What did the centurion at the cross believe about Jesus? Did he believe that Jesus was the true Son of God? Did he believe that he was equivalent to the divinised emperor? Or did he merely agree with popular Jewish opinion that Jesus was a righteous man (and not the first), who had been unjustly put to death by the corrupt régime? In other words, why was last week’s post about “a son of God” and not about “the Son of God”?
The problem for interpretation, in the first place, is that in this type of sentence it can be difficult to know whether the Greek phrase huios theou (“son of God”) is definite or indefinite—“the Son of God” or “a son of God”.
When the centurion, who stood opposite him, saw that he expired in this way, he said, “Truly, this man was a son / the Son of God (huios theou ēn).” (Mk. 15:39)
The subject of the verb is “this man”; “son of God” is a predicate noun phrase; it has no definite article; the past tense copulative verb “was” (ēn) comes at the end of the sentence, after the predicate.
For this type of sentence Colwell’s rule is relevant but inconclusive:
In sentences in which the copula is expressed, a definite predicate nominative has the article when it follows the verb; it does not have the article when it precedes the verb.
In this case, the predicate nominative (huios theou) precedes the expressed copula (“was”) so it could be either definite (“the son of God” or “the son of a god”) or indefinite (“a son of God” or “a son of a god”).
When Nathanael says, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” (Jn. 1:49), the predicate noun has the definite article (ho huios tou theou) because it comes after the verb (ei). Jesus is the Son of God because he is the king of Israel. Interestingly, basileus (“king”) lacks the article because it comes before the verb: su basileus ei tou Israēl.
But in the case of the centurion’s statement grammar doesn’t get us very far, so we have to rely on context.
In Matthew’s version theou huios comes before the verb so is likewise ambiguous. But we also have to taken into account the earlier comments of onlookers at the cross:
If you are the Son of God (huios ei tou theou), come down from the cross. (Matt. 27:40)
He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him. For he said, ‘I am the Son of God (theou eimi huios).’ (Matt. 27:42–43)
These would normally be taken as definite expressions, though huios lacks the article. Jesus has been executed under the title “the king of the Jews”. But these are Jewish opinions associated with the particular charge against Jesus. We don’t have to assume that the centurion is responding to these ironic taunts. By the time the centurion speaks, it is clear that Jesus is not going to come down from the cross. It is all over.
Wisdom of Solomon has the idea of the “righteous man” who is a “son of God” (huios theou), who accuses the wicked leaders of Israel and is persecuted and killed by them (Wis. 2:18). Perhaps the centurion understood the Jewish mindset well enough to recognise that Jesus was a righteous man who had been unjustly put to death by the authorities.
As divi filius the emperor was “Son of God”. It is sometimes argued that Mark puts into the mouth of the centurion the confession that Jesus was a divine Son comparable to or greater than Caesar.
I don’t find this very convincing. In the New Testament Jesus is confessed as “Son of God” and Lord on the basis of his resurrection (cf. Rom. 1:3-4), not on the basis of the manner of his death. Caiaphas is told that Jesus will be vindicated when he is seen seated at the right hand of Power (Mk. 14:62).
This is why I think that the Wisdom background, with its emphasis on the innocence of the suffering righteous man, may be more appropriate, even though this Jewish perspective has been put in the mouth of a Gentile. Notice that Luke has the centurion say, “Certainly this man was righteous (dikaios)!” (Lk. 23:47).
Historically, this seems more plausible than that the centurion expressed an orthodox Christian belief, prior to the resurrection, that Jesus was the Son of God. Perhaps it is further underpinned by some form of Hellenistic “divine man” (theios anēr) narrative.
Finally, we have the imperfect tense of the verb in the centurion’s statement. It seems to me either that we must assume that he thought Jesus was the Son of God up until his death, with no thought of a future existence, or that he simply thought of Jesus as a righteous son of God whose life had now ended. The latter seems to me more likely. Mark cannot be saying that it was the centurion’s view, purely in response to the manner of Jesus’ death, that the Jews had just executed their true king, end of story.