CENTURION (ARMY OFFICER)
An officer in command of a hundred soldiers. The Roman legion, regardless of its size, was always divided into sixty centuries, each under the command of a centurion. If the legion shrank below 6,000, still one-sixtieth, even when less than a hundred, was under a centurion. These army officers were nominated by tribunes and were approved by higher government authorities. The office of centurion was the highest rank the common soldier could reach, though there were opportunities for some advancement within the ranks of the centurions themselves.
The centurions were key men and served a most important function in the legion. While they were under the authority of the tribunes and responsible to carry out their orders, the army officer was the real and immediate head of the soldiers. He drilled the soldiers; worked with them; inspected their arms, supplies and food; regulated their conduct. He was the disciplinarian who supervised scourgings and capital punishment, the one who authorized punishment of his troops. The readiness and efficiency of the Roman army, for the most part, depended more on centurions than on anyone else; they were, generally speaking, the most experienced and valuable men in the Roman army.—See ARMY.
On at least five occasions army officers appear in the Christian Greek Scripture narratives.
1. The army officer from Capernaum who sought Jesus’ healing power on behalf of his slave was commended by the Master for his exemplary faith. (Matt. 8:5-13) The statement of the Jews, “He loves our nation and he himself built the synagogue for us,” the centurion’s acknowledgment that “I am not fit to have you come in under my roof,” and Jesus’ comment, “Not even in Israel have I found so great a faith,” all indicate that the army officer was a Gentile. If he was a Roman, this was all the more remarkable, for Romans were not noted for their compassion toward slaves.—Luke 7:1-9.
2. The army officer that headed the four soldiers who put Jesus to death. (John 19:23) This centurion likely had been present when the claim of divine Sonship was discussed before Pilate. (John 19:7) Observing this trial and the other circumstances surrounding the impalement, plus the miraculous phenomena accompanying Jesus’ death, the “army officer began to glorify God,” saying, “Really this man was righteous,” “Certainly this was God’s Son.” (Luke 23:47; Matt. 27:54) Undoubtedly it was of him that Pilate inquired as to whether Jesus was dead before giving the body over for burial.—Mark 15:44, 45.
3. Cornelius, a centurion of the Italian band, stationed in Caesarea, was the first uncircumcised Gentile to become a Christian. (Acts 10:1-48) The fact that he had his own house and attendant soldiers indicates that officers of this rank were allowed to live detached from the regular troops.—See CORNELIUS.
4. Army officers stationed in the Castle of Antonia, together with their soldiers and the military commander, rushed down to the adjoining temple grounds and rescued Paul from a mob, 56 C.E. (Acts 21:32) Later, Paul escaped scourging on the order of the military commander by disclosing to an attending army officer that he was a Roman citizen. (Acts 22:25, 26) Upon learning of a plot against his life, Paul called an army officer to lead his nephew to the military commander with this report. In turn, two army officers were ordered to ready a force of 470 soldiers, cavalry and spearmen to ensure Paul’s safe conduct out of Jerusalem.—Acts 23:17, 23.
5. Julius, an army officer of the band of Augustus (see AUGUSTUS, BAND OF), was responsible for Paul’s passage from Adramyttium to Rome. He treated Paul with kindness, though at first ignoring the apostle’s advice. Eventually, however, this centurion learned to respect Paul’s judgment, and was instrumental in saving the apostle’s life.—Acts 27:1, 6, 11, 31, 43.