I will be presenting a paper at SBL in San Diego this coming weekend, titled “Centurion as Rank of Peace? Social and Ideological Underpinnings of a New Testament Trope.” It will be in the Synoptic Gospels section (S22-244) on Saturday.
Here is the abstract:
More than anywhere else in the New Testament, the passion narrative features the military and its ensigns. Strangely, the Gospels seem deeply ambivalent about the military in this section: on the one hand soldiers mock and crucify Jesus, on the other the centurion is the first person to recognize Jesus’ divine sonship and they are not responsible for his condemnation to death. This tension is often glossed over; some scholars emphasize the latter (and so must claim that the centurion’s confession indicates something other than what it seems to), while others understand the centurion’s confession as justification or anticipation of Christian inclusion of the Gentiles (disregarding soldiers’ role in Jesus’ abuse). Instead of opting for one or the other option in this dichotomy, I would like to propose that the fundamental ambiguity of the military in the New Testament is not fully appreciated, as soldiers plainly serve disparate function over the course of a single chapter in Mark. Indeed, this tension is common in the New Testament. While common soldiers are often viewed negatively in narrative portions of the New Testament, officers of the rank centurio are uniformly depicted positively (e.g., Mark 15:39, Q 7:1-10, Acts 10:1-8, 27:1-3, 43). To explain this tension, I will draw upon papyrological evidence regarding soldier-civilian relations in the Roman Near East to discern the social structures that encouraged peasants and other civilians to perceive centurions positively and common soldiers more negatively. For example, sales typically occurred via special contract that could only be characterized as extortion and low-ranking soldiers appear to have been responsible for procuring such supplies from provincials. Officers, on the other hand – especially those ranked centurion and higher – had considerably greater agency and their individual dispositions played a larger role in their public perception; they mediated conflicts between locals, determined which regions to police for thieves, and the like. By illuminating the social conditions that cultivated such understandings of the military, we are better positioned to discern the distinctive comportments New Testament authors held toward the Roman Empire and the military more specifically.