Matthew 8 – Where did Legion Go?

This chapter contains a fascinating example of how the meaning of a pericope changes between synoptic Gospels. Remember that Matthew and Luke are based on the Gospel of Mark, plus a collections of sayings that scholars call “Q.” That means that it is not surprising to find stories in common between the three Gospels. What is surprising — and telling — is when we find something changed. At the end of chapter 8, we find a story about pigs that Matthew has changed, and that change tells us a lot.

Let’s start at the beginning of the chapter. We’ll get to the pigs soon enough.

Three Healing Pericopes

The first pericope, 8.1-4, tells the story of the healing of a leper. What does Jesus tell him to do? Going to a priest and making an offering means that the leper was Jewish, and Jesus is following his own command from the Sermon on the Mount about keeping the law. But, look at the second pericope, 8.5-13. The Centurion wouldn’t have been Jewish, and yet Matthew tells us that he displayed faith that “no one in Israel” had. Why do you think Matthew places these two stories side by side? (They are separated by two chapters in Luke.) Think about Matthew’s audience. Think about the growing presence of Gentiles in the church. What is Matthew up to?

There’s an interesting, possibly disturbing, thing about the Centurion’s servant. The Centurion refers to his pais, his “boy.” The NRSV translates this “servant,” but the term usually meant more than that. The normal term for a slave is doulos. That’s the term used in verse 9. A pais, a “boy” slave was often, maybe even usually, a sex slave who had been taken from his home after a battle, castrated, and put into the service of a wealthy Roman. Remember the Ethiopian eunuch from the book of Acts? He was probably a pais who had grown up and whose master had found other uses for him. Kind of changes the story, doesn’t it?

The third pericope, 8.14-17, extends Jesus’ healing ministry to “all who were sick” and interprets it as the fulfillment of Isaiah 53.4. Isaiah 53.4 is part of the fourth “servant song.” These are sections of Isaiah that may originally have formed a separate literary unit, which were later woven into the portions of Isaiah that were composed after the exile. Remember that part of Isaiah was written in the eighth century, before the fall of Israel, and part of it was written in the late sixth century after the exile was over. The “Servant Song” portrays Israel as a nation called upon by God to suffer violence in order to bring light to all the nations. Matthew interprets this song to refer not to the entire nation, but to Jesus as an individual who suffers for all humankind.


8.18-27 comments on the rigorous nature of discipleship (“let the dead bury their own dead”) and suggests a Christology, a theory about who Matthew believes Jesus to be. We’ve already seen that Jesus is the new Moses, a great teacher, an interpreter of the law. Here Matthew claims more for Jesus. He is the “Son of Man,” a figure understood in second temple Judaism to be one who would act with power to restore the cosmos.

The pericope that tells of the calming of the storm (23-27) claims even more. Here Jesus is the one who commands the winds and sea. Who can do that? See Psalm 89.9 for the answer. So, who exactly is Matthew claiming Jesus to be?


Okay, now we get to those pigs. This is fascinating! First thing: Jesus had crossed over the sea of Galilee and was in the region of the Decapolis, ten Gentile cities. The very fact that these people kept pigs tells you that they were not Jewish. The story comes from Mark and gets repeated in Luke in largely the same form, except that the pigs fall into a lake instead of the sea. 

Take a look at Mark 5.1-13. Note that a legion was about the size of an occupying army. In Mark, when Jesus drowns the occupying army in the sea, doesn’t that remind you of how God drowned the Egyptians in the Red Sea? Mark was written in the midst of a Jewish revolution. What do you think the story signified to people in Mark’s time?

Okay, now go back to Matthew. What is the demon named? Ah, no name. So here, Jesus simply casts some demons into some swine who take a flying leap. Remember that in Matthew’s time the revolution was over, horribly crushed. Remember that Matthew has already told us not to resist with violence (5.38-42). He’ll also tell us that Jesus is not a political leader. Given his context, it makes sense for Matthew to delete the name of the demon, doesn’t it? If there is no promise that God will overthrow the Romans just like the Egyptians were cast into the sea, then what does this story mean in Matthew? I’ll be eager to hear your theories on Sunday.

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