Thursday, August 9, 2012

Did Jesus Heal a Centurion’s Same-Sex Partner?


A recent article on the Huffington Post was brought to my attention by a former Greek student who asked if I would comment on the Greek. In the article Jay Michaelson suggests that Matthew and Luke each record a story in which Jesus heals the same-sex partner of a Roman Centurion. Many will be familiar with the story (Matt 8:5-13; Luke 7:1-10). As Jesus enters Capernaum a Roman Centurion asks Jesus to heal his servant. Jesus gets ready to go with the Centurion, but the man tells Jesus there is no need since he is accustomed to working under authority. Jesus merely needs to give the word and he knows his servant will be healed. Jesus agrees, the man goes home, his servant is healed.

But Michaelson want us to think about the story in a different way by focusing on the Greek term pais used in both Matthew and Luke. He argues that it does not mean “servant” here but “lover” and appeals, though not with any references, to the work of Thucydides, Plutarch and “countless other Greek sources.” He contends that translating pais as “servant” makes no sense since 1) one would not expect a Roman solider to beg on behalf of a slave, 2) although Luke calls the person in question a “slave” (doulos) the centurion calls him pais, 3) it was a common practice for Roman soldiers to have servants/lovers based on the Greek model. Michaelson acknowledges that the person in question was probably a servant, but also much more. He then views this story as Jesus extending an unhesitating, healing hand to a centurion and his homosexual lover just as he did to prostitutes.  You can read his whole post here.

Before I comment on Michaelson’s analysis I do want to say that in spite of Jesus’ silence on the topic of homosexuality and whether or not his interpretation is correct here, I do think Jesus would extend a hand to a gay person to heal him. I think Michaelson is 100% correct that given the opportunity Jesus would do that. But I don’t think that is what Jesus is doing here and this is why.

First, Michaelson is not the first to suggest that the person in question here be understood as the Roman Centurion’s homosexual servant rather than just servant, although it is a minority opinion. And he is correct that in some instances pais was used to describe the junior partner in a homosexual relationship. But that is not what it means here nor the rest of the New Testament. The Greek noun pais is used in the New Testament 24 times and has a range of meanings that include “adolescent,” “child” and “servant.”  In the LXX (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) it appears numerous times and it always refers to a “servant.” There are no occurrences of the term anywhere in the Bible that can be interpreted a referring to the junior partner in a homosexual relationship. With that in mind, we might be better off translating pais as “servant” here, which Michaelson favors.

Second, Michaelson acknowledges that in Luke’s version of the story the person in question is first called a “slave” in 7:2 (doulos) while the Centurion calls him a pais. He suggests that this distinction is important by which I assume he is suggesting that perhaps Luke got the terminology wrong but the Centurion got it correct. But Luke is writing all of this and would have been aware of the two terms which can in fact be used as synonyms. (See the first chapter in my Slavery Metaphors).

A better explanation for the difference in terminology in Luke might be that Matthew and Luke had a common source that identified the person in question as a pais, which could be taken as either “child” or “servant.” Matthew decided to leave the whole scene ambiguous by not introducing it with an explanation that the centurion had a sick slave (doulos). If you read Matthew’s version substituting “child” for “servant” (with the exception of 8:9 where the word is doulos) the story could just as easily be about the centurion’s son and not his servant (Hagner alludes to this in his commentary, p. 204). Luke, on the other hand, recognized the ambiguity in the story engendered by pais, and decided to clear it up by calling the person in question a “slave” (doulos) because that is who Luke thought he was. Had Luke not made that addition  in 7:2 both stories could be read as the healing of the centurion’s “child.”

Third, it is true that pais could be used as a term of endearment for slaves. As bad as slavery was/is there were those cases when a slave and master did become close. But that does not automatically translate into homosexuality. For instance, we have a copy of a letter sent by Augustus to one Stephanos of Laodicea. In the letter Augustus says “you know how fond I am of my Zoilos.” This Zoilos was a former slave of Augustus who apparently became very close with the emperor. But no one is suggesting that the two were lovers in a same-sex relationship. Zoilos was apparently very valuable to Augustus and the emperor developed affection for him.

The problem is that Michaelson has invested too much in the meaning of pais. While it can be used to refer to the junior partner in a homosexual relationship, this would be the only such instance anywhere in the New Testament. As I pointed out, it is a somewhat ambiguous term. Nonetheless, I do think servant here is probably the best interpretation of pais, even though it could be child.

But simply assuming that this term means that the servant was the Centurion’s same-sex partner has no standing. There is not enough evidence. We cannot assume that because the centurion had some affection for the servant that they were, therefore, sexually involved. And we also cannot assume that just because the centurion implores Jesus to heal the servant that he feels anything for the servant. We know nothing about this slave and what role he fulfilled. But if he was a slave that managed the centurion’s house well and was in danger of dying, the centurion might have asked Jesus to heal him so that he didn’t lose his financial investment as well as a good manager. I am not saying this is the case, but this scenario is just as likely if not more so than suggesting that the two were somehow sexually involved. But in the end we don’t have enough evidence to spin either situation and the terminology is too ambiguous.

Michaelson reaches for this story to provide a way for gays and lesbians who are struggling with same-sex marriage as a religious act. I commend him for thinking through this topic and have voiced my own desire that the church actively engage the topic. But I don’t think the story of the centurion’s servant does that for him. It is a story about a servant and a master and we know nothing about how they interacted with one another in the bedroom or out. 

37 comments:

  1. Thanks for posting on this. I thought about doing so but didn't find the time. I do think that it is entirely possible that a same-sex relationship existed between the two, as it would have been quite common in precisely those cases. But the article makes claims, such as that pais means "lover," which are simply wrong, and I am rather sad that the author knew of no one who could fact-check it.

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    1. James,

      I agree that it is possible, but I think that is all we can say. The scenario I suggest is also possible. There simply isn't enough information to make either conclusion. But yes, the article does make some unfortunate claims.

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    2. Well, I need to revise my thoughts on the article. It seems that the author knows more than I do about the topic. According to Dover's book Greek Homosexuality, pais was the term frequently used for the younger, passive partner in a same-sex relationship.

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    3. James,

      Yes, that is true I don't dispute that fact. But the term was also used for slaves in general along with a number of other terms. My contention is that there simply isn't enough evidence here to make any determination as to the exact relationship that existed between the two people.

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  2. I don't dispute your main point, but feel that you have imported some modern ideas about homosexual relationships into the first century.

    You talk about "homosexual relationship" and ask whether the pais was a "lover", "same sex partner", "Gay person", "homosexual servant". This is anachronistic. If there was sex involved, then the pais would have been the loved, not the lover and the would probably have had little choice but to service his master. The sources suggest that he would have taken no pleasure in the act. He need not have been any more "gay" than anyone else. Nor would it be appropriate to describe the master as gay or homosexual. There was no such word in the ancient world, and, in any case, it was normal for upper class Romans to have sex with both men and women, so long as they were the active (penetrating) partner. It was a bi-sexual culture. Augustus, whom you mention, is an example of this.

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    1. Richard,
      You are correct in what you say. The terminology I used the terms knowing that they were anachronistic but also knowing that the modern understanding of the situation would require the use of the terms. I am responding to the article after all.

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  3. The argument that "Pais" is referring to a homosexual has been argued by Theodore W. Jennings and Tat-Siong Benny Liew in an article published in JBL in 2006: http://jbl.metapress.com/content/u40p71023t551p61/?p=ab3f11668f39446eb4cffc76f402aa8c&pi=3

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  4. Obviously, as you said, no one knows for sure. If pais was used 24 times in the NT, it would be interesting to see how each was used in context. Luke adding doulos might have been an attempt at tempering an embarrassing situation. I had to laugh when the statement was made, "if he was a slave that managed the centurion’s house well and was in danger of dying, the centurion might have asked Jesus to heal him so that he didn’t lose his financial investment as well as a good manager."...this may be introducing the Romney-Bain philosophy of humanity management.

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    1. Actually, this exactly describes the type of "slave" that Joseph was to both Potiphar and Pharoah, albeit at a different period in history and culture. Seems much more plausible an explanation to me, though I'm admittedly no Bible expert.

      MarkW

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    2. "though I'm admittedly no Bible expert"...same here. Although seems rather counter-intuitive (Romney-Bain philosophy...) to the whole Jesus, love, NT thing. But certainly fits into the OT thing. Too bad the OT Jubilee year isn't re-instituted. Then the lost value would be returned to the bankrupt after 49 years. But then a monetary value is set on a fetus. The whole OT thing bothers me, in regard to current living. Too many conflicting ideas. Don't want to use lamb's blood on my right ear lobe, right thumb, and right big toe to be cleansed, either. I don't want to crusade for anything. But this whole OT stuff doesn't work for me, unless I put it into the context of the documentary hypothesis, with as much politics involved with writing the OT, as there was between priests, Aaron and Moses, Northern Kingdom of Israel and Southern Kingdom of Judah, Solomon against the northern tribes, Solomon's "slave task master's" policy (reflecting pharoah's polices), etc. So OT is rather suspect in giving advice for moral living. But that's just my personal opinion.

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  5. John, I don't find Michaelson's piece to be as anachronistic as yours in its discussion of same-gender sex in the ancient world. While you knew that your terms were anachronistic, many of your readers will not. Your piece will likely perpetuate the assumptions that your readers will inevitably make about ancient practices. No?

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  6. I'm not qualified to judge the validity of the translation, but I have to ask how, even if the story is true, this is supposed to shame traditional Christians into accepting homosexuality. Said Christians regard homosexual behavior as sinful, but Christ healed sinners all the time--this did not mean that he accepted their sin. This is exactly what Christians--as opposed to mere gay-bashers--argue today: that they are capable of hating the sin but loving the sinner.

    For the record, I'm a supporter of gay marriage. I just don't like the claim (which John is not making, but which is clearly the point of the HuffPo article) that objection to homosexuality is somehow un-Christian.

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    1. I think what's important here is that, IF 'pais' here does mean a gay lover, Jesus makes absolutely no reference to "go and sin no more" or "sure I'll heal your 'pais' but quit having sex with him." Instead, he marvels at his faith and remotely heals the young man. It's not Jesus's endorsement of homosexuality that would make this translation so interesting, but his complete indifference to it.

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    2. Which is precisely what works against this modern liberal eisegesis, reading 'pais' as 'homosexual lover' rather than just mere 'servant' as it is used elsewhere in the NT. I think the NT Gospels, written as they were by observant Jews or, if you will, people intimately familiar with Jewish custom, make it clear whether a person was in some way a 'sinner' or different enough to be notable (ie. a woman, a samaritan woman, a leper). It clearly states that a particular woman is an adulteress or a loose Samaritan divorcee or a dirty rotten Roman-collaborating tax collector. I do not think that an act so extremely abhorrent to Judaism with its written and oral law, something that the Pharisees were drumming into the people with extreme rigidity would get a free pass. Luke, described as a first rate historian and one who makes the claim to have examined everything carefully, notes that the Jewish elders that the centurion sent to parlay with Jesus described him (the centurion) as one 'who deserves to have [Jesus heal the servant] because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue' - Now surely someone who has become so intimate with the Jewish nation and its particular proclivities would know of the ban in the Torah on homosexual practice. Do Michaelson and other advocates of Christian endorsement of gay marriage seriously expect us to believe that these Jewish elders would have allowed a Gentile in a flagrantly open homosexual relation to build their synagogue? These are people who launch hopeless bloody insurrections against Rome just because the Romans are foreigners and are the descendants of women who allow their seven sons to be butchered in worse ways than in the movie Saw rather than violate the Law. If the centurion was 'intimate' with anyone or anything he was intimate with Jewish culture and tradition and would not have, homosexual or not, violated it so flagrantly.

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  7. Is that the sound of political correctness seeping into exegesis?

    The word παῖς is used (as you note) fairly consistently. Such an interpretation as Michaelson suggests makes a mockery of other verses employing this works (such as [Matt 12:18] where the meaning is clearly unambiguous).

    Without seeming cynical, it hardly seems Michaelson suggestion was being made in good faith.

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  8. Dear Dr. John - Come on, you guys! A lot of this discussion bothers me not on issues of morality but on the issue of eisegesis - taking some idea that we in our day are currently obsessed with and reading it into an ancient text. For Pete's sake - I could try to make the argument that the Centurion may have been Irish if we would choose to translate "pais" as "boyo"! But such readings-in deflect from the somewhat obvious point (in this case) of this story - that it is about the way the Centurion recognizes the authority of Jesus over illness, something the Jews remained in denial about. In general, does not such eisegesis say much more about the reader than it does about the text?

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  9. This is a passage I cover in my thesis, where, it seems to me, there is very little doubt that pais 'means' slave. As far as I can see, when Matthew wants it to mean something else (e.g. child), he qualifies it in some way, so I would have expected him to do the same here if it did not refer to a slave (Luke also thinks this is so - calling him a doulos doesn't remove the potential embarrassment, but does indicate 'slave'). However, there is every chance that this slave is being used for sex, along with the other things mentioned. It may be that there is affection here, we cannot tell, but it is nevertheless an unequal and, from our point of view, abusive relationship - that is the nature of slavery. We can assume that this slave was good and experienced at his various tasks, and so, when away from home, without (probably) an easily available source of replacement slaves, why would the centurion not seek that the slave be restored (this assumes it is a historical account, of course, which is by no means guaranteed)? Either way, I do not think this passage is about authorising the relationship of the owner to his slave (although it perhaps does so, tacitly). More troubling to me, is the implied positive comparison of Jesus to a slaveholder here (Matt 8:9).

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  10. Knowing the righteousness of Christ, I can't fathom how He could heal someone's servant so he could continue to have sex with him, a kind of sex which is clearly condemned by Paul in the book of Romans. This would be like the devil having "mercy" on one of the apostles instead of persecuting them everywhere they went. When the devil begins to have mercy on any Christian, then I'll believe that Jesus would do the same for one of the devil's followers to continue to do what is so vile in His eyes that He cannot gaze upon it with pleasure. And let us recall what Jesus said to the man who lay next to the pool of Bethesda for 38 years in some sort of paralytic condition. After Jesus healed him, He said to him, "go and sin no more lest a worse thing come upon you." Also, to the woman caught in the very act of adultery, Jesus said, "neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more." I'm sure their lives were quite different after their supernatural encounters with Jesus. But Jesus made it clear that He did not condone their sin by healing them or forgiving them. To try to make the case that Jesus condones any sexual sin, whether fornication, adultery, incest, rape, homosexuality, or even lustful thoughts is to blaspheme His holy name/character. It is to pervert His image to that of "fallen" man.

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  11. John Byron, thank you for sharing your opinion and position. However, I respectfully disagree. The Greek word “pais” used to describe the ill person is important. Pais can be defined as boy, girl, child, son, daughter, slave, handsome young man and beloved. In the early Roman Empire, homosexuality was common practice in the ranks of the army. The word “pais” was used to describe the centurion’s same-sex partner. A Roman soldier would not express affection or concern for a mere slave. Additionally, I have no reason to doubt Greek scholar, Sir Kenneth James Dover. Pais refers to the junior partner in a same-sex relationship.

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    1. So every single centurion was bisexual or homosexual? That sounds suspiciously like the Da Vinci Code claim that every single 'rabbi' was married. Some people just don't swing that way my friend, I certainly don't and there is nothing in the text to suggest that the Centurion did either. Furthermore, Luke describes the Jewish elders, who would have been seeped in Pharisaic tradition and observance of the OT Law - that same law that has that troublesome little book Leviticus in it - describing the centurion as "worthy" of Jesus' aid because he "loves our nation" (not some homosexual slave but the OT Law abiding, Sabbath keeping, Messiah waiting, homosexual abhorring First Century Jewish nation) and has "built our synagogue" - again, why would observant rebellious First Century Jews allow an open pederast or homosexual practitioner to sully their synagogue by having anything to do with it?

      I have no reason to doubt Sir Kenneth James Dover's or any other Greek scholar's assertion that pais CAN mean a junior partner in a same sex relationship but it is very clear that this meaning is one of several and many of the others can be taken and should be taken as non-sexual. Once again not all Romans or Greeks were bisexual or gay no more than all Americans or Germans are bisexual or gay. Some people just don't get turned on by that and making a blanket assumption just because some practiced this within the Roman military is irresponsible and unfounded eisegesis.

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  12. http://www.wouldjesusdiscriminate.org/biblical_evidence/gay_couple.html

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  13. Roman centurions could not take a wife under the emperor's decree. Let's face it, you're not coping with the fact that most slaves in that era served more than just menial uses. Love-making between people of the same sex is nothing new, and Jesus didn't discriminate.

    BUT YOU DO.

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    1. Dear, Brave Anonymous,

      I am not discriminating, I am arguing over historical plausibility. Moreover, I am not sure why you are bringing the topic of a wife in here since that has not been mentioned. You seem to assume that since Roman soldier couldn't have a wife he therefore engaged in same sex practices. That logic is faulty.

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  14. Are you Christian or Religious?

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    1. BTW this is a different Anonymous from above.

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  15. Stumbling upon this article in preparation for preaching this Sunday has urged me to contribute my contextual two cents. Using the context of the pericope, Luke 7:1-10, it is quite obvious that "pais" cannot infer a homosexual relationship. Consider how the presbyters or Jewish elders speak concerning this gentile, whom would be considered an outsider; they call him worthy or more strongly, they call him deserving of Jesus' aid. Why? Because he loves the nation Israel and since paid for or built himself their synagogue. These Jews would not think so highly of this gentile centurion if he were a defiler of their Law by having homosexual relations, let alone seek out Jesus (who preaches against homosexual behavior) to aid him. Christ died for homosexual sins, like all other sins. Christ has called all by the Gospel to trust in faith from repentance to live in him as his forgiven sinners.

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  16. Like others I am preparing for Sunday's sermon - so I have stumbled across this article. Thank all of you for adding to my knowledge. My thought is this - maybe Jesus healed on the basis of God's love and not on the human system of who deserves to be healed. There is an emphasis in the passage of status - the centurion, the Jews, the slave, the person who donated to the synagogue - but Jesus healed a person, not a human system of status. Whether the slave serviced the centurion sexually or not is a moot point as the slave had no say in the matter - the power was with the centurion. I believe that human status/power is a corruption of God's love for and of all creation.

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  17. I personally view this passage the way Jesus did, He saw the person, their need and their faith not the sin if there was one. Oneday He looked beyond our faults and saw our need. Amen. Jesus did not come to condemn the world. He came to save the world.

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    1. That certainly wasn't the case with Zacchaeus, the Samaritan woman of Sychar and the woman caught in adultery. Jesus does love and forgive with grace that is above and beyond all we can ask or imagine BUT He also DEMANDS that we leave our life of sin. He does not turn a blind eye to sin - indeed he preaches against it and warns of hell more than anything he does. Do not be so blind as to imagine that Jesus loves irresponsibly. With grace must come truth and with love must come justice. Jesus did come to save the world but only if the world accepted His terms of salvation - which does not include continuing on one's merry way as if nothing life-changing and earth-shattering has happened.

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  18. I agree with John's view on the exegesis of this passage and especially the word study. John's view is an appropriate way to interpret this passage base on historical evidence, biblical theological interpretation, the text's context within the Bible, book, and especially within the above and below context. If we interpret the scripture only base on a word study only on a lexicon or a historical definition of this word, we might not an accurate meaning to proof this salve is a same sex partner. It is only an opinion that usually a scholar will give but honestly with a quite weak creditability (even in an academic world).

    As what John suggests (hopefully I under it right), it is more plausible to believe they are just friend and really good friend (not with a sexual relationship) rather than a same sex partner. If I let you make it interpret that way, a female sex partner is more possible. But I will say my point is still weak because there is no mention of a sexual relationship suggested in this context (because taking a female as a sex partner is a more normal , because the Bible authors will simple states that is the centurion's wife then. If the passage didn't say so, we can only say it is a wild guess, right? But sorry, as a Christian, taking God's word to do a wild guess, eh, I don't think this is appropriate.

    Problem with today's seminary (sorry to criticize on the seminary) is too much on academic creativity rather than an appropriate biblical interpretation that allows the text speaks on its own. There is a hidden problem with theological perspective on hermeneutics that is eisegesis rather than exegesis because on this

    It is too sad to see the author of Huffington Post and many others has their own agenda to use the scripture arbitrary, but I appreciate John voice out and defends the right way to interpret the Bible.

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    1. Amendment: I am sorry that there is a few extra words "because on this" that originally I have something to write but I think I lost my thought about that. So, I think we can take out "because of this"

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  19. Things get a quite more bit complex when we go even further back and see all of the debate through the centuries.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Synoptic_Gospels

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Q_source

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  20. why does the effection that a master have for his slave have to be sexual. You can have effection for someone without it being sexual, even if they are not your son or daughter. It just takes compassion, which is seems people are just assuming he couldn't have because he was a Roman centurion.

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  21. What anti-gay pastors need to focus on is the *prevalence* of same-sex practices in the time of Jesus and the *fact* that despite the Romans' wide practise of same sex acts, at no point in time Jesus condemned it, so why are today's pastors obsessing over gay relationships when the world is in turmoil with issued that actually need attention? Satan truly knows how to trick you people!

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    1. sin has been around since the beginning. by your logic then, we shouldn't preach on any sin, since it was prevalent also in Jesus' time.

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  22. I believe the point the previous poster was trying to make was that Jesus did preach against many sins, thereby giving the church authority to do so. But as He did not preach specifically against homosexuality, even though it was prevalent at the time, the church does not have inherent authority to condemn it.

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