Healing in Absentia: Can You Read Signs?—John 4:43-54

Studies in John’s Gospel—Bible study lesson 10

by Reta Halteman Finger

Roman Columns
Remains of Roman columns and other sculptures in Capernaum during the Roman occupation of Galilee in the early centuries CE. Photo by Reta Finger

Before telling you what I think, I suggest you or your study group read our text and then dig into these questions first:

1. How does John 4:43-54 connect chronologically and geographically with the Samaritan side-trip in 4:1-42?

2. In light of 4:45, what sense do you make of verse 44?

3. This account of Jesus’ healing an official’s son is also recorded in Matthew 8:5-13 and Luke 7:1-10.  Look for similarities and differences in these stories. What is unique in each account? What theology does each author emphasize?

The first question is easy. But verses 44 and 45 contradict each other. If a Galilean prophet is not accepted at home, why do the Galileans welcome him? The verb “had testified” in verse 44 is past perfect, making this statement parenthetical. All three Synoptic Gospels portray Jesus’ rejection in his home town of Nazareth (Mt 13:54-58Mk 6:1-6Lk 4:16-30).  John’s Gospel quotes from this tradition, even using the term “honor” rather than the typical Johannine “glory.”

But why include that statement? Raymond Brown’s commentary notes that the Galilean crowds in John 4:45 were the same people who had seen the signs Jesus did at the festival in Jerusalem (Jn 2:23).  But although “many believed in him there because they saw the signs,” Jesus did not trust himself to them. As in John 4:48 below, Jesus is wary of people who want immediate help but do not seek a relationship with the person doing the signs. Far beyond a formal faith statement, the term “believe” in this Gospel points toward “worshiping God in spirit and in truth” (4:23-24).

Comparing three accounts of the same event

Remains of small, crowded houses of common fisherfolk in ancient Capernaum—probably not where the “royal official” lived! Photo by Reta Finger
Remains of small, crowded houses of common fisherfolk in ancient Capernaum—probably not where the “royal official” lived! Photo by Reta Finger

Our third question is more complicated. In Matthew (8:5) and Luke (7:2) the man asking for help is a “centurion.” Part of the hated Roman occupation of Palestine, he was in charge of a company of 100 soldiers. Both Matthew 8:9 and Luke 7:8 show how the centurion compares his authority to command others with Jesus’ authority over sickness. Both emphasize the boundary that is crossed when the Jewish Jesus not only heals a Roman centurion—the “enemy”—but declares, “Not even in Israel have I found such faith!” (Mt 8:10; Lk 7:9).

In contrast, John calls this man a basilikos, a royal official, and says nothing about his authority. Perhaps he is a Jew working for Herod Antipas, the local ruler of Galilee. Roman oppression is not in the picture.

Observe likewise who is ill. In Matthew 8:6, it’s a “servant”—pais in Greek. This can refer to a child, or to someone of lower status, much like “boy” was used for male slaves of all ages in the American South. Luke calls this person a “slave”—doulos—but also someone “dear to him” (7:2). But John says the sick person was the official’s son—huios (4:46), later calling him his “little boy”—paidion. Is the varying terminology significant? I think it is.

Insight from unexpected sources

As the only Gentile Gospel author, Luke may understand Roman military life better than the other authors. In Luke, the centurion never meets Jesus himself, but instead sends Jewish elders to speak for him (7:3-5). As Jesus nears the centurion’s house, he sends “friends” to tell Jesus that he is not worthy to have Jesus come under his roof; just speak the healing word.

One very bright college student I taught, who privately had come out to me as gay, suggested that the centurion did not want Jesus to see the frescos inside his house because they would have depicted the explicit sexual behavior common to Roman men, especially the male-on-male sex that soldiers away from home carried on with their slaves and others of lower status. Somehow, this ill slave had become so dear and valuable to him (7:2) as a result of their relationship that he did not want to lose him.

A wall painting from Pompeii of a relatively tame image of the goddess Aphrodite--Wikipedia
A wall painting from Pompeii of a relatively tame image of the goddess Aphrodite–Wikipedia

I might have assumed my student was over-interpreting had I not visited the ruins of 1st-century Pompeii, where some explicitly erotic wall paintings of all kinds, found in upper-class houses, grossed me out as a Jew would have been in Jesus’ day. In fact, even more explicit artwork from Pompeii is housed in a separate room at the archeological museum in Naples, Italy, where minors are not permitted to enter.

John’s change of focus

Note the distance and rugged terrain between Cana and Capernaum in Galilee.
Note the distance and rugged terrain between Cana and Capernaum in Galilee.

While Luke seeks to show Jesus’ compassion for an immoral enemy soldier, John’s Gospel strips away all those details. Here, the “royal official” may be a local man, and it is his own son who is dying. Instead, this author focuses like a laser beam on the meaning of true belief.

At first Jesus is harsh with the official: “You’re only interested in signs and wonders (4:48),  just like the rest of the Galileans!” But the father’s desperate plea for his dying “little boy” changes Jesus’ tone. “Go, your son will live.” The man “believed Jesus’ word” (4:50) enough to start walking the 20 miles from Cana back home to Capernaum. The next day he meets his slaves on the road, who tell him the child began to recover the same hour Jesus had said he would live.

The conclusion is distinctly Johannine. After the first sign of water into wine, Jesus’ disciples believe in him (2:11). After the second sign, the little boy’s entire household believes (4:53). Many people witness a miracle but miss what it signifies. “To believe” means understanding what the miracle is pointing toward. Little by little, Jesus gathers believers who can read signs.

Questions for discussion and reflection:

1.  Which Gospel account do you prefer? Which speaks most powerfully to you personally?

2.  Are the Gospel authors justified in shaping stories of Jesus to fit their unique emphases?

3.  What does the word “believe” mean to you?

Reta Halteman Finger
Reta Halteman Finger is a long-time member of EEWC-CFT and is a past Southeast representative on the EEWC-CFT Council. She holds a Ph.D. in theology and religion from Northwestern University, masters of theological studies from Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary and Northern Baptist University, and a master of education from Boston University. Reta retired in 2009 from teaching Bible (mostly New Testament) at Messiah College in Grantham, PA. She lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and since her retirement from Messiah College has been devoting her time to writing and speaking projects, as well as some part-time teaching at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. For fifteen years, Reta edited the Christian feminist magazine, Daughters of Sarah (no longer published), and is a frequent writer and reviewer for Christian Feminism Today. Using the search box on the homepage of our EEWC-Christian Feminism Today website, you’ll be led to many of her online articles.

1 COMMENT

  1. In the Roman patronage system, one could become a member of the patrons “household” by serving him in some way, as a slave or a volunteer. Sometimes a boy (usually a slave) would be adopted as an heir if the patron had no biological children. Boys were also conscripted (sometimes kidnapped) to be lovers to older men who became their mentors and protectors. So one could easily be boy, slave, son, and lover all at once. Perhaps the Biblical writers had difficulty deciding what to call him, since their Jewish culture forbad such relationships.

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