Matthew and the Centurion: A Liberationist Interpretation, Part 2


Saint Matthew, 10th Century

For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” Matthew 8:9


If we assume human authorship of the Bible, we can construct an identity for Matthew in both the historicist and historical senses. The historicist Matthew (we can be absolutely certain of this) knew how to read, write, and construct a narrative about change over time. He wa a Jew (this seems clear enough) who wrote an interpretive narrative of Jesus Christ. He appears (this is indirectly clear) to have written his gospel sometime after the destruction of Jerusalem and the razing of the Temple by about 70 CE (his gospel reflects knowledge of it).

Matthew appears to have written his gospel in Syrian Antioch around 85 CE (this conclusion is widely although not universally held by Matthew’s most recent historians) in part because earliest citations of his gospel are found in works having strong ties to Antioch and date from about 100 CE. I can say with some degree of certainty, then, that the historicist (excavatable and transportable) Matthew was a Jewish writer who interpreted Jesus and the destruction of the Temple around 85 CE. CE, by the way, stands for “Common Era” and is the equivalent of AD.

Although I am less certain of his location in Syrian Antioch, I am choosing to presume that location because by doing so I can activate a narrative about an historical centurion written by an historical Matthew. The distinction between the historicist Matthew and the historical Matthew is important:

the historicist Matthew more or less demonstrably existed; the historical Matthew emphatically did something thereby attempting to change his and others’ biographical narratives about change over time.

One of the things he did was to write about a centurion who asked Jesus to heal his servant / son. Borrowing insights from liberation theology, my argument is that this is what made him “historical”.

The Antioch location is historically suggestive. As the Empire’s chief eastern city and principle eastern military outpost, the continual presence of the Roman army was perhaps the single most significant feature of life in Antioch. Historians indicate that there were approximately 30,000 Roman troops garrisoned in or near Antioch during the time Matthew was writing his gospel. As a centurion was by definition the commander of a hundred soldiers and if there were approximately 30,000 troops in Antioch around 85 CE, there presumably were about 300 centurions in Antioch as Matthew was writing.

Moreover, Antioch was claustrophobic. It was about two miles long and one mile wide with an exceedingly dense population of about 100,000 or 205 people per acre making it more crowded than Calcutta in the 21st century.

Three hundred centurions, then, almost surely would have been an omnipresent signifier of the militarily-backed authoritarian reality of the power of the Roman Empire in the city.

In addition to being a key center of the Roman Empire’s military apparatus, Antioch was a linchpin polis in its system of cities, a political network consisting of cities all around the Mediterranean basin with legal, political, and economic entitlements over the agricultural and monetary yields of the countryside attached to it.

In other words, Antioch was also the center of a parasitic economic system.

My purpose in emphasizing Matthew’s presumed Antioch location is to underscore a context in which a centurion theoretically could signify the omnipresence of the Roman Empire and its potential for violence. Additionally, the location theoretically (whether actually is speculative) could have provided Matthew with a context which could signify the reality of an oppressive socioeconomic system, a reality which would have been safeguarded to the benefit of the elites by the 300 centurions, but not to the benefit of servants and slaves.

The Antioch location also suggests that Matthew, the writer of the story about the centurion who asked Jesus to heal his servant / son, may have had a socioeconomic location closer to that of the centurion than to that of the servant / son. I can make this speculation for no other reason than that the historicist Matthew had discretionary income which allowed for the employment of teachers who taught him to read and write narratives and discretionary time which allowed for the activity of writing.

However, Matthew is not yet a historical figure because he has not yet acted. The thing I can say with certainty that he did (that which makes him historical — the reason for which we remember his actions and his name) was to write a narrative about Jesus which moves along the axis of change over time. Moreover, I am also arguing that the construction of a narrative is inherently a destabilizing act regardless of one’s intentions.

It was Matthew who provided the narrative with its (inherently unstable) words. For example, are we to interpret the word Κυριε Christologically or counter-imperially? It was Matthew who provided the narrative with its inherently unstable narrative framework, (e.g. what significance if any may be attached to all the coming and going?) and it’s only equivocally retrievable ideological or power orientation.

In addition, in creating their own narratives, his historians, including me, make Matthew an historical figure (activate him) by making multiple and competing decisions about theological meanings of his words and narrative arrangements and speculate about his orientation to power by reading his text through the optics of their own ideologies.

I am also arguing that Matthew has constructed a historical narrative by which I do not mean that he excavated an event in Jesus’ past which he then transported undisturbed through time and stabilized in a story. Rather I mean that as I read it, he constructed a narrative which not only progresses through time as the plot unfolds but one which is fundamentally about change over time —

the centurion fundamentally reorients his own relationship to the empire by putting himself under Jesus’ authority, Jesus fundamentally reorients his initial response to the centurion’s request by accepting the centurion’s analysis of his role in relationship to the empire, and Jesus fundamentally reorients the relationship of Jews and Gentiles to the kingdom of heaven.

Fundamentally, then, Matthew has constructed a story which at the level of various discourses is about rejection of the status quo and its promises of stability.

To be continued . . . . 

Sources: Nigel Pollard, Soldiers, Cities, and Civilians in Roman Syria (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000, Brent Shaw, “Soldiers and Society: The Army in Numidia,” in Opus 2, no. 1, 1983, Ramsay MacMullen, Roman Social Relations: 50 BC to AD 284 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1974),  Keith Hopkins, “Economic Growth and Towns in Classical Antiquity,” Towns and Societies: Essays in Economic History and Historical Sociology, Philip Abrams and E. A. Wrigley, eds. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978), and Johannes P. Louw, Eugene A. Nida, Rondal B. Smith, Karen A. Munson, eds., Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains (United Bible Societies, 1988).


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