The Roman Officer Controversy: Imputed Authority, Evidence Of New Testament Reliability

Rembrandt, The Centurion, c.1630

There are many assertions made by critics of the Bible where a particular verse of scripture is claimed to be in conflict with another. There are instances where atheists state that the texts of the Bible are contradictory with each other. No place is this claim stated more often that in the texts of the four Gospels.

In the exchange between the Roman officer, the Jewish elders he sent to Jesus, and the statements Jesus made to these men, we find one of the clearest pieces of evidence that impeaches this idea of contradiction.

In Luke’s narrative in chapter 7, he presents Jesus as returning to Capernaum and a Roman officer who has a “highly valued servant” who is deathly ill. Luke writes that this Roman officer sent some of the respected Jewish elders to ask Jesus for help and heal the officer’s servant.

Matthew 8 recounts the same event, but describes the Roman officer as coming to Jesus himself, pleading with Him to heal this young man who was near death:

Luke 7:1-10

“When Jesus had finished saying all this to the people, he returned to Capernaum. At that time the highly valued slave of a Roman officer was sick and near death. When the officer heard about Jesus, he sent some respected Jewish elders to ask him to come and heal his slave. So they earnestly begged Jesus to help the man. “If anyone deserves your help, he does,” they said, “for he loves the Jewish people and even built a synagogue for us.”

So Jesus went with them. But just before they arrived at the house, the officer sent some friends to say, “Lord, don’t trouble yourself by coming to my home, for I am not worthy of such an honor. I am not even worthy to come and meet you. Just say the word from where you are, and my servant will be healed. I know this because I am under the authority of my superior officers, and I have authority over my soldiers. I only need to say, ‘Go,’ and they go, or ‘Come,’ and they come. And if I say to my slaves, ‘Do this,’ they do it.”

When Jesus heard this, he was amazed. Turning to the crowd that was following him, he said, “I tell you, I haven’t seen faith like this in all Israel!” And when the officer’s friends returned to his house, they found the slave completely healed.”

Matthew 8:5-13

“When Jesus returned to Capernaum, a Roman officer came and pleaded with him, “Lord, my young servant lies in bed, paralyzed and in terrible pain.”

Jesus said, “I will come and heal him.”

But the officer said, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come into my home. Just say the word from where you are, and my servant will be healed. I know this because I am under the authority of my superior officers, and I have authority over my soldiers. I only need to say, ‘Go,’ and they go, or ‘Come,’ and they come. And if I say to my slaves, ‘Do this,’ they do it.”
When Jesus heard this, he was amazed. Turning to those who were following him, he said, “I tell you the truth, I haven’t seen faith like this in all Israel! And I tell you this, that many Gentiles will come from all over the world—from east and west—and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob at the feast in the Kingdom of Heaven. But many Israelites—those for whom the Kingdom was prepared—will be thrown into outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Then Jesus said to the Roman officer, “Go back home. Because you believed, it has happened.” And the young servant was healed that same hour.”

Critics assert that this is a contradiction which proves the narratives about Jesus in the New Testament is not reliable. “If this is the Word of God, why do the writers contradict each other?” Are they right?

One of the principles in a correct exegesis of the texts found in the New Testament, is an understanding of Jewish culture, and and the background for the events that are being described.

Luke states at the beginning of his Gospel narrative about Jesus, that his intent was to personally investigate all of the testimonies that had been already written by the men who had seen and heard Jesus, and write an accurate account himself, for his friend Theophilus.

“Many people have set out to write accounts about the events that have been fulfilled among us. They used the eyewitness reports circulating among us from the early disciples. Having carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I also have decided to write an accurate account for you, most honorable Theophilus, so you can be certain of the truth of everything you were taught.” ~Luke 1:1-4 (NLT) 1

Luke is a Greek speaking Physician who was highly trained in precision and accuracy. When we read his second letter, the Book of Acts, we find this precision illustrated in the fine details Luke includes in all of his descriptions of the early days of the Christian church.

Later archeologists who have investigated Luke’s narrative from the vantage point of “boots on the ground,” state that when they went to Asia Minor and investigated the places that Luke references in Acts, they found him to be a “historical of the first rank.”

One of the world’s greatest archeologists and historians is Sir William Ramsay. Notice how Dr. Ramsay describes the accuracy and detail of Luke’s historical references, without a single error.

“I began with a mind unfavorable to (the accuracy of the New Testament) but more recently I found myself brought into contact with the Book of Acts as an authority for the topography, antiquities, and society of Asia Minor. It was gradually borne upon me that in various details the narrative showed marvelous truth.”[1]

Dr. Ramsay believed, at the onset, that the accounts described in the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts were inaccurate. Over 100 years ago he undertook an expedition to Asia, to try and refute the New Testament, only to become so overwhelmed by the evidence that he became a follower of Jesus Christ. 

“Luke is a historian of the first rank; not merely are his statements of fact trustworthy…this author should be placed along with the very greatest historians.”[2]

Archeological Accuracy Points to Literary Accuracy

Since Luke’s description of cities, names, places, and customs are perfect in their historical accuracy, it is certain that the accounts of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection are also accurate and reliable.

The fact that Luke has been confirmed as a scholarly historian of specific details regarding the history of the first century, it is certain that he also recorded the specific events of Jesus’ ministry with the same precision. Luke’s integrity as a historical scholar demands that we accept, with confidence, his testimony of Jesus’ resurrection, which is the foundation of the entire Christian church.

Understanding that Luke always writes with greater precision and accuracy concerning the events he personally investigated that concern Jesus, it is not surprising that we find him including details about this encounter between Jesus and the Roman officer, include details that Matthew does not state.

The reason Luke writes that the Roman officer sent some of the Jewish elders to speak to Jesus, and Matthew says that the Roman officer went himself to Jesus, is that in the Jewish culture of that day, these people believed that the messenger that was sent, carried the same authority as the one who sent him.

We see this graphically illustrated in Jesus’ statement to the Jewish leaders that He came as a messenger, a physical representative of the Father who sent Him to reveal who God is and how any person can receive the forgiveness of their sins and eternal life through Him.

Peter states in Mark’s Gospel that Jesus said,  whoever welcomes Him; welcomes the Father who sent Him.

Mark 9:37: “Anyone who welcomes me welcomes not only me but also my Father who sent me.”

Jesus gives His disciples the same authority when He sends them to tell people the good news of salvation:

Matthew 10:40: “Anyone who receives you receives me, and anyone who receives me receives the Father who sent me.

Gabriel, the angel messenger, in speaking to Zechariah, stated that God sent him to speak to Zechariah, and his words have the same authority as God who sent him.

Luke 1:19-20: “Then the angel said, “I am Gabriel! I stand in the very presence of God. It was he who sent me to bring you this good news! But now, since you didn’t believe what I said, you will be silent and unable to speak until the child is born. For my words will certainly be fulfilled at the proper time.”

In Luke 4:18, Jesus states that He came to fulfill the Messianic Prophecy of Isaiah 61, which states the Father sent His Son as the Messiah, to proclaim the Gospel of salvation to the world.

Luke 4:18-19: “The Spirit of the LORD is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released, that the blind will see, that the oppressed will be set free, and that the time of the LORD’s favor has come.”

This particular verse that Luke records, is a fulfillment of what Isaiah 61 predicts for the Messiah. Jesus told the people who heard Him on that day, that as they heard Him speak these words from Isaiah, “these things are fulfilled in your hearing.”

Jesus only spoke the first part of Isaiah 61; “the acceptable year of the Lord,” not the second part of the same verse: “the day of vengeance of our God.” This is because Jesus will come to earth twice; once to offer salvation; a second time, to bring judgment to the world for its sin of unbelief. This verse illustrates that many of the Messianic Prophecies have an earlier and a later fulfillment of the same prophecy.

Luke writes again in chapter 10, that “anyone who accepts your message (His disciples), is also accepting me.”

Luke 10:16: “Then Jesus said to the disciples, “Anyone who accepts your message is also accepting me. And anyone who rejects you is rejecting me. And anyone who rejects me is rejecting God, who sent me.”

This is a crucial texts because it shows us the imputed authority of the one who has been sent, as the reason that Luke states the elders of Israel came to Jesus, not the Roman officer himself. Those who speak for Jesus and encourage people to repent and believe the good news, have the same authority that Jesus has, as though He were delivering the message Himself.

John the Baptist states that it was God who sent him to baptize people in preparation for the arrival of Jesus, the Messiah, in fulfillment of Malachi 3:1.

John 1:33-34: “I didn’t know he was the one, but when God sent me to baptize with water, he told me, ‘The one on whom you see the Spirit descend and rest is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’ I saw this happen to Jesus, so I testify that he is the Chosen One of God.”

An additional point of this verse is that John the Baptist is stating he “saw this happen,” he is an eyewitness, and he is testifying that Jesus is the Messiah (Chosen One).

Jesus states in John’s Gospel that He came to do the will of the Father as His representative, so that the world might be saved:

John 4:34: “Then Jesus explained: “My nourishment comes from doing the will of God, who sent me, and from finishing his work.”

One of the misunderstandings of text like this where Jesus cites His coming as the will of the Father, is that some people see Jesus declaring He is not God, only the Father who sent Him is God. This could not be further from the truth.

Evidence That Jesus Claimed To Be God

Jesus is making it clear that although He is God Himself, His purpose in coming to earth in fulfillment of the 400 Old Testament Messianic Prophecies, is to make Himself a servant to the Father, in order to accomplish the salvation that He, the Father, and the Spirit have desired for every person on earth—even before He created the universe.

We see evidence this is true in Paul’s description of Jesus as God—making Himself a servant to the Father—so He might complete the salvation He came to purchase for us by His death and resurrection:

Philippians 2:6-8: “Though Jesus was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form, he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross.”

Jesus said that everyone who listens to Him and does what He says, and believes in God who sent Him, has eternal life.

John 5:24-30: “I tell you the truth, those who listen to my message and believe in God who sent me have eternal life. They will never be condemned for their sins, but they have already passed from death into life.”

“And I assure you that the time is coming, indeed it’s here now, when the dead will hear my voice—the voice of the Son of God. And those who listen will live. The Father has life in himself, and he has granted that same life-giving power to his Son. And he has given him authority to judge everyone because he is the Son of Man. Don’t be so surprised! Indeed, the time is coming when all the dead in their graves will hear the voice of God’s Son, and they will rise again. Those who have done good will rise to experience eternal life, and those who have continued in evil will rise to experience judgment. I can do nothing on my own. I judge as God tells me. Therefore, my judgment is just, because I carry out the will of the one who sent me, not my own will.”

Luke’s narrative about the Roman officer, the Elders of Israel, and Jesus’ description of His own coming to earth as a representative and servant of the Father, helps us understand the importance of Imputed authority. Jesus was always God. It is He who created all that exists (Col. 1, Hebrews 1), yet when He came to earth, it was because the Father sent Him, and by His submission to the Father as a Servant, and coming with the authority of the Father to give His life for the world, Jesus could accomplish our salvation.

The Internal Forensic Evidence Of Jesus And The Centurion

The Centurion was a Roman officer who had authority over 80-100 men. This particular officer addresses Jesus as “Lord,” while the leaders of Israel do not. This Roman citizen, who had grown up in a culture that worshiped a multitude of gods, believed that Jesus was the promised Messiah of the Hebrew scriptures. Where did he learn about the Messiah? Who taught him? What was it that brought his heart to this place of preparation? It may be that he had studied Jesus and the works He had done for some time. It is certainly possible that he had a few Jewish friends who had told him about the prophecies of the coming Messiah. Perhaps he had compared Jesus’ words and actions with the Hebrew scriptures, and came to the conclusion that Jesus was the Messiah who was promised. Finding faith in the God of the Hebrews while being a Gentile and a leader amongst the soldiers of Rome was a truly amazing event.

The Centurion shows that he is sensitive to the traditions of the Jewish culture, who believed that a Jew who entered the house of a Gentile would become defiled. When Jesus offers to come and heal his servant, the Centurion refuses, not wanting to bring any disrepute upon Jesus. This humble man does not disdain this tradition nor debate it. He acknowledges that this is a Jewish custom, and he submits himself to its demands, though he may not have believed it himself. Although he has great authority, he humbly submits himself before Jesus as Lord.

The centurion answered and said, “Lord, I am not worthy that You should come under my roof.”

This Gentile, who happened to be a Roman Centurion, is a shining example of what Isaiah wrote concerning the coming of the Messiah.

“…And in that day there shall be a Root of Jesse, Who shall stand as a banner to the people; For the Gentiles shall seek Him…” ~Isaiah 11:1

Jesus was a descendant of David who was the son of Jesse. The Root of Jesse is a reference to the fact that the Messiah would be descended from David’s lineage. Of this Messiah, Isaiah predicts that the Gentiles shall seek Him. Here is a Gentile who displays such incredible faith, he must surely be the object of Isaiah’s prophecy. Here is a Roman officer who has greater insight and clarity into the word of God than all the leaders of Israel.

Luke’s account of this event appears to some critics of the Bible as contradictory to Matthew’s account. Matthew describes the Centurion coming to Jesus personally with a request; Luke speaks of the leader of the Jews being sent on behalf of the Centurion to ask for help from Jesus.

After he had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. Now a centurion had a servant who was sick and at the point of death, who was highly valued by him. When the centurion heard about Jesus, he sent to him elders of the Jews, asking him to come and heal his servant. And when they came to Jesus, they pleaded with him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy to have you do this for him…” ~Luke 7:1-4

Now when Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to Him, pleading with Him, saying, “Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, dreadfully tormented.” ~Matthew 8:5-6

What we observe here is not a contradiction, but a common writing method used by Matthew to abbreviate certain events. Matthew simply reports what the Centurion said to Jesus through his friends in the Jewish authority.

A second observation is that two people are recounting the same event by their own recollection.

This is quite common amongst eyewitnesses who see the same incident. Witnesses will tell similar stories with slightly different versions.

Police officers who interview witnesses who were present at an accident or crime often report a similar phenomenon. People were clearly at the same event, but saw and heard slightly different things. These are not conflicts; they are a common occurrence in recording eyewitness testimony.

The fact that we see a slight variation of the same event, as recorded by Matthew and Luke, gives greater credibility to the authenticity of what is written. Contrived stories almost always take special care to make certain that their testimonies match exactly, whereas genuine testimony almost always consists of similar versions of the same events, told from a slightly different perspective.

A key in understanding the two different versions of Matthew’s and Luke’s testimony is that in both instances, the Centurion himself reports that he understands the principle of imputed authority. It was understood during this time that a man who is in authority, when he sends his servant, that servant carries with him the authority of his master.

When the Centurion sent one of his servants with a request, it was as if he was speaking the words directly. The servant who carried his master’s words also carried his master’s authority.

Notice that both Matthew and Luke record the testimony of the Centurion:

For I also am a man under authority, having 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.” ~Matthew 8:9

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. Therefore I did not even think myself worthy to come to You. But say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I also am a man placed under authority, having soldiers under me. And I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes; and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” ~Luke 7:6-8

The Book of Acts records a Centurion called Cornelius, who was greatly loved by the Jews for his generosity.

“There was a certain man in Caesarea called Cornelius, a centurion of what was called the Italian Regiment, a devout man and one who feared God with all his household, who gave alms generously to the people, and prayed to God always.” ~Acts 10:1-2

Whether this is the same Centurion whom Matthew and Luke are describing in this story is not certain. There are seven centurions who are recorded in the New Testament; all of these men are described as good and faithful. It appears that there were certain Jews who apparently loved this Centurion for his past generosity to their people.

Whether the Centurion actually came to Jesus himself, or sent one of his servants, is really irrelevant to the story. Matthew is interested in getting to the important facts of this event: The Centurion believed that Jesus was the Messiah.

As with the other alleged discrepancies noted in this article, we see that each writer is recording the events from their own unique perspective and memory. These differences in the story do not change the primary point of what both writers intended: Jesus heals the servant of a Roman Centurion without seeing him or touching him. This event is an example of the great faith of a Roman Officer, in comparison to the Jewish leaders of Israel who did not recognize Jesus as the Messiah. A Gentile outside the covenant of God found salvation on that day, while the sons of the kingdom were disqualified.

Jesus recognizes every person who comes to Him by faith regardless of their background, ancestry, or position.

Matthew holds a common view amongst the Jews of that time, that whatever a person says through an agent of his is viewed as being said or done by the person he represents. Jesus made use of this closely-held belief among the Jews by illustrating how He came to represent the Father’s will for all human beings. The words of God were the words of Jesus. The will of God were translated into the actions of Jesus.

“If I do not do the works of My Father, do not believe Me; but if I do (the works of my Father), though you do not believe Me, believe the works, that you may know and believe that the Father is in Me, and I in Him.” ~John 10:37-38

Evidence For Faith, Or Excuses?

It is surprising that those who have hard hearts and will not believe the Bible because they claim that there are “contradictions” will not do the hard work of investigation. Any diligent person can easily discover the facts, which I have laid out here, concerning the differences between Matthew’s and Luke’s narratives. Most often misunderstandings in the Bible are due to an unwillingness to believe, veiled by an excuse for why they cannot believe.

Evidence Is Never A Barrier To Faith

In reality, there are no contradictions in the Bible—only uninformed conclusions based on a premise that the Bible must be wrong, before any serious investigation is made. If a person is sincerely interested in discovering the truth, he can always find the truth. If, however, a person is set upon proving God a liar or the Bible as untrue, he can always find an excuse to validate his unbelief.

It is because people do not want to believe that they use excuses to allow themselves to live a life without God. The word of God always stands true, and the excuses of those who have no desire to believe reveal that evidence was never the problem.

 Let God be true but every man a liar. As it is written: “That You may be justified in Your words, And may overcome when You are judged.”~Romans 3:4

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NOTES:

[1] William M. Ramsay, St. Paul the Traveler and the Roman Citizen, 1982, page 8.
[2] William M. Ramsay, The Bearing of Recent Discovery on the Trustworthiness of the New Testament, 1915, page 222.



Categories: Alleged Contradictions, Apologetics, Bible, Defending the Gospel, How Salvation Occurs, Literary authenticity of the New Testament, Messianic Prophecies, Robert Clifton Robinson, Salvation through Jesus, Studying the Word of God, The Four Gospels, The Historical Jesus, The Historical Jesus, The Miracles of Jesus, The Servant of God, Those who stop believing

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2 replies

  1. while the disciples and apostles knew the history of David, their reference to Jesus as the Son of, or the seed of is perplexing. We know Jesus is the offspring of David through the wife of Bathsheba, and yet is this a form of speaking too explain who’s son He is? Such as Fred is the Son of Earl, or John and James are the Son of Zebedee? This explanation seems applicable, since we Know Jesus was conceived by the Holy Ghost! Is there a word about this?

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    • Fred,

      Great questions!

      There are two primary ways in which Jesus identified Himself to the world; the terms, “Son of Man,” and “Son of God.”

      Jesus claimed to be God by referring to Himself as “The Son of Man,” 77 times; a term first used by Daniel 7:13 to describe the Messiah. This is translated from the Aramaic term: kebar enas, and it identifies the appearance of the Son of Man, according to Daniel, as God in human flesh.

      This was Jesus declaring that He is the Messiah, the One whom all the prophets predicted. I detailed this in three of my books:

      The Prophecies of the Messiah
      The Messianic Prophecy Bible
      These Things Were Written

      Jesus claimed to be God by calling Himself “The Son of God,” a term that was well understood by the people of that time, as defining the Messiah as Adonai–Yahweh, come to earth as a man (Matthew 26:63, Matthew 16:15-16).

      In John 5:18, “So the Jewish leaders tried all the harder to find a way to kill Jesus. For he not only broke the Sabbath, he called God his Father, thereby making himself equal with God.”

      The Old Testament predicted that the Messiah would be The Son of God (2 Samuel 7:14, Psalms 2:7, Psalms 110:1).

      In 1 John 5:20, this becomes clear as the Koine-Greek, the ἐν τῷ ἀληθινῷ (living and true God), does not refer to a different person than the τὸν ἀληθινόν, specifically, “the real God.” The article with the dative reads like an article of previous reference.

      “He,” is Jesus, “the only True God.” The Koine-Greek texts proves that the term, “Son of God,” defines Jesus as the “only True God.”

      See the following essay for more information:

      “Evidence That Jesus Claimed To Be God”

      Rob

      Like

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