Sexuality and Slavery – Part Two

In my last post I looked at the question of what forms of homosexual relationship might have been recognised by Paul and the other New Testament writers. I concluded with the observation that given the diverse Roman / Hellenistic world that the NT writers operated in, they would have been familiar with a significant number of varied homosexual expression in the Mediterranean world. We identified two forms of homosexuality in particular that have the closest equivalence to modern western gay relationships, that of Greek pederasty in its most noblest forms and the Roman practice of taking someone of socially inferior status as a lover.

In this post I want to begin to turn to the New Testament texts that refer to homosexuality and to see whether understanding the cultural context of the time helps us to discern what is implied by the language employed by the New Testament authors. Before I begin this process however I need to point out the axiomatic basis upon which I am approaching these texts, namely, that the NT texts as we have received them are not just the opinions of humans but are inspired by the Holy Spirit. This means that we approach the texts on the understanding that they have been produced through the synthesis of God and man as a divine narrative that is as useful today as it was 2000 years ago. I don’t approach the texts as simply the thoughts of first century men and that we can dismiss their teachings if they don’t fit our twenty-first century mindset. Rather, we read the NT with the understanding that the fundamental moral precepts and guidelines are not relative to the society they were produced in, but in actuality are pertinent today. How might this work out? Well for example, if we discover that the NT texts when discussing homosexual practice allow a degree of liberty in this area, we cannot still take a conservative position on the issue arguing that such liberty was only for first century Christians. Equally, the converse applies.

So to the text. The first passage I want to explore is the healing of the Centurion’s boy or servant in Matthew 8:5-13 and Luke 7:1-10. This story is useful for a number of reasons, because the discussion around the meaning of the Greek pais will help us to see the correct use of the hermeneutic principles that we can later apply to other texts discussing homosexuality and slavery.

The controversy over this passage is the exact meaning of the word “pais”. Revisionist understandings would teach that one of the most likely interpretations of the word is that of a young homosexual lover. See for example this article in the Gay and Lesbian Review:

THE GREEK WORDS used to tell the story of the centurion and his servant provide several linguistic reasons for arguing that the story involved a gay man. First, however, a clarification: the word “homosexuality” is not found here or anywhere in scripture. It was only in the late 1800’s that the Western scientific community began to name this sexual orientation using this word. Thus the very Greek-sounding word “homosexuality,”‘ coined in the late 19th century, cannot be found in the New Testament or anywhere else in an ancient Greek text. But this does not mean that we cannot spot what we would call gay relationships in other historical periods and documents, including in Judeo-Christian scripture, very possibly in the above passage.
The Greek word translated “appealing” in the passage is parakaloon. Only a few verses later, the translators rendered the same Greek word “beg” (Matthew 8:34). They also translated the same word “beg” in three more uses by Matthew (14:36, 18:29, and 18:32). The translators may have doubted that a Roman centurion would beg from an itinerant Jewish preacher like Jesus. But suppose the relationship of this centurion and his servant was not superficial. If this particular centurion were gay and in love with his servant, begging is what he would do, if his beloved suffered dreadfully and by begging he could bring about relief for that suffering.
The translators preserved the differences between two other Greek words, which could easily have been confused. One of these words is doulos. This word, translated “slave,” occurs only in verse 9 of the passage. Doulos was the ordinary word used to indicate a slave. It referred to a slave of any age or any sort. A doulos could have been the highly trusted and highly educated slave who directed a large enterprise owned by some rich citizen, such as a huge estate, a fleet of trading vessels, or a factory producing great quantities of pottery. At the same time, doulos referred to the most menial worker slave in any of those same enterprises.

Jack Clark’s article is illuminating because he asks key questions of hermeneutics as he explores the meaning of the passage. In this respect it is a good piece of research because he addresses the following key issues:

  1. What is the obvious literal meaning of the word pais?
  2. What are the other possible meanings of the word given the first century Judean/Hellenistic context of the passage?
  3. What are the other possible meanings of the word given the involvement of a Roman Centurion?
  4. What are the issues around two different words (pais and doulos) being used in the two Gospels for the same character?
  5. How else are key words used in the Scriptures and how might that have a bearing on our understanding of this passage?

Let’s turn ourselves to Matthew 8:5-13 and see if we can answer some of these questions.

The Literal Meaning of Pais

The literal meaning of pais is “child”. It is the addition of gender definite articles to the noun that indicate the sex of the child and in the passage we are dealing with those pronouns are obviously masculine (ho pais – nominative masculine singular in Matt 8:6). What we have then literally is “boy”.

The Possible meanings of Pais given the Judean/Hellenistic and Roman context

Now things start becoming more interesting. Although pais literally means “boy”, the use of the word varies beyond simply a male child. The most obvious alternative to this literal meaning would be a young male servant. This makes perfect sense given that the Luke passage refers to the same character as doulos, meaning “servant” or “slave”. Of course, in the Matthew passage the Centurion also refers to his other servants using the same word root word doulos and this begs the question as to why this particular paralysed servant is referred to as pais and not doulos.

The complications continue however, because while we might assume at this point that the servant is a young boy (or teenager), we also have textual evidence from the period that the use of pais (“boy”) might be for any male servant/slave as a conventional expression of the servant’s social inferiority (similar in manner to the American slave owners’ manner of referring to grown negro slaves as “boy”). There is nothing in the text that would suggest that this is so, but there is nothing in the text to suggest not.

It is also argued that pais might be used specifically as a term of endearment towards an adult male slave, but there is no contemporary textual evidence to support such a connotation.

So we have a male servant, possibly of teenage or younger years, but this again is not in dispute amongst most scholars. Where the controversy arises is that the word pais is often used in the contemporary literature for the junior partner in a pederastic relationship. It is this observation that has led many revisionists to contemplate whether the pais might be the lover of the Centurion and to argue that in not condemning this that Jesus might actually be approving.

Phang, in “The Marriage of Roman Soldiers” argues coherently that in the period of Roman history this passage occurs, it would have been inconceivable that a Roman soldier would have been permitted to have had a sexual relationship with either another soldier, any freeman, or even a male slave. There is however evidence that some Roman soldiers bought slave boys in order to have sex with them, but the documentation of this phenomenon is scarce. In some parts of the Empire at this time (i.e. Egypt) it was already unheard of for a free Roman to enter into pederasty with a junior. By the middle to end of the third century it was almost eliminated from the life of the army across the Empire.

So we are left with the possibility that the pais might be a male lover, but that if that is so then he would almost certainly be a pre-pubescent or teenage slave. This also raises the question as to whether the pais would have been a willing “lover”, as given that he had no choice in the matter we cannot automatically assume that he would have chosen such a position if he was free.

At this point then we are left with an uncomfortable dilemma, for if we wish to use this passage to affirm gay relationships then we might inadvertently be affirming pederasty and in particular, forced sexual activity on minors. Given that we already need to make an assumption that pais in this context means male lover, the assumption that the pais is not a reciprocal equal is not unwarranted given our understanding of the cultural context of the first century.

The Possible Meaning of Pais given the parallel passage in Luke

Before we dismiss the revisionist argument on Matt 8:5-13 as leading to a conclusion of supporting imposed pederasty, we first turn to the parallel passage in Luke to see whether there is any thing in that text that might illuminate our understanding of pais. In the Luke passage the servant is called consistently doulos apart from Luke 7:7 where “my servant” uses the language of pais. The key point drawn from the Luke passage though by the revisionist argument is the greek word entimos in Luke 7:2. For example, one site argues as follows:

The Bible provides three key pieces of textual and circumstantial evidence. First, in the Luke passage, several additional Greek words are used to describe the one who is sick. Luke says this pais was the centurion’s entimos doulos. The word doulos is a generic term for slave, and was never used in ancient Greek to describe a son/boy. Thus, Luke’s account rules out the possibility the sick person was the centurion’s son; his use of doulos makes clear this was a slave. However, Luke also takes care to indicate this was no ordinary slave. The word entimos means “honored.” This was an “honored slave” (entimos doulos) who was his master’s pais. Taken together, the three Greek words preclude the possibility the sick person was either the centurion’s son or an ordinary slave, leaving only one viable option — he was his master’s male lover.

The problem with this explanation is that the expression “entimos doulus” doesn’t actually occur in the text. The exact phrasing of the verse is as follows:

ἑκατοντάρχου δέ τινος δοῦλος κακῶς ἔχων ἤμελλεν τελευτᾶν ὃς ἦν αὐτῷ ἔντιμος

Although the word “entimos” refers to the doulos it comes at the end of the verse. It is also not apparent from the text that entimos necessarily means “beloved”. As the passage above recognises, the word is most obviously translated as “honoured” or “valued”. There is nothing in the verse itself, unless one assumes that the pais is a (pederastic) lover, that warrants such a translation.

How Else are the Key Words Used in Scripture?

Here we get to the core of finding possible understandings of the use of pais in this particular passage. We ask ourselves the simple question – where else is the word used and what might it mean?

In the New Testament, the word occurs a number of times outside of Matthew 8, and these are the main instances, together with the normal understanding of the word at these points:

Verse Meaning
Matthew 2:16 Male children
Matthew 12:18 Servant
Matthew 14:12 Servant
Matthew 17:18 Boy
Matthew 21:15 Children
Luke 1:54 Servant
Luke 1:69 Servant
Luke 2:43 Boy (Jesus)
Luke 8:51,54 Child (Girl)
Luke 9:42 Boy
Luke 12:45 Servant
Luke 15:26 Servant
John 4:51 Servant
Acts 3:13 Servant (Jesus)
Acts 3:26 Son (Jesus)
Acts 4:25, 27, 30 Servant (David, Jesus)
Acts 20:12 Youth

In none of the above would it be warranted to translate pais as “male lover”.

Now let’s do the same for entimos

Verse Meaning
Luke 14:8 Honour
Philippians 2:29 Honour
1 Peter 2:4,6 Precious

In only one case is entimos translated as something coming close to “beloved”, and in that case it would be ridiculous to assign a sexual connotation to the word. Add to this the understanding that in Philippians 2:29 Paul is referring to Epaphroditus, who is described in verse 25 as “my brother and fellow worker and fellow soldier”, and then how in Luke 14:8 the word is obviously “honour” since the issue is social status (drawing from the use of protoklisia in 14:7). We can see that in the New Testament the word entimos in the context of service is always used to refer to “honour”, not “beloved”.

But we don’t have to stop there. We can turn to the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Old Testament that was in use at the time of the writing of the New Testament, and we can see again that all the usages of pais and entimos lead to the same conclusions as above. There is no instance of the word pais that could possibly lend itself to referring to the junior partner in a pederastic relationship, and equally all the instances of entimos that refer to service are references to honour and esteem rather than affection.


We have seen how when we use proper tools of exegesis and hermeneutics, not just looking at the meanings of words but also understanding the cultural context of the passage involved and the language used, we can come to a much clearer understanding of what a passage might mean. In the case of Matthew 8, the most obvious meaning is that the pais is a male servant of young years and the word entimos in Luke 7 refers to esteem rather than affection. To assume the revisionist readings involves first translating the word pais in a manner not used elsewhere in Scripture and secondly, accepting that the only culturally contextual use of the word pais as a lover would be as a pederastic junior who, give the fact that the Centurion was Roman, not Greek, may not have had any say in the sexual relationship.

Moving On

In my third post I will turn to some other New Testament passages and see if we can apply the same principles of healthy exegesis and hermeneutics to other texts.

7 Comments on “Sexuality and Slavery – Part Two

  1. Thanks for this, Peter – I only recently heard of the ‘gay’ translation of this passage, and wasn’t sure what I thought about it. I’d wondered if the servant as a ‘beloved servant’ becuase he was perhaps the centurion’s son by a slave woman? At any rate…it’s interesting to read your more in-depth study of the word ‘pais’, in particular.

    However, I need to point a problem with your introduction:

    <<<<<Well for example, if we discover that the NT texts when discussing homosexual practice allow a degree of liberty in this area, we cannot still take a conservative position on the issue arguing that such liberty was only for first century Christians. Equally, the converse applies.<<<<<

    In saying this, you are assuming that one can interpret commands outside of the context that they are given.

    That is – you are saying that a command relative to a specific action in a specific context can be used to condemn the same action in an entirely different context.

    But the thing is – words only gain their meaning through their context. You cannot separate words from their contextual situation and come to a true understanding of those words.

    I've used this example before, but here it is again:

    If a woman snaps at her husband 'Don't touch me!', do we assume this is a 'once for all time' command? Or do we assume it is specific to a certain context?

    Well – in order to make that judgement, one needs to know the context in which the command was given.

    If it was given in a happy marriage, but the wife was suffering from an achy-flu bug, then one is quite justified in assuming this was a one-off command, and the husband is not forever barred from touching his wife.

    However, if the command was given in a divorce lawyer's office, with the husband and wife in the middle of a messy divorce, then one is equally justified in assuming this is a 'Don't ever touch me again' command.

    Context determines meaning. That is just a given.

    But what you are trying to do is say that context is irrelevant. That if we have a specific command against homoeroticism in a specific context – we are justified in extrapolating that command to all other contexts.

    Why? Because (according to you) Paul didn't address the 21st century context within which we know about homosexuality and specifically approve of that context.

    But here's my question again: In what circumstances would Paul address a situation that didn't exist in his cultural world? How would such an affirmation be received by people who also did not know of the kind of 21st century same-sex relationships we know of today?

    As you've admirably spelled out, the kind of equal same-sex relationships we see were socially anathema to Paul's 1st century contemporaries. To advocate for this kind of relationships would have put Paul in exactly the same position that advocating for the overthrow of slavery would have put him in – a very dangerous one of challenging the established social order.

    But again – to do this would have been even more difficult/culturally impossible with respect to same-sex, equal partnerships, because these kinds of partnerships were something Paul had no awareness of.

    Yet he would obviously have known of slaves who had been freed/etc – freeing slaves was part of his culture, while equal same-sex partnerships were not.

    Yet you don't have a problem with God supporting (through Paul) the institution of slavery and failing to challenge it, yet you insist on an even moe stringent 'standard of Scriptural proof' in order to affirm same-sex partnerships.

    • Carolyn,

      Your point about the context of words is absolutely right. I hope what I am doing in these posts is addressing that very issue (and you’ll see me do that as this series progresses).

      The issue about Pauline understand of C1 same-sex relationships is a bit more complicated. Socially equal same-sex relationships might have been tolerated for the active partner, but the passive partner (and this means more than just sexual intercourse of course) would have been ridiculed. So yes, the cultural context is important, but then (as again I will examine shortly) we come up against the issue of “How do we handle Scripture when we don’t think it addresses a particular circumstance”.

      There’s much more to come in this series and I hope you’ll address specific points I make as I make them, rather than perhaps presupposing what I haven’t yet touched on (eg slavery).

  2. Hey Peter,

    Are you taking down the posts where I challenge your interpretations? That’s obviously your right, as it is your blog, but it doesn’t seem to be very ‘open and honest’ to me. :-(

    This has happened before, and I just put it down to a fluke, but it’s beginning to appear to be deliberate, which makes me sad.

    • The short answer is no. As long as people are not abusive then they can write any comment they want.

      Occasionally posts by regular contributors get caught in a pending file and then I have to manually moderate them. It appears that some of yours have gone straight into the main spam trap, which I don’t normally look at (I just don’t have the time for all the viagra that’s being offered).

      I’m going to go through the spam file now and see if there are any from you in the past week, and validate them. That should hopefully mean that future comments from you are more easily accepted.

      • Thanks Peter, I appreciate it. I knew that several of my posts seemed to appear, then disappear (or just not appear at all). Thanks for explaining what was happening with them.

  3. Peter

    Thanks for this series that you have started. I really appreciate both the clear exposition and the firm and rigorous application of scripture to each issue.

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