Acts 23:12-15 – The Plot Against Paul

In Acts 23:12-15, a group of more than forty Jews make a vow to kill Paul. The verb here (ἀναθεματίζω) has the sense of putting oneself under a curse if a action is not performed. This is a rather strong response, but it is not unexpected after the events in the Temple. Paul was accused of bringing a Gentile into the Temple, and in his defense he claims to have had a vision in the Temple itself sending him to the Gentiles.

Paul on TrialThe group has gathered as part of a “plot” (συστροφή), a word which is associated with a gathering for seditious purposes (Witherington, Acts, 694). The word appears in Amos 7:10 (Amos is accused of plotting against the Israelite priesthood) and in LXX Psalm 63:3 for those making “secret plots” against the psalmist. Luke used the word to describe the illegal, unruly mob in Ephesus (Acts 19:40).

It is possible this rather zealous group are similar to the Sicarri, a group of assassins who were active during the governorship of Felix. Chronologically this story takes place only about eight years prior to the beginning of the revolt against Rome, so many of the tensions which explode into that conflict are already present. Paul’s near-lynching for allegedly bringing a Gentile into the Temple indicates that the city of Jerusalem is ready to take violent action against Jews who are in violation of the Law.

Paul claimed in front of the crowds in the Temple that he was called by God to a ministry among the Gentiles. He believed that he was functioning as the messianic “light to the Gentiles.” This carries the implication that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah and that his death and resurrection was a part of God’s plan to establish the kingdom anticipated in the Hebrew Bible. This was understood as treasonous by those who were “zealous for the Law.” (Imagine how Paul would have reacted a few years earlier!)

Paul is warned of this plot by his nephew. It is possible to render this verse “he heard the plotting having been present…” implying that the nephew of Paul was at the meeting when these men took the oath. This may hint at the fact that Paul had family members who were involved in the more radical, revolutionary politics of the period.

As a result of this warning he is placed in protective custody by the Romans (23:16-22). Rapske comments that Roman citizens in protective custody were kept well with good meals and comfortable quarters (Paul in Roman Custody, 28-35). This is another example of Luke making a contrast between the irrational mobs in Jerusalem and the Roman authorities. Rome treated Paul legally and with respect, while this mob takes an irrational oath to assassinate him!

It is significant that once again there is no reference to anyone else rising to defend Paul, either James and his group (which included Pharisees and priests, people who would surely have heard of this kind of a plot) or Peter and the other Apostles. It is possible that the Twelve no longer were in Jerusalem, but James might have been able to stop Paul’s arrest by stating that he was not in the Temple with any Gentiles.

Is this an indication of a breach between Paul and Jerusalem?

15 thoughts on “Acts 23:12-15 – The Plot Against Paul

  1. As to your q. of “Is this an indication of a breach betw. Paul and Jerusalem?”, I’ve not particularly seen THIS passage as such an indication (i.e., the apparent lack of support for Paul). However, it would seem to add a little additional weight to the case which I think is abundantly clear and strong from Paul’s own writings that he WAS in serious disagreement (on core matters) with “Jerusalem”, including James, Peter and John. And it is Paul himself who is key to establishing this “breach,” much more than Luke (or potentially James in the epistle under his name).

    In the larger surrounding passage, like almost every key “issue” point in Acts, Luke is using numerous literary and dramatic devices of the day and of Jewish pattern (e.g. the numerous parallels betw. this story and Jesus trial, particularly the part about speaking up and then being struck in the face — in Jesus’ case, by inference as to the face)…. doing so to serve one or more of his core agenda points, mainly around either concealing or at least down-playing the “breach” you refer to. This, apparently because a major breach DID exist, but was enough obscured through and after the destr. of Jeru. and by time of the writing — easily as late as 90-some and quite possibly later — that there was room to supply creative details and, frankly, “spin,” to minimize and distort it, play up the Pauline theology which was now gaining upper hand rapidly.

    It’s not clear to me just what you’re saying in the next to last paragraph…. That “the Twelve” were maybe not in Jeru. still but James was? Or that he was not either but had influence from a distance and could potentially have stopped the arrest? (But it was the arrest, according to the story which SAVED Paul… so it’s confusing).

    Reading the prior chapters (21 and 22), what does seem both clear and very important is how Luke is inventing much of the story, and feeding readers (or repeating for them) certain “facts” that do not square at all with Paul’s own statements and claims. I won’t try to list many, but a couple key ones would be Luke’s conversion story re. Paul, particularly his supposed visit to Jeru. right after the “Damascus Road” incident, as in ch. 22 (directly contrary to his own strong point that it wasn’t till 3 yrs. after whatever initial vision/revelation he experienced that he came the first time, and then only briefly, meeting with just Peter and James as I recall).

    Another would be the citizenship claim, which Paul never makes himself, yet he speaks of being beaten with rods, which I don’t know if is exactly the same as the “flogging” here, but was, from what I’ve heard and makes sense, likewise (with statements here) prohibited for citizens. This is not conclusive of a lot by itself, but another case where Paul on himself and Paul by Luke don’t line up. I believe Paul also indicates he had not been in Jerusalem soon after the crucifixion (prior to his conversion), at least not extensively to where he’d be recognized “in Judea”. Yet here Luke has him claiming to have been “brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel” and to have had a role, though perhaps a minor one, in the first martyrdom, that of Stephen. Also with that, the statement, supposedly by Paul, of being able to be vouched for by “the high priest and whole council of elders” from whom he “received letters….” (22:4, 5)

    That is, one gets a whole different picture, broad strokes AND details, from Luke than one gets from Paul on important “building blocks” like these, along with many others, as well as theological points. That being the case, can we, at any point, conclude much with any confidence from the things Luke reports about, such as what really happened in this visit by Paul, his arrest, what he said in the situation, etc.?

    • There are three substantial things that I believe we can take from the plot to kill Paul in Acts 23. The first being the intense and desperate nature of the Jews. This is exemplified in Acts 23:12, by 40 Jews taking an oath to kill Paul. An oath in these days was something that was not taken lightly because as the post states if the oath was not fulfilled it was the same as “putting oneself under a curse.” The irrational and desperste nature of the Jews was a direct result of the despute between the Pharisees and the Sadducees regarding Paul’s declaration that he was a Pharisee.

      The next thing that I believe we can take from this post is the unfailing protection of God. This is because even though there were 40 men under an oath to kill Paul, he had nothing to fear because God was watching out for him (Acts 23:11). This scenario can be characterized by once again God protecting Paul through his Roman Citizenship. This is because as the post states the mobs were irrational but “Rome treated Paul legally and with respect.” In turn, the social clout that Paul’s Roman citizenship carried was
      used by God to protect Paul.

      The last thing I believe we can take from the attempt to kill Paul, is the passive nature of James, the other apostles, and the elders to not stand up for Paul. This is because as the post states these people would have known about Paul’s arrest and could have defended him. Consequently, I believe that there may have been a division between Paul and Jerusalem. This is because these people would have had the power to stick up for Paul and state that he had not brought a Gentile into the temple, but the fact of the matter is that they did not and they allowed him to be arrested. Thus leading one to believe that there may have been division between Paul and Jerusalem.

    • What a response! Thanks, Howard. You said “That “the Twelve” were maybe not in Jeru. still but James was? Or that he was not either but had influence from a distance and could potentially have stopped the arrest?” I think that my point was that the Twelve didn’t help because they were not there, yes. As far as Acts is concerned, there 12 are gone. I suppose Peter might be in Rome by this point, but that is not certain.

      The silence of James is more frosty, if he was considered “the just”, perhaps he could have spoken to someone in order to point out that the rumor Paul brought a Gentile into the Temple was false. It is entirely likely the silence is an indication that he was not as influential in Jerusalem of about AD 58 as we might have thought. James Dunn thinks that his silence is a bit more dark, that James saw this as a chance to get rid of Paul, although I doubt he wanted him killed by the crowd.

      I think that you make a great point, the whole sequence of events is exactly what God planned from the beginning in order to get Paul to Rome. (This is an example, of “you intended it for evil, but God intended it for good, Gen 50:19-20).

  2. The amount of hatred towards Paul by these Jews is zealous, to say the least. The fact that they would not eat until Paul was killed, shows that they expected to kill him soon. I also wonder what happened to them after Paul was brought into custody. Did they break their vows? Did they starve to death? The ESV says that they “bound themselves by an oath to neither eat nor drink till they had killed Paul.” (Acts 23:12) This verse insinuates that they would not drink, whether that meant at all, or if they would merely abstain from wine is something that would be interesting to know. Paul’s status as a Roman citizen may have saved him from death. The fact that James did not speak up for Paul, may show a quarrel between the two. The fact that Paul’s family is also in Jerusalem, due to the warning from his nephew, may show some amount of dissention between Paul and his family.

    • I am in the same boat with Scott in wondering what happened to the 40 people who made the vow to kill Paul. Did they follow Paul into Rome or did they give up when they realized the Romans were protecting him? Either way, it does not mention their end, but I do think that this episode shows us the contrast between the Romans treatment of Paul and the Jews treatment of Paul. I find it interesting that even Paul’s nephew is put in danger for his reporting to Paul and then the commander of what he had heard. 23:22 says that the commander cautioned Paul’s nephew saying, “Don’t tell anyone that you have reported this to me.” I think the irrational Jews would have been just as violent to him as they wanted to be to Paul.

      I do think that this is an indication of a breach between Paul and Jerusalem. Paul was simply too questionable and attracted too much attention for anyone in Jerusalem to try to defend him. His message to the Gentiles put him in a dangerous position with the zealous Jews in Jerusalem, therefore anyone who wanted to defend Paul would subject themselves to criticism as well, just like Paul’s nephew would have been put in danger if the Jews found he helped Paul. I think 23:11 is a pivotal verse here: “The following night the Lord stood near Paul and said, “Take courage! As you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome.” First, it is worth noting that the Lord is the only one who comes to Paul to encourage him. Second, I think Luke wants to show us the movement of the gospel out to Rome and he portrays these events as God’s plan all along. It is His sovereign plan.

  3. I wonder what Paul was feeling through all of these events. He is beaten and tried by the council. Because it was so heated during this meeting he was pulled out. That same night the Lord spoke to Paul saying “Don’t worry! Just as you have told others about me in Jerusalem, you must also tell about me in Rome” (Acts 23:11). The very next day Paul hears from his nephew about the plot against him. Was he fearful that these zealous Jews would be successful or did he trust God with the awareness that He had just told him that he has to go tell the Romans about the gospel. There has been tension between the Jerusalem church, particularly the leaders, and Paul before there lack of an attempt to defend and rescue Paul. There is conflict even in the book of Galatians, which is one of Paul’s first epistles. “When Peter came to Antioch, I told him face-to-face that he was wrong” (Acts 2:11). There is obvious disagreement and tension in this verse. Peter’s demeanor didn’t correlate with what he had earlier accepted. Ultimately, he was acting this way because he was afraid of the Jews, including James the leader of the church. It seems like they accepted what Paul had to say about the gospel he was going to preach to the Gentiles but they didn’t fully live that out or practice it afterwards.

  4. After Paul spoke to the Pharisees, they were very upset with him. The chief captain saw that Paul was in danger so he took Paul to the castle to protect him. Even though everyone seemed to be against Paul, the Lord was still with him, and He was not going to abandon him. The Lord talked to him that night telling Paul to not worry because just like he spoke in Jerusalem, he was going to be able to speak in Rome (Acts 23:11). The Lord is sovereign. He reminded Paul that He was not going to leave him even when times get tough. The Lord was going to take care of Paul. Paul desired to serve the Lord, and the Lord was going to provide and protect for him.

    More than 40 people decided that they were not going to eat or sleep until Paul was dead (Acts 23:12). Wow! They must have been very angry with him to take a vow so severe. It is interesting that it was the Jews who were so upset with Paul. In Acts 15, 20, and 21, Paul seems to try to work things out with James and the Jews in Jerusalem. However, it appears that there may have been some kind of contention between Paul and James because James did not come to help Paul even though he probably knew that the Jews were plotting to kill him. Although James and the Jews were not pleased with Paul, Paul’s nephew was still with him and wanted to help him (Acts 23:16). Paul’s nephew heard of their plot to kill Paul (Acts 23:16). Long says, “This may hint at the fact that Paul had family members who were involved in the more radical, revolutionary politics of the period” (“The Plot against Paul” post). Paul’s nephew obeyed Paul by going to the chief captain to warn him of the Jews unrest against Paul.

  5. I think the most interesting part of this whole story is how Paul/or Saul at an earlier time would have considered and most likely done a very similar act! Paul is preaching and teaching exactly what Stephen was stoned for and even possibly to a more radical point of view. That puts no question in my mind that the crowd was extremely serious in their vow “12 The next morning some Jews formed a conspiracy and bound themselves with an oath not to eat or drink until they had killed Paul.” (Acts 23:12). If a man was speaking against, what you believed, to be the divine right of the Jews then I think anyone of us would have significant issues with what Paul is saying at this moment.
    However, I do not know if I agree with P. Long when he says “implying that the nephew of Paul was at the meeting when these men took the oath. This may hint at the fact that Paul had family members who were involved in the more radical, revolutionary politics of the period.” Mostly because rumors work very much on the basis that you hear from someone that heard from someone that heard from someone. If the nephew was there, it woulnt have been a rumor but rather would have been fact since they hold eye witnesses so high in the Roman Empire.

  6. I would have to assume that the other apostles were no longer in Jerusalem. This is not hard to believe as Jesus had sent them out to preach his name in all nations. They may have simply just decided to start going out feeling that James had things under control in Jerusalem or perhaps they were driven out by people in a similar fashion to what Paul is experiencing here. As far as James is concerned, that is a more difficult thing to determine. It is possible that he does not come to Paul’s aid because of a disagreement between the two of them. We can see from comparing Paul’s letters to the Book of James that they didn’t quite see things eye to eye. Or perhaps it is just that James is afraid. He doesn’t want to stand up for Paul for fear of being lumped in with him as well. It is also possible that James made an attempt to help Paul and had no success or Luke choose not to mention it but that does seem unlikely.

  7. It is without a doubt a strong and very passionate response towards Paul. To come to the conclusion that you feel like you are under a curse if you do not perform action sounds like a very serious and hard hearted thing. I can’t imagine being that angry at someone that if I didn’t do something to them to hurt them that I would feel like I am under a curse. I feel like their passion must have burned with something more than just zeal. To say that he had a vision to go to the Gentiles and to bring them there seems to be so absurd that they would want to plot against him because of it. All they have ever known is that Gentiles are unclean and unworthy so to say that they are all of a sudden worthy is absurd. This really shows how close to the law the Jews in Jerusalem are and how passionate they are about keeping it. I feel like this is just what they needed to hear however since Paul was willing to die for something that he believed firmly without a doubt that not only God told him to do this, but that God showed him to do this.

  8. It always amazes me to think about how these radical Jews were acting towards Paul, especially when the Jews are complaining about being treated poorly by the Romans. In this case, the Jews seem to be more radical and unrelenting than the Romans. The Romans come out looking like the good guys in this story. It is also amazing how Paul did everything he did and said without being killed sooner rather than later.

  9. I think we can all agree that Paul’s whole story is one of immense protection, even if he was beaten often, he still lived through it all. But, this story really has two unique elements to it, the irrationalism of the jews plotting to kill Paul, and then the inactivity of James and the other 12. The Jews were so blinded by their irrational rage against Paul’s teaching that they didn’t even think about the illegal nature of their plot to kill Paul. I think it’s odd that Luke portrays the Jews so irrational, and the Romans so rational, because that seems backwards of what I’ve always heard. Anytime I’ve ever heard preachers talking about Romans in the Bible, they’ve always been the “bad guys”, but it seems to me that they are the good guys in this situation. I mean, their arrest of Paul did save his life.

    The second thing that is odd to me is the fact that none of the twelve get involve, in fact; they aren’t even mentioned in this story. I’m not sure whether Luke is trying to make this significant, in that the twelve have separated themselves from Paul, because his preaching was too radical. Or, it could be that the twelve were simply not in Jerusalem at the time, and couldn’t help Paul even if they wanted to. I would theorize that Luke doesn’t mention them because there is some sort of split between Paul, and the Jerusalem church. Possibly the Jews in Jerusalem had decided Paul was getting a little too radical, and separated themselves to appeal to the people who weren’t so much into that.

    [sing it to the tune of “Rapture” by Blondie]

    I’m Boss Paul, the Pharisee
    My hypocrisy’s plain for the world to see
    I travel the land and travel the sea
    to make a convert who is just like ME

    “All have sinned” – we know that’s true
    but it never means ME – it only means YOU
    My sins are all theoretical
    “I’m the worst of sinners”- but don’t ask where

    To be more like Jesus is what some strive
    except for me – I’ve already arrived
    I’m the perfect model since the road to Damascus
    What were Paul’s sins? Don’t ask us!

    I justify everything I do
    If I testify about myself it MUST be true
    I’m the only man in all history
    whose testimony doesn’t need two or three

    If I did something it MUST be right
    Don’t use the Scripture to shed any light
    Don’t do as I say, do as I do
    and then you can be a Pharisee too.

  11. What were Paul’s specific sins as a Christian? Here are 5 to get the discussion started:

    .1) Paul’s boastful conflicting false testimonies, exaggerating and making things up about his conversion experience in Acts 22 & 26, compared to what actually happened (recorded by Luke in Acts 9).

    .2) Paul lying to the Ephesian elders saying he was “compelled by the Spirit” going to Jerusalem, when in truth he was clearly disobeying God. [Acts 19:21 – 22:21]
    3) Paul exaggerating his ministry in Ephesus claiming it was “3 years night and day with tears” when really it was 3 months in the synagogue and 2 years daily in a lecture hall.
    [Acts 20:31 vs Acts 19:8-10]

    .4) Paul abandoning the Church in Corinth after a year and a half for no obvious reason, and going off on another long trip, mostly on his own, without appointing anyone else in Corinth as overseer, or giving anyone else any specific authority in the Church in Corinth.
    [Acts 18]

    .5) Paul acting as an abusive absentee overseer / pastor to the Church in Corinth years after he abandoned them, and clinging to all power and claim to control of money and all aspects of the church ministry, while he was hundreds of miles away teaching full-time in his own school in Ephesus. [1 & 2 Corinthians.]

    Paul is the “model pastor” for many modern “Pauls” like;

    Bob Coy, who still owns all the assets and controls all the money at his cult known as Calvary Chapel Fort Lauderdale, in spite of his recent resignation as “Senior Pastor” there due to adultery with multiple woman and other major sins that he still has never specifically admitted to personally.

    Greg Laurie, the Boss of a wide-ranging personal cult empire that generally goes by the name of “Harvest.” Greg lives in Newport Beach, commutes by helicopter, and exploits the very large church he founded in Riverside from a distance, while he does his own thing in Orange County and travels around wherever he feels like, building a personal business empire with himself as the center, not Jesus.

  12. “What is an Apostle?”
    Here is the answer based on the original sources:
    The words and actions of Jesus and the Original Apostles in the text of the New Testament.

    .1) Gospel of Mark – time lag between being appointed and being sent
    “Jesus went up on a mountainside and called to him those he wanted, and they came to him. He appointed twelve – designating them apostles – that they might be with him…” [Mark 3:13-14]

    Three chapters later,
    “Then Jesus went around teaching from village to village. Calling the Twelve to him, he sent them out two by two and gave them authority over evil spirits.” [Mark 6:6-7]

    .2) Gospel of Luke – time lag between being appointed and being sent
    “One of those days Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God. When morning came, he called his disciples to him and chose twelve of them, whom he also designated apostles: Simon…..” [Luke 6:12-14]

    Again three chapters later,
    “When Jesus had called the Twelve together, he gave them power and authority to drive out all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to preach the kingdom of God and to heal the sick.” [Luke 9:1-2]

    .3) Gospel of Matthew – which is organized by theme, not necessarily in chronological order.
    “He called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority to drive out evil spirits and to heal disease and sickness. These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon…” [Matthew 10:1]

    Without any clear time reference, continuing on the theme of the Apostles, Matthew does record “These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions…” [Matthew 10:5] Matthew never said that the Apostles were “sent out” immediately after being appointed. If we didn’t also have the clear records in Mark and Luke, it would be a fairly logical assumption that Jesus sent them out right away, but it would still be just an assumption. In this case, that assumption would clearly be wrong. The Twelve Apostles were absolutely NOT sent out right away after being appointed Apostles, according to Mark chapters 3 through 6, and Luke chapters 6 through 9.

    So being an Apostle of Jesus involves being sent by Jesus, yes. But that isn’t the only meaning, or even the first and primary meaning. The first thing was “that they might be with Him” personally, together, for His entire earthly ministry, from the time of John the Baptist until Jesus rose to heaven. Jesus poured his life into the 12 Apostles for 3 ½ years very personally training them to be the leaders of the church, and Jesus chose Peter as first among equals.

    The NIV translation inserts the heading “Matthias Chosen to Replace Judas” for the passage Luke wrote in Acts 1:12-26]. The NIV headings were not part of the original text, and sometimes they can be misleading, but in this case I believe the heading is right on.

    Jesus and the Original Apostles knew what an Apostle is better than anyone else in the world. Why is this a strange idea? Why do so many people frequently attack and tear down and dismiss the Original Apostles, particularly Peter, as if they were all incompetent, stupid, and wrong in so many ways, and they didn’t even know what an “Apostle” was? The answer to that question is, they have been listening to the voice of Paul, rather than the voices of Jesus and the Original Apostles.

    As we consider the question “what is an Apostle”, we should carefully listen to the words of the leader that Jesus personally appointed as first among the Apostles, and trained personally for 3 ½ years, Peter.

    “It is necessary to choose one of the men who have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from John’s baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us. For one of these must become a witness with us of his resurrection.” [Acts 1:21-22]

    Neither Paul, nor James, nor Luke were with Jesus and the Apostles the whole time, so they were not qualified to be a “witness with the Apostles of Jesus’ resurrection”, which is what it means to be an Apostle. Matthias was qualified, appointed, and later recognized as part of The Twelve. No one except Judas ever lost his apostleship.

    Responding to a question from Peter,
    “Jesus said to them:
    …you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” [Matthew 19:28]

    We cannot prove that Judas was present at that time, and we cannot prove that Matthias was absent at that time when Jesus spoke those words. Even if Judas was physically present, as we all realize now, he was not a true follower of Jesus. And even if Matthias was physically absent at that particular occasion, Jesus is still establishing the basic qualification for having one of the twelve thrones as being “you who have followed me,” not someone who will follow Jesus in the future, like Paul, James, Luke or anyone else in the world.

    At the Last Supper, Jesus said to His Apostles:
    “You are those who have stood by me in my trials. And I confer on you a kingdom, just as my Father conferred on one on me, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” [Luke 22:28-30]

    Was Judas present when Jesus spoke those words? Even if someone wants to be argumentative and say we can’t prove that Judas wasn’t there at the time, we certainly can’t prove that Judas WAS there. Judas obviously didn’t stand by Jesus in his trial, as the whole world knows. But that was the requirement Jesus gave to “sit on thrones:” “You are those who have stood by me in my trials.” “You”, speaking to His 11 Apostles who had been walking with Him faithfully for 3 ½ years. Not others in the future who will follow the risen Jesus Christ. Notice that at the Last Supper, when Judas lost his throne and Matthias was definitely absent, Jesus chose to speak of “thrones” rather than “twelve thrones” as he had previously.

    The Apostle John recorded about the New Jerusalem,
    “The wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.” [Revelation 21:14]

    The Apostles are 12 faithful eyewitnesses who walked with Jesus during His entire earthly ministry, and Matthias is the 12th. That’s the short version of my definition of “what is an Apostle.”

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