Acts 28 – Paul in Rome

The audio for this evening’s sermon is available here, as is a PDF handout.  Remember that you can leave comments and questions at the bottom of the page, or by clicking on the comments link just above this paragraph.

Paul meets with various Jewish leaders three days after arriving in Rome.  There was no centralized leadership of the various synagogues in Rome in the first century, so this sort of meeting may  have occurred many times over the next two years.  In general, these Jews seem open-minded, they have no instructions from Jerusalem, nor has anyone come to Rome to accuse Paul.  That there are no letters from Jerusalem is significant.

  • It is possible that the Sanhedrin chose to drop the case, choosing not to go to the expense of following Paul to Rome.
  • A second possibility is that travel conditions prevented letters from arriving before Paul.
  • A third possibility is that contact between Jerusalem and Rome was not particularly close – perhaps Jerusalem did not exert that much influence on Roman Jews.

With respect to Roman Law, this is a hint that the charges against Paul were likely dropped.  His accusers simply do not show up to offer evidence, therefore Paul would have been set free. Roman Jews would unlikely allies against Paul primarily because the political climate of Rome encouraged them to keep a rather low profile.  They would have had to employ lawyers in order navigate the imperial courts, an expense they may not have been able to afford at the time.

We know quite a bit about the state of the Jews in the early 60’s in Rome. There were at least four or five synagogues in Rome in A.D. 60, based on inscriptional evidence, but there were likely more, based on a population of between forty and fifty thousand Jews living in Rome at the time. As we have already seen, in A. D. 49 Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome, although this likely only effected the leaders of the riots.  Claudius died in A. D. 54, after which time Jews likely returned to Rome, although they hay have “kept a low profile.”

The Jews had some support among the Romans, even in the Imperial household.  Converting to Judaism was seen as scandalous, although many were attracted to Judaism’s one God and higher moral teaching.  Nero’s second wife and consort, Poppaea Sabina was very pro-Jewish and may have been a Jewess herself.  Nero’s relationship with her began as early as A. D. 58; he kicked her to death in 64 or 65.

Paul is seen as representing a sect, or a schism within Judaism.  “People everywhere” are talking about Paul’s theology, but within the context of Judaism.  This is a indication that, at least as far as Rome is concerned, there is not yet a “parting of the ways” between Christianity and Judaism. The Greek word translated here as sect is the same used for the “party” of the Pharisees or Sadducees.  There is no negativity in the word itself in Greek, it is simply a way of describing a sub-group within a larger group.

The sect of Paul is being opposed by people “everywhere,” a word which is rare in the New Testament, but appeared in Acts 13:45 for the Jewish response to Paul after his first major synagogue speech. (The NIV translated it “speak abusively” there, the word has the idea of refuting an idea, contradicting, etc.)  This may be because the content of the Christianity in Rome primarily concerned who Jesus was (the messiah) and the status of the kingdom of God which he claimed to have established.

Acts 27 – The Shipwreck

There are eleven or twelve accounts of Paul traveling by sea in the book of Acts (9:30, through this chapter), about 3000 miles in all.  Yet this chapter gives bay far the most detail of a journey by sea in the Bible, and even in the rest of ancient literature.  Given the fact that Luke has carefully designed the rest of this two volume history, we should probably pause to wonder why he includes such a great amount of detail to the journey to Rome.  It is not just that it is an exciting story (his readers were getting bored?) or that he was trying to fill out a scroll.  There is a literary and theological reason for Luke’s inclusion of this lengthy story.

That Luke is traveling with Paul may account for the detail.  Often ancient historians would write up to the time in which they are living and include themselves in the story in order to build credibility.  Consider Josephus, who summarized all of Jewish history up to the time of the Jewish revolt.  So too Thucydidies, who wrote his history of the Peloponesian War and included his own participation at various points.  This shipwreck functions to give Luke credibility – he witnessed the events himself and was a participant in the history he tells.  A Greco-Roman reader would expect this sort of thing if the book of Acts was to be seen as credible.

But there is more going on here than Luke’s interest in travel.  If someone (say, Theophilus) has been reading through Luke and Acts, he would notice some similarities between Paul and Jesus.  Both are arrested by the Jews and handed over to the Romans, both are tried by a secular authority (Pilate and Herod; Felix/Festus and Agrippa) and both are the victims of a miscarriage of justice motivated by the religious establishment in Jerusalem.  Will Paul suffer the same fate as Jesus?  Will he be executed by the Romans as a political undesirable, or will he receive justice from Rome?

Beyond these parallels, we need to remember Luke’s theme for the whole book: “beginning in Jerusalem, then Judea and Samaria, then to the ends of the earth.”  Luke knows that Paul will go to Rome to testify before the Emperor, but the reader may think that Paul will be killed along the way.  As James Dunn has observed, Luke is trying to show that “come what may, God will fulfill his purpose by having Paul preach the good news in the very heart of the empire.”

Some have questioned the historicity of this story based on parallels with other ancient literature, including Homer’s Odyssey.  Often a guilty man will try to escape justice (or fate), head out to the seas to avoid capture, but ultimately he will suffer and die anyway.  Paul is escaping from the Jews, yet is shipwrecked and eventually nearly killed by a snake, it is thought that Luke is patterning this story after the archetypal Greco-Roman novel plot-line. There is something to the parallels, and it may be that Luke tells this story in such detail because shipwrecks were popular in literature at the time, but this does not necessarily negate the historicity of the story.  Paul went to Rome, the best way to do that is by ship, it is entirely plausible that Festus would send him off in this way.  Shipwrecks were in fact common, so much so that Paul has already suffered shipwrecks twice in his travels (2 Cor 11:25)!

Acts 26 – Paul as the Light to the Gentiles

In this version of the story Paul emphasizes the fact that God called him to be the “light to the gentiles” (Acts 26:16-18).   This commission is based on Isaiah 49:6.  Paul seems to have always conceived of his mission through the lens of this text, which is somewhat unique in first century Judaism.  The text appears as a part of the “servant texts” in Isaiah.  This series of four prophecies describes the “Servant of the Lord” whose suffering brings about some kind of salvation for Israel.

There seems to have been some discussion of who the servant was; recall that the Ethiopian Eunuch was reading this text in Acts 8 and the idea of a suffering, dying and rising messiah appears at several points in the book of Acts.  This is anticipated as early as Luke 2:32, Simeon’s blessing on Jesus cites Isaiah and proclaims that this salvation has come to Israel.

Paul offers a somewhat different view – the Servant who suffered is Jesus (Luke 4:18, Is 61:1), but the “Light to the Gentiles” is applied to Paul and his ministry.  Turning to God and “opening eyes” is likely a reference back to the paradigmatic miracle on Cypress, the blinding of Bar-Jesus.  Like Isaiah, both Jesus and Paul ministered to blind people, people who were in need of healing in their understanding, so that they might believe that Jesus is in fact the Messiah.  Paul is sent to preach repentance to both the Jews and the Gentiles (recalling Romans 1:16-17, to the Jew first).

Festus interrupts Paul’s speech: “You are out of your mind!”  It is possible that this means that Paul’s knowledge of esoteric doctrines find things that are not necessarily true. This may reflect the common-sense “down to earth” Roman worldview. Festus is saying that the conclusions to which Paul comes is “beyond common sense,” not that these are strange and outlandish things.

Paul states that he is speaking “true and rational words.”  This description is good Greek rhetoric, sobriety is a chief virtue in Greek philosophy. Agrippa, on the other hand, understands that Paul’s speech has a persuasive value, that he is trying to convince them both of the truth of the Gospel.  What Paul has done has “not been done in a corner,” but rather out in the open for all to hear and evaluate.  This too is a feature of good philosophy and rhetoric, those who engage in secrets and mysteries are questionable (and probably not sober and self-controlled).

Acts 26-Paul Before Festus

I had a major hard drive failure and have been more or less offline for the better part of two weeks.  I did have everything backed up, fortunately.  I highly recommend SyncToy 2.0 and an external hard drive.  The following several posts are attempts at “catch up,”  I’ll be finishing up the text of Acts this Sunday night.  I plan on spending a week on the early church in Rome, them exploring James and Peter as alternatives to Pauline Christianity in the mid-first century the following weeks.

And now to Festus….

As soon as Paul arrives in Caesarea, prominent Jews from Jerusalem approach Festus for a “favor,” to release Paul to their custody.  What we know about Festus is generally good, especially when compared to Felix.  He dealt quickly with two separate messianic movements (Antiq. 20.8.10).  Unfortunately, Festus died after less than two years in office (A. D. 61-62) and his replacement Albinius was not an able administrator at all.

Festus finds himself it a difficult situation politically.  He needs the help of the “ruling Jews” to manage the province of Judea. The elite of Jerusalem included the former high priests and other Herodians.  They were, by and large, interested in power and wealth (as most politicians are). There is a certain irony here, since these men do not represent a very large segment of the population on Judea in the mid first century! They are but one small splinter group of many at the time; Festus buys very little influence if he does do them this “favor.”

The language of their request points to a formal alliance, if Festus expects to have the support of the local elite, then he needs to hand Paul over to them for justice rather than release him.  Festus sees that there is nothing about Paul that requires punishment; in fact, there are not real accusations being made against Paul!   Paul’s accusers are not present, therefore the very basis of a case against him in Roman law is missing.  This was Paul’s point in his defense before Felix (his accusers are the Asian Jews, who disappear when the action moves to Caesarea).

Luke only briefly comments on Paul’s defense, adding for the first time that he has neither offended the Temple or Caesar.  This is the first time that Paul has emphasized that he is not guilty of anything under Roman law.  Paul clearly realizes that his only chance at justice is to rely upon his citizenship.