectly, about homosexuality. I don’t think he threatened pederasts with drowning, or asked people if they had gone out into the wilderness to see a gay man in effeminate clothing, or included homosexuals in the category of eunuchs. In a comment, however, Peter Wilkinson drew attention to the argument, put forward here and elsewhere, that Jesus knowingly healed the centurion’s catamite, thus affirming their same-sex relationship (Lk. 7:1-10; Matt. 8:5-13). Is there any reason to think that this “honoured” slave served a sexual purpose? Again, probably not.

First, no positive reason is given in the article for supposing either that the traditional understanding (a highly valued servant) is suspect or that the meaning “junior or younger male partner” presses for consideration. The main exegetical argument offered in support of the homosexual interpretation is that the phrase “honoured slave” makes sense only if it describes a sexual partner. But while the high regard that the centurion had for his servant may have been out-of-the-ordinary—the centurion was clearly an out-of-the-ordinary Gentile—I don’t see how there is anything illogical about the notion.

The adjective entimos can mean “honoured”, but it is also used for valuable or valued objects—for example, “precious” stones (Is. 28:16; Tob. 13:16; 1 Pet. 2:4, 6; 1 En. 24:2). The only instance of entimos used with either doulos or pais (see below) in the Perseus Digital Library is Luke 7:2; and I can’t find anything that points to entimos being specially used to describe a sexual partner.

In the Septuagint God is “honoured”, a name is “honoured”, Israel is “honoured” or “precious”; or the word denotes “distinguished” members of a society. It is naturally contrasted with atimos, “dishonourable” (e.g., Is. 16:14; Sir. 10:19), which weighs against the sexualised interpretation. Luke uses the comparative entimoteros for the “more distinguished” person who might be invited to a wedding feast (Lk. 14:8). This all points, again, to a servant who is held in unusually high regard in the household, but nothing more than that.

The word pais is also used for the sick servant (Lk. 7:7; cf. Matt. 8:6, 8, 13). This word can mean “son” or “child” (Jesus is a pais in Luke 2:43) and no doubt was used in Greek literature for a man’s younger male lover, though I don’t have any examples to hand. But it is also a standard term for a slave or servant and at most carries overtones here of a particular affection.

The following exchange from Aristophanes’ (c. 446 - c. 386 BC) play Acharnians 393-402 illustrates how both pais and doulos could be used by the same person for the same slave (pais in the vocative merely has more personal overtones), and how one slave might be more highly regarded than another—in this case, on account of his quick wit:

DICAEOPOLIS: The time has come for me to manifest my courage, so I will go and seek Euripides. Ho! slave, slave (pai pai)!

SLAVE: Who’s there?

DICAEOPOLIS: Is Euripides at home?

SLAVE: He is and he isn’t; understand that, if you have wit for’t.

DICAEOPOLIS: How? He is and he isn’t!

SLAVE: Certainly, old man; busy gathering subtle fancies here and there, his mind is not in the house, but he himself is; perched aloft, he is composing a tragedy.

DICAEOPOLIS: Oh, Euripides, you are indeed happy to have a slave (doulos) so quick at repartee! Now, fellow, call your master.

So on the limited lexicological, exegetical and literary evidence it’s very difficult to see why entimos in the story of the centurion’s servant shouldn’t have the straightforward sense “highly valued”. Nothing in the passage gives us reason to question this reading or suppose that there is some innuendo attached to the word.

Indeed, we have to ask whether the elders of the Jews in Capernaum would have been quite so eager to intercede with Jesus on behalf of the centurion if they had thought that it was his male lover who was sick. It is much more likely that this God-fearing centurion had been attracted to Judaism in the first place by its distinctively non-Greek ethical standards. Is it conceivable that he would have had such a positive relationship with the Jews—he built them a synagogue!—if he had been openly flouting the taboo expressed in Leviticus 18:22?


Thanks for the work on Matt 8:5-13 and Luke 7:1-10. Very informative.

Since you mention Leviticus 18:22, what are we to make of the meaning of the words translated “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination”? (ESV). A transliteration of the Hebrew might be: ‘And with mankind you shall not lie beds (plural noun) a woman/wife (singular noun).’ There have been (and are) various attempts to define the meaning of this obscure phrase.

If Paul used the LXX translation to coin his own compound noun from two separate words arsenokoites, as used in 1 Cor 6:9 and 1 Tim 1:10, what did he mean by this, equally obscure word? For 1000 years of church history, to the time of Martin Luther, the word was taken to mean ‘masturbation’. Even today, a similar word in a modern Greek dictionary means the same.

If Leviticus 18 (and 20) were proscribing pagan cultic temple practices, as many scholars aver, wasn’t Paul doing the same? If the Levitical list of proscriptions was simply a detailed summary of proscribed incestuous relationships, why was the father/daughter relationship, the most obvious of all, not included at the top of the list?

Also from Leviticus 18:22, what is the ESV doing in reverting to the KJV ‘abomination’, with all its emotive moral overtones, when the term is universally accepted to be a cultic prohibition?

The silence of Jesus on these matters is not only refreshing (eg his list of sins of the heart - Matthew 15:19), but perhaps significant.

Just a P.S. to the post submitted immediately before this, referring to Leviticus 18:13 and the meaning of Paul’s coinage of arsenokoites, here’s a quote from Philo:

“Around 35 A.D., the Jewish philosopher Philo (an early contemporary of Paul’s) held that the Leviticus use of arsenos koiten referred to shrine prostitution (Philo, The Special Laws, III, VII, 40-42)”. (Stopbibleabuse.org)

Once again, let me state that I’m totally sympathetic to your project, Peter.

That passage in Philo (an English translation of the entirety of Book III is here) is talking about effeminate men who castrate themselves to be like women. The entirety of section VII is ragingly anti-homosexual.

There is only one mention of prostitution. That occurs in section IX and calls for them to be stoned to death.

Thanks Phil. This actually brings us back to something Andrew covered here, a while back, and the picture seems to be of a cultural phenomenon finding its way into pagan temple practices rather than the pagan temple being the source of the practices themselves. The extract I quoted was perhaps slightly misleading.

On the other hand the behaviour which draws down Philo’s censure is somewhat removed from today’s issue, which is not approval of licentiousness in the broadest sense (as per Philo), but whether long term, committed, monogamous homosexual relationships deserve the same biblical affirmation given to heterosexual relationships in marriage (ie long term, committed mongamous relationships).

Anyway, although this is getting a long way from the centurion and his servant, it is picking up issues which were touched on in the original post.

I’m not convinced of the drift which assumes that silence (from Jesus) has no contribution at all to make to an argument. For instance, although it is popularly assumed to the present day that the sin of Sodom was largely sodomy, which has become a catch-all for all other expressions of same-sex relationships, Jesus didn’t seem to think this was the main sin of Sodom, without explicitly saying so. For instance in Matthew 10:14-15 judgment on Sodom is bracketed with a far worse judgment on the towns and villages of Israel for … . refusing hospitality to Jesus’s disciples.

I’m not convinced that the traditional biblical interpretation over the centuries of the few passages on the subject of homosexual behaviour is correct (in essence, OT Leviticus 18:22, and 20:13, and three main NT passages).

I also think the word ‘abomination’ has been persistently misused in translations, and continues to infect popular preaching, teaching and biblical consciousness. This, and the attempted violation of the strangers in Sodom spill over into disconnected contexts, and into very much connected but unexamined popular prejudices.

When Jesus affirmed the centurion and healed his slave, he said nothing about the widespread use of the slave as sex object in the Roman world, especially in the household of centurions on overseas postings (and I take what Andrew says about the Jewish approbation given to this particular centurion, and what we may read into the ‘silence’ on that subject).

Equally, Jesus said nothing about slavery as a degrading social phenomenon. Nor did he say anything about military service and non-violent resistance. The logical outworking of Jesus’s views on the last two (slavery and military service) can undoubtedly be deduced from his teaching and lifestyle. I think his views on the first can also be so deduced.

It’s not right to say, as the stopbibleabuse author does, that Philo “held that the Leviticus use of arsenos koiten referred to shrine prostitution”. Here is what Philo says:

And it is natural for those who obey the law to consider such persons worthy of death, since the law commands that the man-woman who adulterates the precious coinage of his nature shall die without redemption, not allowing him to live a single day, or even a single hour, as he is a disgrace to himself, and to his family, and to his country, and to the whole race of mankind. (Laws 3:38)

The argument is not that Leviticus 18:22; 20:13 refers to temple prostitution. It is that it is not surprising that Jews who obey the Law should have a “murderous” attitude towards Gentiles (καθ᾿ ὧν φονᾶν ἄξιον—if I’ve understood this correctly) who dress and behave as women, because the Law says that a man who allows himself to be treated as a woman is worthy of death. It’s almost a sociological observation: you would expect Law-abiding Jews to be upset by cross-dressing and pederasty amongst Gentiles. He goes on to say that the “man who is devoted to the love of boys” should suffer the same punishment.

Yes Andrew, I caught up with this in my preceding comment. In fact Philo does make a connection between the public displays of men in his time, boys in particular, dressing effeminately, and shrine worship, but it seems to be the shrines were affected by the public displays, not the other way round (the boys/men being elected a shrine officials).

On further consideration, it is possible that these ‘elections’ did show a greater connection between the public displays and shrine worship than might immediately be suggested. I just don’t have the research to prove it.

This does not alter the argument that Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 have in view activities connected with shrine or temple or cult activities, which seems to be an opinion of many scholars.

Likewise, to’evah, translated “abomination”, is a cultic term, which is not at all how it has been understood in popular biblical interpretation through tradition.

There are several sexual malpractices listed in Leviticus 18:19-23 which make a person unclean: uncovering the nakedness of a menstruating woman, lying with your neighbour’s wife, giving children to Molech, lying with a man as with a woman, lying with an animal. The land will vomit out what is unclean (18:24-25). People who do these “abominations” will be cut off from the land (18:26-28). This suggests that it is not association with the cultus that is the problem in the case of same-sex relations but contamination of the land. The Canaanites were expelled or eradicated from the land because they did such things. The people of Israel will suffer the same fate if they don’t clean up their act.

But you shall keep my statutes and my rules and do none of these abominations, either the native or the stranger who sojourns among you (for the people of the land, who were before you, did all of these abominations, so that the land became unclean), lest the land vomit you out when you make it unclean, as it vomited out the nation that was before you. For everyone who does any of these abominations, the persons who do them shall be cut off from among their people. So keep my charge never to practice any of these abominable customs that were practiced before you, and never to make yourselves unclean by them: I am the LORD your God. (Lev. 18:26–30)

So it seems that “abomination” includes acts of cultic uncleanness but is not limited to them: lying with your neighbour’s wife or donkey was not an offence only if it happened in a cultic setting.

We could say that the people of God no longer has this relationship to the land, but we would still lack any ground for differentiating between same-sex relations and the other practices that are condemned in the same terms.

Thanks again Andrew. There are several issues here.

The distinction between cultic Canaanite practices and the land would not have been as clear-cut as you seem to imply. Cultic practice would have had everything to do with the land: maintaining fertility for crops, family and so on. Unlike post-Enlightenment Europe, religious practice had not been firewalled from everyday life, and was reflected in everyday behaviour, sex not excluded.

The precise meaning of the wording of Leviticus 18:20 andd 20:13 is less then clear (as is also arsenokoites in the NT), as I suggested in a previous post. It is only tradition that has strongly preserved the popular meaning, reinforced by the implication that any ‘watering down’ of the meaning amounts to moral compromise. (Imagine a bible that tried to do this - it would be doomed to commercial failure from the outset).

You are using the word “abomination” in an uncritical way. The word was clearly a term associated with cultic practice in Leviticus, and that is how many have seen it in the verses in question and their contexts of forbidden relationships.

The word “abomination” goes beyond cultic practice in the way we use it today, and it has particularly attached itself to the church’s condemnation of gay relationships, not because it is a biblical term, but because it captures in itself a mixture of outrage, disgust, and the sense of the worst possible moral transgression that could be imagined. Even the sound of the word conveys its severely condemnatory tone.

The historical context and meaning of words is important, but there are considerable uncertainties about precisely what the Levitical code had in view in its proscription of Canaanite practices. On the other hand, today the issue is injustice, in the world and in the church, towards gay people. Gay people have fought long and hard in the world to remove inequality with non-gay people. The church should have been at the forefront of a campaign to end discrimination against an oppressed people group. Instead, the church had sided with prejudice, reinforced by an unquestioning acceptance of a traditional reading of a very few not very clear verses from OT and NT (though they are very clear to some, of course).

For all its talk of acceptance and inclusion of the sinner and hatred of the sin, look for any church (apart from those few that are set up to include gay people) which spouts this sort of jargon, and ask where the gay people are who have supposedly been so loved and accepted. Answer: they are either invisible, because they know that what they hide is considered condemnable, or more likely, they never came into this warm circle of acceptance and inclusion, because they saw through the hypocrisy of it.

If there is the slightest reason to question and doubt the way traditional responses to gay people have been formed, especially through misreadings of the verses which have reinforced the prejudice, we should do so.

Anyway, I’m up before the church defenestration committee on Monday evening. My cause has been strengthened by a statement made by Tony Campolo only on 8 June, in which he gives his full support to gay marriage. He’s a big man (in all respects), and they’d have difficulty shoving him through a window.

In amongst the other stuff, I am sorry to read this cynical dismissal of the welcome offered by ‘conservative’ churches.

One of the largest churches in Oxford is conservative and led by a gay, celibate man. A gay friend of mine teaches at St Mellitus. The church I used to help lead in Poole was the original home of True Freedom Trust. In my present (evangelical) church we are in a serious pastoral discussion about our welcome of transgender people.

Such unsubstantiated accusations of lack of welcome only serve as propaganda—and don’t help the discussion.

Peter, I am very sympathetic towards—and not a little alarmed by—your predicament. I also agree that the terms of the controversy over same-sex relations today are not the same as they were in the biblical period. But I don’t think that Christians who want to affirm same-sex relations/marriage today help their cause by trying to deform or defuse the biblical texts.

I’m not sure I understand the argument from cultic practice. Is it that the same-sex behaviour condemned was confined to the cultic context? Is it that Old Testament arguments regarding uncleanness presuppose the presence of the cultus in the midst of the people? I agree that there is not the same boundary between the sacred and the profane, but between the cultus and the rest of life? I’m not so sure. There are a lot of rules that determine and defend the boundary around the temple—who or what can go in and out, and so on.

You say that “abomination” is “associated with cultic practice in Leviticus”. But where is the evidence for that? There is no reference to the cultus in Leviticus 18. These are instructions given to the people regarding how they should live in the land (18:1-5); and they can expect the land to vomit them out if they commit acts which are an abomination to God. Undoubtedly, the way the word is used today goes beyond this rather technical sense (though this is true in scripture as well), but that doesn’t permit us to mitigate the force of the term in the Old Testament context.

Apologies first to Ian Paul; I must be behind the times, but as a church leader I’m very aware of what happens in my own church and very many others, which is exactly as I have described. Ian’s criticism of my attitude should, in my mind, at least be balanced by criticism of the damage which ‘traditional’ interpretations of scripture (fuelled by prejudice) have done to gay people, in and out of the church. Thanks anyway for the perspective.

Andrew - I really don’t know whether proscribed cultic behaviour, if such it was in Leviticus 18 & 20, was confined to shrines or not. But the larger picture of Leviticus is about a distinction between Israelite holiness and Canaanite practices. At least, that is a conclusion that can be drawn by proscriptions on mixing different fibres in cloth, mixing two types of crop in a field, or boiling a calf in its mother’s milk. One of the conclusions has been that this kind of thing had some sort of ritual significance in Canaanite cultic practices, relating to fertility god/goddesses, or some sort of familiar magic.

You say “same-sex” behaviour, but that is a conclusion which is in question, considering the structure and opaqueness of the Hebrew word structure in Leviticus 18:22 and Leviticus 20:13. Even as “same-sex” behaviour, it is open to various interpretations, not all of which condemn the behaviour. It is equally possible that the behaviour does refer to Canaanite temple practices.

In view of the real uncertainty, why has tradition rushed to the conclusion that same-sex committed lifelong monogamous relations are included in the supposed condemnation? At that time, the possibility of such relationships was not even remotely considered. At the very least, there needs to be some recontextualisation before they are condemned as an “abomination”.

Which brings us to the word “abomination”. First, the moral and emotional overtones of the word need to be considered in contemporary usage, let alone as an adequate translation of to’evah.

I haven’t done an exhaustive study, but as far as I can see, in the Torah alone, the word conveys ‘holiness code’, and therefore cultic, associations, for Israel as well as the surrounding nations. It was an “abomination” for Egyptians to eat with Hebrews, presumably for the same sort of cultic reasons that Israelites would not eat at the same table as gentiles. Shepherds were an “abomination” to Egyptians, probably because they were either a low caste and therefore unclean group, or non-Egyptians (the Israelites tended sheep).

Beyond Genesis, most of the references to to’evah have some sort of ritual, cultic association, usually of something to be avoided to do with foreign gods. In Deuteronomy, where most of the references come (about 16), only 3 I think could be said to have wider significance, which includes cross-dressing (and I doubt if this is remotely connected with cross-dressing as we know it today), a man remarrying his divorced wife (but this looks cultic, with the reason given as becoming ‘defiled’), and dishonest weights.

There is another Hebrew word which is used in similar contexts, also translated “abomination” by KJV (and ESV?). KJV seems very fond of the word, but to be fair, perhaps the translators noticed the similarity of context.

Anyway, “abomination” seems to refer to ritual practice, which was intended either to separate Israelite from Canaanite ritual practices, or simply to describe things which made Israelites ritually unclean which may or may not have been to do with distinguishing them in that way.

To be honest, I really don’t know, and this is descending to a level of particularity which I’m not really interested in. It seems sufficient to me to note that Leviticus especially is describing largely ritual or cultic requirements for living in the land which was almost inseparably entwined with temple practice, and which were part of an old covenant which is now superseded by the new.

Even if the “same sex” prohibitions were part of a moral injunction as opposed to cultic, there would have to be some consideration given to what we are talking about today in comparison with what was being described then. I don’t see much connection. These were not part of the ten commandments, which have a very clear universal application. (Though what about the prohibition on making “graven images” of God - which we have been doing in Western culture for centuries. Sistine chapel? Tear it down?).

We would at least have to consider which is the greater sin. Is it that committed by same sex relations according to a biblicist doctrine? Or is it the committing of gay people to the ‘prison’ (usually lifelong emotional and psychological solitary confinement) to which most gay people have been confined for centuries, and the abuse they suffer if they are discovered, let alone engage in same-sex relations? Is the open expression of gay identity and relationships in lifelong, committed, monogamous relationships really the greater evil?

We cannot have a sown-up interpretation of scripture which condemns same-sex relationships without facing up to what this actually does in practice to gay people. The celibate gay pastor who had “come out” is a rare and notable exception, but is that really the universal role model for others?

We cannot have a sown-up interpretation of scripture which condemns same-sex relationships without facing up to what this actually does in practice to gay people.

I am totally on board with this.

In America at least, the overwhelming majority of people who see this as a clear cut issue do not know any homosexuals, and they certainly haven’t had them as friends or had to get along with them in church. When you know the people and their struggles, it changes the tone, if nothing else.

Even if someone comes to the conclusion that homosexuality is wrong in a Christian sexual ethic, the church has to have something better to say to gay Christians than “stop being gay.” There are gay people who have been drawn to the Lord Jesus Christ, they have Abraham’s faith, and they are real people.

Couple of points here.

1. I wasn’t so much criticising your attitude, as criticising the universalising of experience so that ‘conservative’ = ‘hostile to gay men and women’.

2. If you are classifying habits of with whom one can eat a meal as ‘cultic’ then, yes, the Levitical texts are ‘cultic’ in that they call God’s people to live holy lives in the everyday. That is not, of course, what most people mean by ‘cultic’.

3. It is worth noting that no responsible, conservative commentator takes Leviticus as either binding or particularly directive on its own. What there is little doubt about is that the rabbis interpreted these verses as general prohibitions on all forms of same sex activity, between men and women, and Paul takes up this interpretation in Romans 1 and 1 Cor 6.9. So however we think the new covenant ‘supersedes’ the old, Paul didn’t appear to think it did away with this. Given Jesus’ (brief) support for this, and the stringent nature of his ethical sexual teaching, there is no reason to suppose he thought any differently.

4. I too agree that we cannot treat texts in isolation from how they have been misused to harm people. But that is no reason to pretend the texts mean something they don’t. For a clear and compassionate combination of these issues, see Richard Hays’ chapter in ‘Moral Vision.’

5. We appear to have strayed a long way from the exegesis of the text in Luke!

It would appear that what Philo, Laws 3:37-38 has directly in view is not the prohibition against lying with a man as with a woman but Deuteronomy 22:5: “A woman shall not wear a man’s garment, nor shall a man put on a woman’s cloak, for whoever does these things is an abomination to the LORD your God.”

I’ve given up writing my comment; your system deletes it to show the captcha.

Philo - Laws III, VII 40-42

Concerning men-women, pederasty and cultic practices:

(40) And I imagine that the cause of this is that among many nations there are actually rewards given for intemperance and effeminacy. At all events one may see men-women continually strutting through the market place at midday, and leading the processions in festivals; and, impious men as they are, having received by lot the charge of the temple, and beginning the sacred and initiating rites, and concerned even in the holy mysteries of Ceres. (41) And some of these persons have even carried their admiration of these delicate pleasures of youth so far that they have desired wholly to change their condition for that of women, and have castrated themselves and have clothed themselves in purple robes, like those who, having been the cause of great blessings to their native land, walk about attended by body-guards, pushing down every one whom they meet. (42) But if there was a general indignation against those who venture to do such things, such as was felt by our lawgiver, and if such men were destroyed without any chance of escape as the common curse and pollution of their country, then many other persons would be warned and corrected by their example. For the punishments of those persons who have been already condemned cannot be averted by entreaty, and therefore cause no slight check to those persons who are ambitious of distinguishing themselves by the same pursuits.