Jesus Heals the Centurion’s Servant – Matthew 8:5-13

Jesus returns to Capernaum, Peter’s village, where is met by a centurion asking him to heal his servant who is suffering greatly (Matthew 8:5-6). Like the story of Jesus healing the leper in the previous paragraph, Jesus will cross cultural barriers by responding to this Gentile’s request.

Centurion's Servant Healed

Jesus left Nazareth and began to live in Capernaum (Matthew 4:13), likely living in Peter’s home (8:14). He will return to the village in 11:23 and 17:24. The modern route from Nazareth to Capernaum is about 30 miles, but the way drops from 1138 feet at Nazareth to 680 feet below sea level at Capernaum (at current lake levels). In the first century Capernaum would not have been very large, perhaps no more that 1700 residents. The village is right on the shore of the Sea of Galilee and there is evidence of at least seven docks for fishermen. There is also evidence of a small synagogue under the impressive fifth century building modern tourists visit.

Having finished the Sermon on the Mount Jesus walked to the shore of the Sea of Galilee where Peter and his family lived. From the traditional site of the Sermon on the Mount to Capernaum is perhaps three and a half miles by the modern road, less if Jesus is able to take a more direct route.

The centurion is a Gentile, but it is at least possible he is a God-fearing gentile. Was there a Roman garrison in Capernaum in the first third of first century? This is often stated, but rarely proven. Mike Wilkins, for example, states “recent excavations reveal a military garrison at Capernaum had its headquarters to the east of the Jewish village” although he does not offer a footnote for this recent excavation (Wilkins, Matthew, 341).

There is little evidence for Roman military presence in Galilee prior to AD 44 (Wahlde, “Archaeology and John’s Gospel”). In the 1980s a Roman bathhouse was found near the eastern border of the village, right on the property line between the Franciscan and Orthodox properties. At present, the bathhouse is dated to the second or third century (it is similar to small bathhouses in Gaul and Britain from the period), but the excavators suspect an earlier bathhouse was present when the later was built.

Why would a typical Roman soldier think a Jewish healer would have this kind of authority? If he is simply a pagan Roman centurion, he may have tried all other methods, both medical and divine, to heal his servant. If he was a God-fearing Gentile, then he may have had faith in the God of Israel to heal. In either case, he had heard Jesus was known for healing all kind of illness and approaches on behalf of the servant. The point of the passage is that a Gentile expressed more faith than the Jews in the region, especially the Pharisees.

The centurion approaches Jesus and shows unusual respect for him. The verb translated “asking for help” (NIV) or “appealing to him” (ESV, NRSV) is προσκυνέω, “to express in attitude or gesture one’s complete dependence on or submission to a high authority figure” (BDAG). It can mean anything from “greet with affection” or “welcome respectfully” to “worship (like a god).” Although it is unlikely the man is worshiping Jesus like a god, it is significant Matthew has chosen this word to express the centurion’s attitude toward Jesus. This Gentile considers Jesus worthy of respect and honor.

His request is simple: heal my servant. It is possible to translate the noun παῖς as “servant” or “son.” In fact, John has son (υἱός), but Luke has “servant” (δοῦλος). It may be the case that the ambiguity of παῖς led to the different terms in Luke and John, and it is also possible the servant was so beloved by the centurion he considered him as a son. (See this post from Ian Paul for the suggestion the servant was the centurion’s gay lover. Dwight Gingrich points out the noun “παῖς (pais) usually carries no sexual connotations whatsoever.”)

In either case, he is paralyzed and suffering greatly. The verb translated “suffer” (βασανίζω) refers to extreme distress and is used for torture in some contexts. Matthew adds the adverb “greatly (δεινῶς), “an extreme negative point on a scale relating to values” (BDAG). When your doctor asks you how bad your pain is on a scale of one to ten, the servant’s pain goes all the way to eleven.

Jesus is willing to go to the servant and heal him, but the centurion knows a Jewish person would not enter the home of a Gentile.For example, in Acts, Peter initially refused to enter the home of Cornelius, a God-fearing Gentile who was so godly that the Lord sent an angel to personally answer his prayers. In Acts 10:28 Peter says, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation.”In the Mishnah, m Ohol. 18:7, “Dwelling places of gentiles [in the Land of Israel] are unclean.”

The centurion says he is not worthy (οὐκ εἰμὶ ἱκανός) of a visit from Jesus in his home. Instead, the centurion recognizes Jesus is authority and knows Jesus only has to say the word, and his servant will be healed.

Jesus is amazed at the man’s faith, telling his followers that he has met no one in Israel who has a similar faith.  “No one in Israel” as opposed to the gentile centurion has expressed a belief in Jesus’s authority over illness. Why is this surprising? There are several texts in Isaiah which suggest the messiah would have a healing ministry, Isaiah 35:5-7. 61:1-4. If Jesus was known for “proclaiming the good news of the kingdom” and healing every disease and sickness (Matt 4:24), then the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees should have made the connection to these prophecies about the coming eschatological age. In the next few pages of Matthew, the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees will question Jesus’s authority and cast doubt on the origins of his power.

Skipping over 8:10-12 for now, the story concludes in verse 13, the servant is immediately healed. In the leper story, Jesus says he is willing to heal, and in this story, Jesus once again expresses his authority by healing the servant by his word, crossing over social and cultural boundaries to care for someone at the lowest rungs of society.

 

 

Jesus Heals a Man with Leprosy – Matthew 8:1-4

In the first three stories in Matthew 8, Jesus heals three people of the fringes of Jewish society, demonstrating his authority of physical illness and fulfilling Isaiah 53:4. In Matthew 8:1-4 Jesus heals a man with leprosy by touching him.

Jesus healing the leprous man is an example of the triple tradition (Matt 8:1-4//Mark 1:40-45//Luke 5:12-16). Matthew omits Jesus’s response in Mark 1:41. There Jesus either has compassion on the man (the majority of manuscripts) or he is indignant (D and some old Italian versions). Matthew also drops out the man’s disobedience to the command to stay silent (Mark 1:45, “instead he went out and began to talk freely). Matthew tells the story as simply as possible in order to emphasize Jesus’s authority over illness.

A person with rotting skin like leprosy was considered as good as dead. Their disease was often associated with God’s judgment (cf. 2 Chr 26:20). As ceremonially unclean and as contagious persons, they were required to keep themselves separate from society and to announce their approach with the words “Unclean, unclean!” (Lev 14:45–46; cf. Luke 17:12). In Numbers 5:2 the leprous are to be “put out of the camp.” When Miriam is punished with leprosy Moses pleads with God to heal her saying “Let her not be as one dead.” Leviticus 13-14 has a wide range of rules for people with skin conditions and in Deuteronomy 24:8-9 Israel is to be very careful with lepers, “remember Miriam!” There are several stories which describe leprosy as a punishment from God (2 Kings 5:7; 7:3-10; 15:5; 2 Chron 26:16–21).

Leprosy is a concern in the Dead Sea Scrolls. In the Temple Scroll, lepers and menstruating women should have a place to live outside a city to live so they do not defile people in the city. The section just prior to this quote instructs the readers to “not be like the Gentiles” who bury their dead everywhere, but rather build cemeteries outside the city to avoid corpse uncleanliness. No one with leprosy or a skin disease was allowed to enter the Temple (11Q20 Col. xii:3).

11Q19 Col. xlviii:14 And in every city you shall make places for those contaminated 15 with leprosy, and with sores and with scabies so that they do not enter your cities and defile them; and also for those who have a flux 16 and for women when they are in their menstrual impurity and after giving birth, so that they do not defile in their midst 17 with their menstrual impurity. And the leper who has chronic leprosy or scabies and the priest has declared him unclean. (trans. Garcı́a Martı́nez and Tigchelaar)

This is similar to the Mishnah which lists lepers along with several other “fathers of uncleanliness.” These things render a person unclean by contact. If a leper touched a plate or a bowl, then that vessel was unclean and any food eaten from that vessel would be rendered unclean.

m. Kelim 1:1 The Fathers of Uncleannesses [are] (1) the creeping thing, and (2) semen [of an adult Israelite], and (3) one who has contracted corpse uncleanness, and (4) the leper in the days of his counting, and (5) sin offering water of insufficient quantity to be sprinkled. Lo, these render man and vessels unclean by contact, and earthenware vessels by [presence within the vessels’ contained] airspace (trans. Neusner).

In addition to this, the tractate m. Nega’im concerns various skin diseases and how they affect the cleanliness of clothing, homes, etc. as well as methods for purifying a leper.

m. Nega’im 13:11 A leper who entered the house—all the utensils which are there are unclean—even up to the beams.

m. Nega’im 14:1 A  How do they purify the leper? (B 1) He would bring a new flask of clay, and (2) put in it a quarter-log of living water, and (3) bring two undomesticated birds. C He slaughtered one of them over the clay utensil and over the living water. D He dug [a hole] and buried it before him [the leper]. E He took cedarwood and hyssop and scarlet wool and bound them together with the ends of the strip [of wool] and brought near to them the tips of the wings and the tip of the tail of the second [bird]. F He dipped [them in the blood of the slaughtered bird] and sprinkled [the blood] seven times on the back of the hand of the leper. G There are some who say, “On his forehead.” H And thus did he sprinkle on the lintel of the house on the outside.

The man kneels before Jesus, a sign of respect, probably not worship. When the leper asks to be made clean, he is asking Jesus not just to remove his painful disease, but to be allowed back into Jewish life, including living again with his family and worship at the Temple.

Jesus responds by touching the man and he is immediately made clean. No one touches a leper since touching make the person unclean and they may contract the disease themselves. Touching the untouchable violates the law (cf. Lev 5:3).

Jesus then tells the man to say nothing but rather go to a priest to offer a gift. Why does Jesus command silence? Although it is more clear in Mark, there is a “messianic secret” theme in Matthew’s gospel. In Matthew 16:20 he tells his disciples to tell no one that he is the Messiah, and in 17:9 he tells the three witnesses of the transfiguration to tell no one about their experience until after the resurrection. The usual explanation is that healing a leper would have confirmed Jesus is the messiah and drawn even larger crowds, crowds of people who would misunderstand the nature of Jesus’s messianic activity.

m. Nega’im 14:7 A On the eighth day [Lev. 14:10] one brings three beasts: a sin offering, and a guilt offering, and a whole offering. B The poor person would bring sin offering of fowl and a whole offering of fowl [Lev. 14:21]. 14:8 A He came to the guilt offering and put his two hands on it and slaughtered it. B And two priests received its blood, one in a utensil and one by hand. C This one who received [the blood] in the utensil came and sprinkled it on the wall of the altar. D And this one who received it by hand came to the leper. E And the leper immersed in the court of the lepers. F He came and stood in the gate of Nicanor. G  R. Judah says, “He did not require immersion [on the eighth day, having done so on the seventh].”

Why would Jesus require a proof of healing? A gift after a skin disease is cleared was Moses commanded so that he can once again be part of Jewish society. “Jesus is thus shown to be faithful to the stipulations of the Torah in spite of an infraction of the command not to touch” (Hagner, Matthew 1-13, 199). People with skin conditions were considered unclean for a period of seven days, after which time they had to submit to a priest for inspection and make a series of washings and offerings to be restored to a state of ritual cleanliness.

When Jesus touches the leper he crosses a boundary most of his contemporaries would not even approach. He showed compassion for the leper even though there was fear and loathing for the leprous man. How does Jesus’s action of touching the leper provide a model for contemporary ministry?

 

Were Lepers Considered Unclean in the Bible? Matthew 8:1-2

In Matthew 8:1-2, a man with leprosy approaches Jesus and asks to be made clean. It is important to understand leprosy in the context of the first century. In modern usage, leprosy refers to a specific medical condition known as Hansen’s disease. The Greek λεπρός covers a side range of skin conditions, so it is perhaps better to call this a “bad skin condition” (although this runs the risk of making the reader think the man just had a really bad case of acne). In classical Greek, the word λεπρός referred to skin that was scaly, rough, or harsh or things that were “mangy” (BrillDAG).

Jesus heals a leper

People with skin conditions were considered unclean for a period of seven days, after which time they had to submit to a priest for inspection and make a series of washings and offerings to be restored to a state of ritual cleanliness.

However, in a recent JBL article, Myrick Shinall has challenged the consensus view that people with leprosy were shunned in Jewish society. He argues the text usually cited in the commentaries are inconsistent and fragmentary and is more interested in diagnosing leprosy rather than excluding the leper from society (924). There is considerable variation of exclusion because of leprosy. Although Miriam is sent outside the camp, Naaman is permitted to go anywhere (2 Kings 5) and Uzziah was forced to live in a separate house, but the text does not describe the king as in isolation (2 Chron 26).

Shinall then argues there is no social isolation in the various leper stories in the Gospels (932). There is nothing in Matthew 8, for example, that indicates this leprous many was living a life of social isolation, and later Jesus will enter the home of Simon the Leper and eat with him (Matt 26:6). Shinall understands Simon’s name as indicating he was currently suffering from leprosy; he is not “Simon, the former Leper.”

The problem Shinall addresses is the common, an inaccurate portrayal of Second Temple Judaism as overly concerned with purity in contrast to the loving Jesus who reached out to lepers. He sees this as a clear bias against Jews in early church writers and implicit in modern commentators. If the motivation for overplaying social exclusion is slandering the Jews, then it should be dropped (934).

I am in agreement with his final conclusion: do not slander the Jews in your teaching and preaching on this passage (seriously, don’t). However, social isolation because of one’s status is exactly the point of the three stories in Matthew 8:1-17. Jesus touches the leper and Peter’s mother-in-law, as I will show later, she is suffering from a fever which is associated with the curses for covenant unfaithfulness. The middle story in this section has Jesus talking with a Gentile, risking a violation of purity laws.

The contrast is not between a kind and living Jesus and the whole of Second Temple Judaism, but with the way Pharisees practiced purity. Contact with a leper, a Gentile and a feverish woman were all grave risks for rendering someone unclean and would require a person to make appropriate washings in order to return to a state of cleanliness.

This needs to be unpacked more, but for now, I will state here that the Pharisees were the sub-group within Judaism who attempted to live in a state of ritual purity at all times. They are also the group who will come into direct conflict with Jesus over these kinds of purity issues.

Bibliography: Myrick C. Shinall Jr., “The Social Condition of Lepers in the Gospels,” JBL 137.4 (2018): 915-34.

See also: J. K. Elliott, “The Healing of the Leper in the Synoptic Parallels.” TZ 34 (1978) 175–76;  Ituma, Ezichi, Enobong I. Solomon, and Favour C. Uroko. “The Cleansing of the Leper in Mark 1:40–45 and the Secrecy Motif: An African Ecclesial Context.” Hervormde Teologiese Studies 75.4 (October 2019): 1–11.