Roman Centurions in the New Testament

Centurion_4What was a Roman centurion? The name tells us that a centurion was an officer in charge of a “century” of 100 soldiers. More important, centurion is not a rank but a class of soldier within the Roman military structure. One historian noted that centurions were, “…formidable men who combined the functions and prestige of a modern company commander and sergeant-major or top sergeant.” Centurions were also chosen from the best of the best and their pay was seventeen times that of foot soldiers.


It is surprising that so many Roman centurions are mentioned in the New Testament. Two centurions are actually named in the New Testament! There are at least five and possibly seven if minor mentions refer to different centurions. Four centurions are described in a positive light and we have enough detail about some of them from multiple writers to get a glimpse into their character. We will discuss each of these men in future notices to the troops.


The Centurion and his Sick Servant – A centurion in Capernaum seeks Jesus’ healing power; note his standing with the local leaders—Matthew 8:5-13; Luke 7:1-10


The Centurion at the Cross – At the cross, a centurion says of Jesus, “Truly this was the Son of God.” (Matthew 27:54; Mark 15:39) and declares Him “righteous” (Luke 23:47), a term used by pagan Romans for their Emperor.


Centurion Cornelius – Cornelius, “a centurion of the Italian Cohort”—Acts 11:12, 17-18


Centurions at Paul’s Arrest and Protection – Centurions are mentioned prominently in the arrest (Acts 21:32), attempted whipping (22:22-29), custody (23:16-24), and escort of Paul to Rome (Acts 27).


Centurion Julius – Finally, we come to the last, Julius, (Acts 27:1) who was Paul’s custodian on his voyage, and who became interested in Paul, so much so that he saved him from death at the hands of the soldiers in the hour of threatened shipwreck.

Roman Military Units in the New Testament

You therefore must endure hardship as a good soldier of Jesus Christ.

II Timothy 2:3


Almost every military unit in the Roman Army, from the largest to the smallest, is referenced in some way in New Testament writings. This shows how pervasive the military was in the province of Judea and in the rest of the Roman Empire. Military terms and references form an important part of New Testament vocabulary.


 Roman LegionLegions  –  The legionis was the largest unit of soldiers in the Roman Army. It consisted of 5,000 to 7,000 men depending on how many were Romans and how many were auxiliaries or conscripts from the local province. The legionary soldiers encountered in Jerusalem during the time of the Gospels were with Legio X Fretensis (headquartered in Caesarea Maritima). Legio III Gallica was garrisoned in Decapolis and Legio VI Ferrata in Galilee. Around 66 AD, during the Jewish-Roman War, Legio XII Fulminata and two other legions from Syria joined the siege of Jerusalem. A total of six legions (30,000-35,000 soldiers) participated in the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD.

The term legion was used as a hyperbole when large numbers were meant. A demon was named Legion, “for we are many” in Mark 5:9 and Luke 8:30.

Jesus could have called “twelve legions of angels” (60,000-70,000 angels) to His defense when He was arrested. (Matthew 26:53)


 Roman CohortCohort  –  An army cohort consisted of about one tenth of a legion, or 600-700 men. A cohort would contain about six centuries or centurea. The King James translation calls a cohort a “band.” The term cohort could also mean a unit of more than 100 soldiers.

Modern translations use the term cohort or regiment in such passages as:

A cohort was involved in Jesus’ arrest, trial, torture, and crucifixion. (John 18:3, 12;

Matthew 27:27; Mark 15:16)

Centurion Cornelius was assigned to the Italian Cohort. (Acts 10:1)

A cohort commander took charge of Paul’s protective custody in Jerusalem when Jews tried to kill him. (Acts 21:31)

Centurion Julius from the Augustus’ Regiment accompanied Paul from Caesarea to Rome. (Acts 27:1)


 Century  –  A Roman centuria consisted of 80-100 soldiers. There could be as many as 60 centuries in a legion. Although a century of soldiers is not mentioned by name in the Bible, there are numerous references of its commander called a centurion. (More in a future chronicle about centurions!)


 Jesus Tomb GuardGuard  –  Called a “watch” in Matthew 27:65-66; 28:11. This was a squad of 4-16 soldiers sent to guard Jesus tomb. They were ineffective against the power of Almighty God in raising Jesus from the dead!




 Squad of Four  –  Called a “quaternion” in Acts 12:4 where four quaternions (16 soldiers) were assigned to guard Peter in prison. Four quaternions were not enough! An angel miraculously freed Peter during the night where he was chained between two soldiers, took him past two guard posts, and set him free in the street of Jerusalem. (Acts 12:5-10)

Roman Kings, Governors, Officials in the New Testament

Roman Kings and GovernorsRepresentatives of the Roman government are everywhere in the Gospels, Acts, and Epistles. Wherever Jesus and the apostles went, they encounter Roman officials whose authority sometimes worked against them and sometimes helped them.

Jesus’ last words to His apostles sent them across the Roman Empire and beyond: “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8 NKJV)


The Herodian Kingdom

The kings mentioned in the New Testament ruled the Herodian Kingdom of Judea as a client state of Rome. When the Roman Army conquered Judea and its surrounding regions in the first century BC, they left nominally Jewish kings in place and appointed Roman governors and other officials to deal with them. Roman governors controlled troops in what became the imperial provinces of Judea and Syria. As long as tribute money flowed to Rome and there were no civil disturbances, all went well.


HerodtheGreatHerod the Great

The first king mentioned in the New Testament is “Herod the king.” (Matthew 2:1) He was king at the time of Jesus’ birth who slaughtered the infants in Bethlehem. He was responsible for large public works in Judea and especially in Jerusalem. He rebuilt what is today called the Second Temple. Upon his death, Rome divided Judea into a four-district tetrarchy among Herod’s three sons and one daughter.


Herod Antipas

Antipas was the son of Herod the Great known in the New Testament as “Herod the tetrarch.” (Matthew 14:1) He was technically not a king. He ordered John the Baptist beheaded. According to Luke 23:6-7, Pilate, on learning that Jesus was a Galilean and therefore under Herod’s local jurisdiction, sent him to Antipas, who was in Jerusalem at the time. Oddly, the exchange between Pilate and Herod regarding Jesus formed a closer bond between the two men. (Luke 23:12)


Herod Agrippa I

Born Marcus Julius Agrippa, the grandson of Herod the Great, Agrippa was educated in Rome with the son of Emperor Tiberius and the young Claudius. When Emperor Caligula sent Agrippa to Jerusalem as a young man, he deposed his uncle Herod Antipas, took over his tetrarchy, and called himself a king. Acts 12:1–23 tells how “Herod the king” persecuted the Jerusalem church, had James the apostle killed, and imprisoned Peter. Agrippa died a gruesome death (Acts 12:20-23) when he encouraged people to worship him as a god.


Herod Agrippa II

The son of Herod Agrippa I was born and raised in Rome and assumed his father’s throne at the age of seventeen. He and his sister Bernice (herself queen of another Judean region) listened attentively to Paul’s testimony of salvation at the invitation of Governor Felix. (Acts 25:13-27)

Later, Agrippa tried without success to avert war between Rome and Judea. He was ejected from Jerusalem as a Roman collaborator and lived out the First Roman-Jewish War (66-73 AD) in Rome before he died, thus ending the Herodian dynasty and any further mention of Herodian kings in the New Testament.



The emperor’s representative in the imperial province of Judea is called a governor in the King James translation of the Bible. His Roman title would be prefect, praetor, or propraetor depending on whether he held rank of consul in the Senate and had imperial authority to command troops.


Pontius Pilate and JesusPontius Pilate

Pontius Pilate the governor” is known in the New Testament as the Roman official who presided over the conviction and crucifixion of Jesus Christ. (Matthew 27: 15-54) Secular historians describe his administration of Judea as troubled by ongoing conflicts with the Jewish community. Historians note that Pilate often stirred Jewish anger with his offensive decrees and then brutality suppressed protests. He was eventually dismissed from his post as governor for being ineffective in being able to control his subjects.


Antonius Felix 

The Apostle Paul was sent in protective custody to Caesarea after a Roman centurion petitioned “Felix the governor” to hear the apostle’s case. (Acts 23:25-30) History indicates that Felix was a procurator with administrative and judicial responsibilities who also warranted the title of Governor. Paul’s trial ended in a stalemate and yet Paul was kept in loose confinement. On at least one further occasion Felix and his wife Drusilla heard Paul’s testimony, and frequently sent for Paul and talked with him about Christ (Acts 24:24-26). When Felix was succeeded as governor by Porcius Festus, having already detained Paul for two years, he left him imprisoned as a favor to the Jews (Acts 24:27).


Porcius Festus

The governor after Felix was pressured by the leaders in Jerusalem to send Paul to them for a hearing (intending to kill Paul there). Festus refused and insisted that they come to Caesarea. (Acts 25:1-5) Paul’s defense against false accusations was that he had never done anything against the Law of Moses, the Temple, or Caesar. (vv. 7-8) When Festus pressured him to go to Jerusalem where his life would be endangered, Paul exercised his right as a Roman citizen and appealed his case Caesar (Nero). (vv. 9-12)



A representative of the provincial governor is usually called a deputy in King James Bible. Some are mentioned by name and others simply by their title in conjunction with the Apostle Paul’s ministry. Roman historians call these men proconsuls.



In Corinth, Jews rioted over Paul’s bold preaching which resulted in the chief of the synagogue believing on Christ. Many others in the city also believed and this fueled a public disturbance that brought Paul before Gallio, “the deputy of Achaia.” (Acts 18:12) Gallio heard the accusation against Paul that he had violated the civil law. When Gallio sat in the bema seat and heard that the charges were about offenses involving the Jewish religion, he dismissed the charges as an internal Jewish matter. He deemed Paul’s preaching to be not against Roman law, but still left Paul to be beaten by the mob. (vv. 13-17)


Sergius Paulus

On the island of Paphos, “the deputy of the country, Sergius Paulus” heard about Paul and  Barnabas and desired to hear what they had to say. When he saw Paul miraculously make a local sorcerer blind, he “believed, being astonished at the doctrine of the Lord.” (Acts 13:6-12)


Other Government Officials


Tax CollectorPublicans

Tax collection figures in several New Testament passages. The collection of taxes and tribute was one of the primary reasons for maintaining a Roman presence in the provinces. Locals would handle the tax collection under the supervision and with the enforcement of Rome. Taxes generated revenue that allowed the Roman elite to maintain their luxurious lifestyles, to build monuments and temples to their gods, and to finance military adventures.

The decree from Caesar Augustus, “that all the world should be taxed,” (Luke 2:1) resulted in the Messiah being born in Bethlehem to fulfill prophecy.

Jesus “saw a publican, named Levi, sitting at the receipt of custom” (Luke 5:27) and called the man known as Matthew (his Greek name) to follow Him. Matthew was a Jewish collaborator with the Romans to collect taxes and likely would have had military guards to protect him from retribution and his receipts from theft.



Magistrates in Philippi heard accusations against Paul and Barnabas for depriving idol manufacturers of their trade and causing a riot. The resulting order was for sergeants to beat Paul and Barnabas and imprison them. The Philippian jailer and his family were saved that night and in the morning Paul informed the magistrates that he and Barnabas were Roman citizens, had been beaten and imprisoned improperly, and demanded an apology. (Acts 16:19-40)

Magistrates were officials appointed by a consul or governor to preside over the administration of justice in a Roman province or colony. They were attended by sergeants, called lictors or “rod bearers” in Latin.

In Acts 16:20, 22, 35-36, 38, the Greek word strategos, is translated magistrate. In Luke 22:4, 52; Acts 4:1; 5:24, 26 it is translated magistrate or captain. It signifies a leader having military authority.

The Greek word archon, is rendered magistrate in Luke 12:58; Titus 3:1. It literally means a prince, but was also used for any official with governmental or ruling authority.

A Reminder in Perilous Times

Praying Soldier








Soldiers, we live in perilous times!

Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil;

Who put darkness for light, and light for darkness;

Who put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!

Isaiah 5:20


Some of our fellow soldiers are confused, frightened, exhausted by the battle. When it seems like the foe is gaining ground and ready to storm the ramparts, remember to pray. The Creator of the Universe is still in control of all that happens. It was the prophet Habakkuk who reminded God’s people that conditions would get worse, but God’s people will not give up.

He knows that your heart is disquieted as you stand your watch in the darkness. It’s time to pray. Be strong in the Lord and the power of His might. (Ephesians 6:10) Reinforcements will be here soon!

O Lord, how long shall I cry,

And You will not hear?

Even cry out to You, “Violence!”

And You will not save.


Why do You show me iniquity,

And cause me to see trouble?

For plundering and violence are before me;

There is strife, and contention arises.


Therefore the law is powerless,

And justice never goes forth.

For the wicked surround the righteous;

Therefore perverse judgment proceeds.

I will stand my watch

And set myself on the rampart,

And watch to see what He will say to me,

And what I will answer when I am corrected.


Then the Lord answered me and said:

“Write the vision

And make it plain on tablets,

That he may run who reads it.


For the vision is yet for an appointed time;

But at the end it will speak, and it will not lie.

Though it tarries, wait for it;

Because it will surely come,

It will not tarry.


“Behold the proud,

His soul is not upright in him;

But the just shall live by his faith.

                         Habakkuk 1:2-4; 2:1-4 (NKJV)

Roman Emperors in the New Testament Era

Roman Emperors in the New TestamentThe first-century AD covered by the New Testament Scriptures is unique in history because it overlaps almost exactly with what is called the Roman Julio-Claudian imperial dynasty. The first  five Roman emperors—Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero— came from the two branches of the imperial family: the Julia (Julii Caesares) and Claudia (Claudii Nerones).


Augustus (Octavian) Caesar—27 BC-14 AD The first emperor mentioned in the Gospels is Octavian. “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.” (Luke 2:1) He was the adopted son of Julius Caesar and the first of the Imperial era to control Rome. He became the undisputed and sole emperor after defeating Mark Antony and Cleopatra at the great maritime Battle of Actium in 31 BC.


Coin Tiberius -30

Tiberius Caesar—14-37 AD John the Baptist began his public ministry in Tiberius’ reign (around 26/27 AD). “Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar… the word of God came unto John the son of Zacharias in the wilderness.” (Luke 3:1a, 2b) The city of Tiberius was named for the emperor and is referenced in John 6:23. The city was located on the Sea of Galilee, which was also known as the Sea of Tiberius and is referenced in John 6:1. Many other references to Caesar (or “the emperor” in some other translations), without further specification, would seem to refer to Tiberius. Similarly, the “tribute penny” (KJV) or “denarius” (NKJV) in Matthew 22:19, Mark 12:15, Luke 20:24 was probably a silver denarius coin bearing the image of Emperor Tiberius.


 Gaius (Caligula) Julius Caesar—37-41 AD The great-nephew of Tiberius followed Tiberius as emperor. There is no specific mention of him in the Bible. The  early half of his five-year reign was relatively uneventful, but when an illness upset his mental stability, he embarked on a reign of terror against enemies real and imagined. (He was nicknamed Caligula, or “little soldier’s boot” because as a child he accompanied his father General Germanicus on military campaigns in Germania.)


Coin Claudius -25Tiberius Claudius Caesar—41-54 AD Caligula was succeeded in 41 AD by his uncle, Claudius, who invaded Britain in 43 AD. Claudius was the emperor when a famine in 44 AD prompted Saul and Barnabas to take a gift from the church in Antioch to Christians in Jerusalem. (Acts 11:27-30) Though in general Claudius treated the Jews, especially those in Asia and Egypt, with great indulgence, in approximately 49 AD he banished Jews from the city of Rome. (Acts 17:7) This banishment included Aquila and Priscilla (Acts 18:2). In this edict the Christians were included because they were, as was supposed by Rome at that time, a sect of Judaism. According to the Roman historian Tacitus who wrote in 52 AD, the ejection of Jews from Rome was because the Jews were always fighting about “Cristos”—possibly a reference to the ongoing conflict between traditional Orthodox Jews and Jewish Christians. This banishment from Rome lasted only a few years until things calmed down and Jews were allowed to return.


Statue Nero -25Nero Claudius Caesar—54-68 AD Claudius was followed by his 17-year-old stepson Nero in 54 AD. Paul appealed to the Emperor Nero in 57 AD. (Acts 25:11) It is believed that Paul was subsequently acquitted after a hearing before the emperor in about 62 AD. Nero later turned into a brutal psychopath (again possibly due to a medical condition that caused insanity), blamed Christians for the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD, and sent many to their deaths in the Roman Amphitheatre. Both Paul and Peter were executed by Nero around the time of the start of the Roman-Jewish War in 66 AD, when anti-Jewish frenzy was at its height.


 The Year of the Four Emperors—68/69 AD The suicide of the emperor Nero in 68 AD ended the Julio-Claudian family dynasty and was followed by fourteen months of civil war. The Year of the Four Emperors, 68/69 AD, was a violent and tumultuous period when four emperors ruled in succession: Galba, Otho, Vitellius, and Vespasian.


 Caesar Vespasianus (Vespasian) Augustus—60-79 AD Vespasian is not mentioned in the Bible, but was the emperor responsible for what is called the First Jewish-Roman War, 66-73 AD. He personally led early battles in Judea and then sent his son, Titus, to destroy the city of Jerusalem in 70 AD. Titus eventually wiped out the last resistance at the siege of Masada in 73 AD.


 Caesar (Domitian) Augustus—81-96 AD Domitian is the last emperor with some bearing on the New Testament. He was the emperor when the Apostle John wrote the Book of Revelation near the end of the first century AD. When Domitian ordered people to give him divine worship, Jews, and no doubt Christians, refused. The resulting persecution of Jews and Christians is well-documented. The bloodthirsty beast in Revelation 13 and 14 is the Antichrist, but some think it could also be an allusion to the rule of Emperor Domitian.



Roman Paganism and the New Testament

Roman PaganismThe word “pagan” is a 14th-century word used to distinguish between a Christian believer and a non-Jewish non-Christian. The Latin paganus meant a villager, rustic person, civilian, non-soldier. The term later came to mean a Roman or Greek who, though they worshiped false gods, was more cultured than a heathen or barbarian. Obviously, Romans and many others did not think of themselves as pagans. Going back to the 5th century BC, cultures “borrowed” or “adopted” mythical gods from others cultures and gave them their own names.

The Romans did not follow a “religion” as we understand its meaning today. Roman theology was borrowed from Greek philosophy and had little to do with faith, spirituality, priests, or worship. What we call religion today Romans observed in a complex set of external traditions, rituals, festivals, feasts, and practices that intertwined with everyday cultural and civic life. Spiritual comfort during difficult times was found in extended families or in city life through clubs and trade guilds.

The accepted pagan cultures in the Roman Empire were in constant conflict with orthodox, monotheistic Judaism and budding Christianity. The rise of apostolic Christianity and the spread of the Gospel were destined to challenge Roman public life and “turn the world upside down.” (Acts 17:6)


Pagan Temple RuinsFellow soldiers, we live in a ruined world that is much like ancient Rome where people go about their daily lives with no thought of God or a personal relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. It’s too easy for us to let here-and-now thinking invade our minds and break our spiritual concentration. Our thoughts can wander to pleasures, riches, shiny new objects; we forget that we are soldiers of our Great Commander! His order is this: “Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth. (Colossians 3:2)

Like a sentry on guard duty, we cannot allow ourselves to doze off. We must stay alert at all times—eyes and ears wide open, swords at the ready, patrolling constantly, checking the gates, challenging every intruder! “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.” (I Peter 5:8)

While it’s good to care for our own self-defense and protection, we also have orders to be witnesses. Watch (be sensitive) for those who need a Savior and be ready to tell them of the One who died for them and rose again. “Walk in wisdom toward those who are outside, redeeming the time. Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned with salt, that you may know how you ought to answer each one.” (Colossians 4:5) If you ever become discouraged, remember our Greek brethren who, “turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God.” (I Thessalonians 1:9)

Before we realize, our night patrol will be over. We’ll set our weapons down, join our comrades, and finally meet our Commander face to face. Until then, soldiers, remember —

Stay alert!

        Take your weapons!

                   Fight on!

The Roman Empire and the New Testament

Ancient city of RomeThe New Testament Gospels and Epistles span a time in Roman history between approximately 4 and 90 AD. The birth of Jesus Christ took place within one generation of the start of the Roman Principate (Imperial) period which began in 28 BC and ended the five hundred-year Roman Republic. The Imperial age was the beginning of powerful one-man dictatorships in Rome which did away with the classical republican government run by a Senate of representatives elected by elite Italian families.

It was God’s sovereign purpose that “in the fullness of time” the Jewish Messiah would be born in the frontier province of Judea where He taught, performed miracles, died by crucifixion, and arose from the dead under Roman military occupation.

Christianity began to spread throughout the Western world in the first century in a time of relative peace—the Pax Romana. The Gospel’s rapid spread benefited from an orderly Roman infrastructure of universal commercial languages (Latin, Greek, Aramaic), written laws that favored its citizens and freedmen, a common currency, and an Empire-wide road and sea transportation network.

The Roman government began to persecute Jews and Christians for their faith in the middle of the first century. Jews were banished from Rome in 49 AD and most Christians in the city were caught up in the expulsion. “a certain Jew named Aquila, born in Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla (because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to depart from Rome)” (Acts 18:2) Some believers like Aquila and Priscilla returned to Rome five years later after Claudius died. “Greet Priscilla and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus,” (Romans 16:3)  “Aquila and Priscilla greet you heartily in the Lord, with the church that is in their house.” I Corinthians 16:19)

Roman rule in Judea near the end of the century experienced years of rebellion and guerrilla warfare ending with the complete destruction of the Temple and the City of David in 70 AD. The Roman historian Josephus wrote that 1.1 million people died in the siege of Jerusalem, many by crucifixion. Those who survived the destruction entered the Jewish Diaspora which only began to reverse when the State of Israel was founded in 1948 AD.

Even our brethren in Sardis of Lydia are not immune to the wiles of our adversary. This warning from our Commander is for us soldiers too:

Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die, for I have not found your works perfect before God. Remember therefore how you have received and heard; hold fast and repent. Therefore if you will not watch, I will come upon you as a thief, and you will not know what hour I will come upon you.” (Revelation 3:2-3)

Soldiers, listen. We serve in this army in perilous times. Now, more than ever, we must be alert to spiritual dangers that will lull us into complacency before they attack. Hold out because our Commander and His army are on their way! Until then, remember —

Stay alert!

       Take your weapons!

                 Fight on!

The Centurion Chronicles

INVICTUSWelcome fellow soldiers!

Your cohort leader here with important news for all troops. Today is the first installment on a blog series with short lessons about the Christian’s spiritual warfare. Roman military examples, illustrations, and metaphors are replete in the New Testament. I invite other soldiers to join me in a series I’ve called The Centurion Chronicles. We’re reminded in Ephesians 6:10-13 that our enemies are not physical but spiritual. God issued us all the spiritual armor and weapons that we need to fight our daily battle. Our duty, fellow soldiers, is to train ourselves and use them!

Finally, my brethren, be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.” (NKJV)

We’ll take our time looking at Roman soldiers in the New Testament and lessons we can learn from them. Some military men are laudatory and others shameful, but we can learn from them and move forward. We’re all centurions together in this battle!

Make no mistake, fellow soldiers—living the Christian life is a moment-by-moment battle against spiritual forces intent on causing us to stumble, fall, and stay wounded on the battlefield. But God has made us more than conquerors in Christ and INVICTUS is our motto for the coming campaign. See you at our next formation!

Stay alert!

Take your weapons!

Fight on!