The Flimsy Case against Paul
Claudius Lysias commanded the Jewish leaders to meet the governor in Caesarea if they wished to state charges against Paul. In a hurry to comply, they arrived in Caesarea only five days after Paul was imprisoned there. Among them was their top man, the high priest Ananias—the one who ordered Paul struck on the mouth. He was accompanied by other key men in leadership as well as by an orator named Tertullus. The orator would act much as a prosecuting attorney in our day. On behalf of the rulers, he would tell of Paul's crimes before the governor Felix, who would sit as judge.
Tertullus began with daring flattery, complimenting Felix in flowery words for achievements that everyone knew he had failed to attain. The orator said that Felix brought quietness to the nation, whereas his administration was marked by fierce repression of Jewish dissidents. He was finally recalled from office when he used heavy-handed methods to stop riots between Jews and gentiles in Caesarea. In Tertullus's carefully crafted speech, the Jewish leadership was signaling to Felix that although he had made himself unpopular in the nation as a whole, they were willing to support him if he would only take their side against Paul.
The three charges stated by the orator were vague. He said that Paul was a "pestilent fellow" and a "mover of sedition." In other words, he provoked civil unrest and violence. Since the Jewish nation was infested with troublemakers who were always forcing the Romans to intervene and restore order, the Jewish leaders calculated that this charge would win a sympathetic hearing. Tertullus said next that Paul was a "ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes," as if Christians were a gang of criminals. The religion of the Jews was a religio licita—that is, the Romans had granted it official toleration and conceded to it certain rights. But Christianity had no legal standing. By referring to it as a "sect," the Jewish leaders were branding it as an illegal movement. To further belittle the followers of Jesus they referred to them as "Nazarenes," a name with derogatory overtones because Jesus' place of origin did not have a good reputation (John 1:46). It was therefore the name preferred by enemies of the church. The language of the orator's second charge was calculated to arouse in Felix the suspicion that the church was just another political movement trusting in a messiah to overthrow Roman rule. Finally, Tertullus accused Paul of profaning the Temple. As we have noted before, the Romans recognized the right of the Jews to protect the Temple from anything they regarded as defilement.
Next, the orator sought to neutralize the damage done by the report from Claudius Lysias. The captain said that he rescued Paul from a mob acting outside the law. He therefore made the Jewish leaders appear unworthy of the rights Rome granted them. Why might Felix draw this conclusion? Because the furor which the captain found outside the Temple suggested that the Jewish leaders either could not control their own people, or that they were unconcerned to maintain order as the Romans expected them to do. Tertullus defended the leaders with a bald lie. He said that they arrested Paul in a proper manner and were taking him for judgment when the Romans interfered. With great violence entirely uncalled for, they seized Paul from their hands. Tertullus was saying that if there was a riot, the Romans caused it. The Jewish leaders knew that Felix was sensitive to any charge that the Romans overreacted. His job was in jeopardy because he himself had overreacted in the past.
Under Roman law, Paul had the privilege of speaking in his own defense. The orator's presentation had served its purpose, but fell far short of Paul's response. In public debate, Paul was never bested.
He too started with words of tribute to Felix. Anything else would have been improper and disrespectful. Yet he avoided flattery. The only good thing he attributed to Felix was his experience as a judge. He implied that because Felix had judged the nation for many years, he was qualified to weigh the accusations against Paul.
He replied to the charges one by one. First, in response to the charge that he was a raiser of sedition, he pointed out that he had done nothing in Jerusalem to cause trouble. He had gone to the city to worship, and while there he had conducted himself with decorum. His accusers never found him arguing with anyone or stirring up strife anywhere, neither in the synagogues nor in the streets.
Second, he acknowledged that he was a Christian, but denied that he belonged to an illegal sect. Rather, he faithfully followed the religion of his fathers, holding to all their beliefs and living in perfect obedience to the moral law that his fathers received from God. Paul added that his belief in the resurrection of the dead was by no means a departure from the Jewish religion. Even his enemies held the same belief.
Paul went on to answer the third accusation—that he profaned the Temple. He said that when he was arrested in the Temple, he was doing nothing wrong. He was not haranguing a crowd or engaging others in controversy. He was there simply for private worship. Paul then made the telling argument that if he was truly at fault, why had the leaders failed to produce any eyewitness testimony to his wrongdoing? If any Jews saw him profaning the Temple, they should have come before Felix and presented their evidence. The only testimony that the Jewish leaders themselves could bring against him was that he affirmed before the Sanhedrin his belief in the resurrection of the dead. To hold such a belief was hardly a crime.
Having shown that the case against him had no basis, Paul concluded his defense. He had made it clear to Felix that to judge him guilty would be a travesty of justice, whether under Jewish law or Roman law.
Felix was indeed a good man to hear the case, because he was well-informed about Christianity. Perhaps his acquaintance with the new religion derived from his wife Drusilla, who, as the youngest daughter of Herod Agrippa—the same Herod who beheaded James—had been raised in the midst of the Jewish nation. Moreover, unlike her husband, she was a Jew. Thus, she was familiar with all the customs and affairs of her people. However it happened that Felix came to know the background of the charges against Paul, he perceived that some were false and some exaggerated, and so he sidestepped a verdict that would have satisfied the Jews. He neither found him guilty nor turned him over to the Jews for trial. Rather, he procrastinated. He said he would consider the matter later, after Claudius Lysias came with a fuller account of recent events. In the meantime, he entrusted Paul to the custody of a centurion and commanded that he be kept under house arrest. His friends would be free to visit him and minister to his needs.
Awhile later, Felix and Drusilla summoned Paul to explain further his faith in Jesus Christ. Although still a teenager, Drusilla was in her second marriage. She left her first husband at age sixteen and married Felix, who already had two wives. Whether Felix and Drusilla wanted to hear Paul out of genuine interest in his message or out of simple curiosity about this man who turned the world upside down, we do not know. Since we know nothing of Drusilla's later history, we can hope that the gospel left her a changed woman. But as we will see, her husband gives us little reason to hope.
Paul preached to them without mincing words. Even though his life was at the mercy of Felix, he boldly declared that God will hold men accountable for their lives and judge their sin. He defined sin as the opposite of righteousness and self-control—forms of virtue which these two hearers were notably lacking. The Holy Spirit brought guilt to the conscience of Felix, at least, for he trembled in fear, and although he sent Paul away, he promised to call him back. And he kept his promise, for in the coming months he brought Paul to speak with him often.
Yet Felix had mixed motives. From the first he thought that if he treated Paul cordially, Paul might get the idea that with a little encouragement, the governor would grant him freedom. The encouragement Felix wanted was a bribe. It is evident that Paul's attempt to quicken a desire for righteousness in Felix's heart made little impression. As time passed, it is likely that the man's sense of guilt subsided while his greed mounted. From Paul's own testimony he knew that the apostle had collected funds in other regions as charity for the poor in Jerusalem. He was hoping that Paul's supporters would raise more funds for Paul's release.
For two more years, Paul waited under arrest for Felix to dispose of his case. Finally, the governor was removed from office and Porcius Festus succeeded him. Felix left Paul in bonds for the next man to deal with. His motive in not releasing Paul was to please the Jews. He was seeking their favor because he was leaving office under an indictment that the Jewish leaders brought against him for his handling of riots in Caesarea.
A New Governor
Festus, the governor who succeeded Felix, was a different sort of man. History offers no information about him, beyond suggesting that he did not remain long in his position. What we know derives mainly from the Book of Acts. The figure we find there is a somewhat weaker ruler than his predecessor. The first move Festus made, only three days after taking his new position, was to go to Jerusalem and consult with the Jewish leaders. After the trouble they caused Felix, Festus was determined to keep them on his side. The chief favor they sought was the right to try Paul in Jerusalem. Their plan, if Festus yielded to their request and brought Paul up from Caesarea, was to have their agents ambush Paul's escort and kill Paul. But Festus refused to bring Paul to Jerusalem. Perhaps he reasoned that if he handed a Roman citizen over to the Jews against his will, he, the Roman governor Festus, might incur trouble for himself. Whatever his motives were, he demanded that the leaders come down to Caesarea and confront Paul with their charges.
After ten days devoted to surveying the situation in Jerusalem and forging political alliances, Festus returned to Caesarea, taking with him a group of leaders desirous of accusing Paul. Upon their arrival, Festus sat in his judgment seat and called for the prisoner. The Jews then stood around 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 charge that Paul and his Christian followers were disloyal to Rome. When called 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 rather than insist on his own way. Felix had sheltered Paul from a trial in Jerusalem, but now when the Jewish leaders renewed their demands for it, Festus yielded. In recognition of Paul's rights as a Roman citizen, he did not simply hand him over to the Jews. He gave Paul the choice he was legally entitled to make. He could elect to be tried in either a Jewish court or a Roman court. The first option would require him to go to Jerusalem and be tried under Jewish law. The second option was one he had already pursued. As a result of declaring himself a Roman citizen, he was now standing in a Roman court and hearing the judge's verdict. The only further recourse permitted by the second option was therefore to lodge an appeal, and the only court higher than a governor's judgment seat was the emperor's. In other words, Paul could escape a Jewish trial only by appealing to Caesar. Since Paul knew that returning to Jerusalem would mean certain death, he took his only chance of escape. He appealed to Caesar.
Paul worded his appeal in dramatic words rebuking the court for its unjust ruling. He bluntly accused Festus of wrongdoing in threatening him with a Jewish trial, for Festus knew perfectly well that Paul had done no wrong to the Jews. Festus, well aware that Paul was acting within his rights, replied that if Paul wanted Caesar to judge him, then to Caesar he would go. Festus was content with the outcome, because he had won favor with the Jewish leaders by doing his best to give Paul into their hands.
Sometime after Festus came to office, he received a visit from a neighboring ruler, Agrippa II, who was king over territories to the north of Judea. This Agrippa belonged to the family of Herods. Like Drusilla, 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 his younger sister, Berenice, 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 finally 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 explained that because Paul was a Roman citizen, he required the Jews to state their charges against him face-to-face. Then, having discovered that the charges revolved about religious matters, he decided that Paul must go to Jerusalem for trial. 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 and counterclaims with scorn, going so far as to characterize the Jewish religion as mere superstition. In closing, he shared the current state of the case. Paul, in an effort to save himself from going to Jerusalem, had appealed to Caesar, and Festus had retained him in custody until it was convenient to send him on to Rome.
Agrippa was no doubt familiar with Paul's reputation as the champion of a new religion. He asked Festus if he could hear the man speak. Festus replied that he could hear him 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 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, all of whom were probably gentiles and Romans. 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 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 of any crimes that Paul had committed.
After Festus had introduced the proceeding, Agrippa took charge and invited Paul to speak for himself.
© 2009, 2012 Stanley Edgar Rickard (Ed Rickard, the author). All rights reserved.