In this year's battles over same-sex marriage (there are referenda on the issue in Minnesota, Maine, Maryland, and Washington), opponents have tried to depict the issue as a choice between traditional religious values and some sinister homosexual agenda, between God and gay. In fact, a vote for same-sex marriage is a vote for traditional religious values, such as the importance of companionship (Genesis 2:18) or civil justice (Deuteronomy 16:20), and the value that "love" isn't whatever we say it is but that movement of the heart that is patient, kind, and humble (1 Corinthians 13:4-6).
But, some people argue, what about the fact that the only sanctioned relationship in the Bible is between a man and a woman? Well, in fact, that's not quite the case. The story of the faithful centurion, told in Matthew 8:5-13 and Luke 7:1-10, is about a Roman centurion who comes to Jesus and begs that Jesus heal his pais, a word sometimes translated as "servant." Jesus agrees and says he will come to the centurion's home, but the centurion says that he does not deserve to have Jesus under his roof, and he has faith that if Jesus even utters a word of healing, the healing will be accomplished. Jesus praises the faith of the centurion, and the pais is healed. This tale illustrates the power and importance of faith, and how anyone can possess it. The centurion is not a Jew, yet he has faith in Jesus and is rewarded.
But pais does not mean "servant." It means "lover." In Thucydides, in Plutarch, in countless Greek sources, and according to leading Greek scholar Kenneth Dover, pais refers to the junior partner in a same-sex relationship. Now, this is not exactly a marriage of equals. An erastes-pais relationship generally consisted of a somewhat older man, usually a soldier between the ages of 18 and 30, and a younger adolescent, usually between the ages of 13 and 18. Sometimes that adolescent was a slave, as seems to be the case here. It would be inappropriate, in my view, to use the word "gay" to describe such a relationship; that word, and its many connotations, comes from our time, not that of Ancient Greece and Rome. This is not a relationship that any LGBT activist would want to promote today.
However, it is a same-sex relationship nonetheless. (It is also basically the same as the soldier/armor-bearer in the model of David and Jonathan, which I'll explore in a future article.) And what is Jesus's response? Does he spit in the centurion's face for daring to suggest that he heal the soldier's lover? Hardly. He recognizes the relationship and performs an act of grace.
Now, could pais really just mean "servant"? There are several reasons why this makes no sense. First, one would not expect a Roman centurion to intercede, let alone "beg" (parakaloon), on behalf of a mere servant or slave. Second, while Luke refers to the young man as a doulos (slave), the centurion himself specifically calls him a pais; this strongly suggests that the distinction is important. Third, we know that the erastes-pais intimate relationship was common practice among Roman soldiers, who were not allowed to take wives, and whose life was patterned on the Greek model of soldier-lovers. If pais just means "servant," none of this makes any sense.
If I and dozens of other scholars (some of whom are listed below) are correct, this is a radical act. Jesus is extending his hand not only to the centurion but to his partner, as well. In addition to Jesus' silence on homosexuality in general (he never mentions same-sex intimacy, not once, despite its prevalence in his social context), it speaks volumes that he did not hesitate to heal a Roman's likely same-sex lover. Like his willingness to include former prostitutes in his close circle, Jesus' engagement with those whose conduct might offend sexual mores even today is a statement of radical inclusion, and of his own priorities for the spiritual life.
It also sets up a useful distinction for those who may be struggling with same-sex marriage as a religious act, but who nonetheless want their gay and lesbian family members, friends, and community members not to be discriminated against. Jesus is not conducting a same-sex marriage here. Yet he is recognizing a socially accepted same-sex relationship. Likewise, Christians and Jews today who may not be ready to celebrate same-sex weddings in their own churches and synagogues can and should endorse civil marriage equality in the public sphere. In a very different context, this is exactly what Jesus did 2,000 years ago.
For more on the centurion's same-sex lover, see:
- Theodore Jennings, The Man Jesus Loved (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2009): 131-44
- Rick Brentlinger, Gay Christian 101, 193-221 (and online)
- The Jesus in Love blog
- Jack Clark Robinson, "Jesus, the Centurion, and his Lover," Gay and Lesbian Review, 70 (2007)
- Jeff Miner and John Tyler Connoley, The Children Are Free, 46-51.