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.

8 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)?


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