As Jesus enters Capernaum in Matt 8:5-13, a Roman officer known as a ‘centurion’ begs him to heal his servant. Jesus offers to go to his house, but the centurion says that he is unworthy, and that Jesus only has to give the order and the young man will be healed. The same story is found in Luke 7:1-10, but with a few differences. Most strikingly, Jesus and the centurion never meet; instead, Jewish leaders act as intermediaries, taking this opportunity to stress the centurion’s piety and his favours to the Jewish community—even claiming that he “built us our synagogue” (Luke 7:5). In both gospels, the centurion is a paradigm of faith, reminiscent of pious Gentiles in the Old Testament (for example, Naaman the Syrian in 2Kgs 5), and points forward to the later expansion of the Church to non-Jews.
Most scholars think that the story comes from a source used by both Matthew and Luke, but unknown to Mark (a source that modern scholars call “Q”). This source tends to be largely made up of Jesus’ sayings, and it’s quite likely that both Matthew and Luke have fleshed out the Q story in their own ways and to serve their own purposes. (Some think the same story underlies John 4:46-54.)
So who was this centurion? He’s described as a hekatontarchos, the Greek equivalent to the Latin centurio. He cannot have been part of the Roman army, however, since there were no Roman forces in Galilee at the time; instead, he probably belonged to the royal troops of Herod Antipas. Rulers appointed by Rome (as was the case with Antipas) were expected to maintain an army and to provide Rome with military support when necessary. Antipas’s troops engaged in an unauthorized and disastrous war with Aretas IV of Nabataea in 36 C.E., but little else is known about them. Jews were exempted from conscription, and Antipas probably used mainly non-Jewish soldiers as his father Herod I had done. (The Jewish historian Josephus gives a description of Herod’s army in Antiquities 17.198.) The use of Roman titles suggests that Antipas organized his troops in the Roman way.
A centurion was in charge of eighty men (not 100, as the name would lead us to expect). In many ways, centurions were the real professionals of the army. Most owed their position not to family connections but to their military prowess. Centurions enjoyed a certain status and reasonably good pay. Besides a level of command on the battlefield, they engaged in a wide range of other activities: general policing (see Acts 27:1-3, Acts 27:43), customs work, and the supervision of capital penalties (Mark 15:39). The troops of Antipas seem to have been garrisoned within towns. Although centurions are presented positively in the New Testament, contemporary scholarship makes it clear that most were disliked by ordinary folk, who regarded them as cruel, violent, and self-serving.
We do not know the centurion’s nationality. He was clearly not Jewish, either by birth or conversion. Luke’s account suggests that he had some sympathies for the Jewish faith. The note that he “built our synagogue” (if true) may suggest he acted as a benefactor to the Jewish community in Capernaum. Given Matthew’s silence on the issue, however, it may be that Luke has presented the centurion in a pious light to prepare the way for other so-called ‘God-fearers’ in Acts (that is, those who are sympathetic to Jewish beliefs). On a historical level, all we can say is that the centurion belonged to the army of Herod Antipas, was based in Capernaum, and that he may have persuaded Jesus to heal his servant.