Clavius is not actually mentioned by name in the Bible. However, there is a Roman centurion who appears in the New Testament gospels who some scholars believe may be the same person referred to as Clavius in later Christian traditions. Let’s examine the biblical evidence surrounding this Roman soldier and how his story developed in church history and legend.
The Centurion at the Crucifixion
The only definite biblical reference to the centurion who would later become identified as Clavius occurs in the accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion in the Gospels. Matthew 27:54, Mark 15:39, and Luke 23:47 all mention a Roman centurion who was present at the cross and who declared Jesus to be the Son of God after witnessing the supernatural events accompanying his death.
For example, Mark 15:39 (NKJV) states:
So when the centurion, who stood opposite Him, saw that He cried out like this and breathed His last, he said, “Truly this Man was the Son of God!”
Though none of the Gospels name this centurion, he had an important role as the first human to proclaim Jesus as God’s Son at the crucifixion. His confession provides powerful testimony to Christ’s identity and work on the cross.
The Apocryphal Acts of Pilate
The first written work to identify and expand on the centurion at the crucifixion outside of the Bible appears to be the apocryphal Acts of Pilate, likely composed in the 4th century AD. This text aimed to recount the official records of Pontius Pilate regarding Jesus’ trial and execution.
In the Acts of Pilate, the centurion is referred to as Longinus. In addition, the text asserts that Longinus was healed of poor eyesight by the blood that flowed from Jesus’ side when it was pierced at the crucifixion. The Acts of Pilate thus assigns a name and a bit of backstory to the formerly anonymous biblical character.
The Legend of Saint Longinus
Building on the Acts of Pilate, further embellishments were added to the tale of the centurion in later medieval legends surrounding a Saint Longinus. He began to be venerated as one of the saints who had encountered Christ during the Passion.
The 11th-century chronicler Rudolf of Fulda provided a full account of the evolving legends surrounding Longinus. According to Rudolf, Longinus was a blind Roman centurion who had been told that the blood of Christ could restore his sight. Upon witnessing the darkening of the sun at the crucifixion, Longinus declared “Truly this man was the Son of God.” Longinus then approached Jesus’ body, touched his eyes to the blood from the spear wound, and his vision was instantly restored.
Later additions expanded the story further. Longinus was said to have converted to Christianity after the crucifixion. He left the Roman army, took the name Cassius, and eventually died as a martyr. His spear, known as the “Holy Lance,” was revered as a holy relic with mystical powers. Saint Longinus’ feast day was set as March 15th.
Questionable Historical Reliability
Modern scholars largely reject these pious legends about Saint Longinus, finding only the original unnamed centurion in the gospels to be historically credible. Details like the healing of blindness and conversion to Christianity entered Christian tradition centuries after the New Testament period. The spear revered as the “Holy Lance” has questionable provenance as an actual relic from the crucifixion.
However, the general tendency to elaborate on this centurion is understandable given his crucial role as the first human witness to Christ’s true identity at the cross. Though details like the name Longinus and spear miracle are likely fiction, the core fact of the centurion’s confession remains pivotal Biblical testimony to Jesus as the divine Son of God.
The Centurion’s Pre-Crucifixion Role
Given the centurion’s importance at the cross, another natural question arises – what was his relationship to Jesus prior to the crucifixion? The Gospels provide some clues that flesh out his earlier involvement in Christ’s ministry and passion.
Faith in Jesus’ Authority
The most direct gospel glimpse at the centurion before the crucifixion comes in Matthew 8. Here the centurion approaches Jesus asking for healing for his paralyzed servant. When Jesus offers to travel to his home for the healing, the centurion displays great faith and humility:
The centurion answered and said, “Lord, I am not worthy that You should come under my roof. But only speak a word, and my servant will be healed.” (Matthew 8:8 NKJV)
Jesus commends the centurion for having more faith than anyone in Israel. The passage depicts the centurion as having confidence in Christ’s authority and divine power. His later confession at the cross builds on this earlier belief.
Oversight of the Crucifixion
The other gospel hints about the centurion focus on his direct administrative role in Jesus’ execution. As a Roman military commander, he would have been selected to oversee key aspects of the crucifixion proceedings.
For example, Mark 15:39 says the centurion “stood opposite him” during the crucifixion. Matthew 27:54 states the centurion and those with him were “afraid” and “glorified God” after the supernatural signs surrounding Christ’s death. The centurion seems to have had a front row view of the entire crucifixion drama.
As a leader of 100 Roman soldiers, the centurion also likely carried out the work of physically nailing Jesus to the crossbeam and hoisting up the completed cross. Though not directly stated, his position implies heavy involvement.
So the centurion directly witnessed much of Christ’s crucifixion sufferings prior to his climactic confession. This gave him an informed perspective when he finally declared Jesus as God’s Son.
Presence at the Tomb
Interestingly, Matthew 27:65-66 documents that the centurion and his soldiers were also assigned to stand guard at Jesus’ tomb after the crucifixion. So the centurion saw both the actual death of Christ as well as the sealed tomb. This positioned him as a potentially important eyewitness to both the crucifixion and resurrection, which may have influenced his later convictions about Jesus.
The Meaning of the Declaration
The centurion’s powerful statement at the cross remains one of the key declarations about Jesus’ identity in the gospels. Let’s explore the possible meanings behind his confession that “Truly this man was the Son of God.”
Literally Declaring Christ’s Divine Sonship
The most straightforward reading is that the centurion, after witnessing the supernatural darkness and earthquake after Jesus’ death, came to recognize Christ’s literal divine identity and authority.
As discussed earlier, Psalm 2:7 refers to God conferring His Sonship on the Messiah. The centurion appears to be proclaiming that Jesus was uniquely God’s own divine Son. This aligns with the later orthodox doctrine of Christ’s divinity and eternal Sonship within the Trinity.
Proclaiming Jesus as the Messiah
Alternatively, some scholars propose the centurion may have meant his words in a Messianic sense without implying Christ was literally God. The phrase “Son of God” could act as a title for the expected Messianic King descended from David. The centurion may have essentially declared, “This man was the promised royal Messiah!”
However, in the context of the crucifixion, a Messianic interpretation seems less likely. A brutal execution seemed to contradict kingly honor. The centurion crucifying Christ would probably not conclude he was the conquering Messiah mid-death.
Ascribing Righteousness or Innocence
A third option is that the centurion intended to praise Jesus’ righteous character in facing death, without necessarily equating him ontologically with God. Declaring someone a “son of God” could act as a statement of honor or virtue.
Similarly, the centurion may have meant to proclaim Jesus’ innocence of any crime deserving execution. In this reading, “Truly this man was the Son of God” = “This man truly was innocent and did not deserve this death.”
However, these meaning are less likely in the whole biblical context emphasizing Jesus as the unique divine Son.
A Turning Point in Christology
No matter what exact nuance informed the centurion, scholars mark his statement as a vital turning point. His public exclamation before witnesses shifted perspective on Jesus from a merely human prophet to a figure of divine authority.
This launched the progression in understanding Jesus’ identity that led steadily to the orthodox doctrines of Christ’s divinity, eternal Sonship, and incarnation that took full form in the 4th-century council decrees.
The Meaning for the Christian Faith
Beyond historical context, the centurion’s declaration holds vital significance for Christian theology and spirituality. Let’s explore key lessons surrounding this statement of belief.
Affirming Jesus’ Divinity and Authority
The most direct implication of the centurion’s words is to affirm orthodox Christian teaching on Christ’s divine status and authority. As explored earlier, the centurion’s exclamation marked an early testimony to recognize Jesus as rightfully bearing the title “Son of God” in a divine sense.
This truth undergirds later doctrines like the Trinity and incarnation. It impacts how Christians understand Jesus’ supernatural power, miracles, authority to forgive sins, and sovereignty over the church.
Displaying Saving Faith
In confessing Jesus’ Sonship, the centurion sets an example of true saving faith. His words fulfill Christ’s promise that “whoever confesses Me before men, him I will also confess before My Father in heaven” (Matthew 10:32 NKJV). Christians believe that declaring faith in Christ’s identity and work is essential for salvation.
Demonstrating the Importance of Witness
The centurion stands as a lesson on the importance of personal testimony and witness. His firsthand account of the crucifixion events carry unique weight and influence. Christians are similarly called to share their own experiences of Christ’s work and identity. The centurion should inspire boldness in witness.
Proving Christ’s Resurrection Power
Finally, the centurion’s story substantiates Jesus’ resurrection. This hostile Roman soldier was converted by what he witnessed the cross. As Paul argues in 1 Corinthians 15, the vigorous growth of early Christian faith after the crucifixion is inexplicable without the reality of the resurrection. The centurion lived proof of the gospel’s transformative and supernatural power.
In summary, the biblical centurion who proclaimed Jesus as God’s Son remains a towering figure for Christianity. His dramatic confession at the cross speaks to Christ’s deity and the meaning of faith. Details about his entire experience with Jesus lend historical and theological weight.
Later traditions expanded his story and converted him into Saint Longinus. But at its core, this nameless Roman soldier plays an irreplaceable role in the Biblical crucifixion narrative and Christian understanding of Christ’s identity. His words capture a pivotal breakthrough in apprehending Jesus’ authority as the divine Son and Messiah.
All Christians should strive to echo the centurion’s marveling declaration: “Truly this man was the Son of God!” This remains one of the most important confessions of faith found in Scripture. Just as Jesus commended the centurion for his insight, so should Christians continue to follow this soldier’s example of recognizing and proclaiming Christ’s true glory revealed at Calvary.