The Centurion's Servant

The story of the centurion's servant, as told by Luke, contains an interesting snippet. The pharisees who came to Jesus on the centurion's behalf urged Jesus to look favourably on the centurion's request because "he hath built us a synagogue".

The White Synagogue
The White Synagogue of Capernaum.

Visitors to Capernaum, which is where the story is set, are shown a large and ornate white synagogue, which many tour guides assert is the synagogue in which Jesus worshipped and which, presumably, was built by the centurion or at his expense. Unfortunately inscriptions on the columns in the building make is plain that it was built a century and a bit after Jesus.

Beneath the white marble is a layer of black basalt and although there have been no excavations - no one would dare to demolish the White Synagogue - it is believed that this Black Synagogue was the work of the centurion.

The Black Synagogue
The layer of black stones is believe to be the remains of the synagogue of Jesus' day.

Basalt is the most common building stone around the Lake of Galilee - Tiberias is a black city - and if you go up the hill a short way you can see a black synagogue in the ruins of Chorazin.

Nevertheless, a building as large as the Capernaum synagogue would have cost a pretty penny, so I have always assumed that there was a degree of friendly exaggeration and the centurion had merely been a significant contributor to the cost. However I now suspect that the Black Synagogue was indeed built by the centurion.

We have an army list dating from AD 192 which gives us the wages for members of the Roman armed forces. An auxiliary (basically a mercenary recruited from a conquered nation) received 100d per year while a Roman soldier received three times as much. A cavalryman, who had a horse to look after, received 560d per annum.

Such sums sink into insignificance when you climb the ladder of promotion. An ordinary centurion's pay was 3,750d per annum, but if you were the "Primus Pilus" or first centurion in the legion, you got a whopping 15,000d per annum!

Of course the Roman empire suffered from inflation and several emperors bribed their way to the throne by raising army pay, but nevertheless, in Jesus' day a legionary received 225d as opposed to 300d in AD 192. I leave it as an exercise for the reader to work out the ratios and calculate what the primus pilus would have received in Jesus' day.

It is commonly reckoned that 1d was the daily wage for a working man in Jesus' day, which is supported by the figure given in Jesus' parable of the labourers in the vineyard (Matt 20:2). If we compare that with the minimum wage in Britain today, 8 hours of labout would earn you just over £83. That means that the average centurion earned £311,250 per year while the primus pilus got £1,245,000. In addition soldiers might be a share of the spoils of war and the occasional donative from officials wanting to keep the army on their side.

Of course, soldiers didn't get to keep all their wages. They were charged for food and acommodation, uniforms, weapons, lost kit and all the rest of it. The ordinary soldier probably saw little of his £24,900, which is why John the Baptist warned soldiers against running scams to extort money from ordinary citizens. (Luke 3:14)

Nevertheless, even though centurions were probably charged more for better food, a servant or two and more expensive uniforms, the proportion they paid was much less. The centurion whose servant Jesus healed was very likely a multi-millionaire and although a building as large as the Black Synagogue would make a dent in anyone's bank account, he could afford it and the pharisees, with an eye to future donations, were very keen that he should be kept "on side" by Jesus consenting to heal his servant.

© Kendall K. Down 2023