The Centurion and the Synagogue

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A Roman centurion’s concern for his slave focuses our attention on the presence of non-Jews in the land of Israel in the first century. A modern Jewish authority on the history of the period provides the story’s background.

How to cite this article: Shmuel Safrai, “The Centurion and the Synagogue,” Jerusalem Perspective 24 (1990): 3-5 [https://www.jerusalemperspective.com/2810/].

When Jesus had finished saying all these things to the people, he entered Capernaum. There, a centurion’s slave, whom his master valued highly, was sick and near death. The centurion heard of Jesus and sent some Jewish elders to ask him to come and heal his slave. When they came to Jesus they begged him earnestly: “He deserves this favor from you. He loves our people and he himself has built a synagogue for us.” So Jesus went with them. (Luke 7:1-6)

This story about Jesus and a centurion poses a historical and halachic question: How is it possible that a non-Jew, and an officer in the Roman army no less, would build a synagogue for Jews in the land of Israel?

Non-Jews

Isaiah 56:7 states: “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” This prophecy was reflected in the everyday life of the Second Temple period, especially in the first century C.E. Gentiles came to the temple in Jerusalem to worship the Lord, and many also were found in the synagogues of the land of Israel and the Diaspora. Finding Gentiles in synagogues as described in the Book of Acts (Acts 13:16; 14:1; 17:4; 17:17; 18:4) is very much in keeping with the reality of the late Second Temple period and immediately afterwards, as numerous rabbinic sources also indicate.

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This article originally appeared in issue 24 of the Jerusalem Perspective magazine. Click on the image above to view a PDF of the original magazine article.

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  • Shmuel Safrai [1919-2003]

    Shmuel Safrai [1919-2003]

    Professor and Rabbi Shmuel Safrai died on July 16, 2003. He was buried the following day in a section of Jerusalem's Har ha-Menuhot Cemetery reserved for faculty of the Hebrew University. His grave is only a few feet from the grave of his close friend…
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