Acts 22 – Was Paul Really a Roman Citizen?

The most obvious connection to Rome for Paul was his Roman citizenship.  While it is a major issue in Acts, there is no reference to it in his letters.  This is not unusual since he often did not insist on his rights as a Roman citizen in Acts, there is no real reason to bring it up in a letter to a church.  The citizenship is stressed in Acts in the places where Paul is under arrest, and later when he appeals to Caesar.

Citizenship was not common in the first century, not everyone was guaranteed the privilege of being a citizen of the Empire.  In 28 B.C. there were approximately 4.9 million citizens, by the time of Claudius there were 5.9 million. Most of these lived in Italy or were serving in the army.

Privileges of Citizenship. A citizen was always subject to Roman law,  No matter where they were living at the time, they had a right to an official Roman trial before a tribunal.  A citizen could not be scourged without a hearing (cf Acts 16 in Philippi).  In capital cases the citizen always had the right to appeal to the emperor (which Paul does in Acts), and crucifixion was not usually an option for a citizen if they were found guilty of a capital offense.

Obtaining citizenship. There were several options for receiving Roman citizenship in the first century.  Freeborn residents of Rome were automatically citizens, and if they moved away from Rome they retained their citizenship. Soldiers who were veterans of 10 years or more may be granted citizenship, as might individuals or whole territories that had preformed some service to the empire.  This would be confirmed by a vote of the senate.  Some scholars speculate Paul’s family was granted citizenship by service rendered to the army as tentmakers.

Could someone buy a citizenship? Polhill (Paul, 16) says this is unlikely, but one might bribe the right people in order to receive the recommendation for the gift of citizenship.   A common way to obtain citizenship was to be a slave that is emancipated by a Roman citizen.  This was first suggested by Jerome and is followed by many scholars today. That slave is given the name of their former master along with citizenship.  It is often suggested that Paul’s family received their citizenship in this way, that a generation or two back in Paul’s line they were slaves to a Roman citizen who freed them and gave them his citizenship.

Philo reports that Pompey took Jews to Rome as slaves in 63 B.C.  This is a good possibility for the deportation of Paul’s family, although it is hard to account for their return to Tarsus as citizens.  Josephus also says that slaves were taken from Galilee in 4 B.C. after the tax-revolt of Judas the Galilean (Antiq. 27.288; JW 2.68).  This may to too late to explain Paul’s citizenship since he was probably born only a few years later.

Would a strict Pharisee want to be a Roman citizen? It seems likely that Paul and his family would be considered apostate for even accepting Roman citizenship.  At this point in history it seems unlikely that accepting Roman citizenship involved any sort of idolatry or recognition of the emperor as a god. Stegmann states that Roman citizens were required to sacrifice to the gods of Rome, but Reisner points out that this was not true during Paul’s lifetime (Reisner, 151).  Philo reports in Legato ad Gaium 155 that there was a whole section of Jewish Romans in Rome when he visited the city and that Augustus respected the synagogues of the Jews.

How did a person prove they were a Roman citizen? Permanent records were to be kept in the town of birth, registered within thirty days and witnessed by seven witnesses.  It is possible that there was some kind of physical identification (soldiers had them), but the penalty for falsely claiming citizenship was so extreme that few would tempt the system.

There are a few scholars that deny the historicity of Paul’s citizenship. He does not mention it in his letters, the only source is the book of Acts.  Several questions have been raised.  First, would a “tent-maker” be able to obtain citizenship?  This question implies a link between social standing and citizenship which many not have existed.  Since citizenship could be granted for a number of reasons, there were many “socially undesirable” people who were citizens.  A citizen was not equivalent to the “social elite” of Rome.   Paul generally visits provincial capitols, places were citizenship would have been more common especially among freed slaves and ex-soldiers. It is possible that Paul targeted this group of “fresh citizens” with the gospel (E. A. Judge, New Documents 2:106-107).

A second objection centers on Paul’s mistreatment as described in 2 Cor. 11:24ff.  This type of abuse would not be possible if Paul were a Roman citizen.  This argument compares the unlawful arrest in Acts 16 (in Philippi) to the list of abuse Paul suffered prior to writing 2 Cor.  It is impossible, it is argued, for a Roman citizen to have been so abused as Paul claims.  Stegmenn notes that Paul is either the worst case of torture of a Roman citizen in history, or a masochist.  This objection fails to note that suffering for one’s fate is a mark of Christ.  Paul suffers for the Gospel because his Lord suffered (Gal 6:17, Phil 3:10, 2 Cor 4:10, 6:4ff)

It is likely that the scourging mentioned in 2 Cor was a synagogue “correction,” from the hand of the Jews not civil authorities.  It is possible that Paul could have brought charges against those that whipped him, but it is more likely that Paul would emulate Christ by suffering his abuse in silence in hope that he might win some to the faith.

22 thoughts on “Acts 22 – Was Paul Really a Roman Citizen?

  1. The argument about the beatings cuts both ways. It is precisely because the missionaries were persecuted that they chose Roman citizens for the role, to give them some protection. Also, the abundance of Latin praenomina among the missionaries demonstrates their Roman citizenship (the statistics are compelling).

  2. I find Paul’s citizenship is God ways of providing a ticket to Rome. Paul does not often use is authority of being a roman citizen. As was stated, this was most likely to win more to the faith. Essentially, the citizenship gave him the ability to be a more affective witness. He was the extreme convert. To roughly compare this to a modern culture. Someone who has crazy salvation story could be more relatable to certain people in our society, thus, being a more affective witness. Again, that is simply speculation. Furthermore, it is very likely that Paul was able to travel without worry, knowing that he could pull the “I am a Roman citizen” card. Also, travel in general would have been easier simply because he has citizenship. What we can extract from the text is that Paul did not use his citizenship at the first sight of trouble. Which, looking back on this some 2000 years later, we can appreciate the faith Paul exhibited.

  3. It is interesting to me that Paul would not make his Roman citizenship know at the beginning of any tricky situation. Especially if his citizenship could bring the problem to a close. However, I agree with you that him withholding the privilege that he has is the outworking of his spiritual maturity and understanding of the role that suffering plays in being a Christian. For me to operate under that same mentality I think would mean that I would have to acknowledge and subdue any inclining of privilege over others that I might have. For the sake of communing with others and sharing the Gospel at their level, it seems to be an effective approach.

  4. Paul’s choice to suffer silently until he was nearly forced to reveal his citizenship is highly impactful for us today. While we as American often are quick to point out our rights and freedoms in defense of our comfort and safety, Paul was fully willing to suffer even when he was not required to in order to impart the Gospel to others. There must be some application for us in our current lives in his ideology. Secondly, I find a connection in Paul’s usage of his citizenship and his message to Christian slaves in his letters. Paul is quite open in his opinions on government (see Romans 13). However, he does not dismiss the fact that taking advantage of one’s freedoms for the Gospel is permitted. This is where I believe Paul’s use of his Roman citizenship makes sense; he’s not using it for comfort, but to stay alive so he can spread the Gospel. In the same way, when speaking to slaves, he instructs them to get their freedom if they can (1 Cor. 7). This probably, in the same way, is for the purpose of the advancement of the Gospel, not simply for a comfortable life. Lastly, if it is unlikely that one could purchase Roman citizenship (and it was more, or less, seen as a bribe) why would the Roman official tell Paul that in Acts 22? It would make sense that you wouldn’t tell people you bribed your way into citizenship, right? Or was that part of the society? Let me know.

  5. Paul typically does not flaunt his citizenship, even if he is risking a beating or having crowds condemn him. He does eventually tell of his citizenship when he into the situation. We see this happen multiple times in Acts. Some of the benefits of citizenship are staying stick to Roman law and by this getting an equal chance in a hearing about your case. Without citizenship, people were treated unfairly and thrown in jail. To obtain citizenship you would be born or if they were veterans for 10 years. It is probably unlikely that you could buy citizenship, which was suggested by Polhill. Although, I have heard arguments for the ability to purchase. It is a little interesting to think about a Pharisee and wanting to be Roman citizenship and understanding the mixed obligations. To prove your citizenship you needed to keep permanent records. Most people did not try to make false claims because of severe punishments. This kind of relates to today, people do try to fake some identification but they do get punished for these actions. This is not to say the punishment is in any comparison to the treatment back then. As well as the reasons for using false citizenship would be much different today. In all of this Paul may have brought about charges against those who mistreated him. Rather, Paul showed grace on those people and used it as a teaching moment.

  6. Being a Roman citizen came with a lot of privileges. Paul was born as a Roman citizen, and this was something that he was able to use to help him out of some situations that he ended up in. However, being a Roman citizen was not something that Paul advertised, or made known often. The fact that he is a Roman citizen is only mentioned in the book of Acts. I t is not mentioned in his letters to the churches because there is no use for that type of information to be in there. The only times that Paul invokes the fact that he is a citizen is when he is about to be beaten or interrogated. However, even in some of the instances when he was beaten, he does not bring up the fact that he is a Roman citizen until after he was beaten or interrogated. This would shock those who had arrested, imprisoned, or even beaten him, because as a citizen none of the that was supposed to take place unless there had been a trial first. His Roman citizenship is something that saves his life on more than one occasion, it is something that God was able to use to preserve Paul and his ability to spread the Gospel.

  7. Just a short question:
    you wrote that it was less likely to buy citizenship. What about verse: Then the officer said, “I had to pay a lot of money to become a citizen.” “But I was born a citizen,” Paul replied. (Act 22:28 NIRV)?

  8. It is interesting to me that there would be so much debate on whether Paul was a Roman citizen or not. I guess in my mind, if the Bible says he is a Roman citizen…then why would scholars’ question that? Yes, one could wonder why he would not claim his citizenship more often, but I think it shows Paul’s humbleness. He was not one to flaunt something which would have the potential to give him special treatment, but a life-or-death situation is different. Also, I would assume that the soldiers would not have been so quickly thwarted from their planned punishment if there was any doubt to the validity of his claim? It seems that Paul must have had some way to prove his citizenship besides just a claim, as I would think he could not have been the first one to “claim” citizenship in the face of torture? Was that the reason the tribune announced his purchased citizenship? Perhaps Paul’s answer would have proven whether he was a true citizen by birth, or was claiming under pretense of a bribed or purchased citizenship? I do wonder though, if it is unlikely that someone could bribe or purchase a citizenship, why the tribune claims that is exactly what he did? Would he have purchased his citizenship from a former owner, or was this just a way to explain being emancipated?

  9. I think that the debate of Paul’s citizenship is slightly silly. Just because he had the title of a citizen does not mean that he had to flaunt it around in every letter that he wrote. There was no need for him to do so, so he did not mention it. There was a need in Acts however to give the background of who he was and his testimony. This lack of mentioning his citizenship in any other book of the Bible could be because those who were reading his letters already knew that he held the title and that it fed into his story as a believer of Christ. The only reason that his citizenship was brought up in the first place was that it served him the purpose of having a fair trial as a Roman citizen. Polhill notes that citizenships were hard to come by and that it was normally through a sponsor if it was not obtained through birth. He also notes that if someone is a citizen through birth, it was an even more prestigious title than that of someone who had gotten it from a sponsorship (2134). The likely hood of Paul having citizenship as a tentmaker is challenged because of the status of that role. However, I believe he took on a humbler role after his encounter with Christ. Paul himself noted that he had been taught by the great teacher Gamaliel, a teacher that I’m sure no poor boy who was not a citizen would be able to learn from. His citizenship then was merely in the background to allow a bigger space for Christ, not non-existent.

  10. I have never thought about Paul’s Roman citizenship this way. I also did not realize it was not mentioned in any of his letters to the newly formed churches. I would definitely agree with you P. Long to the fact that it is not something you mention in letters to an early Christian church. I think when Paul used his plea as a Roman citizen was in times he knew he might die if he did not. When he used it in Philippi, I think he was using it in a way to appeal to the people. Philippi was considered a leading city and a Roman colony. This meant that the city probably had strong feelings of honor and respect to Rome and its laws. Thus by Paul appealing his Roman citizenship, the people could know that he was not a troublemaker, nor was the Christian faith something that was totally against Rome.

    I would agree with you P. Long on your last statement that Paul does not mention it in order to win some for Christ (1 Corinthians 9:9-23). In the above example, Paul uses his Roman citizenship in order to win some of the Philippians for Christ. And in Acts 22 when Paul appeals to his Roman citizenship, it buys him more time to share his story and the gospel with the Council, Felix, Festus, Agrippa, and those at sea when he sails to Rome. Paul uses it in such a way as to win more for Christ, as we can see in Acts 20 when Paul speaks to the Ephesus church leaders, he states “I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.” Therefore, I think the same can be said when he does not appeal to his citizenship, it was to share the gospel and to win more for Christ.

  11. I guess I never really questioned the authenticity of Paul’s statement that he was a roman citizen. When I read about it, I just thought it’s in the Bible so it must be true. I also did not realize it was not mentioned in his other letters (Long 2019), but I also do not think it is something that needed to come up in letters to churches. I agree with others in that Paul did not need to “flaunt” his citizenship throughout his missionary journeys. He brought it up in situations where it was relevant. An example would be in Acts 22 when Paul was about to be flogged and he said to the centurion, “’Is it lawful for you to flog a man who is a Roman citizen’”(Acts 22:25). The fact that he said this made it so he was able to be spared from the flogging. “Roman law forbade flogging a Roman Citizen without a hearing or a formal sentence. Officers who did this would then face serious charges” (Polhil 2134). He did not walk around proclaiming his citizenship, he mentioned it at the appropriate time. Later he would tell of his citizenship again when he appeals to Caesar. Just because Paul does not bring up his citizenship in other scenarios or in his letters, does not mean it was not true. Paul tells of his citizenship in the moments that it needs to be said.

  12. As we follow Paul throughout the book of Acts, his status as a Roman citizen is not emphasized. It is only when Paul is arrested does his citizenship became an important issue in the text. Yet, how did Paul and his family obtain citizenship from the Roman empire? As Long notes, most scholars do not deny the historicity of Paul’s citizenship, however, objections and questions must be raised. It is known that Paul was a tentmaker, but would someone of this profession be able to receive citizenship? While this a necessary question, it falsely presumes that there was a correlation between social status and citizenship. Many “socially undesirable” people were considered citizens, often soldiers and freed slaves became citizens of the Roman empire. Another objection is founded on the horrid treatment of Paul in 2nd Corinthians 11:24 since this type of punishment would be prohibited for Roman citizens. However, this punishment was most likely exacted upon Paul by the synagogue Jews, disconnected from Roman law and officials.
    However, these refutations to popular objections do not answer the question of how Paul obtained citizenship. One common method to obtain citizenship was for a slave to be emancipated by a Roman citizen. Some scholars suggest that Paul and his family were emancipated a generation or two previously, inferring to Paul Roman citizenship. Another suggestion is that Paul’s family obtained Roman citizenship through surrounding their tentmaking skills to the Roman empire. These two suggestions produce strong cases for an explanation of Paul’s obtaining Roman citizenship.

  13. This concept of Roman citizenship has always been a bit confusing to me. Paul’s citizenship is not something that is mentioned elsewhere in Paul’s writings.
    The blog post explains that citizenship was not common. This makes Paul’s citizenship all the more valuable. This would also explain why Paul did not mention it in his letters; it probably served no purpose other than to further put him on a pedestal.
    As mentioned in class, Paul does not use his Roman citizenship as a ticket out of suffering. Yet why does he use it now? If he is not using it as a “get out of jail free” card, what is his purpose in using it at all?
    Is this about making sure that he receives his due justice? Throughout his ministry, Paul does not demonstrate a burning passion for justice or that he be treated fairly. That seems confusing at first (why invoke it now?). But it also makes sense. Why would he not use it now? If he had not mentioned it up until now, it highlights some of the importance and value…his citizenship and his situation he was in was not something Paul took lightly. Is it less of a “get out of jail free” card and simply using the means that God has given him appropriately so that he is able to continue in his ministry?

  14. Honestly, I would love to do a study on the genealogy of Paul if we had the resources to do so. I think it would be amazing to see whether or not his family was the descendants of freed salves or if they obtained their citizenship from other ways (Phillip Long). I do believe that Paul was a Roman Citizen simply because he claims that he is in many places in Acts and as said in the blog post, he would’ve been severely punished if he had been lying about his Roman citizenship or had no way of proving it (Phillip Long).
    I think that the reason for Paul’s treatment was probably due to the fact that the Romans didn’t know about Paul’s citizenship. One of the places in Scripture that makes me think this is from Acts 16:38 when Luke describes the reaction of the magistrates as “afraid when they heard that they were Roman citizens” when Paul revealed his and Silas’s claim to citizenship (ESV). That’s a frequently brought up question I feel like is “Why didn’t Paul invoke his citizenship rights more?” I don’t think we will ever fully know, but what we do know is that if Paul hadn’t been thrown into prison, then the Roman guard and his family would’ve never heard the good news of Jesus. So based on what we know of Paul, maybe Paul invoked his citizenship when he was prompted by the Holy Spirit to do so and didn’t when he didn’t feel prompted.

  15. There is so much we do not know about this time frame. Paul might of obtained his Roman Citizenship as a Pharisee because it was seen as a good bridge between the Jews and the Romans. He talks about being born into it in Acts 22:28. “But I was born a citizen,” Paul replied” (Acts 22:28). Do we know Paul’s parents occupation? Maybe his parents needed it based on what jobs they had. I agree with you that it would be very cool to see the genealogy of Paul’s Family and see where this happened and why. I believe Paul was a Roman citizen. He seems like a stubborn person who knows what he wants. Him saying that he is a Roman citizen; he would not say that as a bluff. He would not put his teachings on the line over him getting flogged. He also appeals to Caesar. In order to do that my guess is they checked to see if he really was a Roman citizen. Also, if Paul was lying this is a really big power move. To appeal to the king and you not being a Roman seems like a big no no. In the end we all can agree that he had his roman citizenship it was just how he got it that we cannot be sure.

  16. Citizenships were not common in Rome during the first century. “In 28 BC there were approximately 4.9 million citizens, by the time of Claudius there were 5.9 million” (Long). Most of these citizens were living in Italy or served in the army. Roman citizens received special treatment within the government as far as having the right to certain trials before punishment. They were also exempt from certain types of punishment such as crucifixion even if they committed a capital offense. You could only receive Roman citizenship if you were a freeborn resident of Rome if you were a veteran of 10 years or more, and sometimes if you bribed the right people you could get a recommendation for the gift of citizenship. You could also become a Roman citizen if you were a slave who was emancipated by a Roman citizen. This is suggested to be how Paul received his citizenship. Some question Paul’s Roman citizenship on the basis that he was just a tentmaker. However, considering the different ways that one could obtain Roman citizenship it is clear that having Roman citizenship did not mean that you were a part of the socially elite in Rome. Others question Paul’s citizenship because of the mistreatment that he faces in 2 Corinthians 11:24 (Long). “Stegmenn notes that Paul is either the worst case of torture of a Roman citizen in history or a masochist” (Long). It is suggested that the scourging that Paul went through was given by the Jews and not the civil authorities. Paul may have been able to press charges against those who had treated him this way but he most likely took the punishment as a mark of Christ (Long).

  17. One strong piece of evidence that Paul actually is a Roman citizen is how proceeding are handled after he brings this to his captors attention. After mentioning his citizenship in Acts 22, he is only questioned on the validity of this claim once in verse 27. While he may not have been able to prove this claim at that specific moment, it seems very unlikely that a mere claim of Roman citizenship would be able to take him as far as it does. If he had falsified this claim it seems at some point he would be found out in this lie and that this discovery of falsehood would occur far before Paul ever made it to Rome. As for why he so seldom allows himself to enjoy the perks of his citizenship in the Biblical narrative there seems to be no clear reason for this other than he elects not to for his own purposes. How Paul came to enjoy the status as a citizen is another mystery, but it is not unreasonable to think that somehow it should come to be as Roman emperor’s had at times even had awarded this privilege to others for the simple task of performing a dance (Long, p.141). Perhaps one of Paul’s ancestors had been an especially talented troubadour?

  18. I find it interesting the fact that in those days there were several options in obtaining Roman Citizenship, such as being a slave of someone who is a Roman citizen, military duty more than 10 years, and someone who contributed something good for the empire was given such a privilege of citizenship, and one of the other pathways to citizenship was buying it with tons of money. When Paul answered the centurion that he was a Roman citizen, in response the centurion alluded to the huge expenses on the amount of buying citizenship. Therefore, it’s fair to say that obtaining Roman citizenship does come with various privileges. For example here in American all a person has to do to obtain US citizenship is to take the civics questions, and if a person passed they were given citizenship. Of course, some others information is needed. Nevertheless, I hope my personal experience on being a US citizenship although I was not born in the US will help us understand the question of whether Paul was a Roman citizen. Firstly, we can’t be denied the facts that are found throughout the book of Acts where Paul had oftentimes referenced his citizenship without any anxious gesture to his accusers. As it said, no one dares to fake that they are a Roman citizen due to severe consequences. Paul, again and again, mentioned it, but some scholars, however, doubt his citizenship, because the only source that depicts his citizenship is in Acts alone, and claims that Paul never invokes his citizenship in most of his Epistles. For me, this has to be the most ridiculous argument. When I became a US citizen, I talked to many of my friends about my citizenship, and the more privilege that I have as a citizen of the US, in another word, I often invoke my citizenship to them. But, when I talked to my family back home or email them, I don’t ponder much about my US citizenship in our conversion, because It was unnecessary in that contexts. This could be the same for Paul as to why he didn’t mention them on his Epistles because they were unnecessary, and Paul deals with theologies, not political issues. Lastly, Paul often said, “follow in my footstep as I emulate Christ examples”; this could be some of the reason why he doesn’t intend to include them in his Epistles. Also, the reason why I firmly believe Paul was indeed a Roman citizen was, he said, “I was born a Roman Citizen”.

  19. In acts 22, Paul is telling them that he is a Roman citizen. “I am a Jew born Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city, educated at the feet of Gamaliel according to the strict manner of the law of our father, being zealous for God as all of you are this day” (Acts 22:3). This is how Paul is telling the people that he is a Roman citizen. In this blog post it tells us this about when Paul shared his Roman citizen ship; “The citizenship is stressed in Acts in the places where Paul is under arrest, and later when he appeals to Caesar” (Long). Paul would make these statements of Roman citizenship because he knew that he was going to be subject to the Roman laws. As it says in the blog post even if he was in a different area, he still had the right to an official Roman trial before a tribunal. It really makes sense that Paul claimed his Roman citizen ship, in that he was able to go to trial which ended up working in his favor in this chapter, and also helped get out death and prison in Acts 26.

  20. One of the most common connections to Rome and Paul was his Roman citizenship. While thinking about Roman citizenship, are individuals privilege to be a citizenship automatically or do they have to earn it? Citizenship was not common in the first century because not everyone was guaranteed the privilege of being one. With this, there our two types of citizenships in the Greco-Roman world: privileges of citizenship and obtaining citizenship. Within the privileges of citizenship, in the capital cases, the citizen always had the right to appeal to the emperor and each citizen has to have a hearing in order to become a Roman citizen. Next, to obtain citizenship, there are quite a few options: soldiers who were veterans of 10 years may be granted citizenship, individuals or whole territories that performed some service to the empire, and Freeborn residents of Rome may automatically become citizens. Although it isn’t quite possible that someone can buy a citizenship, some may bribe the right people in order to receive recommendation for the gift of citizenship. I find that becoming a citizen in the Greco-Roman world is more difficult and strategic than what we see in our culture.

  21. There are many ways to become a citizen of Rome. such as becoming a citizen by buying. In verse 28 of Acts 22, the commander said, ‘’I had to pay a lot of money for my citizenship. So is it buying to become a citizen of Rome? Another is by being given citizenship by someone who has the authority. Suetonius tells a story about Nero, who handed out citizenship certificates to some young Greek dancers because he liked their performance.
    When the commander were about to flogged Paul, Paul said yo the centurion standing there, ‘’is it legal for your to flog a roman citizen who hasn’t even been found guilty?’’ How did Paul become a citizen of Rome? His citizenship was granted to his father or grandfather for services rendered to the empire. Many scholars have suggested his family served as tentmakers in service to the military.
    Lastly, another way to become a citizen is by being a freeborn. Paul said to the commander ‘’I was born a citizen’’ (Acts 22:28). Paul’s citizenship is important for his ministry and the rest of his life. That’s how he could be witness before kings as he was Called for Christ the Lord.

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