Studies in the Book of Acts
“We are Romans” (16:35-38)
After the meal, Paul and Silas voluntarily return to their prison cell. The next morning the magistrates send the police officers to the prison with instructions to release the two missionaries. Paul and Silas have paid the penalty for their suspected disturbance of the peace by being beaten and imprisoned overnight. Now they can be freed, and perhaps commanded to leave town.
But Paul surprises the officers by saying, “They beat us publicly without a trial, even though we are Roman citizens, and threw us into prison. And now do they want to get rid of us quietly? No! Let them come themselves and escort us out” (16:37).
When the magistrates learn that Paul and Silas are Roman citizens, they are alarmed (16:38). They come to the prison, escort the missionaries outside, and plead with them to leave the city peacefully. If any officials appreciate the value of Roman citizenship, it would be the magistrates of a Roman colony. The Valerian and Porcian laws, issued in bygone days, said a citizen could travel anywhere within Roman territory under the protection of Rome. It is illegal to punish or imprison a Roman citizen who appeals for a trial at Rome, rather than under local authorities.
By the time of this incident at Philippi, A.N. Sherwin-White points out, the original laws regarding the rights of the arrested had been modified. A Roman citizen might under some circumstances be chained or beaten at the orders of a Roman magistrate (Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament, page 73). However, under no circumstances can any punishment be given without a trial. This is the issue Paul brings up. He and Silas were beaten and imprisoned without first being tried (16:37).
We have little evidence of how this exercise of the rights of a citizen is normally made. Neither are we certain how an individual can support his claim of Roman citizenship on the spot. In the case of Paul, he is probably registered as a citizen in the provincial records of Tarsus, and a copy of the registration can be obtained, but that could take months. And we have no evidence that Paul is carrying such a document with him.
Much of our information on a Roman citizen’s rights regarding trial and appeal actually comes from the book of Acts itself. These matters are touched on in the following verses: 16:37-39; 22:25-29; 25:9-12; 26:32; 27:1; 28:16.
One might wonder why Paul and Silas don’t appeal to their Roman citizenship before they are beaten and imprisoned. Perhaps they do, but in the heat of the moment no one pays any attention to them. Cicero cites a case in which a prisoner is beaten even as he shouts that he is a Roman citizen (In Verrem 5.62). At a later time in Jerusalem, Paul will claim his citizenship rights before being beaten (22:25). But in that case he is about to be scourged, which is a more deadly form of beating than that administered by the officers’ rods.
Paul insists on a public apology from the magistrates of Philippi. It serves notice that the missionaries had been wrongly disgraced, which is not so important for Paul, but very helpful for the believers who remain in the city. They will not stand for any arbitrary bad treatment — either here or elsewhere in the empire.
“Leave the city” (16:39-40)
Paul and Silas do not leave the city immediately, even though they were requested to. This, too, makes a point with the authorities. Yes, Paul will leave, but he will not scurry out of town in fear as though he had been guilty of a crime. The missionaries return to Lydia’s home. There they meet with the believers and encourage them. After this, they leave with Timothy and travel westward toward Thessalonica. Luke may stay in Philippi. This is indicated by the fact that the “we” section ends. It does not begin again until Luke and the other missionaries sail from Philippi several years later (20:5).
During the interim, Luke may be the pastor for the small church in Philippi, which perhaps meets at Lydia’s house. The congregation presumably begins to grow in size, organization and faith. Paul later writes the church a letter, commending it for its continuing concern for him (Philippians 2:25-30; 4:10-19).
Author: Paul Kroll, 1995, 2012