“But the Centurion and those with him guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and the other things that happened, they were filled with fear, saying, ‘Truly he was the Son of God.’”
“But the Centurion standing opposite from him saw that in this way he expired, he said, ‘Truly, this man was the Son of God.”
“But the Centurion saw the things that happened, glorifying God, he said, ‘This man was undoubtably righteous!’”
Have you ever been so surprised or impressed by something that you uttered words without thinking — they just came out? This is my perception of this comment by the Roman Centurion. Matthew also gives the impression that the various guards in the Centurion’s command may have been saying much the same thing, which also accounts for the variation between Luke and the other two Synoptic writers.
There is some question as to what the Centurion and/or guards meant when they exclaimed Jesus to be the Son of God. In fact, it should be noted that there is a certain vagueness in the Greek construction, permitting this phrase even to be translated as “Truly this was a son of god” (as is found in the New English Bible and the Jerusalem Bible). The definite article can be implied given the fact that the predicate nominative (Son of God) precedes the verb (called “Colwell’s Rule”). Yet, not all predicate nominatives that precede the verb are definite, giving some room for either translation.
Those who would translate the text as “a son of god” are observing that this is spoken by a Roman Centurion with no connection to or sympathies with the Jewish faith or its Messiah. Further, in the Roman world there was a notion about a category of “Divine Man” — people who were “miracle workers” like Apollonius of Tyanna and Asclepiades of Prusa (both who were contemporaries of Jesus. Even Pythagoras was considered to be a kind of “divine man” in this era. So, it could be that the Roman Centurion was simply connecting Jesus to these other so called “sons of god.”
On the other hand, one must also ask what it is that Matthew and Mark were intending to communicate here. The tone of what is said is most definitely that these soldiers, after having watched the death of Jesus take place, were overwhelmed with amazement. This implies that what the definite article should be present and is what the Evangelists meant for the readers to understand, otherwise they would have likely just let the statement fall into obscurity.
There is another piece of the puzzle when you include Luke’s account. Though Luke was not present at these events, he did his research and many interviews with eyewitnesses before writing his Gospel account (see Luke 1:1-4). Luke records not only that they identified Jesus as being righteous, but their statements glorified God. If what they were saying, wether intentional or unintentional on the part of the Romans, were designed in God’s providence, to glorify himself, then it seems reasonable that the phrase so uttered was, “truly this was the Son of God.”
And so, the first evangelist, in a sense, was a Roman soldier. This is not only a testimony to the power of God, but is also a reminder that the Gospel is and always was not just for Jews, but was for gentiles as well. God’s design was to call a people for himself from every tribe, tongue, and nation — he did so from the beginning — but made it clearly apparent in the life of Jesus as well as in the Great Commission that will follow the Resurrection. As the old hymn goes:
“In Christ now meet both east and west;
In Him meet south and north.
All Christly souls are one in Him
Throughout the whole wide earth.”