In Acts 24 Paul is transferred to the governor Felix for protection from the Jews. Although he is twice called “most excellent Felix” (23:26, 24:2), Felix is well known as a particularly bad governor of Judea. As Keener observes, although Luke does not paint a flattering picture of Felix, he is more flattering toward the governor than any other ancient writer (Acts, 3:3328).
His full name was likely Marcus Antonius Felix. He was appointed as governor of Judea about A.D. 52 by the emperor Claudius. Felix and his brother Pallas were freed slaves of Claudius’ mother Antonia. Both were favorites of Claudius. a favorite in the court, this lead Felix to believe that he could do as he pleased. That Claudius would appoint freedman to posts such as this was considered unusual by Roman standards (Seutonius, Claud. 28). Since he was a freed slave, Tacitus thought his “servile nature” explained his inability to rule well (Hist. 5.9).
Felix had a reputation for cruelty, he suppressed many of the bandits that had risen in Judea, but he did so by extreme violence. He made a deal with one of the leaders, promising safe passage, then captured him. When the Egyptian rallied people in the desert, Felix attack, killing four hundred followers. Later he paid the sicarri, the knife-wielding assassins, to take kill the high priest Jonathan who had complained to Rome about Felix, hoping for a better governor (Antiq. 20.163, JW 2.256).
Antiquities 20.164–165 Certain of those robbers went up to the city, as if they were going to worship God, while they had daggers under their garments; and, by thus mingling themselves among the multitude, they slew Jonathan; (165) and as this murder was never avenged, the robbers went up with the greatest security at the festivals after this time; and having weapons concealed in like manner as before, and mingling themselves among the multitude, they slew certain of their own enemies, and were subservient to other men for money; and slew others not only in remote parts of the city, but in the temple itself also; for they had the boldness to murder men there, without thinking of the impiety of which they were guilty.
Like the other Roman governors of Judea, he was anti-Semitic, although this might be better to describe Felix as “Roman-centric.” Nevertheless, this assassination is one of the factors which led to the Jewish Revolt.
Felix was married to Drusilla, the daughter of Herod Agrippa I (Acts 24:24). Only six years old when her father died in 44, Julia Drusilla was originally betrothed to Epiphanes, the son of the king of Commagene (between Cappadocia and Syria), on the condition he convert to Judaism (including circumcision). When he was unwilling to do so, she was married to Azizus, the Syrian king of Emesa (about A.D. 53) at the age of 14. She was reputed to be very beautiful (Antiq. 20.142) as was her sister Bernice (Agrippa II’s wife), who was jealous of her younger sister. Felix persuaded her to leave her husband and marry him, although he refused to convert. She and Felix had a son, Agrippa, who died in A.D. 79 in the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius (Antiq. 20.144).
Felix persuaded Drusilla, then about 20, to leave her husband and marry him. There is no indication that he was forced to be circumcised, perhaps this was her father’s will not her own. Felix also married the granddaughter of Anthony and Cleopatra (Seutonius, Claud. 28). Felix and Drusilla had a son, Agrippa, who died in 79 in the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius (Antiq. 20.144.), and it is at least possible that Drusilla was with her son at the time.
Felix’ mismanagement of the territory of Judea was one of the factors leading to the revolution in A.D. 66. Acts portrays him as treating Paul fairly and finds nothing which merits punishment. However, for political reasons he is unwilling to challenge the Jewish authorities by simply releasing him. Like politicians of all ages, Felix simply did nothing and left the matter to his successor, Festus.
Bibliography: D. C. Braund, “Felix” ABD 2:783; Schürer HJP² 1:460-466.