A Commentary by John Stott
Acts 22:23-29. 4). Paul is protected by Roman law.
Twice more in this brief section Roman law and justice come to Paul’s aid. First Claudius Lysias again rescues him from lynching, and secondly, having discovered his Roman citizenship, from flogging.
a). The rescue from lynching. (22:23-24).
The crowd was not content with shouting and screaming (22); they started waving their cloaks about and flinging dust into the air (23). H.J.Cadbury suggested that these gestures may have expressed not so much excitement, anger and hostility as horror in reaction to blasphemy. In any case, the commander forestalled any further attempt by the crowd to get their hands on Paul by giving orders (for a second time) for him to be taken into the barracks. He then ‘gave instructions to examine him by flogging’ (24, NEB). This ghastly ordeal was the standard way of extracting information from prisoners. ‘The scourge (Latin *flagellum*) was a fearful instrument of torture, consisting of leather thongs, weighted with rough pieces of metal or bone, and attached to a stout wooden handle. If a man did not actually die under the scourge (which frequently happened), he would certainly be crippled for life.’
b). The rescue from flogging (22:25-29).
Paul was actually being prepared for the flogging when he divulged his Roman citizenship. Similarly, in Philippi he had not revealed that he was a Roman citizen until after he had been beaten, imprisoned and put in the stocks (16:37). He seems for some reason not to have wanted to take advantage of being a citizen except in some dire extremity. Dr. Sherwin-White acknowledges that ‘the precise legal situation of Roman citizens in provincial jurisdiction is not well documented at this period’. Nor is it clear precisely what the citizen’s privileges were, although it is agreed that he was exempt from examination by flogging, i.e. torture without trial. Citizenship tended to be either by right (for those of high status or office) or by reward ( for those who had served the Empire well). It was passed on from father to son (which was the case with Paul); it could also be bought, not with a fee but with a bribe to some corrupt official ‘in the imperial secretariat or the provincial administration’, which was the case with Claudius Lysias. Indeed, such corruption was rife during the reign of the Emperor Claudius, which may explain why the commander had added the *nomen* Claudius, in honour of the Emperor, to his *cognomen* Lysias.
Although the commander *was alarmed when he realized that he had put Paul, a Roman citizen, in chains* (29), he does not seem to have released him from them. At least he was still in chains the following day and subsequently (Acts. 22:30; 23:18; 24:27; 26:29). What is the explanation of this? ‘Possibly a distinction is to be made between the heavy chains, a torture in themselves (of which Paul may have been relieved) and the lighter chains to prevent the prisoner from escaping.
5). Paul stands before the Sanhedrin (22:30 – 23:11).
The commander was determined *to find out exactly why Paul was being accused by the Jews* (22:30). He had tried questioning the crowd, but had got different answers from them (21:33-34). He was about to use torture, but Paul’s Roman citizenship blocked that avenue (22:24ff.). So now he opted for a third method – trial by the Sanhedrin (22:30). The high priest Ananias was a thoroughly unsavoury character. He was described by Josephus as ‘a great hoarder up of money’; He even ‘took away the tithes that belonged to the priests by violence’.
Although Luke’s account of the trial is brief, it raises at least three rather perplexing problems, the first two concerning Paul and Ananias, and the third concerning Paul, the Pharisees and the Sadducees.
a). Paul and the high priest Ananias (23:1-5).
First, why was the high priest so enraged by Paul’s opening remark that he ordered him to be struck on the mouth? It can hardly have been a point of order, that Paul spoke before he had been spoken to. Nor does it seem likely that his reason and experience were affronted, inasmuch as anybody who claimed to have lived a consistently conscience-free life was (in his view) a blatant liar. Nor is it easily conceivable that the high priest was exasperated by a plea of ‘not guilty’. The most likely explanation is that Ananias understood Paul’s words as a claim that, although now a Christian, he was still a good Jew, having served God with a good conscience all his life (since, as well as before, his conversion), even ‘to this day’. This was certainly the claim Paul made in 2 Timothy 1:3. It seemed to Ananias the height of arrogance, even of blasphemy.
Secondly, why was Paul’s riposte so rude? Jerome seems to have been the first commentator to draw attention to the contrast between Jesus and Paul before their judges. Jesus answered much more coolly when he was slapped in the face (Jn. 18:22-23; 1 Pet. 2:23). Besides, Paul had recently written of himself and his associates, ‘When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it (1 Cor. 4:12). It may be that he did lose his temper, for he more or less apologized, indicating that he would have responded differently if he had known he was addressing the high priest. How is it, then, that he did not recognize the high priest? Many answers have been suggested. Indeed, according to Haenchen, Paul’s statement is ‘so unbelievable that it has driven the theologians to desperate efforts’. Some think that this was an informal meeting of the Sanhedrin and that in consequence Ananias was neither robed, nor presiding, so that he could easily have escaped recognition. Others guess that in the babel of voices in court Paul was not able to identify who it was who had ordered him to be struck. A third interpretation is that Paul was speaking in sarcasm, as if to say, ‘I did not realize that a man such as you could be the high priest’ . But to me the most likely explanation lies in the poor eyesight which Paul is known to have had. (e.g. Gal.4:13-16; 6:11). In this case ‘you white-washed wall’ may have been not so much a reference to hypocrisy (Ezk. 13:8ff.; Matt. 23:27) as an uncouth allusion to a white-robed figure across the court whom Paul could only dimly perceive.
Tomorrow: Acts 23:6-10. b). Paul, the Pharisees and the Sadducees.
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of Acts. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.