"Come and See": A Web Commentary on the Gospel of John: Section 5 Return to Cana

Section 5.1: The Healing of the Royal Official's Son (Jn 4.46b-53)


This royal official was likely in the service of the tetrarch Herod, who is referred to as a king in the gospels (see Brown 1966 p 190). Since Capernaum was on the border between Herod's territory and that of his brother Philip, he may have been involved with customs, but of course this is only speculation.

It seems odd, in light of the Synoptic tradition and Jn 1.12, to see someone from Capernaum needing to travel elsewhere to seek Jesus' help. The Beloved Disciple, who seems much more involved with Jesus' ministry in Judaea than that in Galilee, nevertheless begins his account of Jesus' signs with two miracles in Galilee, both in Cana. Is it possible that here John is offering us some reliable tradition about Jesus in Galilee and that our concentration on Capernaum as Jesus' Galilean home has distracted us from it? Even in the Synoptic tradition Jesus' words that 'the Son of Man has no where to lay his head' must be set in contradistinction to its emphasis on Capernaum. Possibly both Cana, where he apparently had connections, and Capernaum, where some members of his family lived, functioned as a home base to Jesus in Galilee.

It has become a common interpretation that this miracle is the same as or derived from the same tradition as the healing of the centurion's slave in Matt 8.5-13 and Luke 7.1-10. (See Bultmann 1976 pp 204-6; also see Brown 1966 pp 192-3 and Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke I-IX The Anchor Bible 28. (New York, London, Toronto, Sydney, Auckland, 1981), 648-50. [ADD OTHER REFS (CARSON, LINCOLN, KEENER??] As Bultmann observes, there are both striking similarities and striking differences between the two accounts, as we can see:

John 4.46b-53

Matthew 8.5-13

Luke 7.1-10

The father is an Herodian official

The master is a Roman centurion

Same as Matthew

He seeks healing for his dying son

He seeks healing for his 'pais'

He seeks healing for his slave.

The child is ill at Capernaum; Jesus and the official speak in Cana

All the action takes place in Capernaum

Same as Matthew

The father approaches Jesus directly

The centurion approaches Jesus directly.

The centurion requests healing through Jewish intermediaries

Jesus refuses the first request

Only one request is needed

Same as Matthew

Jesus agrees to the second request



Jesus heals at a distance

Same as John

Same as John (although Jesus does start out for the centurion's home)

The healing brings the whole household to faith

No mention is made of the centurion's household

Same as Matthew

Several factors seem clear. First the relation between the account in Matthew and that in Luke seems to be far closer than exists between either of them and the account in John. Second, there are several differences between the Johannine account and the other two. For example in John, the father is a royal official, probably an Herodian and therefore likely local, possibly even Jewish, in the other two the master is a Roman centurion and thus an occupier and a Gentile; in John's account, the first request is refused and the father needs to show persistence whereas in the other two, Jesus is at once agreeable to fulfilling the centurion's request. The Greek terms used make the identity of the person healed and his relationship to the petitioner ambiguous in Matthew. John makes clear that the child healed is the son of the petitioner. He is called 'son' (huios) explicitly in four verses (46b, 47, 50, 53). Thus when the boy is referred to as 'child' (paidion) in v49 and 'boy, lad' (pais) in v51 it is clear the same person is being referred to, and that person is the royal official's son. In Luke's version of the healing, the centurion asks for his slave (doulos) to be healed. Because 'doulos' is used in vv 2, 3, 10, and probably v 8, when 'pais' (which can mean either 'boy, lad' or 'young slave') is used in v 7 it is clear that it refers to the same person, the slave, who is thus specified to have been a child. Why Luke's centurion is concerned for the welfare of this slave, we are not told, except that the slave is valuable (entimos) to him. (In trying to understand how and why Luke's centurion said that his child-slave was valuable, it would not be out of place, I think, to consider this gravestone of a five-year-old household slave, set up by his former mistress, who knew his age to the hour, not the day, and described him as 'karissimus', most dear: http://www.ashmolean.org/ashwpress/latininscriptions/2014/08/01/he-lived-5-years-2-months-6-days-6-hours-the-roman-child-slave-and-the-woman-who-loved-him/ (accessed 08/11/2014). Objects like this open our eyes to the emotional complexities that could exist in this system, which is simultaneously similar to and different from the slavery that existed in the Americas. For an introduction to the problem of understanding ancient slavery, see M.I. Finley, Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology (Viking Press, New York: 1980).)

In Matthew, however, only one term is used, 'pais'. As we have seen, this word can mean simply a child or youth; it can, like the English word 'child', indicate a son or daughter; and it can refer to a young slave. On the basis of Matthew's text alone it is not absolutely clear whether we should take 'pais' to refer to the centurion's son or to his child-slave. The balance of probability is in favour of 'slave', I believe. We know that because of a decree of Augustus centurions and other legionary officers were forbidden to marry. I am sure that many centurions formed long-term but temporary relationships. But it seems likely that where such illicit families existed they were clandestine. This seems to make it somewhat more likely that the 'pais' is a slave here than a son. And if we take Luke's clearly related story into account, it is quite clear that Matthew's 'pais' must mean a slave.

If all three narratives refer to the same event, why does it appear so differently in John? Some commentators believe that Matthew with his choice of 'pais' to describe the healed youth represents the original wording in the tradition (whether written or oral); John interpreted it as 'son' while Luke interpreted it as 'slave'. While this would explain one problem, it does not touch the other issues, which are ascribed to such reasons as deliberate changes for theological reasons or differences in tradition sources. In the end, it seems that there is no final way to determine this question. One must decide for oneself what seems most probable.

Leaving this question aside and looking at the story as John presented it, we see the royal official traveling from Capernaum to Cana on this occasion to ask for help in his son's severe illness. Jesus' response seems harsh and strikingly inappropriate. As in the story of the Syro-Phoenician woman (Mk 7.24-30 ‖ Mt 15.21-8), Jesus' initial reply apparently ends the encounter with his rejection of the plea for help. In John's story, the simple repetition of the request ('Sir, come down before my child dies!') changes Jesus' attitude and his response. He heals the child and the father comes to trust in him and his word. But why did Jesus initially respond so harshly? And what is there about the father's reply that alters Jesus' response? Jesus' exasperation with what he seems to have seen as a failure by Galileans in general to respond to his message and his presence on a deeper level seems to have burst out against this father, who responds urgently and still trustingly. The quality of this second request, even in the face of Jesus' brusqueness, wins the day. The father, like Jesus' mother in the story of the Cana wedding, shows the marks of true trust in Jesus.We can see in this episode both John's memory of a very human Jesus and an example of faithfulness in asking.

When he encountered his slaves on the road, the father asked about the time his son's condition changed. That timing confirmed for him that Jesus was not simply showing his knowledge at a distance of what had happened in Capernaum but was responsible for the improvement. This led in turn to a deepening both of his trust in Jesus and that of the household.

[[Expand with discussion of the conclusion by some commentators, eg, Bultmann, that the changes in location betw ch 4-6 can only be explained by moving ch 5 to follow ch 6. See esp. Bultmann p 209-10.]]

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Unlike the ambiguous terminology used in the passages described above to refer to the person Jesus healed in this story, 'douloi' (the word translated 'slaves') is unambiguous in this verse. The Greek word 'doulos', of which 'douloi' is the plural form, literally means someone who was born into slavery as opposed to one who had become a slave. It is seldom used with such precision. I have chosen to translate it consistently in its Johannine occurences (Jn 8.34-5, 13.16, 15.15, 15.20, 18.10, 18.18, and 18.26, as well as here in Jn 4.51) as 'slave'. This helps to differentiate it from 'diakonos', 'servant' or 'attendent', which I have consistently rendered as 'servant' (Jn 2.5, 2.9, and 12.26).

Another dimension to the usage of 'doulos' in New Testament Greek is provided by the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, in which it was chosen as one of two words used to render the Hebrew 'ebed, or 'servant, slave, attendent' (the other being 'pais'. 'Pais' is used in the important Servant Texts of Is 42.1-4, 46.1-6, 50.4-7, and 52.13-53.12, but 'doulos' is often used when the person so described is the servant or courtier of a king. From this usage describing service to a ruler, the word developed to include human service to God: an individual such as Moses (Josh 14.7) can be described as the 'doulos' of God. But despite this there can be little doubt that the primary sense of 'doulos' in Biblical Greek is 'slave' (see The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Abridged in One Volume, G. Kittel et al, eds, s.v. doulos).

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