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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

The Second Sign at Cana or Capernaum (Mt 8:5–13; Lk 7:1–10; Jn 4:46–53 )


Mt 8:5–13 Lk 7:1–10 Jn 4:46–53
5When he entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him appealing to him 6and saying, ‘Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, in terrible distress.’ 1After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. 2A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. 46Then he came again to Cana in Galilee where he had changed the water into wine. Now there was a royal official whose son lay ill in Capernaum.
3When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to heal his slave. 4When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, ‘He is worthy to have you do this for him, 5for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us’ 47When he heard that Jesus had come from Judea to Galilee, he went and begged him to come down and heal his son, for he was on the point of death. 48Then Jesus said to him, ‘Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.’ 49The official said to him, ‘Sir, come down before my little boy dies.’ 50Jesus said to him, ‘Go, your son will live.’ The man believed the word that Jesus spoke to him and started on his way.
7And he said to him, ‘I will come and cure him.’ the centurion answered, ‘Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only speak the word, and my servant will be healed. 9For I also am a man under authority, with soldiers under me, and I say to one, “Go”, and he goes, and to another, “Come”, and he comes, and to my slave, “Do this”, and the slave does it.’ 10When Jesus heard him, he was amazed and said to those who followed him, ‘Truly I tell you in no one in Israel have I found such faith.’ 6And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, ‘Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; 7therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and my servant will be healed. 8For I also am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, “Go”, and he goes, and to another, “Come”, and he comes, and to my slave, “Do this”, and the slave does it.’ 9When Jesus heard this, he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, ‘I tell you not even in Israel have I found such faith.’
11I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, 12while the heirs of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ Lk 13:28–29 28 There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, and you yourselves thrown out. 29 Then people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God.
13And to the centurion Jesus said, ‘Go, let it be done for you according to your faith.’ And the servant was healed in that hour. 10When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health. 51 As he was going down, his slaves met him and told him that his child was alive. 52So he asked them the hour when he began to recover, and they said to him, ‘Yesterday at one in the afternoon the fever left him.’ 53The father realized that this was the hour when Jesus had said to him, ‘Your son will live.’ So he himself believed, along with his whole household.

The relationship between the three accounts of the miraculous cure of the official's boy at Capernaum poses unusual problems. It is the only healing story shared by John and the Synoptic Gospels, and the only miracle story in the material normally assigned to Q (i.e. double tradition of Matthew and Luke without Mark). There are also unmistakable similarities with two other stories, one the story of the Syro-Phoenician woman's daughter (similarly healed at a distance) and the other a miracle-story about Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa.


First the link with the Markan tradition of the cure of the Syro-Phoenician's daughter (Mk 7:25–30 ǁ Mt 15:22–8 ) should be outlined:

  • 1. In each gospel this is the only miracle worked for a Gentile.

  • 2. The parent comes to Jesus asking for the healing.

  • 3. The dialogue between Jesus and the suppliant is reported.

  • 4. The faith of the Gentile is contrasted with that of the Jews.

  • 5. Jesus praises the parent's faith.

  • 6. The cure is effected at a distance.

Such detailed similarity cannot be wholly coincidental. One explanation is that there was an outline story in the oral tradition which took on the two or three slightly different forms in the tradition expressed by Mark, Matthew/Luke, and John.

Hanina ben Dosa was a well-known rabbi in Palestine in the generation after Jesus. Of him several wonders are related, among them this story:

Once Rabban Gamliel's son fell ill. He sent two learned men to R. Hanina ben Dosa to beg God's mercy for him. R. Hanina saw them coming and went to an upstairs room and asked God's mercy for the boy. When he came down he said to them, ‘Go! The fever has left him.’ They asked him, ‘Are you a prophet?’ He replied, ‘I am not a prophet or the son of a prophet. But this I have received from tradition: if my prayer of intercession flows unhesitatingly from my mouth, I know it will be answered; if not, I know it will be rejected.’ They sat down and wrote and noted the exact moment at which he said this. When they got back to Rabban Gamliel he said to them, ‘By the Temple Service, you are neither too early nor too late but this is what happened: in that moment the fever left him and he asked for water.’

This story teaches the lesson that R. Hanina, though not a prophet (despite the allusions to 1 Kings 17:19; Am 7:14 ), had the healing gift and intercessory power of a prophet. It shares with the gospel story the following elements:

  • 1. Cure of a child at a distance.

  • 2. Messengers sent by the father to ask for divine help.

  • 3. Stress on simultaneity of the statement and the cure.

The story of R. Hanina also has the added wonder that he goes to pray without needing to be told. In the Jesus story his prophetic quality is not stressed—as it is stressed in Jesus' similar healing of the widow of Nain's son (Lk 7:16 ). Emphasis falls on the faith of the recipient rather than on the charisma of the miracle-worker.


In the Matthew-Luke story of the Capernaum cure there are significant differences between the two evangelists. Firstly, Matthew has assimilated the Capernaum story to that of the Syro-Phoenician, including in each three features which are not in the Markan version of the Syro-Phoenician cure:

  • 1. The sick child's parent comes to Jesus, asking for the cure in direct speech, to which Jesus replies.

  • 2. The longer speech by the suppliant, the full expression of faith that earns the cure, is therefore the suppliant's second statement.

  • 3. Jesus' final statement to the suppliant, and the announcement of the cure, are almost identical in the two cases: 8:13 : ‘“Let it be done for you as your faith demands”. And the servant was cured at that moment’; 15:28 : ‘“Let it be done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was cured from that moment.’

On the whole Matthew shortens rather than lengthens Mark's miracle-stories. The purpose of each of these additions is to underline the faith of the suppliant and its reward. But Matthew's most significant addition to the centurion story is of 8:11–12 , Jesus' saying that points the contrast between the faith of the Gentile and the disbelief of Israel; this is full of Matthean expressions and vocabulary. Such a contrast is stressed often by Matthew (the magi contrasting with Herod, 2:1–17 ; the vineyard taken from its custodians and given to others, 21:43 ; the guests at the marriage feast, 22:1–10 ).


The absence from Luke's version both of this couplet, and of all the Matthean assimilations of this story to the cure of the Canaanite girl, has frequently been used as an argument that Luke presents the more primitive version: he follows the order and content of Q, which has been changed by Matthew. But traces of Lukan editing are also clear. Most recently Franklin (1994: 283), says, ‘It is hard to see how the creative hand of Luke could be denied at this point.’ Luke likes to show that the history and miracles of the early church continue and mirror those of Jesus. So he assimilates this centurion to the centurion of Ac 10, who

  • 1. is the first Gentile in the book to come to the faith;

  • 2. sends messengers to Peter, as this centurion to Jesus;

  • 3. is similarly praised by the messengers as helpful to the Jewish nation.

In order to prevent the centurion actually meeting Jesus (which would make the first embassy rather pointless) Luke is compelled awkwardly to put his speech of unworthiness ( 7:6–8 ), with all its circumstantial detail, into the mouths of the second set of envoys. The emphasis on his own unworthiness (in Luke it comes twice, by contrast to Matthew's once) compares to Simon Peter's protestations of sinfulness in Lk 5:8 and those of Zacchaeus in Lk 19:8 . Luke always insists that at least some in Israel were converted (several groups are converted during the crucifixion, a large number at Pentecost, and some in each of the towns visited by Paul). So here Luke avoids the sharp contrast between Gentile and Jew seen in Matthew. If, as in the Goulder theory, Luke is dependent on Matthew, he alters Jesus' statement by the change of two letters, ‘in no one in Israel have I found such great faith’ (Mt 8:10 ) to ‘not even in Israel have I found such great faith’ (Lk 7:9 ). This leaves room in Israel for at least some faith. A softening of the polemic against Israel could also be the reason for omitting Mt's 8:11–12 . When he does use this saying in Lk 12:28–9 , he gives it in a less absolute version: others will indeed come from east and west, but at least ‘the sons of the kingdom’ will not be ‘thrown out into exterior darkness’, as in Matthew.

Especially a small verbal indication may show that Luke is dependent on Matthew rather than on any Q-version. This would solve the anomaly of a miracle-story in Q, the collection of Sayings of the Lord (if it existed), but would also show a significant dependence of Luke on Matthew. Luke uses a number of words that are favourites of his, but are not in Matthew's narrative. But significantly Luke starts and ends the story ( 7:2–3, 10 ) with a ‘slave’ of the centurion (adding with typical tenderness that this slave was valuable to him); the Greek word used by Matthew, ‘boy’, may, in Greek as in English, also mean a servant. But in 7:7 Luke once slips into the Greek word, ‘boy’, used by Matthew. This is described by Goulder as editor's ‘fatigue’, and taken as evidence that Luke was editing Matthew's story. The same phenomenon occurs in the words used for ‘bed’ in Lk 5:18–24 ǁ Mt 9:2–7 .


The story of the healing of the son of the royal official at Capernaum in Jn 4:46–54 is unusual in John, being the only healing-story which does not extend after the healing into a discussion or discourse of Jesus. It has obvious similarities to the synoptic stories just considered:

  • 1. Capernaum enters into the story.

  • 2. An official appeals to Jesus for the cure of his son, who is at the point of death (this is clear in Luke, less clear in Matthew; John is often closer to Luke than to the other Synoptics).

  • 3. Jesus cures the child at a distance.

  • 4. An intermediate group comes from the sickbed with a new message (another link to Luke rather than to Matthew).

  • 5. The emphasis of the story is on the faith of the official.

There are also, of course, significant differences. As often, John's historical detail is persuasive: it is more likely that a royal official of Herod should be at Capernaum (which was a border town in Herod's territory, and not under direct Roman rule) than that a Roman centurion should be stationed there. Some of the differences are characteristic of John, and may well have been introduced by him for theological reasons:

  • 1. The structure of the story is similar to that of the first miracle at Cana. These are the only two occasions on which Jesus at first demurs.

  • 2. The reproach to faith that requires miracles (v. 48, as Jn 2:23–4; 20:29 ). In fact the two vv. 48–9 may well have been added to the original story. They can be cut out without spoiling the story, and only here is the victim called ‘little boy’; elsewhere he is ‘son’.

  • 3. In Matthew and Luke the father's faith is praised before the cure. In John it comes at any rate to its full flowering only at the attestation of the cure ‘at that hour’ (4.58), as in the first sign at Cana the disciples find faith only when they see his glory at the end of the story ( 2:11 ).

There are comparatively few exact verbal similarities with the synoptic accounts, though some are notable (the healing occurs ‘at that hour’, Mt 8:13; Jn 4:53 ). But the similarity is more at the level of events and circumstances. The link between John and the two Synoptics may therefore be grounded on oral tradition rather than any written text.

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