The third Evangelist recorded in the seventh chapter of his Gospel a story about Jesus, the Jewish elders of Capernaum, a Roman centurion and their affable relations. From rabbinic texts and other literary sources like the New Testament, we know that despite years of suffering brought upon the Jewish people by their Roman overlords, there were instances when Jew and Roman behaved amicably toward one another. Luke 7:1-10 stands out as one such episode.
Once while Jesus was visiting Capernaum, a centurion sent a delegation of Jewish elders to him with a request to come and heal a dying slave. As part of an appeal to persuade Jesus to accept the centurion’s request, the elders said, “He is worthy to have you do this for him, for…he built us our synagogue” (Luke 7:4-5, RSV).
In this short article, I simply want to ask, would a Roman officer have had the means to finance the construction of a synagogue in the lakeshore town of Capernaum? To answer this question adequately, two issues must be addressed: 1) the Roman officer’s socio-economic class, and 2) the relative cost of building a synagogue in the first century C.E.
For further reading:
________, “The Relations between the Roman Army and the Jews of Eretz Yisrael after the Destruction of the Second Temple” in Roman Frontier Studies 1967: The Proceedings of the Seventh International Congress Held in Tel-Aviv (1971), 224-228.