Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Three Holy Centurions

Roman centurion, 1st century A.D
We oftentimes overlook the fact that the first gentile Christians were the centurions. There were not just one, but quite a few who had come to the knowledge of Jesus, and they were among the earliest Christians after the Jews. But who exactly was a ‘centurion,’ and what exactly did they do? There are three main centurions that I would like to focus on in the New Testament that have paved the way of Christianity’s universal inclusion.

Firstly, the word ‘centurion’ derives from the Latin centurio, centurionis, meaning “head of a centuria,” a group of about 80-100 soldiers. He was the Roman army officer, sort of an equivalent to our captain (Gingrich Lexicon 3662). The Roman army was divided into what were called the “legions.” Each legion had about 4000-5000 infantrymen with around 300 cavalrymen. Each legion, in turn, was divided up into six centuria (i.e. centurions) of a hundred men each. Therefore, the centurion was the one who presided over the group of 100.

The Roman writer, Polybius says this about them: “The Romans wish the centurions to be not so much daring and adventurous in spirit but rather steadfast and persevering and with good leadership ability. They do not want men who will rush thoughtlessly into battle or who will initiate the fighting, but rather men who will hold their ground when outnumbered and hard pressed and who will die at their posts” (Polybius, History of the World, 6.22-24). 

The New Testament uses the Latin form centurion (kentyrion), as well as the more common Greek form, Hecatontarches, literally, “the ruler of a hundred.” The Latin version is only found in the Gospel of Mark: 15:39, 44, and 45. The former is found in twenty-two other places in the New Testament.

The First Holy Centurion:

While Jesus was teaching in the town of Capernaum, which is by the Sea of Galilee, a centurion had a servant dear to him who was sick. He was a respected man in the Jewish community, which is a surprise considering their brutal disposition that they were notorious for. This centurion appeared to be a “God-fearing” (theouphoboumenos in Greek) gentile who had donated a large money towards founding and building of a synagogue in the town. Even the Jewish elders besought Jesus to heal his servant for him, since he was well deserving and had treated the Jews with respect.

As Jesus was on His was to heal the centurion’s ailing servant, the centurion himself stopped Jesus on the way: “Domine, non sum dingus,” “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof…for I am a man also placed in authority, with soldiers under me, and I say to the one ‘go’ and he goes, and to the other ‘come’ and he comes, and to my servant ‘do this’ and he does it. Just say the word and my servant will be healed” (Luke 7:7-8). He did not need to see Jesus himself performing the miracle; it was enough for the centurion that Jesus say the word, so that he would believe that his servant was blessed. This act of faith by hearing and not seeing is that which astonished Jesus and of the type that would become the bedrock of all gentile believers coming after him.

The Second Holy Centurion:

When Jesus bowed His head and gave up His ghost after He had hung on that cross for good six hours, with an intervening three-hour solar eclipse, and the ensuing earthquakes, and other strange happenings, the centurion who stood by was in careful watch. He was the guardian of the crucified Lord. He was the one who stood closest to His cross where the other disciples had abandoned Him and His women followers were looking on from the distance. When the centurion saw all these things, and how He had died – how the spirit came out of Him and ascended into the sky – he was astonished and fearful. The centurion, perceiving through faith, that Jesus was more than a mere mortal who was subject to such shameful death. This knowledge brought him to his knees, declaring “Truly this Man was the Son of God” (Mark 15:39). 

The centurion, who was nearby guarding Jesus, was the first one to have seen Jesus actually die! He was the first witness of our Lord’s death. He was also later summoned to Pilate in order to ascertain if Jesus was dead; the centurion must have also granted the body of Jesus to Joseph, and had probably helped with getting Jesus off from His cross, and of removing the nail out of His body. He must have treated the body of the “Just Man” (Luke 23:47) with respect and reverence. He wouldn’t have thrown Jesus’s body off to the dogs to devour as were other ‘criminal scum.’

On the further note, there is also an ancient tradition dating back to around the first century about a certain centurion who was placed as a guard to the tomb of Jesus. He was conveniently called “Petronius” (Petra in Greek means ‘stone,’ an obvious playful reference to the tomb’s stone door). He was the one who had witnessed the earthquakes, the angelic visitations, and has even seen Jesus coming out of His tomb alive. Thus making the obscure centurion named Petronius as the first witness to Jesus’s resurrection. But that is a stuff of pious legends, stemming from obscure oral traditions.

The Third Holy Centurion:

The third guy is finally named: Cornelius. He was the centurion of what was called the “Italian Regiment,” which was stationed at Caesarea Philippi, then a Roman military capital of the province of Judea. He was a very pious man, no doubt himself a God-fearer (a special class of sympathizing gentiles known as the theouphoboumenoi, God-fearers). He prayed daily along with his household, gave alms, worshipped the God of Abraham, and supported the local synagogues. 

Then suddenly, during one of his meditations, “About the ninth hour of the day he saw clearly in a vision an angel of God coming in and saying to him, "Cornelius!"” (Act 10:3). Not only was Cornelius granted the heavenly vision but that God even sent a vision to the apostle Peter. When Peter had proclaimed the Gospel to centurion with his family, the Holy Spirit fell upon them as it had to the Jews. This was when Peter had learned that God had for the first time broken the barriers that had separated Jews from the gentiles. This is the event that mark a new and revolutionary era of faith. How blessed was that soldier of Christ indeed!

There are many other centurions to tell of, even the bad one that had Paul whipped by accident. But I can’t simply get into all of them here. The above examples are enough to edify the faith. Remember, it is always the minor characters of the Bible that play the most curial and pivotal roles. Other examples of people who were least esteemed by their society: women, children, the tax collectors, prostitutes, sinners, and drunkards.

We must take after the centurions as prime examples of our faith. Paul himself had seen what centurions could really teach us about faith. He took what was once a formidable Roman weapon and turned it into a weapon of Christ: “put on the whole armor (Latin, armatura) of God…stand therefore, having girded your waist with truth, having put on the breastplate (Latin, lorica) of righteousness, having shod your feet (Latin Caligae) with the preparation of the gospel of peace; and above all, taking the shield (Latin, scutum) of faith with which you will be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked one. And take the helmet (Latin, galea) of salvation, and the sword (Latin, gladius) of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Ephesians 6:11-18). Every centurion’s item is listed as articles of faith and are used as strong spiritual metaphors. The scutum, galea, and gladius were all centurion’s weapons, and they are powerful weapons of faith indeed! 

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