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Did Jesus Actually Speak to the Centurion?

Q:

In comparing the two accounts of Jesus healing the centurion’s servant, Matthew indicates that the centurion came to Jesus personally. At the same time, Luke explains that he sent others to plead with Jesus on his (and his servant’s) behalf. How can both of these accounts be true?

A:

The accounts in question are found in Matthew 8:5-13 and Luke 7:1-10. Indeed, Matthew indicates that “when Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to Him, pleading with Him” (Matthew 8:5). On the other hand, Luke notes that when the centurion “heard about Jesus, he sent elders of the Jews to Him, pleading with Him to come and heal his servant” (Luke 7:3; cf. 7:6). Do the differences in these accounts demand that we judge them contradictory, or can they be reasonably and justly harmonized?

To help answer this question, consider a scenario where the President of the United States sends two individuals from his administration to your house with an official invitation to dine at the White House. What might you truthfully tell your friends about this encounter? To one friend, you might give every detail, describing the two individuals who came to your house, what they said to you, and how you responded to them, etc. To another friend, you might simply say, “The President has asked me to come to eat at the White House, and I told him, ‘Yes!’” The two different versions you tell are totally different, but both are true. How can the second account be truthful? Because “he who acts through another is deemed in law to do it himself”1—a legal principle (known as the “law of agency”)2 that billions of people around the world have understood and accepted for millennia.3

Though some may not like it, and others (who continually cry “Bible contradiction”) may “not have it,”4 the fact is, the Bible writers frequently (and logically) employed this widely practiced and accepted, legal principle of proxy in their penning of Scripture. Before turning our attention back to the centurion’s interaction with Jesus, consider a few (of the many) examples of the “law of agency” in Scripture.

  • Moses wrote about Joseph, who was second in command of all of Egypt (Genesis 41:37-44), repeatedly doing things that he undoubtedly ordered to be done (and not literally done by him). The text says that Joseph gathered…and laid up the food in the cities; he laid up in every city the food of the fields which surrounded them. Joseph gathered very much grain, as the sand of the sea, until he stopped counting” (Genesis 41:48-49). Later, “Joseph opened all the storehouses and sold to the Egyptians” (Genesis 41:56). “Joseph” also “gathered up all the money that was found in the land of Egypt and in the land of Canaan, for the grain which they bought; and Joseph brought the money into Pharaoh’s house” (Genesis 47:14). What’s more, “Joseph gave” and “fed” the Egyptians “with bread in exchange for all their livestock” (Genesis 47:17). Most everyone easily and rightly understands that all these statements are made in light of Joseph’s authority and not of him personally doing each and every one of these individual tasks (on behalf of hundreds of thousands, or perhaps millions of people). It truthfully can be said that what Joseph authorized and commanded, “he did.” Like all sorts of leaders in the past and present, Joseph was viewed as ultimately responsible for Egypt’s success or failure (at least during seven years of plenty and seven years of famine—Genesis 41:1-47:26). All those actions done on Joseph’s behalf were done (in a very real sense) “by Joseph.”
  • At one point, Joseph reminded his brothers that they had sold him “into Egypt” (Genesis 45:4), when technically they sold him to the Midianites (Genesis 37:36), who in turn sold him into Egypt. Nearly 2,000 years later, Stephen used Joseph’s same language to describe Joseph being sold by his brothers “into Egypt”—Acts 7:9. Truly, this type of speech was used, understood, and perfectly acceptable among Israel for 2,000 years!
  • The Gospel writers frequently use such acceptable legal language throughout their accounts of the life of Christ. For example, John wrote that “the Pharisees had heard that Jesus made and baptized more disciples than John (though,” John explains, “Jesus Himself did not baptize, but His disciples)” (John 4:1-2).
  • Prior to Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem during the final week of His life, Matthew, Mark, and Luke all indicate that He instructed two of His disciples, saying, “Go…find a colt…and bring it here” (Luke 19:30; Matthew 21:2; Mark 11:2). The disciples then “brought the colt to Jesus and threw their clothes on it, and He sat on it” (Mark 11:7; cf. Matthew 21:7; Luke 19:35). Yet, when John briefly addresses these same events, he simply notes, “Jesus, when He had found a young donkey, sat on it” (12:14). Did Jesus personally obtain the donkey? No. However, what Jesus commanded, “He did” (in the “law-of-agency” sense).
  • One of the most well-known examples of this type of language is found in Acts 1:18. Luke mentions that Judas “purchased a field with the wages of iniquity,” yet literally it was the chief priests who used the deceased Judas’s 30 pieces of silver, which he had returned to them, to buy the potter’s field (Matthew 27:3-10).

The accounts of Jesus speaking “to the centurion” are easily harmonized by considering that (1) “he who acts through another is deemed in law to do it himself”; and (2) the Bible writers frequently used this language throughout Scripture. Did the humble centurion5 plead with Jesus via the Jewish elders (in Luke 7:3) and through his friends (in Luke 7:6)? Yes. Did Jesus respond to the centurion through these same men? It certainly seems so (Matthew 8:7; Luke 7:3-9). Might it also be the case that at some point, the centurion personally came to where Jesus and the crowd were located in Capernaum, but not necessarily in Jesus’ immediate presence? Yes. And, though not demanded, could it be that Jesus also momentarily bypassed the proxy and spoke directly to the centurion? Indeed, such is possible.

Whereas Matthew gives a more summarized view of the interaction between Jesus and the centurion, omitting the technical details regarding those who were sent on the centurion’s behalf (Luke 7:3-8), Luke includes those details. On the other hand, whereas Matthew includes more of Jesus’ hard-hitting speech on this occasion (Matthew 8:10-13), Luke gives a very abbreviated form (Luke 7:9). As expected from two honest, independent writers, we have two different (but harmonious!) accounts.

Endnotes

1 From the Latin maxim, “Qui facit per alium, facit per se.”

2 See “Agency Law and Legal Definition” (2021), USLegal, https://definitions.uslegal.com/a/agency/.

3 If a man hires an assassin to murder the President, both the assassin and the man who hired him would be guilty of murder. In fact, the “man behind the murder” (who didn’t actually pull the trigger yet proposed and funded it) would likely be prosecuted to a greater degree and given a more severe sentence upon being found guilty “of murder.” Indeed, “he who acts through another is deemed in law to do it himself.”

4 That is, they seem unwilling to listen to any possible explanation that potentially absolves the Bible writers of error.

5 Who, as a Roman soldier leading 100 men, would have been accustomed to “doing things” through the soldiers under his command.


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