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I have heard it said that the Centurion in Matthew 8 was refering to his "παῖς" in the sense of servant or slave, and all translations seem to take it that way. I've heard people go on to say that his great distress at the illness of his servant suggests that he had a homosexual relationship with the servant.

BDAG has for παῖς: 1) a young pers. normally below the age of puberty, w. focus on age rather than social status, boy, youth 2) one’s own immediate offspring, child 3) one who is committed in total obedience to another, slave, servant

Other data that comes to mind: 1) Matthew 17 has υἱόν in verse 15, and then παῖς in verse 18, in a very similar circumstance. 2) Again John 50 and 51 have υἱόν and παῖς, both referring to someone's sick son. 3) Jesus is refered to as παῖς in Luke 2:43.

Why then do all translations translate παῖς as servant in Matthew 8?

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It is correct that the centurion refers to the sick child as παις in Mt 8:6. However, you might note that in the parallel version of the same story in Luke 7:1-10 he is called δουλος. This suggests that at least in this pericope παις means δουλος. In any case, it answers your questions as to why the translators have understood it in this way.

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Lexicons frequently define παις in three senses: in relation to descent (son, daughter), age (young, e.g. infant, boy, girl), or ‘condition’ (slave, servant). The text of Matthew 8:5-13 does not clarify whether the ill person in the centurion’s household is a son or servant, but since Roman military were not allowed to marry, and the Jewish elders thought the centurion honorable, ‘servant’ seems likely.

While ‘servant’ matches the apparently parallel story in Luke 7:2-10 – where the centurion still uses the potentially ambiguous παις but the narrator uses the unambiguous δοῦλος (servant, slave) – hopefully that ‘alignment’ is co-incidental rather than purposeful on the part of the translators. Matthew and Luke’s stories differ in several details, so it shouldn’t be assumed Matthew thought the ill person a servant only because Luke did.

Nor does identifying the centurion’s παις as a servant (rather than a son) clarify the nature of their relationship. Sir Kenneth Dover’s groundbreaking study of Greek homosexuality revealed that παις could mean a particular type of servant: “his master’s male lover.”(1) This has led to a reappraisal of the word in these gospel stories, where Luke interestingly introduced the periscope, “ἑκατοντάρχου δέ τινος δοῦλος ... ὃς ἦν αὐτῷ ἔντιμος” (“Now a centurion had a slave who was dear to him ...” RSV).


(1) K.J. Dover, Greek Homosexuality (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1978), pg.16; cf. Bernard Sergent, Homosexuality in Greek Myth (Beacon Press, Boston, 1986), pg.10.

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