How many episodes?
Matthew 8:5-13, Luke 7:1-10 and John 4:46-54 are an enigma. They all seem to refer to the same incident (Matthew 8:5-13 and Luke 7:1-10 certainly) and yet they appear to contradict each other. Scripture is inerrant so they do not contradict each other. Consequently, either the contradiction is merely apparent or they do not in fact refer to the same incident. A further mystery is John 4:54 “This was now the second sign that Jesus did when he had come from Judea to Galilee.” It is widely held (with a good deal of plausibility) that there are seven ‘signs’ (σημεῖα) in the Gospel of John which are miracles of a particular allegorical significance illuminating the true identity of Jesus and the nature of His mission. There are also seven ‘I am’ (Ἐγώ εἰμι) sayings which perform a similar function and seem to correspond with the seven miraculous signs. The miracle recounted in John 4:46-54 is expressly refered to not only as a ‘sign’ but as the ‘second sign’ (δεύτερον σημεῖον). The only other sign to be numbered in this way is the transformation of the water into wine at the wedding feast at Cana (Jn 2:11).
The odd thing is that the miracle in John 4:46-54 is rather humdrum. The other six signs in John’s Gospel are rich in symbolic elements which reinforce the impression that the ‘signs’ are intended to constitute a special form of revelation central to the understanding of the Gospel. The straightforwardness of the miracle in John 4:46-54 rather shakes this impression at the same time as the enumeration in verse 54 seems to strengthen it.
As we shall see there are significant apparent differences between the episode as recounted in Matthew and Luke. We might suppose that it would simplify matters if we set the account in John 4 aside as referring to another incident altogether. However, I suspect that only by resolving the seeming disparities between Matthew, Luke and John shall we discover the true significance and symbolic meaning of the ‘second sign’. Besides, St Irenaeus of Lyons treats the Johannine and Synoptic accounts as referring to the same episode (Adversus Haereses 2,22,3) and that is good enough for me.
The Apparent Conflicts
So, let us look first at the differences between the account in John and the Synoptic version. In the Synoptics the protagonist is a Centurion in John it is a royal official (βασιλικὸς). This is not a serious problem. Galilee was not under direct imperial rule so the Synoptic centurion would have been functioning under the auspices of the tetrarch anyway (who no doubt wanted to be thought of as a king and is referred to as such in Mark 6:1).
In John’s account Jesus’s help is requested in Cana whereas in the Synoptics the request is made in Capharnaum (Luke 7:1, Matthew 8:5). The only solution to this would have to be that Jesus’s help is requested in Cana and then when he reaches Capharnaum the centurion asks him to perform the miracle at a distance and Jesus agrees. This actually fits well with Luke 7:3 & 7:6 which describe two different requests one made further away (so, one assumes, in Cana) by the Jewish Elders (on account of the centurion’s goodness to them) and one made nearer (in Capharnaum itself) by friends of the centurion. This would also explain the difference in the condition of the object of the miracle. When Jesus is in Cana the sick man is mortally (Luke 7:2, John 4:47) ‘ill’ (κακῶς or ἠσθένει) whereas in Matthew (by the time Jesus reaches Capharnaum) he is paralysed.
This brings us to the really knotty problem. In John it is clear that the βασιλικὸς is personally present at the interview in Cana. In Matthew the centurion likewise makes his request in person in Capharnaum. In Luke, in contrast, the implication is that on both occasions the centurion is represented by proxies (the Jewish Elders and then his friends).
The reaction of Jesus to the Cana request and the terms of the request are very different to the Lord’s reaction to and the terms of the Capharnaum request. In Cana (so John) Jesus responds to the request with a rebuke “Unless you [plural] see signs and wonders you [plural] will not believe” and the βασιλικὸς is insistent that Jesus come to Capharnaum “Sir, come down before my child dies.” In Capharnaum the centurion insists that Jesus should not come to his house “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed” and Jesus praises his faith “with no one in Israel have I found such faith”. The extremity of the contrast here is actually reassuring that we are talking about the same incident because it seems programmatic and symbolic.
Furthermore, who is the object of the miracle? Matthew uses a term (παῖς) that could mean either ‘servant’ or ‘boy’. Luke uses a term (δοῦλος) which can only mean ‘slave’. John, in contrast, is clear that it is the official’s son (υἱὸς).
So we have three mysteries:
- Is the sick man a slave or the son of the centurion?
- Does the centurion make the two requests in person?
- Why does the centurion change his mind about Jesus coming to the house?
- This is the key to the mystery and to the ‘sign’ value of the entire episode. The sick man is both the son of the centurion and a slave. The boy has been begotten (outside of Roman law approved wedlock) by the centurion upon a slave woman. Thus legally he is a slave and he is not the centurion’s son. The centurion’s grief and desperation is shameful and unseemly. This is why he sends the elders and then his friends to make the request.
- He does indeed make the requests in person. That is, he accompanies both the Jewish elders and his friends but he does so in disguise so that his unseemly desperation should not be made public. The rebuke is addressed not principally to the centurion but to the Jewish Elders who Jesus perceives (beatifically) to be inspired partly by curiosity rather than faith. However, it may also be that the centurion is trying anything in his desperation rather than truly believing at this stage.
- By the time Jesus reaches Capharnaum and the delegation of friends comes to meet Him the centurion believes (perhaps because Jesus saw through his disguise in Cana or just from the effect of meeting the Lord) and he is now concerned (as a gentile God-fearer) that he is asking Jesus to enter a ritually defiling gentile dwelling. Confident in his belief that Jesus has the power to save his son he therefore says “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I too am a man under authority, with 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.”
John has read the Synoptics. He knows what his readers already know about this episode. Like the Synoptics he wishes to spare the centurion’s blushes but he supplies the information missing from their accounts in order to supply the key to the mysterious riddle of the second sign.
What then is the meaning of the sign? Jesus is the true son and heir of God but He has taken the form of a slave (John 8:35-6, Philippians 2) in order to to fulfil the command given to Him by His Father (John 10:18) to liberate the human race from slavery and death and make them adopted sons and co-heirs with Him. Not only is He the son and heir of God but He is Himself God. Furthermore, Jesus is, at this point in his ministry concealing these very truths from the Jews and the demons because the Jews are not ready to believe and if the demons understood the mystery of the Incarnation they would not walk into the trap Jesus has prepared for them (1 Corinthians 2:8).
It is thus a supreme irony that the centurion should go in disguise as his own messenger to solicit the salvation of his slave who is really his son. For it is the Son of God Who is True God from True God under the form of a slave from whom the centurion seeks salvation for his son. The first encounter parallels the Old Testament where mankind approaches the Saviour through the Jewish people, too addicted to signs and wonders and led on by temporal rewards and punishments. The second encounter parallels the New Testament where mankind approaches the Saviour through His friends the Apostles (John 15:15) to hear whom is to hear the Saviour Himself (Luke 10:16, Matthew 10:6). When the law was given man was sick unto death. By the time the Saviour appears the knowledge of his own sin has reduced man to total moral paralysis (see: John 5). This mystery is what the centurion ultimately realises and why the marvel (Matthew 8:10, Luke 7:9) of his faith is the second of the great signs by which Jesus manifested the true nature of His identity and mission to His disciples.