Friday 5 February 2021

Slave or Lover? Or Both?

As attitudes within society have changed over the centuries, one thing has changed little. The Bible has been (and still is) used many times to justify terrible actions, abuse and opinions, most of them perpetrated by those who want to impose their political powers by force, or by bigots who want to justify their opinions.

There are several verses and stories in the Bible which have been interpreted as affirmations and condemnations of homosexuality. One story in the Old Testament became so engrained in Christian history that it became the origin of a word occasionally still used today (sodomy) – the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. One story which has been used in modern times as evidence that Jesus Christ affirmed same-sex relationships appears in two books of the New Testament, in Matthew chapter 8 and Luke chapter 7.

The two versions of the story are almost identical and indicate an older common origin, referred to as source “Q” by Biblical scholars. No-one is sure what that origin may be, how old it is, or if it still exists but they tend to agree that Matthew’s account is likely to have been written closest in time to source Q, while Luke’s account has been slightly embellished.

Here is the short version of the story. Shortly after giving the Sermon on the Mount Jesus and his followers went into the town of Capernaum. Jesus had already gained a reputation as a healer of the sick and a Roman centurion in the town approached Jesus and asked him if he could heal his sick “favoured slave” (I’ll explain this term later). Jesus said he would and said he’d go with the centurion to his home. The centurion said he wasn’t worthy to have Jesus in his home and requested that his slave be cured from afar. Jesus admired the faith of the centurion and said the slave would be cured by the time the centurion got home, and indeed he was.

So, what’s the meaning of “favoured slave” and what words do the ancient texts use? The term has often been included in lgbt Christian literature as “beloved slave” which gives us a clue. In the early Greek versions of the story in the Matthew and Luke gospels two words “pais” and “doulos” appear when describing the slave.

“Doulos”, means someone who was born a slave. The other word, “pais”, has many meanings, including slave or servant, but it can also mean boy or child (boy or girl). The common Greek tradition of pederasty (men with young boy lovers) with which Christ and the gospel writers were familiar but no practice also uses the word “pais” to mean a boy lover. Throughout the rest of the New Testament “pais” is used in all its different meanings, so which meaning was originally intended for the centurion’s pais?

There have been a handful of books and academic articles which have examined and offered interpretations of this story. One of the earliest and perhaps the best of these appeared in “The Entimos Pais of Matthew 8:5-13 and Luke 7:1-10” by Donald Mader, first published in 1987 and available to read online here.

It is Luke’s gospel which refers to the centurion’s “favoured slave” or “entimos doulos”. As with “pais” the word “entimos” has several meanings. It can mean honourable, respected, valuable or precious. Slaves were not generally thought of as being worthy of respect or honour, so did Luke translate the word “pais” wrongly? Did he use it to mean a slave when the original source Q uses it to mean a servant, an employee? Luke’s account seems to imply that the centurion thought of his slave as something more than just that. It implies a more personal relationship.

A lot of Biblical, historical and gender studies academics are of the opinion that the centurion’s “pais” was indeed his lover. As a result many lgbt Christian churches and organisations have accepted it as fact. The truth is we’ll never know. The original source “Q” is long lost so any more definitive clues are lost with it.

However, the crucial point about this story, in both gospels, is that it is about the faith of the centurion not his sexuality. There is a danger that this can be ignored in favour of the minor theme of the centurion having a boy lover (assuming that is what source “Q” is supposed to indicate).

The current trend towards using the centurion’s story as evidence to support the idea that Jesus Christ approved of same-sex relationships is not really valid, in my opinion (I studied Bible history during my studies to be a Methodist lay preacher in the 1980s, so I have a little background in Biblical scholarship). Jesus supported all sections of society, including criminals, murderers, slave owners, people with leprosy and diseases, outcasts, prostitutes, tax collectors, those who opposed his teachings, and anyone who had an opinion that modern society would consider offensive. He treated “sinners” (as society at the time would call them) in exactly the same way as he treated his followers. The centurion came to Jesus for help and Jesus gave it. To Jesus the fact that a man had a boy lover would have been irrelevant. If Biblical text involving Christ’s actions are to be taken as evidence of approval or not, then we lgbt Christians should not support divorce or same-sex marriage – Jesus expressed strong opinions against both. Just to be clear, I suppose same-sex marriage (even if I don’t have the privilege of having anyone who to marry!) but it has nothing to do with what Christianity is about (I’ll stop there before I start preaching!).

The centurion and his boy lover presents a very thought-provoking story which has had historians puzzling over its vague meaning for decades. It’s easy to put an interpretation influenced by contemporary thought on stories like this, and this is not the only one in the Bible.

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