§ 28. The Centurion of Capernaum

Critique of the Gospel History of the Synoptics
by Bruno Bauer

Volume 2



§ 28.

The Centurion of Capernaum.

Matth. 8, 5 — 13.

Upon entering Capernaum, a centurion approaches Jesus with the request that he heal his son, who is lying paralyzed at home, or rather he initially only describes the suffering of his son. In response to Jesus’ declaration that he will go and heal him, the centurion says that he is not worthy for the Lord to enter under his roof, and that it only takes a word from him for his son to be healed. Jesus is amazed and says to his followers: “Truly I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel.”


If Jesus could only speak in this way if he had already experienced the nature of the Jewish people for some time, then it is certain that this story stands too early in the first Gospel – for Jesus has just appeared – that its true and original home is in the Gospel of Luke – because here there is really a description of Jesus’ longer activity before it – and that Matthew placed it so unfortunately only because he borrowed it from the Gospel of Luke in connection with the Sermon on the Mount.

But is it really the case that Luke’s account is the original one? Isn’t a lot of it unlikely, isn’t the excess that it has before Matthew’s presentation very disturbing and even inappropriate to the point of the whole thing? Yes, so it is, De Wette answers, and “it seems that Luke provides a later extension.” *)

*) Ereg. Handb. I, I, 83.

Although the words of the centurion with which he declares himself unworthy for Jesus to come under his roof and expresses confidence that only a word from the Lord is needed for the sick person to be healed are also the same in Luke (7:6-8), the centurion does not present them personally to the Lord, but through friends he sends to him on the way to his house. He does not come into personal contact with Jesus at all, but from the outset he had sent elders of the Jews to him, when he heard of his arrival in Capernaum, and through them he had asked him to come and heal the sick person. And only when the Jews had interceded on behalf of the Gentile, saying that he was worthy of the service of love because he loved their people and even built their synagogue, only then, when Jesus had actually set out and was near his house, did he have the words of faith sent to him that so amazed Jesus.


What, however, could be more certain than that the words, which come so fresh from the heart and so admirably penetratingly addressed to the Lord, and which also so strikingly relate to the man’s personal circumstances – “I too am a man subject to authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it” – what could be more certain than that such words were personally addressed to the Lord by the man himself? And there can be no greater inconvenience than that the man, after inviting Jesus into his house through his messengers, suddenly has the idea to send new messengers to bring a second request, when Jesus is already close to his house.

Of course, the absolute apologist, as well as the patron of Luke, cannot admit such inconveniences. Olshausen *) must concede to Luke’s account “the advantage of greater clarity and accuracy in external details,” and Schleiermacher **) must find in it “the characteristics of a well-informed eyewitness.”

*) Bibl. Comm. I, 267. 268.

**) Ueber die Schr. des Luke, p. 92.

The difference between the two accounts cannot be admitted by the absolute apologist, nor can he pay attention to the fact that it is a contradiction. Olshausen has done enough good when he merely observes that the account in the first Gospel is “nothing but a shorter expression.” However, more thorough Bible scholars have realized that the matter is not so easily settled. For example, Bengel is very diligent in exploring all possibilities, even searching for divine laws that determined the form of the report provided by Matthew. He maintains that the centurion did not approach Jesus himself, but rather it appears that he left the house at first but returned later. Therefore, his will was taken as the action itself and was credited by God higher than the action, and Matthew expressed this divine assessment of the will excellently by following the law of divine history, which is much more exalted than the law of human history. Look at this edifying torture, you present-day apologists, and be ashamed of your frivolous treatment of such differences! However, the torture remains, of what Bengel has written for the sake of Matthew’s account. If the will was reckoned higher than the act by God *), then wouldn’t Matthew have represented this divine consideration and the law of divine history very poorly by not mentioning anything about the mere will and immediately substituting the less valuable act for it? Or does Luke say anything about the man initially intending to go to the Lord himself and then changing his mind and sending someone else instead? Just as Matthew simply says that the man “came up” to the Lord when he entered Capernaum, so it is said from the outset in Luke that when the man heard about Jesus, he sent elders of the Jews to him. Finally, when Calvin asserts that Matthew proceeds correctly – inepte – by attributing to the centurion what was only done at his request and in his name, when Paulus defends the evangelist with the principle that one can also say that someone did something even if he had it done by others (quod quis per alium fecit etc.) **), and when Augustine even says that this principle could be applied here especially ***), we must unfortunately note that this application is purely impossible for the act of going, coming, etc., since one cannot have these movements done for oneself by others.

*) Pluris divinitus aestimabatur,

**) I, 709.

***) No, indeed! While he wants to say it, he dares not say it: de cons. Evang. Lib. II, c. 49. Si ipsa peryentio usitate dicitur per aliós fieri, quanto magis accessus per alios fieri potest. Why doesn’t he say: per alios fieri dici potest? The absurdity of the whole sentence would have been even more apparent.


Although the differences can no longer be denied, it still remains that Luke’s account is the original one and that Matthew had it in mind when he beautifully reworked it. He sends the meticulous and annoying delegation of Jewish elders that Luke portrays back home and correctly figured out that the centurion must approach the Lord personally and without intermediaries. Furthermore, Matthew presents the matter so beautifully that the centurion first laments the suffering of his boy and then, as Jesus agrees to go and heal the sick, expresses his faith that the Lord can perform the healing from a distance.

Another difference arises from the fact that Matthew made an appropriate change. We are not referring so much to the fact that, according to Luke *), the sick person is near death, while according to Matthew he is confined to bed with a painful limb disease, but rather to the fact that he is the servant of the centurion in Luke’s account and the son of the same in Matthew’s (ο παις). “Boy” is indeed ambiguous in the Greek language: it can mean both servant and son – but the categorical way in which the centurion says “my boy,” the urgency and pleading of his request for help, prove that Matthew expects us to think of the man’s son. From Luke’s account and the amount of circumstances and pleas he presents, he concluded that it was more appropriate for the centurion to plead for his son, who was no longer fatally ill but simply suffering. Perhaps he also helped himself, not to stray too far from the original, with the uncertain word “boy” and left it to his readers to determine the indefinite from the context.

*) κακως εχων ημελλεν τελευταν (Luke 7:2). Compare John 4:47: ημελλεν αποθνησκειν


If it is now certain that Luke “does not provide a later expansion whose purpose is to emphasize the humility of the man even more *)”, we still have to answer the question of how he came to his report. A look at Mark solves the question. Mark knows nothing about the centurion, but tells instead the story of the Hellenistic woman whose daughter Jesus heals from a distance – a story that Luke knows nothing about. And yet we read this story in Luke; it is precisely the story of the centurion! Note beforehand that Luke took offense at such a close and immediate contact of the Lord with a pagan person, so he inserted the delegation of the Jewish elders as an intermediary and put in their mouths the embarrassing recommendation of the heathen, who now becomes a kind of proselyte, so all the inconveniences are explained. That woman, when she heard about Jesus, went to him and asked for help for her daughter, so now that delegation must immediately appear with the specific request and of course, since the centurion does not appear in person, ask the Lord to come and help the sick person **). In the original report, however, Luke finds that the Lord healed from a distance and did not see the sick person he helped this time. Therefore, if Jesus follows the requests of the delegation and is already near the centurion’s house, the centurion must send new messengers to stop him and make the healing possible from a distance. Even the words, and even the construction of the sentences are already ready for this purpose, namely in the writing of Mark, where messengers also come to meet the Lord when he is on his way to a hospital and at least try to hold him back *).

*) de Wette 1, 1, 83. Grauß II, 121.

**) Mark 7, 25, 26 : ακούσασα γυνή περί αυτού, ής είχε το θυγάτριον αυτής πν. ακαθ., ελθούσα προσέπεσε προς τους πόδας αυτού και πρώτα αυτόν ίνα — Luk. 7, 2, 33 εκατοντάρχου δέ τινος δούλος κακώς έχων ήμελλε τελευτάν. ακούσας δε περί του Ιησού, απέστειλε προς αυτόν έρωτών αυτών, όπως ελθών διασώση τον….

The words and construction of the sentences are so similar that the conclusion of the story is also compared: Mark 7, 30: xai artɛlfovoa εις τον οίκον αυτής, εύρε το δαιμόνιον εξεληλυθός και την θυγατέρα βεβλημένην επί της κλίνης. Luk. 7, 10: και υποστρέψαντες οι πεμφθέντες εις τον οίκον, εύρον τον ασθενούντα δούλον υγιαίνοντα.

See also the later investigations in John 4:46-47: Joh. 4, 46. 47 : και ήν τις βασιλικός ου ο υιός ήσθένει εν Κ. ούτος ακούσας, ότι ‘Ιησούς ήκει απήλθε προς αυτόν και ήρώτα αυτόν, ίνα καταβή και ιάσηται αυτού τον υιόν· ήμελλε γάρ αποθνήσκειν.

Note the following interweaving of the reports. Luke is too impatient to send the captain’s messengers back home and to let the sick man be healed, that he completely forgets that the Lord had to first speak the word that heals the sick. Matthew makes up for the omission by supplementing Luke’s report from the original, namely from Mark’s account, and summarily reports only the discovery of the fact that the Lord’s word had helped. He says in Ch. 8, 13: xal Entev και Ι. τ. εκατ. “Υπαγε και ως επίστευσας γενηθήτω σοι. και ιάθη και παίς αυτού εν τη ώρα εκείνη. Mark. 7, 29 : και είπεν αυτή, Διά τού-τον τον λόγον, ύπαγε εξελήλυθε το δαιμόνιον εκ της θυγατρός σου. και απελθούσα , εūρε. When Matthew copies the story of the Canaanite woman from Mark, he again uses some of the phrases which he had previously copied from Mark: Matth. 15, 28: τότε αποκριθείς ο Ι. είπ. αυτή, Ω γύναι, μεγάλη σου η πίστις, γενηθήτω σοι ως θέλεις. και ιάθη ή θυγάτηρ αυτής από της ώρας εκείνης.

Compare John 4:50: λέγει αυτώ ο Ι. Πορεύου, υιός σου ζή. Ebens. 3. 53 : εν εκείνη τη ώρα.

*) Luke 7:6: ο δε Ι. επορεύετο συν αυτοίς, ήδη δε αυτού ου μακράν απέχοντος από της οικίας, έπεμψε προς αυτόν και εκατόνταρχος φίλους, λέγων αυτώ, κύριε, μη σκύλλου: – γαρ –

Compare Mark in the account of the raising of Jairus’ daughter: Mark 5, 23: και απήλθε μετ’ αυτού. 23. 35: έτι αυτού λαλούντος, έρχονται από το αρχ. λέγοντες, ότι …. τί έτι σκύλλεις τον διδάσκαλον.


Another example, then, of the remarkable nature of the first Gospel, that it sometimes presents the same subject to us twice. In connection with the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew borrows from Luke a copy of a portrayal of Mark’s, which he also reproduces when the context leads him in that direction.


Matthew was naturally not a critic and therefore could not notice that both accounts were the same. Furthermore, when he significantly improved Luke’s account by removing the troublesome messengers and allowing the Gentile to approach Jesus in person, and even used a part of Mark’s account of the Greek woman to complete the story of the captain, it was not a mere external comparison of both accounts that helped him with these improvements; rather, it was the power of the idea that had received its pure expression in Mark’s account that seized him and forced him to eliminate the inconveniences of Luke’s account.

However, this idea is nothing other than that of the spiritual effect of Jesus into the distance, namely into the distance of the heathen world, on which his work, although he acted within the limits of Jewish life, should have an impact *). In the story of the Canaanite woman, the dialectic of this idea is worked into the immediate determinacy of the situation; Luke emphasizes it for reflection and makes this more sensible development possible through the humility of the man who does not dare to approach the Lord personally from the outset and does not consider himself worthy of the envoy himself coming under his roof (Luke 7:6-7). In Matthew’s account, the intelligent elaboration of the punchline is finally completed when the captain appears before the Lord personally, first only complaining of his domestic suffering, and when the Lord is about to go to help him, he says, “No! Just say the word, and my house will be healed” **).

*) See Weisse, ev. Gesch. II, 56.

**) If one confuses the laws that apply in the world of art – namely the art of religious perception – and in empirical reality, then one would have to, as de Wette (a. a. O.) does, call the captain’s second request “the more modest but more believing one”; in reality, however, it would be highly immodest and exceed all measure.


One more thing that Matthew has done beautifully: he adds to the Lord’s word, “Truly, I say to you, not even in Israel have I found such faith”, the saying about the arrival of the Gentiles in the kingdom of heaven and the rejection of the children of the kingdom (Ch. 8, 11-12) – a saying which he took from Luke (Ch. 13, 28-29) and reworked brilliantly *).

De Wette thinks **), “perhaps Luke gives this saying ‘more correctly’ on another occasion.” What does that mean? Did the specific, individual occasion ever arise on which Matthew lets it arise? More correctly? Does Luke have more accurate information when he puts the saying out there? Gfrörer also claims that the saying “fits better in the place where it was inserted by Luke ***).” But we have already sufficiently learned about this occasion, created by the question of whether few will be saved (Luke 13:23). Gfrörer even thinks that the saying has “a very unfortunate position” in Matthew. But we can’t find a happier place for it than Matthew has found, namely the occasion where Jesus could greet the faithful Gentile as the forerunner of the multitudes of nations flowing to the kingdom of heaven from the east and west. Matthew has given the saying the home to which it originally belonged, namely the idea that generated it and the story of the centurion. But it is not the “true Matthew”, whom Weisse †) assumes to have placed the saying as a “conclusion” to the story of the centurion. There is only one Matthew, the truly authentic one, who continued the work of Mark and Luke and who also found out this time that this saying, which Luke had put out there, could not be better placed than here, where the symbol of the faithful multitudes of nations was found.

*) As we have already noted above, 1, 159.

**) I, 1, 84.

***) Heil. Sage II, 19.

†) a. a. O. II, 54.


After all this, it is no longer necessary to explain, with Strauss, the story of the centurion as an attempt to view the miracle-working power of Jesus quantitatively, nor are we allowed to consider it as a parable formed by Jesus himself *), nor do we even need to offend the apologist by asking about the possibility of the miracle – the centurion is the Canaanite woman, and is therefore a metamorphosis that never existed in the real world.

*) and, as Weisse does (II, 54), to give the first evangelist only the praise of a faithful copyist. Weisse says that the first evangelist “fairly accurately” translated the parable from the collection of sayings of Matthew.



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