Roman Authority Encounters with Jesus

Celebrity status of Jesus of Nazareth quickly spread. Inevitably the news of his famous miraculous healing abilities would extend outside of Judea.[1] Many people, including those who were not Jewish, trusted enough in what they had heard or witnessed that they too believed Jesus could help them — including some Romans.

Soon after delivering the celebrated sermon of the Beatitudes, Jesus was in Capernaum.[2] It was the town where Jesus made his new home after being run out of Nazareth when he proclaimed in a local synagogue that he was the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy foretelling of the arrival of the Messiah.[3]

A Roman military officer sent some Jewish elders to approach Jesus with his request to heal his beloved servant.[4] Still at the Roman’ officer’s home, his servant was paralyzed, in terrible pain and near death.

Original Greek text word hekatontarches used in both Matthew and Luke is most frequently translated as “centurion” although it is not the specific Greek word, kenturion, for “centurion.”[5] The actual meaning of hekatontarches is a generic reference to “an officer in the Roman army.”[6] Whether centurion rank or not, he was a high-ranking Gentile officer in the Roman military.

As Jesus neared his home, the Roman military officer sent friends to tell Jesus he was not worthy to allow him into his house, but he recognized a common trait shared with Jesus — each had “authority” to command. The Roman officer believed Jesus could heal his servant by merely commanding it.

MT 8:8-10: “Lord, I am not worthy for You to come under my roof, but just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I also am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to this one, ‘Go!’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come!’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this!’ and he does it.

Marveling at the officer, Jesus told the crowd he had never seen such faith as this in Israel. Jesus told the friends of the Roman officer his servant would be healed just as he believed. It was confirmed the servant was healed immediately.[7]

MT 8:10, 13 “Now when Jesus heard this, He marveled and said to those who were following, ‘Truly I say to you, I have not found such great faith with anyone in Israel. Go; it shall be done for you as you have believed.’ And the servant was healed that very moment.” (NASB)

Next encounter with Roman authority was Procurator Pilate who served as the Roman government judge weighing the charges leveled against Jesus by the Jewish leadership. No friend of the Jews, Pilate had twice offended the nation; once by bringing Roman ensigns with effigies of Caesar into Jerusalem and the other by using the “sacred money” of the Jews to construct a Jerusalem aqueduct.

Pilate had to walk a fine line to avoid drawing the negative attention of Tiberius who had committed to honor the decrees of Augustus even though Tiberius himself detested the Jews.[8] Previously, Caesar Augustus had issued a standing decree chiseled into a pillar of the Temple of Caesar to treat the Jews with moderation where anyone who transgressed the decree would be severely punished.[9]

On the surface, it would seem that Pilate would relish being able to crucify a Jew, no less at the behest of the Jewish leaders themselves under the accusation of insurrection and tax evasion. Instead, Pilate repeatedly tried to free Jesus.[10] Crucifixion of Jews was commonplace by the Romans making Pilate’s treatment of the case of Jesus highly unusual.

Taking the accused aside, Pilate asked Jesus, “Are You the King of the Jews?”[11] Jesus confirmed he is a King, but not one of this world. Pilate went back to the Jewish leadership, “I find no basis for a charge against him.” The Jewish leaders, however, continued to press Pilate.

Hearing that Galilee Tetrarch Herod, a son of the late King Herod, happened to be visiting Jerusalem, Pilate sent Jesus to him to be judged under the Tetrach’s Galilean authority. Interrogating Jesus for a considerable length of time while the Jewish legal experts “vehemently” accused him, Herod determined that Jesus had committed no crime and sent him back to Pilate. Addressing the Jewish leadership again, Pilate said:

LK 23:15-16 “You brought this man to me as one who incites the people to rebellion, and behold, having examined Him before you, I have found no guilt in this man regarding the charges which you make against Him. No, nor has Herod, for he sent Him back to us; and behold, nothing deserving death has been done by Him.” (NASB)

Traditionally at the Passover, Rome would pardon a prisoner and as such Pilate represented a choice to the Jewish crowd – a robber, plunderer and murderer named Barabbas or Jesus called the Christ.[12] The crowd shouted back they wanted Barabbas released. Not having any crime to charge, Pilate asked what was to be done with Jesus?[13]

Crying out, “crucify him,” Pilate pushed back on the crowd’s demands again asking, “Why, what evil has He done?”[14] Reaching the point he had no other choice to avoid a riot, Pilate made one more public statement to absolve himself of the mob-motivated killing of an innocent man:[15]

MT 27:24 “So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.’” (NRSV)

Jewish religious leaders succeeded in getting what they sought, the execution of Jesus; yet upon seeing the sign on the cross announcing the charge for which Jesus was being crucified, they disliked the sign’s verbiage. Written in the three prevalent languages of Judea – Latin, Arabic and Greek – it read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the king of the Jews.”[16] Complaining to Pilate, they wanted him to add “he said” to the sign, but Pilate refused.

Lastly was the Roman encounter at the crucifixion of Jesus. The Roman centurion, kenturion, in charge of the execution squad became a central figure.[17] The sun failed, the earth quaked and hearing the final words of Jesus, the hardcore Roman centurion made an excited utterance at the death of Jesus:[18]

“Truly this was the Son of God!”

Joseph of Arimathea approach Pilate to ask for the body of Jesus, but Pilate was surprised that Jesus was already dead and wanted wanted confirmation. It was the responsibility of the centurion in charge of an execution to officially reported to Pilate that, in fact, Jesus was dead. Once his early death was confirmed by the centurion, Pilate approved the centurion to the release of the body of Jesus to Joseph.[19]

Romans typically despised Jews, yet three witnessing Roman government authorities said otherwise. One military commander recognized the authority of Jesus to miraculously heal; another serving as a Roman judge found no guilt in Jesus; and the centurion in charge of his crucifixion exclaimed Jesus was truly the Son of God, killed by crucifixion.

Are the statements of these Romans consistent with the Gospel’s teaching that Jesus is the Messiah?

 

Updated April 14, 2022.

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REFERENCES:

[1] Matthew 4:24-25.
[2] Matthew 5-7, 8:5; Luke 7:1.
[3] Isaiah 61:1-2; Matthew 4:13; Luke 4:16-30.
[4] Matthew 8:5-6; Luke 7:2-10.
[5] Mark 15:44. kenturion <2760> Net.Bible.org. n.d. <http://classic.net.bible.org/strong.php?id=2760>  “G2760.” Lexicon-Concordance Online Bible. n.d. <http://lexiconcordance.com/greek/2760.html> CR Luke 23.47.
[6] hekatontarches <1543> Net.Bible.org. <http://classic.net.bible.org/strong.php?id=1543>  “G1543.” Lexicon-Concordance Online Bible. n.d. <http://lexiconcordance.com/greek/1543.html>
[7] CR Luke 7:10.
[8] Josephus, Flavius. Antiquities of the Jews. Book XVIII, Chapter III.1-2. n.d. <https://books.google.com/books?id=e0dAAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q=Augustus&f=false>  Josephus, Flavius. Wars of the Jews. Book II, Chapter IX.3-4. n.d. <https://books.google.com/books?id=e0dAAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q=Augustus&f=false>  Calmet, Augustin. Calmet’s Great Dictionary of the Holy Bible. Pilate. 1813. <https://books.google.com/books?id=FgM2AQAAMAAJ&pg=PP305&lpg=PP305&dq=Pilate+banished,+Vienne&source=bl&ots=fIZ2ZHY3xl&sig=ACfU3U101WIrN_RVsnslwXcQIHIdEdILGw&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwiJxYrQpYbnAhUJOisKHZ5HB1gQ6AEwEHoECAoQAQ#v=onepage&q=Pilate%20banished%2C%20Vienne&f=false>
[i9] Josephus, Flavius. Antiquities. Book XVI, Chapter VI.2.
[10] Luke 23:2-5, 22; John 18:37; 19:12.
[11] Matthew 27:11; John 18:33.
[12] Matthew 27:15-21; Mark 15:6-11; John 18:39-40. CR Luke 23:18-19.
[13] John 18:38-40.
[14] Matthew 27:23.
[15] Matthew 27:24; Mark 15:15; Luke 23:22; John 19:1.
[16] John 19:19-22. CR Matthew 27:37; Mark 15:26; Luke 23:38.
[17] Mark 15:44. kenturion <2760> Net.Bible.org. n.d. <http://classic.net.bible.org/strong.php?id=2760>  “G2760.” Lexicon-Concordance Online Bible. n.d. <http://lexiconcordance.com/greek/2760.html>  CR Luke 23.47.
[18] Amos 8:9-10; Matthew 27:54; Mark 15:39.
[19] Mark 15:44-45. CR Matthew 27:58; Luke 23:52.

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