By Jean McCurdy Meade
Many Christians, including those who are very familiar with the New Testament, might say, “Who is Julius?” We know about some Roman centurions. Cornelius, the centurion whom Peter was called to preach to and baptize in Acts 12, is well known as one of the first Gentile converts to the new way of Christianity, thanks to direct intervention of the Holy Spirit.
Then there are unnamed centurions in the gospels with whom we are nevertheless very familiar. First, the centurion who asked Jesus to heal his servant, and then amazed the Lord with his faith when he said the words we repeat in various fashions as we prepare to receive the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist. “Lord, I am not worthy that you should come under my roof, but only say the word and my servant shall be healed.” And Jesus replied, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith” (Matt. 8:8, 10).
And finally there is the centurion in charge of the crucifixion detail who, upon witnessing the manner of Jesus’ death and the earthquake that followed, made a confession of faith: “Truly this was the Son of God!” (Luke 23:47; Matt. 27:54; Mark 15:39). The late Canon John Fenton of Christ Church, Oxford, pointed out that this is the only confession of faith that Jesus is the Son of God in Mark’s Gospel.
Centurions were officers in the Roman army, comparable to sergeants in modern armies. They were in charge of 100 men, thus their name, and there were 60 centurions in a Roman Legion. Normally they were of plebeian background, soldiers who worked their way up to this rank by 15 to 20 years of service in the Legions. They were in charge of discipline and morale for their men, and were famous for their courage on the front lines of battle. When not in battle, they often were put in charge of special details like crucifixions or guarding prisoners. Julius, we are told, was a member of the Augustan Cohort, which was probably an honor given by the late Caesar Augustus.
The Jewish people despised the Romans who were their political masters, and longed for a Messiah that would drive the Romans out of their land, just as the Maccabees had driven out the Graeco-Syrian government of Antiochus Epiphanes almost 200 year earlier. The conflict between Jewish law and Roman law is demonstrated memorably by the trick question put to Jesus by the Pharisees: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” Jesus’, witty and wise reply is among his best-known sayings. Asking to see a coin, he asks, “Whose image is on this coin?” They reply, “It is Caesar’s.” Jesus replies, “Then render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and to God, that which is God’s” (Matt. 22:20-22). That effectively ends their hopes of trapping Jesus into either denouncing the Roman rule or denying Mosaic law.
It is significant that the Greek says “Caesar” instead of “the emperor.” Tiberius Caesar is a man; Caesar was the surname he took upon being made Princeps of Rome, following the example of Octavian before him, who took the assassinated Julius Caesar’s surname as his own.
The tension between Roman law, symbolized by Caesar, and Jewish law, symbolized by Jesus, who came to fulfill the law of Moses, is played out more dramatically in the arrest, trial, and crucifixion of Jesus. The Temple police arrest him, he is brought before the high priest and then the Sanhedrin, but it is the Roman procurator, Pontius Pilate, who has the power to order his crucifixion. The crowd cries out, “We have no king but Caesar,” when Pilate asks them “Should I crucify your king?” Jesus was legally executed, along with two other men who had been tried and found guilty by Roman law.
Humanly speaking, followers of Jesus should have then hated all Roman soldiers and wanted nothing to do with them. But there is another centurion who figures prominently in the end of Acts, as Luke tells how St. Paul finally made it to Rome to evangelize there: his name is Julius. He is an instrument of the Holy Spirit in accomplishing Paul’s vocation to preach to the Gentiles the good news of Jesus of Nazareth in a world ruled by Roman power, enforced by Roman legions.
In Acts 26, Paul, who has been imprisoned on account of a riot started by his fellow Jews in Jerusalem who are trying to kill him, appeals to Caesar, which was his right as a Roman citizen. King Agrippa says to the governor Festus, “This man could have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar.” Paul, along with other prisoners, is delivered to Julius, who is charged with bringing them all to Rome to await trial. Julius treated Paul kindly and gave him leave to go to his friends at their first port of call in Sidon to be cared for (Acts 27:3). Julius finds a ship headed for Rome and puts them all aboard for the voyage across the Mediterranean. Although he seemed to respect Paul, Julius paid more attention to the captain of the ship than to Paul’s admonitions about dangerous weather ahead.
When they are later caught in a tempest and losing all hope of being saved, Paul speaks to everyone on board:
Men, you should have listened to me and should not have set sail from Crete and incurred this injury and loss. I now bid you to take heart; for there will be no loss of life among you, but only of the ship. For this very night there stood by me an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I worship and he said, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul; you must stand before Caesar; and lo, God has granted you all these men who sail with you.’ So take heart, men, for I have faith in God that it will be exactly as I have been told. But we shall have to run on some island. (Acts 27:21-26)
Julius then decides to believe Paul and follow his advice. When they came upon an island and are in danger of breaking up on the rocks, some of the sailors were attempting to lower the small boat to escape. Paul says to Julius, “Unless these men stay in the ship, you cannot be saved.” Julius obeys his command and cuts away the lifeboat. The next day, the ship does start to break up on a shoal near the shore. The Roman soldiers’ plan was to kill all the prisoners to keep them from escaping, “but the centurion, wishing to save Paul, kept them from carrying out their purpose” (Acts 27:43) Paul has saved all their lives by relating God’s message. Now, believing him, Julius saves Paul’s life.
When they finally arrive in Rome, there is no mention of Julius in the RSV, but in the King James Version it says, “The centurion delivered the prisoners to the captain of the guard.” Both versions agree that “When we came to Rome, Paul was allowed to stay by himself with the soldier that guarded him.” Surely Julius’s good report is why.
So this centurion is a part of the success of Paul’s missionary trip — albeit as a prisoner — to the capital of the known world, Rome. Paul’s Roman citizenship got him the right to be sent to Rome to appeal to Caesar, but it was Julius, a pagan Roman centurion, who listened to him when they were in great peril, saved his life, and perhaps put in the good word that allowed Paul to preach and teach openly while awaiting trial. N.T. Wright emphasized the importance of the fact that Acts ends with St. Paul “living for two years in Rome at his own expense, preaching the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ quite openly and unhindered.”
God’s purpose to bring the gospel of Christ to the whole world was being carried out even by the Roman soldier who was in charge of the prisoner Paul. This story should inspire us to preach and teach whenever and however we can, realizing that we may find unexpected helpers along the way.
Was Julius the centurion among those who came to listen when Paul preached freely in Rome? Did he become one of Paul’s converts and join his fellow centurion, Cornelius, as a follower of “the Way”? We’ll never know. But he is an indispensable part of the gospel’s being spread to the powerful and wide Roman Empire, which was amazingly ready to hear the gospel and which, less than 300 years later, became officially Christian.