A Commentary by John Stott
Acts 18:12-18a. c). Paul is vindicated by Roman law.
At some point during these eighteen months Jewish opposition to the gospel, which had earlier led Paul to turn to the Gentiles (6), erupted again: *The Jews made a united attack on Paul and brought him into court* (12b), or ‘before the tribunal’ (RSV, JB), the *bema*, which was ‘a large, raised platform that stood in the *agora*… in front of the residence of the proconsul and served as a forum where he tried cases’. It was in keeping with Christ’s promise that no-one would harm Paul (10) that the Jews took him to court *while Gallio was proconsul of Achaia* (12a, almost certainly AD 51-52), for Gallio proved to a friend of justice and truth. He was the younger brother of Seneca, the Stoic philosopher and tutor of the youthful Nero, and Seneca spoke appreciatively of his brother’s tolerant kindness. Incidentally, Luke was correct to call Gallio ‘proconsul’, since ‘Achaia was at this time a “senatorial” province of the Empire, and therefore governed by a proconsul – as opposed to an “imperial” province, which was governed by a legate’. The province’s status had changed only in AD44.
Of what offence did the Jews accuse Paul? ‘*This man’, they charged, ‘is persuading the people to worship God in ways contrary to the law*’ (13). But which law was he supposed to be contravening? Gallio understood them to be referring to what he called ‘your own law’ (15), but they knew as well as he that debates about the Jewish law were beyond his jurisdiction. So they must have been trying to make out that Paul’s teaching was against Roman law, because it was not an authentic expression of Judaism. Judaism was a *religio licita*, an authorized religion. But Paul’s teaching was ‘something new and un-Jewish…; it was, they urged, a *religio illicita*, which accordingly ought to be banned by Roman law’.
The proconsul gave the accused no opportunity to reply to this charge, for he refused to hear it himself. *Just as Paul was about to speak, Gallio said to the Jews, ‘If you Jews were making a complaint about some misdemeanour or serious crime [that is, an obvious offence against Roman law], it would be reasonable for me to listen to you (14). But since it involves questions [NEB, “bickering”] about words and names and your own law – settle the matter yourselves. I will not be a judge of such things’* (15). Having made his decision not to hear the Jews’ case, Gallio *had them ejected from the court* (16). An unpleasant example of mob rule followed. Although it is not certain who is meant by *they all* in verse 17, it seems to be the crowd of Gentile onlookers who, ‘in an outbreak of the anti-Semitism always near the surface in the Graeco-Roman world’, now *turned on Sosthenes*, who had evidently succeeded Crispus as *the synagogue ruler (see also 1 Cor. 1:1), and beat him in front of the court* (17a). Luke’s addition that *Gallio showed no concern whatever* (17b) does not mean that he was indifferent to justice, but that he considered it judicious to turn a blind eye to this act of violence.
Gallio’s refusal to take seriously the Jewish case against Paul or to adjudicate was immensely important for the future of the gospel. In effect, he passed a favourable verdict on the Christian faith and thus established a significant precedent. The gospel could not now be charged with illegality, for its freedom as a *religio licita* had been secured as the imperial policy. Luke’s concluding comment is logical: *Paul stayed on in Corinth for some time* (18a), not now because of his vision of Jesus, but because of the judicial decision of Gallio. Jesus would keep his promise to protect him; the chief means of his protection would be Roman law.
Tomorrow: 2). Acts 18:18b-28. Paul in transit.
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.