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Luke 23:47

"Now when the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God, saying, 'Certainly this man was innocent!'" ESV My emphasis.

Mark 15:39

"And when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, 'Truly this man was the Son of God!'"

  1. In what language might the centurion have spoken?

  2. Can we be sure of what the centurion did say?

  3. Is Mark or Luke more liable to deviate from the original?

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  • Are you questioning that the man said two things and that each writer reports that which is pertinent to his own comprehensive expression of a particular aspect of Jesus' person and ministry ? (Some suggest the 'Messenger of the Covenant' for Mark and 'The Saviour by the Grace of God' for Luke.)
    – Nigel J
    Commented May 7, 2022 at 14:19
  • @Nigel Can we be sure that the man said two things? Or did Mark and Luke understand his words differently if he spoke in Latin?
    – C. Stroud
    Commented May 7, 2022 at 14:25
  • 1
    See My ans on why are differences in the Gospel. We can't know the exact words and we shouldn't even expect to know. hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/questions/71619/…
    – Michael16
    Commented May 7, 2022 at 14:32
  • I see the first as true, for this is holy scripture and God is in these things : the hearing, the reporting and the inspiration.
    – Nigel J
    Commented May 7, 2022 at 14:45
  • 2
    Something to consider is that Mark was a disciple of Jesus and may have been physically present at this time. Luke was also a disciple but after Jesus died and his gospel was written after much research. (Luke 1:1) The account of what the centurion said would have been second-hand information (or possibly more).
    – agarza
    Commented May 7, 2022 at 15:10

2 Answers 2

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Language

The Centurion's statement would have been made in Latin or Greek, depending on whom he was talking to. Latin would be used by Roman officials (including military) to communicate among themselves, but in the Eastern Empire, Greek was the lingua franca and was the language Rome used to communicate with the people.

A Roman officer would have had little need nor interest in mulling his thoughts in Hebrew or Aramaic.

(For more information on this topic, see my video What Languages Did Jesus Speak?)

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What did the Centurion Say?

If we had to choose between the Markan & Lukan statements, I'd suggest the "Son of God" statement is more likely for 2 reasons:

  • It is attested by Matthew (Matt. 27:54)
  • It is less sensible for Matthew & Mark to change "innocent" to "Son of God"--especially Matthew, who's writing to a Jewish audience--than it is for Luke, writing to a Gentile audience, to replace "Son of God", which would have carried relatively little weight to a polytheistic pagan reader, with "innocent", which effectively makes the overall point (Jesus was sent to His death ultimately for false charges of blasphmey). Luke's audience is less interested in Jewish theology than in knowing whether Jesus was a criminal.

However, this need not be an either/or. Matthew provides us with more detail on this event (and my own work on the Synoptic Problem leads me to the conclusion that Matthew's work is the original). Matthew indicates there were multiple people discussing the matter:

Now when the centurion, and they that were with him, watching Jesus, saw the earthquake, and those things that were done, they feared greatly, saying, Truly this was the Son of God. (Matt. 27:54)

Thus, it is entirely possible that some in the group said one thing, and others said another.

Furthermore, when we recognize that Jesus was originally condemned by the Sanhedrin for claiming to be the Son of God, the statements "He is the Son of God" & "He is innocent" are functionally equivalent:

  • If He is innocent, that means His declaration that He was the Son of God wasn't blasphemous
  • The only way for it to not be blasphemous is for it to be true.

If Jesus is innocent (as attested by Luke), His declaration to be the Son of God is true.

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There are two questions here.

1. What did the Centurion say?

The fact that two versions of what the centurion said offer different accounts suggests two things:

  • that the accounts we have are independent and thus more reliable
  • that the centurion is very likely to have said both things.

That is, the centurion is very likely to have said something like: "Surely this was a righteous man, and truly the Son of God".

We see a similar thing in many of the incidents in the Gospels - one write records one aspect of the incident and other records something else. Both occurred. For example, no one evangelist records all of Jesus final seven sayings on the cross, but together we easily show that Jesus said just seven things. (That could be the subject of another question but not here.)

2. Language?

We do not know what language the centurion used to say what he did because it is not recorded. All we have is the record in Greek. However, the official language of Roman government and the army was Latin, but much trade and communication was done in Greek. The local common language in Jerusalem was Aramaic. Theoretically, the centurion could have spoken any of these languages depending on his background and origin.

Very likely he spoke in Latin as he mused to himself but we do not know. That fact that is is not recorded suggests that it is not important.

What we can say, is that regardless of which language he spoke, his utterance was unmistakable as "righteous" and "Son of God" as vastly different in all three languages.

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