A New Governor
Festus, the governor who succeeded Felix, is a shadowy player on the Roman stage. History outside the Book of Acts offers no information about him beyond a few words in Josephus, telling that he put down an insurrection during his brief time in office before his death. The figure Luke portrays builds an alliance with Jewish leaders that is stronger than his predecessor's.
The first move Festus made, only three days after taking his new position, was to go to Jerusalem and engage these leaders in discussion of issues hanging in the balance. After the trouble they caused Felix, Festus was determined to keep them on his side. The chief favor they sought was for Festus to handle their accusations against Paul by conducting his trial in Jerusalem. Their plan, if Festus yielded to their request and brought Paul up from Caesarea, was to have their agents ambush the convoy and kill Paul. But Festus refused to transfer him. He knew that he might incur the disapproval of higher authorities if, in dealing with a Roman citizen, he compelled the man to stand trial elsewhere than at a judgment seat recognized as a branch of Caesar's court. So, he demanded that the leaders come down to Caesarea and there make their case against Paul.
A New Trial
After more than ten days, Festus returned to Caesarea, taking with him a group of leaders desirous of accusing Paul. The next day, Festus sat in his judgment seat and summoned the prisoner to face his accusers. The Jews then stood around Paul and leveled charge after charge against him. The charges were both "many and grievous," no doubt calling for the death penalty. Luke does not tell us what the charges were, but we may surmise that many were well-worn lies, no doubt including the old charges that Paul and his Christian followers were disloyal to Rome and were continually fanning civil disturbances. When allowed to speak in his own defense, Paul brushed aside all the accusations as fabricated. He insisted that he had never committed a wrong against Rome, the Jews, or the Jewish Temple.
Festus now showed that he was going to pay more respect to Jewish wishes than Felix had done. To avoid complaints that could cut short his governorship, he would practice accommodation. He therefore asked Paul whether he would be willing to transfer proceedings to Jerusalem. Perhaps he hoped that Paul would welcome the change in venue because it would give him another opportunity to make Christians of his own people, the Jews. To make the proposal more attractive, he named himself as the judge Paul would face. He probably calculated that the prospect of a Roman judge would help Paul view the trial as impartial.
In asking for Paul's consent to be tried in Jerusalem, Festus was giving the prisoner a choice he was legally entitled to make. Otherwise he would not have put the question to Paul. Paul had the right to decide whether his trial would be conducted in a city other than its proper venue, Caesarea.
As Paul viewed the options before him, he knew perfectly well that returning to Jerusalem would spell disaster. It was doubtful that he would be given adequate protection to thwart attempts on his life. It was even more doubtful that he could expect justice. In Jerusalem, Festus would be surrounded by clamorous Jewish leaders that he was anxious to please. He would see many incentives to rule against Paul. It would be especially easy to decide that Paul and his Christian allies had provoked civil disturbances.
What remaining option did Paul have? We surmise that he might have insisted on being tried in Caesarea, but he could see that Festus would not be an impartial judge. He would slant the proceedings and issue a ruling to serve his own agenda, which was to gain Jewish favor. If the ruling called for capital punishment, Paul could then appeal to a higher court. But it would be harder to win the sympathy of a judge in Rome if he had already been declared guilty by a lower judge. Therefore, his best option was to circumvent any trial in Caesarea by exercising his right to lodge an appeal immediately. In other words, Paul could escape a trial before Festus only by appealing to Caesar.
Doubtless another reason for the appeal carried strong weight. In Jerusalem, the Lord had revealed to Paul that his life would be delivered from danger there so that he might "bear witness . . . in Rome" (Acts 23:11). Paul therefore knew that choosing the path to Rome would serve God's purposes and win God's approval.
Paul worded his appeal in dramatic words rebuking the court for its unjust ruling. He bluntly accused Festus of wrongdoing in three respects: first, in his attempt to try Paul not at Caesar's judgment seat in Caesarea, but in Jerusalem; second, in his failure to exonerate Paul of many baseless charges; third, in his lack of any excuse for a wrong judgment, for he knew perfectly well that the charges were in fact baseless. In essence, Paul was accusing Festus of perverting justice for political reasons.
Festus withheld his reply until he had discussed Paul's case with his advisers. What did they need to discuss? At a later time in the empire's history, the central courts became so overburdened with cases that the right of appeal was limited to cases involving serious or extraordinary charges. There is some evidence that a universal right of appeal was already waning in the 50's, when Paul languished under arrest in Caesarea. But it is unlikely that retaining jurisdiction over Paul was a possibility weighed by Festus and his advisers. The case of a Christian evangelist whose work had unsettled a wide swath of Roman society had larger ramifications. Festus might well have antagonized higher authorities if he excluded them from final judgment. Besides, the charges against Paul clearly fell within the realm of a higher court.
But several questions did require heads-together consultation among the judge's team. Should they simply release Paul? Or should they deliver him a counterproposal to hold the trial in Caesarea? But they must have quickly agreed that there was no legal room for either of these responses to Paul's appeal. It was considered an act of serious dishonor to Caesar to resolve a case that had been formally committed to his judgment. Reaching a just verdict had become the business of Caesar’s court, and Festus no longer retained any role as judge.
Yet an appeal to Caesar did not require Festus to send the prisoner to Caesar immediately. It was entirely appropriate to delay shipping him off if the governor felt that the case warranted further investigation. When dealing with the cloudy charges overhanging Paul's case, Festus and his council may well have discussed what further information they needed to gather in order to provide Roman authorities with a full picture of evidence.
The final verdict was that if Paul wanted Caesar to judge him, then to Caesar he would go. Festus was doubtless relieved to resign all further responsibility for the case. He had already achieved his purpose, which was to make himself popular with the Jewish leaders.
A decision by Festus to investigate Paul's case further is likely why the apostle was still being held in Caesarea when, "after certain days," a neighboring ruler, Agrippa II, came to visit the governor. Perhaps he came by invitation to help Festus complete his review of Paul's case before sending it to a higher court. This Agrippa, who was king over territories to the north of Judea, belonged to the family of Herods. Like Drusilla, wife of Felix, he was a child of Herod Agrippa I, the ruler who beheaded James and tried to kill Peter. Agrippa came to see Festus in the company of Berenice, his younger sister and older sister of Drusilla. Berenice had been married twice, and it was rumored that her relationship with her brother was improper. It is of course shameful to speak of the wickedness men do, but the sordid lives of these elite Romans give us some insight on why they reacted to Paul as they did.
After Agrippa and Berenice spent many days with Festus, the governor confided to them that he had a difficult case to settle. He reviewed the proceedings against Paul, justifying his own decisions along the way. He said that while he was in Jerusalem, the Jewish leaders wanted him to deliver Paul into their custody so that they might put him to death for a capital offense, but he refused, explaining that because Paul was a Roman citizen, no Roman magistrate or governor could release him for execution without first granting him a trial where he could face his accusers and answer their charges against him. In recognition of Paul's rights, Festus had brought him and the Jewish leaders together before his judgment seat in Caesarea. But there he was wholly surprised to find that the charges revolved about religious matters. He saw that the chief point at issue between Paul and his accusers was whether a certain Jesus had risen from the dead. Festus viewed all the claims of Paul and counterclaims of Jewish leaders with scorn, going so far as to characterize Jewish religious beliefs as mere superstition. Once he heard both sides, he found it impossible to reach a verdict, because he "doubted of such manner of questions." In other words, he was perplexed how to resolve questions that he viewed as foolish and that lay wholly outside his jurisdiction and competence. So, he decided to ask Paul whether he would be willing to stand trial in Jerusalem before fellow Jews who understood the issues under dispute.
To close his summary of the case, Festus shared with Agrippa and Berenice its current state. He said that Paul, adamantly opposed to a trial in Jerusalem, had appealed to Caesar, and that he, Festus, had consented. He was now retaining Paul in custody until it was convenient to send him on to Rome.
Agrippa responded by asking if he could hear Paul speak. No doubt the main reason was that he thought he could give better advice if he sized up the man accused. But in his request we also see pronounced curiosity. Paul was famous as the champion of a new religion who had "turned the world upside down" (Acts 17:6). So, Agrippa may have wanted to hear Paul because he, like the Athenians, was always interested in hearing or telling some new thing (Acts 17:21). But from his reaction when he actually heard Paul, we may surmise that his curiosity had a deeper source—a gnawing disquiet in his soul.
Festus replied that Agrippa could hear Paul the next day.
At the appointed time, quite a large crowd assembled. Not only did Agrippa and Berenice arrive in all their royal splendor and take seats before the throng, but also many distinguished citizens came. These included the "chief captains"—that is, the highest ranking officers—in the local contingent of the Roman army. Like Claudius Lysias in Jerusalem, each was a chiliarch, or military tribune, commanding a force known as a cohort. History informs us that five cohorts were stationed in Caesarea. Besides the five officers, the guests included the principal men of the city, most of whom were probably gentiles. It may come as a surprise to some readers that Paul's examination before the rulers was turned into a state occasion, marked by great pomp before a gathering of many dignitaries. The importance attached to Paul's appearance before the rulers shows that Paul was a famous man, whose imprisonment had attracted a great deal of public attention.
Festus opened the hearing by summarizing the facts of the case, going over much the same ground he had covered the day before when speaking privately to Agrippa. He described Paul as a man that the whole Jewish nation hated bitterly, to the extent that they would not accept any remedy except his death. But he gave as his own judgment that the man was guiltless of any capital crime. Without relating the circumstances that pressured Paul to appeal to Caesar, Festus merely recalled his decision to honor the prisoner's appeal and send him to Rome. Yet there was a difficulty, and he hoped that Agrippa might offer advice on how to overcome it. The difficulty was that Festus did not know what to say about Paul in his report to the authorities in Rome. He felt that he should send along with Paul a statement of charges against him, but he did not know what charges to state, since he had done nothing worthy of death under Roman law. He concluded with words that are so self-evident that they verge on being funny: "For it seemeth to me unreasonable to send a prisoner, and not withal to signify the crimes laid against him" (v. 27). Yes, so the obvious question is, why had Festus proposed to try Paul in Jerusalem instead of dismissing the charges against him? Luke, in this account designed to read by judges in Rome, cannot help but point out the travesty of justice that Paul suffered in the court of Festus.
After Festus had introduced the proceeding, Agrippa took charge and invited Paul to speak for himself.