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What is a Centurion?


Roman Centurions

Jesus was escorted to his place of execution by a Roman centurion and his soldiers.

Photo: Steve Allen / Getty Images

Definition: A centurion was an officer in the army of ancient Rome. They got their name because they commanded 100 men (centuria = 100 in Latin).

Centurions were hardened, experienced soldiers, skilled at killing. Most were enlisted men promoted through the ranks after 15 to 20 years of service.

A number of Roman centurions are mentioned in the New Testament, including one who came to Jesus Christ for help when his servant was paralyzed and in pain. That man's faith in Christ was so strong that Jesus healed the servant from a great distance (Matthew 8:5-13).

Another centurion, also unnamed, was in charge of the execution detail that crucified Jesus, acting under orders of the governor, Pontius Pilate. Under Roman rule, the Jewish court, the Sanhedrin, did not have the authority to carry out a death sentence. Pilate, going along with Jewish tradition, offered to free one of the two prisoners. The people chose a prisoner named Barabbas and shouted for Jesus of Nazareth to be crucified. Pilate symbolically washed his hands of the matter and handed Jesus over to the centurion and his soldiers to be executed.

"And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, saw how he died, he said, 'Surely this man was the Son of God!'" (Mark 15:39, NIV)

Later, that same centurion verified to Pilate that Jesus was, in fact, dead. Pilate then released Jesus' body to Joseph of Arimathea for burial.

Yet another centurion is mentioned in Acts Chapter 10. A righteous centurion named Cornelius and his entire family were baptized by Peter and were some of the first Gentiles to become Christians.

Pronunciation: cen TU ri un

Example: The centurion ordered his soldiers to break the legs of the men being crucified, to hasten their deaths.

(Information in this article is compiled and summarized from The Making of the Roman Army: From Republic to Empire by Lawrence Kepple.)

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