In the most recent note in this series, I discussed briefly the difference between the centurion’s declaration in Luke and that in the Synoptic tradition of Mark/Matthew. It is one of the most dramatic differences or discrepancies in the Synoptic Passion Narrative, and has resulted in a considerable amount of commentary, both from a critical and traditional-conservative viewpoint, much of which is foreign to the context of the Gospels.
To begin with, a simplistic harmonization to the effect that the centurion actually said both things, together or in sequence, would seem to be ruled out by the fact that the two versions of the declaration have virtually the same form:
- a)lhqw=$ (Truly)
- o&ntw$ (Really)
- ou!to$ o( a&nqrwpo$ (this man)
- o( a&nqrwpo$ ou!to$ (this man)
- ui(o\$ qeou= ([the] Son of God)
- di/kaio$ (just/righteous)
- h@n (was)
- h@n (was)
Critical commentators who hold that Luke made use of the Gospel of Mark would assume that the former has altered the Synoptic tradition at this point. On the other hand, if a change/development in the tradition took place, it is perhaps more likely that it was in the opposite direction—altering “righteous (one)” to the more exalted title “Son of God”, rather than the other way around. If one is determined to retain the historicity of both, conceivably the centurion could have said something like, “Surely this man was a righteous son [of God]”—however, this remains entirely a matter of speculation.
However one judges the historical-critical question, and whether or not Luke has altered the Synoptic tradition, we are left to consider what the Gospel writer intends to convey to us with this form of the centurion’s declaration. An important detail is preserved in the first half of the verse: “And seeing the (thing which) came to be, the chief-of-a-hundred [i.e. centurion] gave esteem/honor to God [e)do/cazen] saying…”. Thus the centurion is portrayed as a God-fearing Gentile who gives esteem [do/ca] to God—i.e. recognizes and worships the true God—much like the centurion in 7:2-5ff or the centurion Cornelius in Acts 10. This is an important theme in Luke-Acts, closely related to the early Gentile mission—cf. Lk 2:30-32; 3:6; Acts 10:34-35, 44-48; 11:18; 13:46-48; 15:7-11ff, etc. On the motif of giving honor/esteem (i.e. “glory”) to God, using the verb doca/zw, see Lk 2:20; 5:25-26; 13:13; 17:15; 18:43.
As far as the declaration itself in verse 47b, there are two other important aspects to consider in the use of the adjective di/kaio$ (“just, righteous”):
1. The Innocence of Jesus
In the LXX, di/kaio$ can be used to translate Hebrew yq!n` (“clean, without guilt”, etc), as in Gen 20:5; Prov 6:17; Joel 3:19; Jon 1:14. It seems to have this sense also in Matt 27:19 and Acts 16:39 D (cf. also 1 Pet 3:18). The innocence of Jesus is an important motif in the Passion Narrative, but is especially prominent in Luke’s version, running through the entirety of the Roman interrogation and crucifixion scenes of chapter 23—cf. especially vv. 4, 11, 14-15, 22, 41. In the dialogue between Jesus and the criminals on the cross, di/kaio$ referred to the just punishment given to the criminals, while the “good” thief declares that Jesus, on the other hand, has done “nothing out of place [i.e. nothing wrong]”. Jesus’ punishment then is not just, for he is innocent of any guilt, precisely as the centurion states in v. 47.
2. Jesus as the Just/Righteous One
The adjective di/kaio$, used as a substantive, occurs in the Lukan book of Acts as a title of Jesus—i.e., “the Just/Righteous One”, Acts 3:14; 7:52; 22:14. It is found similarly in the New Testament in 1 Jn 2:1, etc. The references in Acts reflect early Christian tradition, i.e. preaching and proclamation of the Gospel message by the first believers. It is natural that Luke would prepare his readers for it here at the end of the Gospel narrative. The early Christian use of the title may derive from Messianic passages in the Old Testament (Jer 23:5; Zech 9:9; also Isa 53:11) and later Jewish tradition (Ps Sol 17:32). We may also recall how in Luke’s version of the Crucifixion Jesus quotes Psalm 31:5; in verse 18 of the same Psalm, in a context evocative of the crucifixion scene, the sufferer is referred to as “the just/righteous one”.
Returning to the difference in the titles used by the centurion in the Markan and Lukan version of his confession—”Son of God” and “Righteous One”—it is worth considering the association of the righteous as “sons/children of God”. This derives from the Old Testament image of Israel as God’s “son”—more specifically, of the faithful ones in Israel as the sons/children of God. In Wisdom Literature, it was natural to extend this to the righteous ones generally. In the book of Wisdom, such an identification is made (cf. 2:13, 16, 18); moreover, in 3:1 there is a passage which would seem to apply well to the idea expressed by Jesus in his dying utterance (Lk 23:46): “the souls of the righteous is in the hand of God”.