The centurion testifies to Jesus’s innocence
In Luke’s Gospel more broadly, the author frequently emphasises Jewish sin, often in conjunction with an avoidance of criticism of the Roman imperial system, or even a positive portrayal of its representatives. For example, earlier in Luke’s Gospel Jesus chastises a group of Jews who complain to him about violence done to a group of Galilean Jewish pilgrims by Pilate, the Roman governor (see Luke 13:1-3); rather than condemning the act of the Roman official, Jesus tells the complainers that they must repent or else also perish. It has often been stated, for example by Philip Esler, Community and Gospel, p. 203, that Luke is more concerned with highlighting Jewish misguidedness than making specific anti-imperial statements. This passage, which narrates a Roman centurion standing by Jesus’s cross affirm upon his death that Jesus must have been a righteous man, seems to fit into this overarching rhetoric.
Luke’s adaption of this event involving the centurion, which is also found in Mark 15:33-39 is particularly interesting in terms of the difference between the two authors’ intentions. In Mark 15:39, the centurion exclaims about Jesus, “Truly, this man was God’s son.” Unsurprisingly, this has stirred up huge debates in Markan scholarship, which have often seen scholars argue either that the centurion’s recognition is crucial to Mark’s forwarding of the message of “Gentile insight over Jewish blindness” (so, Stephen Moore, “Turning Mark Inside-Out,” p. 104, Joachim Gnilka, Das Evangelium nach Markus, p. 327), or that it presents a direct challenge to the imperial cult (see Tae Hun Kim, “The Anarthrous Υιος Θεου”). In Luke’s account, however, the statement does not appear on the surface as nearly so politically controversial. This is perhaps precisely Luke’s intention, as throughout the trial of Jesus, which has seen him questioned before Pilate, the Roman governor, and the Jewish tetrarch, Herod Antipas, the narrative has repeatedly emphasised that Jesus is politically innocent. Indeed, Pilate states several times that he cannot find Jesus guilty of anything (see Luke 23:1-7, 13-25). With the exception of a few scholars (see, for example, Joshu Yoder, Representations of Roman Rule, and Pyung-Soo Seo, Luke’s Jesus in the Roman Empire), there is a broader consensus that Luke minimises Roman involvement in Jesus’s death, while elevating the responsibility of the Jewish authorities. Indeed, in an attempt to fit the centurion’s statement into the wider theme of Jesus’s political innocence in Luke, several scholars have even gone so far as to render δίκαιος in verse 47 as “innocent,” rather than the more common “just” or “righteous” (this is how the RSV translates the term, for example).
However, might this be a) reading a political message where Luke is not really intending to send one, and b) ignoring what might be a significant theological point? This is certainly the view of Robert Karris, for instance, who argues that by having the Roman centurion declare that Jesus must have been a “righteous” (δίκαιος) man, the Lukan author is actually drawing on the tradition of the righteous sufferer which is found in the Hebrew Bible, and indeed alluded to elsewhere in Luke’s Gospel. In 23:34-38 and here in 23:46 Luke draws on Psalms 22, 31 and 69, which detail the fate and suffering of the righteous one who calls on the Lord for aid (Jesus quotes the words of Psalm 31:5 as his final words here in Luke 23:46). Moreover, in Luke 23:41, 23:50, the dikai- root is used by the author to mean “justly” and “righteous” (in these cases the context makes the meaning clearer), and so it is strange that this meaning would suddenly be narrowed in 23:47 (see Robert Karris, “Luke 23:47,” p. 65-67). With his final words, then, Jesus makes clear reference to this Scriptural tradition, and the Lukan author is able to make a strong theological point, that Jesus is fully unified and trusting of his Father, setting the example for his followers who should also trust God’s plan rather than attempting to flee from or use their power to avoid suffering (Jesus himself is taunted while on the cross and challenged to bring himself down if he truly has the power, Luke 23:35). The centurion’s words may well have nothing to do with politics, then, and instead simply be helping the Lukan author to clarify his soteriology. This said, the fact that the statement comes from the lips of a Roman soldier holds significance, as it shows that even these oppressors of God’s people are capable of comprehending God’s truth in the system offered by Jesus, and therefore in theory, are able to partake in it.