Friday, October 21, 2011

A Tale of Three Centurions

Or maybe it's just one.
Or is it two?
In the previous post I reimagined the tale of Jesus healing the centurion's servant. However, before I set out to write my own version I had to think carefully about which gospel account I wanted to use as my reference. Why? Because the accounts contain details that are outright contradictory.

Reading Matthew 8:5-13, one finds that the events are fairly straightforward: the centurion walks up to Jesus and begs him to heal the servant, and Jesus, impressed with the man's faith, happily complies. There's absolutely no suggestion that things might have been any different. But the same story in Luke has some very noticeable changes:
"So when he [the centurion] heard about Jesus, he sent elders of the Jews to Him, pleading with Him to come and heal his servant. ...Then Jesus went with them. And when He was already not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to Him, saying to Him, 'Lord, do not trouble Yourself, for I am not worthy that You should enter under my roof.' " (v. 3, 5)
Whatever happened to the centurion? He doesn't interact with Jesus at any point, instead choosing to send not one but two waves of intermediaries: first "elders of the Jews" and later "friends." It should be plain to anyone that these two stories cannot be accurately describing one set of events.

As always, the apologists make some creative attempts to rescue these irreconcilable passages. In this case, the reply is that in ancient times, subordinates were considered to be mere extensions of those in power, so sending a representative was virtually the same as being there. I don't buy it: the centurion sends his own friends rather than some lowly underlings, and I doubt that people of any era would so casually misattribute a series of interactions this extended and complex. But it's moot even if the apologists are right, because they completely ignore the other big inconsistency: Matthew has Jesus healing the servant on the spot, while in Luke he first walks almost all the way to the centurion's house.

By the way, I have to touch on this priceless remark from Jim Estabrook at Apologetics Press:
"One must also admit that it is possible Matthew and Luke wrote about two separate accounts."
After indignantly arguing for two lengthy paragraphs that the two accounts are absolutely consistent, he spins on a dime and insists that it's possible that they refer to completely different events. Sure, Jim. It's possible that there were two faith-filled centurions who desperately wanted Jesus to heal their sick servants, and who were too humble to let Jesus enter their houses, and who used the exact same metaphor about the commanding of soldiers. It's possible. But to actually use this as a serious argument merely underscores how crude, how intellectually desolate, how pitifully detached from reality your apologetics truly are.

Speaking of separate accounts, I still haven't addressed the third version of the centurion story: John's. This time, though, there are some radical differences between the accounts: Jesus is in Cana instead of Capernaum, the centurion is instead called a nobleman, the servant has become a son, and the "nobleman" doesn't display the impressive faith that he does in the other versions. So why call them the same story at all? Well, look at the similarities:
  • A powerful man approaches Jesus begging for help.
  • Someone this man cares about is at home with a grave illness.
  • The ill person and/or the encounter with Jesus is in Capernaum.
  • Jesus heals just by saying the word rather than visiting the home.
  • The ill person is specifically said to be cured "that same hour."
This is far too big a coincidence for John's account to be separate, but it's also far too different to even try to reconcile with the others. Anyone who isn't consumed with religious bias can see what's going on here. Stories about Jesus were passed along through oral tradition, changing dramatically along the way. The author of John had heard a substantially different version of the centurion story than the authors of Matthew and Luke, and each author may have tweaked the details to suit their own purposes. The takeaway point is that the gospel accounts of Jesus' deeds are not consistent, they are not factual, and they certainly bear no mark of divine guidance.

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