During the New Testament era, a Roman centurion was a professional military officer commanding a platoon of troops called a “century.” This could be anywhere from nearly one hundred to several hundred men. Each Roman legion was composed of nearly 5,000 men, divided into multiple cohorts, each cohort composed of multiple centuries. As a result, a legion could contain as many as sixty centurions.
Their importance was based on seniority, with the senior centurion in a legion being in a position of great prestige. Some historians have compared the top-level centurions to medieval knights. Roman centurions represented the bridge between enlisted troops and commissioned officers, in much the same way as warrant officers do in the modern U.S. military.
Soldiers were appointed as centurions by virtue of their bravery, loyalty, character, and prowess in battle. Centurions were held to high standards of conduct and were expected to fight on the front lines with their men. In fact, the centurion’s designated place in formation was at the end of the very front row. As a result, Roman centurions were well paid and held in high esteem, and they experienced high rates of injury and death during war. The combination of wealth, power, and prestige made them influential in society.
The Bible mentions several Roman centurions. The man overseeing Jesus’ crucifixion was a centurion (Matthew 27:54), one of lower seniority. It was a centurion who exclaimed at the foot of the cross, “Surely this man was the Son of God!” Mark 15:39.
Matthew 8:5–13 and Luke 7:1–10 relay the same story with different particulars of a centurion, likely of high rank, who approached Jesus for healing on behalf of his servant.
The royal official mentioned in John 4:43–54 was a high-ranking centurion, as well. In all cases, the centurions are noted for their position of authority. For these men to make a request of anyone, let alone Jesus, a Jew, would have required great faith and great humility.
Perhaps the most important Roman centurion mentioned in the Bible is Cornelius, described in Acts 10. Cornelius was said to have a good reputation with the Jewish people, in particular for his prayer and charity. “There was a certain man in Caesarea called Cornelius, a centurion of the band called the Italian band, A devout man, and one that feared God with all his house, which gave much alms to the people, and prayed to God alway.” Acts 10:1-2
According to the Bible, Cornelius saw an angelic vision telling him to seek Peter in Joppa. Cornelius was obedient to the vision, and Peter told him of his own vision, commanding him to evangelize Gentiles as well as Jews. Cornelius was saved during this encounter, becoming one of the first non-Jews evangelized in the early church era (Acts 11:15–18). The presence of the Holy Spirit in an uncircumcised, non-Jewish person—a Roman centurion, of all people—proved to the other Christians that the message of Christ was universal.