Matthew and the Centurion: A Liberationist Interpretation, Part 1


The Four Evangelists, by Jacob Jordaens, 1625

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


In The Social History of Rome, Geza Alfödy makes the intriguing observation that the

only institutionalized path for upwards [sic] mobility from the base [e.g. slavery] to the top of the social pyramid [i.e. the emperor] was the career of a centurion who entered the equestrian order through the primipilate.

Alfödy goes on to make the argument that the military position of the centurion provided the Roman social system with the “elasticity [which] was essential to its strength and stability.”

In other words, because it was an “elastic” institutional position, it was about change over time. Yet, because it was change over time that existed in order to shore up the stability of the Empire, the position fundamentally was about opposition to change. Indeed it ultimately served the interests of the status quo.

This institutional safety valve which provided elasticity and mobility for the few ultimately served to underwrite the oppressive lack of mobility of the many. Moreover, Alfödy notes that social demotion was a rare occurrence in the early Empire. Once a centurion or other imperial servant acquired them, privileges such as freedom, citizenship, or membership in an ordo usually were revoked only for criminal acts.

Matthew’s story about the centurion is helpful for liberationist purposes for two reasons:

1. History, as we historians say, consists of stories about change over time.  A centurion, whether an imaginative or factual figure, was inherently an “historical” figure because he was about change over time. This change constitutively was about socioeconomics, i.e. upward mobility in terms of status, standard of living, and power with the threat of downward mobility for actions (as opposed to beliefs, for example) which opposed the power of the Empire.

2. Matthew’s story about the centurion also was constitutively a narrative about power because the position of the centurion not only was about protecting the Empire from external military threats it was about protecting the Empire via an institutional advertisement for the benevolence of the state. In other words, the position of centurion had ideological value for the Empire.


The purpose of this blog post is to develop and point out the value of an “historical” liberationist hermeneutic or method of interpreting the Bible.

I do this from my perspective as a professional historian who understands history fundamentally to be about multifarious, competing, and often high-stakes human narratives developed along the axis of change over time.  These narratives always are situated within the historian’s own worldview, constructed by the historian, semantically encoded by the historian, often told in the context of cultural discourses of interest to the historian’s audience, and have premeditated or unpremeditated implications about the status quo or its opponents.

I also do this from my perspective as a theologian influenced primarily Latin America’s theologians of liberation including Leonardo Boff, Oscar Romero, and Ernesto Cardenal.


One of the collective strategies of Latin America’s liberation theologians has been to appropriate and redefine the term “historical”. Part of the rationale for this has been the perceived necessity of countering Western Europe / Northern Hemisphere modernist projects which, they conclude, definitely have been implicated in the subjugation, domination, and exploitation of non-Western / Northern people, their cultures, and their economies.

Modernist projects include defining “history” in a way that I am calling “historicist”, i.e. as that which is finite, concrete, and past yet excavatable, transportable and objectively subject to ideologically neutral reconstruction in the present — by professionals.

It is a project which emphasizes the importance of the antique past to what have been Christian academic concerns including desires to reconcile religion with nationalism, colonialism, and capitalism.

One solution has been to stabilize the Bible via the discovery of biblical “facts” and their perceived inverse — biblical “myths”. In biblical studies circles this translates into historical criticism including “quests for the historical Jesus” and by extension the historical Bible, the historical Matthew, the historical centurion, and so on, as well as for the presumed “lessons of (biblical) history”.

While purporting to be non-ideological, the upshot is a definition of Christian “history” which often works to the advantage of the status quo and its self-aggrandizements and in opposition to calls for socioeconomic and other types of systemic change.

In part this is because the definition of history as finite, concrete, excavatable and transportable places a premium on what is past. It is the past itself which is given value, i.e. it is an inherently reactionary — and consequently highly ideological — religious project.

Because of its emphasis on the past as an ideological standard of value (or a value related to power), as liberation theologians have underscored, modernist biblical interpreters’ understanding of history is, in fact, an historicist, inherently reactionary approach serving the interests of the status quo.

I am striving to develop a distinction between “historicist” biblical readings which benefit the status quo and “historical” biblical readings which have the potential of benefiting those who are in opposition to or are harmed by the status quo.

In large part, I am drawing on my professional historian’s understanding of history simply defined as narratives about change over time. In deliberate opposition to an historicist understanding of biblical history, an historical approach would emphasize several aspects of “history”. An historical approach to biblical history would emphasize that history by definition consists of multifarious, competing and often high-stakes ideologically situated human narratives, constructed by historians along the axis of change over time, told in the context of cultural discourses of interest to the historian’s audience and with power implications vis-à-vis the status quo or its opponents.

An historical understanding of biblical history underscores its inherent subjectivity and volatility (orientation to change) rather than its presumed objectivity and stability (orientation to the status quo). It seeks to activate and orient on-going historical narratives now being constructed. In particular, it seeks to orient and direct those narratives about change over time to the advantage of peoples currently existing on the socioeconomic and other margins.

To Be Continued . . . .




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