Studies in the Book of Acts
Most of this series was written by Paul Kroll, a journalist working for Grace Communion International. Copyright Grace Communion International. The research was done in the mid 1990s, but all articles were edited in 2012 by Michael Morrison, PhD, professor of Biblical Studies at Grace Communion Seminary.
Paul the Prisoner of Rome, continued
Jews bring charges (Acts 24:1-4)
Five days after Paul arrived in Caesarea, the Jewish prosecuting team arrived to state their charges against him (24:1). It was composed of the high priest Ananias, some of the Jewish elders, and a special legal counselor named Tertullus. Tertullus was a common Greek name, and he was probably a Hellenistic Jew chosen because of his expertise in Roman law and his skill in public speaking. The Sanhedrin was taking no chances on letting Paul slip through its grasp. It had hired Tertullus to act as its lawyer.
When Felix asked Tertullus to present his case, he began with the usual flattery. Luke illustrated Tertullus’ approach with these words as the introduction of his speech: “We have enjoyed a long period of peace under you, and your foresight has brought about reforms in this nation. Everywhere and in every way, most excellent Felix, we acknowledge this with profound gratitude” (24:2-3).
Tertullus’ introduction was spoken in the style of orators when they spoke before dignitaries. The technique even had a name in Latin, the captatio benevolentiae. Luke gave us a summary of what Tertullus said. He probably described in some detail what he thought had brought peace and reform in Judea. However, Felix’s administration was characterized by insurrections and unrest, so Tertullus may have found it difficult to find many pleasant things to say.
Of course, Tertullus was not particularly interested in whether his compliments reflected reality. He wanted to sway Felix to the Sanhedrin’s position. Offering a twisted version of real events was simply part of business as usual. At some point, Tertullus must have realized he was belaboring the flattery and said, “In order not to weary you further, I would request that you be kind enough to hear us briefly” (24:4). Legal presentations were sometimes timed by the use of a water clock, something that kept long-winded counselors from speaking too long.
The case against Paul (Acts 24:5)
Tertullus next launched into a menacing accusation of Paul. “We have found this man to be a troublemaker, stirring up riots among the Jews all over the world,” he said to Felix. “He is a ringleader of the Nazarene sect…” (24:5). Troublemaker—creator of riots—ringleader of the Nazarene sect—these accusations were meant to paint Paul as an insurrectionist who was threatening the Pax Romana. Tertullus framed his accusations in terms of political subversion rather than religious opinions. By accusing Paul of treason, Tertullus was hoping to involve a political ruler in what was really a factional religious dispute.
The Jews were trying to induce the governor to construe the preaching of Paul as tantamount to causing civil disturbances throughout the Jewish population of the Empire. They knew that the governors were unwilling to convict on purely religious charges and therefore tried to give a political twist to the religious charge. (A.N. Sherwin-White, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament, page 50)
Thus, it was claimed that Paul (and the Christians) were a threat to local order and to the security of the Empire in general. Paul, it seemed, was being charged with singlehandedly creating disturbances across the Roman Empire!
The charge is framed in such a way as to suggest that this is no mere religious dispute, but a threat to the stability of Roman government. Paul is accused of being generally a trouble-maker throughout the Empire, a promoter of a particular messianic movement (which would suggest political agitation to the procurator), and a violator of the Sadducean regulations for the sanctity of the Temple, which were guaranteed by the Romans. (William Neil, The Acts of the Apostles, The New Century Bible Commentary, page 233)
Tertullus was trying to put Paul among the group of Jewish revolutionaries who were creating trouble for Felix. It’s true that Paul’s presence in a city did lead to riots among the Jews. But it was the Jews who created the disturbances, not Paul. Tertullus not only tried to put Paul, but the whole Christian movement on trial, by calling it a party or sect (Greek, hairesis)—“the Nazarenes.” This is the only time the New Testament uses the plural “Nazarenes,” and it is hung on Christians as a distasteful label. The Greek word hairesis meant a party such as the Sadducees (5:17) or the Pharisees (15:5). The Nazarenes could be seen as simply another sect of Judaism, one that happened to believe in Christ as Messiah. But that is not how the Jewish religious leaders looked upon the Christians. When Tertullus called the followers of Paul “Nazarenes,” he meant it as an expression of contempt (24:14).
The Jews’ case as described by Tertullus was based on false evidence. The Sanhedrin had used similar tactics before, in the trial of Jesus. Then, council members “were looking for false evidence against Jesus so that they could put him to death” (Matthew 26:59). The same was true in Paul’s trial.
Desecrated the temple (Acts 24:6)
Tertullus then moved to the theological aspect of his accusation. He said of Paul that he “even tried to desecrate the temple” and that to prevent him from doing so, “we seized him…” (24:6). The original accusation had been softened. Now the Sanhedrin was no longer claiming that Paul violated the temple, but that he “tried to” do so. Also, the earlier reference to the Gentiles being in a forbidden part of the temple had disappeared.
Here, Tertullus probably wanted to argue that Paul’s case should properly be heard by the Sanhedrin. No doubt he would have liked to press the issue that the Jews should be given the right to impose the death penalty on Paul. Tertullus had to get around the fact that it couldn’t be proved that Paul had profaned the temple. He cleverly claimed the temple police had grabbed Paul before he could carry out his plan. Thus, if challenged on the fact that there were no witnesses to the supposed profanation, he could say that was because it never took place.
We the readers know the facts, and that Tertullus was putting his own spin on the situation. Paul had not attempted to profane the temple, nor had he done so accidentally. Neither was there an orderly arrest of Paul by temple police, as Tertullus tried to imply. A frantic mob had grabbed Paul and was trying to kill him, all on the basis of an unsubstantiated rumor (21:27-31).
What became of verse 7? (Acts 24:7-9)
Some ancient manuscripts (the Western text) add the following words to the end of verse 6: “…and we would have judged him in accordance with our law. But the commander Lysias came and took him from us with much violence, ordering his accusers to come before you” (New International Version footnote).
Since verse 7 is absent from what most scholars consider the best manuscripts, it is often omitted from modern versions, or placed in a footnote. Whether verse 7 was part of the original or came about as a later copyist tried to clarify the text, it adds an interesting dimension to the account. If this verse described part of Tertullus’ argument, it implied that the Jews had planned to try Paul themselves, most likely for a crime against the temple. Tertullus blamed the Roman commander for interrupting what he claimed was about to become a legal hearing on the matter by the council. This might explain why Felix insisted on postponing the case until Lysias could come to Caesarea to give his testimony (24:22).
Tertullus ended his testimony by encouraging Felix to examine Paul so that he “will be able to learn the truth about all these charges we are bringing against him” (24:8). This at first seems odd, as Paul was certainly not going to admit to something he had not done. But in ancient trials, “examine” often meant some form of beating or torture, and Tertullus perhaps hoped Paul would incriminate himself in some way.
Paul’s defense (Acts 24:10-13)
After Tertullus finished presenting the Jews’ case, Felix motioned for Paul to speak. Paul then went on the offensive, contesting the accusations made against him. He began by acknowledging that Felix had “for a number of years…been judge over this nation” (24:10). This was fact, not flattery. Paul was appealing to Felix’s experience as governor of the province. He had seen a number of violent acts that involved Jews. Based on that, he would surely recognize that it was they, not Paul, who started this circus of events.
Paul was implying that the Jews’ antagonism against him was another example of the cantankerous religious and political atmosphere in Judea. “He places his hopes in Felix’s long acquaintance with the circumstances he is now called upon to judge, an invitation to the governor to read between the lines: he should know by now the character of intramural Jewish conflicts” (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles, Sacra Pagina series, volume 5, page 416).
Paul referred to Felix having been in Judea for a “number of years.” This is thought to show that Tacitus (Annals 12.54) may have been right in saying Felix had served in Judea before becoming governor.
Paul explained that he had only recently arrived in Jerusalem, having come there about 12 days ago (24:11). He spent perhaps a week of this time as a prisoner (24:1). He would have had little time to organize a riot. He had come to Jerusalem to worship at the temple, not cause trouble. Paul flatly denied that he had stirred up trouble. “My accusers did not find me arguing with anyone at the temple, or stirring up a crowd in the synagogues or anywhere else in the city,” he said (24:12). To engage in public debate was not a crime. But Paul was saying he had not even disputed with anyone, much less engaged in any activities that would result in a riot.
”I admit…” (Acts 24:14-16)
After denying all the charges, suddenly Paul said he was about to confess to something. But it was not to a chargeable offense. “I admit that I worship the God our ancestors,” said Paul, “as a follower of the Way, which they call a sect” (24:14). The phrase “God of our ancestors” (Exodus 13:3) was familiar to his accusers. They would have known that Paul claimed to worship the same God they did.
Paul had once persecuted those who followed “the Way” (9:1-2). Now, in an ironic turn of events, Paul himself was being persecuted for being a Christian. However, Paul rightly claimed that his being a Christian did not mean he was violating the Holy Scriptures. “I believe everything that is in accordance with the Law and that is written in the Prophets,” he insisted (24:14). The phrase “Law and Prophets” was a well-known description of the Jewish Scriptures.
Paul chose his words carefully. Though he claimed to be a Pharisee, he said he only believed and practiced what was in harmony with the written law. This was a deft way of saying it was the Jews standing before Felix who by their beliefs and practices sometimes did not agree with the ancestral Scriptures. In a sense, Paul was claiming that he was the true Pharisee or worshipper of God.
Paul was saying he had not deviated from Israel’s true ancient faith. He claimed that his being a Christian did not make him an apostate Jew. He did not believe everything that the non-Christian Pharisees did. But neither did the Sadducees, Essenes or some other splinter group within Judaism agree. Paul was arguing that he and the followers of the Way were within the spectrum of Judaism—they worshipped the same God as the Jews, respected fully the Holy Scriptures and believed in a resurrection of the just.
Hope of Israel (Acts 24:15)
Paul continued by saying, “I have the same hope in God as these men themselves have, that there will be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked” (24:15). He had already raised the issue of the resurrection before the Sanhedrin (23:6), something to which he would refer again in this speech (24:21).
It’s not clear which of the accusers standing before Felix would have believed in the resurrection. The high priest and the other members of the Sadducean party did not share this belief. However, some of the “elders” that came from Jerusalem might have been Pharisees, and they would have believed in the resurrection (24:1). A significant number of Jews (the people of the land) did believe in the resurrection, since the Pharisees taught among the people and were respected by them. In that sense, Paul would have been in step with the Jewish nation regarding belief in the resurrection.
In any case, Paul had moved the debate from insurrection and profaning Jewish law to a theological discussion of the resurrection. By doing so, he focused on a substantive issue of the gospel and at the same time got to the crux of the Jews’ real problem with him. In short, they didn’t like Paul’s theology. Paul thus undercut his accusers’ attempt to frame their allegations in a political context and get him convicted of a crime against the state.
The Way is not some radical new innovation but something that stands in line with the central affirmations of historic Judaism. It is the Way’s claim of the resurrection of the dead which is at issue in the debate and is the cause of contention between the Way and the high priest (24:21). (William H. Willimon, Acts, page 174)
Two views of resurrection (Acts 24:15-16)
We mustn’t lose sight of how differently from the Christians the Pharisees framed their belief in the resurrection. For the Pharisees, the resurrection of the just was a future event, with justification dependent on an individual’s personal commitment to keep the law. For Paul, the pledge of a future resurrection—a down payment on the promise, so to speak—had already occurred in the resurrection of Jesus. An individual’s personal zeal to keep God’s ways, while perhaps laudatory, was not relevant to the issue. (All Christians, even after conversion, were subject to sin, and fell short of God’s glory.)
Thus, Christians had a different approach to salvation. They had to be called by God, believe in Jesus as Savior, be baptized and receive the Holy Spirit. Then, by Jesus Christ living in them through the Spirit, they were accepted by God as righteous or holy. Christians lived generally new lives according to God’s will and asked for forgiveness when they sinned.
There may have been a second difference between the Christian and Jewish view of the resurrection. Paul spoke of a “resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked” (24:15). It’s not clear that the Pharisees believed in a resurrection of the “wicked.” The evidence from Josephus, for example, is ambiguous (Wars 2:163; Antiquities 18:14).
Both Daniel (12:2) and Revelation (20:11-15) spoke of both a resurrection of the just and unjust. So did Jesus in John (5:28) and Matthew (25:31-46). As it’s described in Revelation, the just receive salvation and the unjust eternal punishment. Acts 24:15 is the only place where Paul explicitly states that he believes in a resurrection of both righteous and unrighteous dead. Even the “resurrection chapter” of 1 Corinthians 15 doesn’t discuss the resurrection of the wicked. However, Paul does speak of all people who have lived as one day being raised up to face God’s judgment (Romans 2:5; 2 Corinthians 5:10; 2 Timothy 4:1).
Since those who do evil things will be judged accordingly, Paul said he strove to keep his conscience clear (24:16). That is, he tried to live in fulfillment of the great law of love, so he had nothing to feel guilty about. Paul told the high priest the same thing (23:1). This led to the ugly scene in which the high priest ordered Paul to be struck.
Paul insisted that the real contention of Ananias and the Jewish elders opposed to him was that they didn’t like his religious beliefs. However, Paul said he better conformed with the beliefs and practices of his people than did his accusers, which must have galled the high priest.
Absent for several years (Acts 24:17)
Paul had set the record straight on the nature of the accusations against him, as well as his insistence to be a law-abiding Jew. Next, he proceeded to explain why he had come to Jerusalem. “After an absence of several years,” he said to Felix, “I came to Jerusalem to bring my people gifts for the poor and to present offerings” (24:17). Perhaps up to five years had elapsed since his last visit to the city, a visit barely mentioned in Acts (18:22). Before that, according to Acts, he had not been to Jerusalem since the apostolic conference of A.D. 49.
The reason Paul came to Jerusalem was to bring an offering to his fellow Jews. The alms were not for Jerusalemite Jews in general, but for those who were disciples (Romans 15:26). This is the only time Luke refers to the collection Paul had organized among the Gentile churches (Romans 15:25-31; 1 Corinthians 16:1-4; 2 Corinthians 8:1-9:15).
The collection had been of the utmost importance for Paul. He saw it as a way for the Gentile churches to show their love toward the Jewish disciples in Jerusalem. But Luke did not mention the offering when Paul and his delegation came to Jerusalem. He left it to this point in his narrative to make but a single, and somewhat oblique, reference to it. Yet, for Paul, the offering was an immense and important project.
We might wonder with Luke Timothy Johnson: “Why has Luke left it until now to reveal—even to the reader—the purpose of Paul’s visit, after such a long reticence?” (413). Luke’s motive for downplaying the offering is not known. Perhaps looking at it from a later time he could see it in its proper perspective. It didn’t turn out to be important to the preaching of the gospel or the church—at least in the long term.
Ceremonially clean (Acts 24:18-21)
Finally, Paul answered the charge that he had profaned the temple. He insisted that he was ceremonially clean when the Jews discovered him in the temple. There was no menacing group with him in the temple precincts, nor was he involved in any disturbance (24:18).
Paul’s real accusers, who had started the wild rumors about his desecrating the temple—Jews from the province of Asia (21:27), were not even present. Presumably, they had returned home after Pentecost. Paul said to Felix they “ought to be here before you and bring charges if they have anything against me” (24:19). But the Asian Jews who had raised the issue to begin with had not remained to follow through on the charge. This was a serious matter in Roman jurisprudence.
Roman law imposed heavy penalties upon accusers who abandoned their charges…and the disappearance of accusers often meant the withdrawal of a charge. Their absence, therefore, suggested that they had nothing against him that would stand up in a Roman court of law. (Richard N. Longenecker, “Acts,” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, page 541)
Luke does not have Paul neglect his own legal status. He goes on the counterattack against the specific charges in the way that a good contemporary defense lawyer would: by challenging the credibility and standing of the accusers. In a few deft lines, Paul isolates those who now stand before him. They were not present for any events “throughout the empire” or even in the Temple. Their evidence for that is only hearsay. Only the Asian Jews who started all this could bear witness against Paul directly on that charge, and they are not present. The charges ought therefore to be dropped! (Johnson, page 417)
The council had taken up the charge and was pressing it, though in a rather different form. But it must have been obvious to Felix that its representatives were on thin legal ground. Paul, knowing this, turned to his accusers and said to Felix, “These who are here should state what crime they found in me when I stood before the Sanhedrin” (24:21).
Before anyone could answer, Paul did the same thing he had done at his defense before the Sanhedrin. He again claimed he was on trial because of the resurrection, something he had already alluded to (24:21, 15). Paul insisted that the real issue was religious. The Sanhedrin’s official inquiry had established nothing except that Paul believed in the resurrection. Now, the hearing before Felix was again steered into this issue by Paul.
Paul claimed that the prosecution had no case—unless Felix wanted to make Jewish theology the case. This would mean the Pharisees and many of the people of the land would also have to stand trial—since they believed it as well.
Understood “the way” (Acts 24:22-23)
Luke didn’t describe Felix’s reaction at the way the hearing was going, but he must have been exasperated with the proceedings. At this point, he abruptly suspended the hearing (24:22). Luke noted that Felix “was well acquainted with the Way” (24:22). He had acquired a knowledge of the Christian movement (“the Way”) from his years in Judea. This probably came about because of the prominent position of the church in Jerusalem and Jewish antagonism to the Christians (24:24). His wife Drusilla was Jewish. She would also have been aware of this “strange sect” within Judaism.
From his experience with the Way, Felix must have clearly understood that the charges against Paul were theological in nature. The accusations of sedition or profaning the temple simply had not been proved.
Felix now had a problem on his hands. As governor, he had a responsibility to preserve the peace, which was already being threatened by fractious Jews. Felix knew about the great disturbance that Paul’s presence in the temple had instigated. He must have surmised that to release Paul could have caused an even more extensive riot. Felix had already offended the Jews on several occasions, and he must have wanted to avoid another offense by freeing Paul.
The Sanhedrin was not averse to using political intimidation against Roman governors to get their way. We are reminded of the tactic the council used against Pilate, who wanted to set Jesus free. “If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar” (John 19:12). Felix didn’t want the Jews to accuse him of working against Caesar by letting an insurrectionist like Paul go free. To avoid the problem, Felix simply delayed the confrontation. He talked about deciding the case when Lysias the commander came to Caesarea to give his testimony (24:22). But it’s doubtful that Felix had any intention of bringing the case to a decision. Luke doesn’t tell us whether Lysias ever came to Caesarea to give testimony. Most likely he was never summoned.
Meanwhile, Paul was put under guard, though he was allowed some freedom, and his friends could visit him and attend to his needs (24:23). He was granted what was called “free custody,” since he had not been charged with a crime.
Felix and Drusilla (Acts 24:24)
Paul remained imprisoned in Caesarea for two years (24:27). But Luke mentioned nothing of Paul’s activities or the church during this time. There are many things we might have wished to know. For example, what happened to the Gentile delegation that had come with Paul to Jerusalem? What were Luke and Timothy doing? What role did the church in Jerusalem and Caesarea (and in Antioch) play in helping and supporting Paul?
Luke related only one incident after Paul’s suspended trial and before his final defense before being sent to Rome. Several days after the aborted hearing, Felix came to see Paul with his wife Drusilla. She was the youngest daughter of Herod Agrippa I, the Herod of Acts 12(Josephus, Antiquities 19:354). Drusilla was also the sister of Agrippa II, in front of whom Paul would soon give testimony (25:13).
Drusilla was the third wife of Felix. According to Suetonius, Felix was able to marry a succession of “three queens” despite his lowly origins as a slave (The Twelve Caesars,“Claudius” 28). Drusilla had been married to Azizus, the king of Emesa, a small state in Syria. But it was an unhappy marriage. When Felix saw Drusilla (she was only 16), he was smitten with her beauty and decided on a ruse to acquire her as a wife. He sent an acquaintance, a Jew from Cyprus, who pretended to be a magician, and persuaded her to leave her husband for Felix (Josephus, Antiquities 20:141-44).
The Western text inserts an explanatory note at verse 24, which may clarify the background of the incident of Drusilla and Felix’s visit to Paul. The text adds: “She asked to see Paul and hear the word. So desiring to satisfy her he [Felix] sent for Paul.” According to Luke Timothy Johnson, the additional note “helps to account for the remarkable fact that Paul was allowed to proclaim ‘faith in Messiah Jesus’ to them!” (page 419).
This is important because Josephus said Felix caused Drusilla to “transgress the laws of her forefathers” in order to marry him (Antiquities 20:141-143). She would have been considered an apostate Jew. Perhaps Drusilla was hoping to be able to re-enter Judaism through Paul’s sect. But she and Felix got more than they bargained for when Paul began to speak about “righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come” (24:25).
Righteousness and judgment (Acts 24:25-26)
The marriage of Felix and Drusilla had been built on adultery, betrayal, lies and sorcery. Now, the imprisoned Paul was teaching the couple that they were living lives that were incompatible with gospel. The gospel has a moral dimension, and speaks to personal behavior. A life of faith in Jesus Christ involves living an ethical life, based on the principles of God’s law.
At some point, Felix became agitated and fearful at the direction the meeting was taking. Perhaps he and Drusilla had thought of having a philosophical discussion on religion in general. Or they wanted to discuss Drusilla’s reinstatement. But Paul’s talk had turned into a discourse on personal responsibility. Perhaps both of them didn’t want to hear that they needed to change their lives. Or Felix may have been afraid Paul would talk Drusilla into leaving him. He decided to abruptly end the encounter, and told Paul, “That’s enough for now! You may leave” (24:25).
It is interesting that John the Baptist was involved in a similar circumstance in which he spoke of righteousness and self-control to Herod. He had taken Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, as his own. John had told him, “It is not lawful for you to have her,” and this especially angered his wife, Herodias (Matthew 14:1-12; Mark 6:14-29). For his truth-telling, John the Baptist was beheaded. Here was a similar circumstance in which Paul, too, could have “lost his head.”
But the situation was different, and Felix promised Paul that he would see him again when he found it convenient. True to his word, he did send for Paul “frequently and talked with him” (24:26). But it was not to dispose of his case, nor to hear moral instruction. Felix “was hoping that Paul would offer him a bribe” (24:26). Felix thought Paul had the means to pay a large bribe in order to gain his release. He knew that Paul had come to Jerusalem with a relief fund offering for the church, which must have been substantial. Paul had mentioned it in his defense (24:17). Felix may have thought Paul had additional large sums with which he could buy his freedom.
Two years passed (Acts 24:27)
But Paul had neither the resources nor the inclination to buy his way out of Felix’s prison. With no bribe forthcoming—as well as Felix’s disinclination to offend the Jews—Paul simply languished in jail, though he was given some freedom of movement. Felix didn’t release Paul because he feared a violent Jewish reaction. “Because Felix wanted to grant a favor to the Jews, he left Paul in prison,” wrote Luke (24:27). In the end, he wasn’t helped by this maneuver and was recalled to Rome after being accused by the Jews of crimes against the people.
Two years after Paul was brought to Caesarea, Felix’s governorship over Judea came to an end. He had been governor from A.D. 52 to 58 or 59. Josephus said Felix was recalled to Rome by Nero, and replaced by Porcius Festus, who arrived in perhaps A.D. 59 (Antiquities20:182; Wars 2:266-271). What may have caused the downfall of Felix was his rough handling of a civil disorder that pitted Jews against Greeks in Caesarea. He had retaliated against the Jews, indiscriminately killing them and plundering their goods. Felix could have suffered severe punishment for his action. But his influential brother Pallas successfully petitioned Nero on his behalf.
Festus, who replaced Felix, governed Judea from A.D. 59 to his death in A.D. 62. We know little about Festus, though he seems to have been a reasonably good governor, especially in comparison with the man he succeeded as well as his successors, Albinus and Florus (Josephus, Wars 2:272-283).
Author: Paul Kroll, 1995, 2012