In his defense before Festus, Paul offers a his view on the Servant in Isaiah: The Servant is Jesus, who suffered for our sins (Luke 4:18, Is 61:1). 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.
But the “Light to the Gentiles” in Acts 26 refers to Paul and his ministry. This is a rather bold statement since it might appear the Servant is the light to the Gentiles. Luke 2:32 has already applied Isaiah 42:6 to Jesus, but here Paul sees his ministry as a participation in Jesus’ messianic office as delivering the “light to the Gentiles.”
Paul describes salvation as “turning to God” and “opening eyes,” are both drawn from Isaiah 42:6, but may allude back to the paradigmatic miracle on Cypress, the blinding of Bar-Jesus (13:4-11). Like Isaiah, both Jesus and Paul ministered to blind people, both literal and spiritual blindness. The disciples, for example, were in need of healing in their understanding, so 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 (σωφροσύνη) 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, which 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).
So Paul sees himself as engaged in messianic ministry (although he is a servant of Messiah Jesus; Paul does not see himself as a messiah!) This claim is rational, based on evidence and is both truthful and rational. Festus recognizes Paul’s “great learning” but thinks Paul has gone out of his mind-the opposite of rational. The Greek μανία can refer to madness or even delirium. This was an accusation against a political or philosophical opponent, or as BDAG says, “eccentric or bizarre behavior in word or action.”
For a Roman official like Festus, Paul presents strange ideas in rational manner, and he is impressed but unconvinced. To what extent can Paul claim to be rational in his arguments that Jesus is the Messiah or that he has been called by God to this particular mission? Is there a way to use Paul’s defense before Agrippa and Festus as a model for ministry in a post-modern world?