Did Jesus and the Centurion Speak to Each Other Personally?
by Jim Estabrook
On one occasion when Jesus entered Capernaum, He was asked to heal a certain centurion’s servant. Skeptics allege that a contradiction exists between Matthew’s account of this story (8:5-13) and Luke’s account (7:1-10). Whereas Matthew’s account says, “a centurion came to Him, pleading with Him” on behalf of his servant, Luke recorded that “he [the centurion—JE] sent elders of the Jews to Him, pleading with Him to come and heal his servant.” Since Matthew seems to indicate that the centurion personally came to talk to Jesus, and Luke’s account says that the centurion sent others to plead with Christ, skeptics contend that the two accounts are in no way harmonious. Rather, they (supposedly) represent an obvious contradiction, and thereby serve as proof that the Bible is not the infallible Word of God.
Those who claim that such differences represent legitimate errors fail to realize that the Bible often gives “credit” to one in authority, even when others do the work. For example, when John wrote, “Pilate took Jesus and scourged Him” (19:1), he simply meant that Pilate ordered it to be done. Likewise, when the text says that Jesus made and baptized more disciples than John, it means that His disciples baptized more than John (John 4:1-2). In fact, the apostle John clarified this when he wrote, “though Jesus Himself did not baptize, but His disciples” (4:2). Throughout the Bible, people are sent to speak on behalf of a person, and sometimes the text indicates that the person in position of authority actually spoke for himself when, in fact, that person was not even present. The liaison that spoke was doing so with his authority. Today, as in times past, courts of law hold that “what a man does through a duly constituted agency, he himself actually and legally does” (Coffman, 1974, p. 105). When the president sends staff members to speak around the world on his behalf, he is the one responsible for the decisions rendered in his absence. In the same way, the centurion sent others to talk to Jesus on behalf of one of his servants. Matthew simply used a common form of speech where one attributes a certain act to a person— an act that is performed not by him, but by his authority (see Boles, 1952, p. 188).
One also must admit that it is possible Matthew and Luke wrote about two different accounts. Although I tend to believe that they were writing about the same incident, it is possible that Jesus had a very similar situation arise in the same town with another centurion, or the same centurion with another servant. Remember, John stated that “there are also many other things that Jesus did, which if they were written one by one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25).
Matthew 8:5-13 and Luke 7:1-10 are in no way contradictory. By understanding that Luke simply was more specific than Matthew and that Matthew used a common form of speech (which we still use today), it is clear that the two accounts are harmonious.
Boles, H. Leo (1952), A Commentary on the Gospel According to Matthew (Nashville, TN: Gospel Advocate).
Coffman, James Burton (1974), Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (Abilene, TX: ACU Press).