Acts 27 – Travel to Rome

There are eleven or twelve accounts of Paul traveling by sea in the book of Acts, about 3000 miles in all.  Yet this chapter gives bay far the most detail of a journey by sea in the Bible, and even in the rest of ancient literature.  Given the fact that Luke has carefully designed the rest of this two volume history, we should probably pause to wonder why he includes such a great amount of detail to the journey to Rome.  It is not just that it is an exciting story (his readers were getting bored?) or that he was trying to fill out a scroll.  There is a literary and theological reason for Luke’s inclusion of this lengthy story.

That Luke is traveling with Paul may account for the detail.  Often ancient historians would write up to the time in which they are living and include themselves in the story in order to build credibility.  Consider Josephus, who summarized all of Jewish history up to the time of the Jewish revolt.  So too Thucydidies, who wrote his history of the Peloponesian War and included his own participation at various points.  This shipwreck functions to give Luke credibility – he witnessed the events himself and was a participant in the history he tells.  A Greco-Roman reader would expect this sort of thing if the book of Acts was to be seen as credible.

But there is more going on here than Luke’s interest in travel.  If someone (say, Theophilus) has been reading through Luke and Acts, he would notice some similarities between Paul and Jesus.  Both are arrested by the Jews and handed over to the Romans, both are tried by a secular authority (Pilate and Herod; Felix/Festus and Agrippa) and both are the victims of a miscarriage of justice motivated by the religious establishment in Jerusalem.  Will Paul suffer the same fate as Jesus?  Will he be executed by the Romans as a political undesirable, or will he receive justice from Rome?

Beyond these parallels, we need to remember Luke’s theme for the whole book: “beginning in Jerusalem, then Judea and Samaria, then to the ends of the earth.”  Luke knows that Paul will go to Rome to testify before the Emperor, but the reader may think that Paul will be killed along the way.  As James Dunn has observed, Luke is trying to show that “come what may, God will fulfill his purpose by having Paul preach the good news in the very heart of the empire” (Dunn, Beginning in Jerusalem, 968).

Some have questioned the historicity of this story based on parallels with other ancient literature, including Homer’s Odyssey.  Often a guilty man will try to escape justice (or fate), head out to the seas to avoid capture, but ultimately he will suffer and die anyway.  Paul is escaping from the Jews, yet is shipwrecked and eventually nearly killed by a snake, it is thought that Luke is patterning this story after the archetypal Greco-Roman novel plot-line.

There is something to the parallels, and it may be that Luke tells this story in such detail because shipwrecks were popular in literature at the time, but this does not necessarily negate the historicity of the story.  Paul had to go to Rome and the best way to do that is by ship, it is entirely plausible that Festus would send him off in this way.  Shipwrecks were in fact common, so much so that Paul has already suffered shipwrecks twice in his travels (2 Cor 11:25)!

While I think Paul did travel to Rome by ship and experienced a shipwreck, Luke’s theological motivation is to demonstrate nothing will hinder the Gospel getting to Rome.

Acts 26:16-18 – Paul and The Reasonable Faith

In Acts 26 Paul re-tells his story to Festus, the new Roman governor. While there are a few differences, the story of Paul’s conversion is fairly consistent.  He had persecuted followers of the Way until he met the resurrected Jesus on the road to Damascus, whey he was commissioned to be the “light to the Gentiles.”

Festus interrupts Paul’s speech: “You are out of your mind!” (v. 24)  The Greek verb (μαίνομαι) has the sense of going too far with something, or even speech which appears crazy to an outsider (such as the reaction of outsiders to tongues in 1 Cor 14:23).  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 words” (v. 25)  This description is good Greek rhetoric, sobriety is a chief virtue in Greek philosophy.   The noun Paul chooses refers to the “exercise of care and intelligence appropriate to circumstances” (BDAG).  The noun Paul uses (σωφροσύνη) has the sense of a reasonable  conclusion based on the evidence, as opposed to someone who has crazy visions which he over-interprets to mean far more than it does.  Paul is not dreaming up some fairy tale, his conclusions are based on some rational thought and some very real evidence.

Agrippa, on the other hand, understands that Paul’s speech has a persuasive value, that 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).

To me, this is one of the most applicable sections of Acts – Paul’s faith is described by a Roman as “crazy” for believing what he does, but Paul says that he is “rational.”  I am deeply troubled by many Christians who reject reasonable thought based on evidence as a basis for Christian faith.  Too many prefer to call emphasize a “relationship with Jesus” rather than rational claims of truth about the nature of reality.  Christianity, as Paul is describing it here in Acts 26, is rational and reasonable.  Christianity, as presented in the media, or as practiced by many Americans, is irrational.  Paul would be ashamed of most of what passes for Christianity in contemporary evangelicalism.

I think that it is time to remember that God gave us minds and equipped us to think.  If we did that, what would change?

Acts 26 – Who was Agrippa?

Marcus Julius Agrippa was the great-grandson of Herod the Great and son of Herod Agrippa (Acts 12). Born in A.D. 28. Agrippa II was raised Rome and was friends with both Emperor Claudius and the future emperor Titus. Although Agrippa is well-known for his role in the Jewish War, there is little known about the details of his reign. As Fred Dicken comments, Agrippa was “a shrewd politician, though his legacy is tainted by his loyalty to Rome during the war.”

Agrippa’s sister Bernice was also the sister of Drusilla, Felix’ wife. Bernice had been married twice and was now a widow living in her brother’s court. Rumors were that they were having an incestuous affair (Ant 20.145) The Roman satirist Juvenal referred to a gift “given as a present long ago by the barbarian Agrippa to his incestuous sister, in that country where kings celebrate festal sabbaths with bare feet and where a long-established clemency suffers pigs to attain old age” (Juv. 6.158). To stop this rumor, she married for a third time, but quickly returned to her brother. Eventually Bernice moved Rome and was the mistress of Titus. Agrippa himself never married nor had any children.

Agrippa’s father died when he was 17 and Claudius thought he was too young to take control of the kingdom. Like the others in the Herodian line, he sought favor from Rome and was eventually given the title king in A.D. 53. In addition, he was given the title “custodian of the Temple Treasure.” meaning he had the right to appoint the high priest. He expanded Caesarea Philippi, renaming the city Neronias to honor Emperor Nero.

Agrippa was known to have been sensitive to Judaism, even to the point of debating points of law with the rabbis (Anitq., 20.179, 194-196). He purchases expensive metals and timber for the Temple which was repurposed during the Jewish war for the defense of the Temple (JW 5.36). But he was also very pro-Roman, having been raised in the Imperial court itself.  When the rebellion began, more he and Bernice sought to stop the rebels, knowing that Rome would not tolerate a rebellion in a minor province.  He is, therefore, the highest ranking political authority in Palestine.  It is appropriate that he present himself before the new Roman procurator Festus.  What is more, he provides Festus with the information he needs in order to write a report explaining Paul’s case to Rome.

He was in Egypt when the Jewish revolt broke out in A.D. 66. He returned to Jerusalem and attempted to stop the rebellion. When this failed, he stayed with Vespasian and Titus during the war (JW 2.426). He was given a sizeable military force (JW 2.500). He used this force to lay siege to the town of Gamala for seven months. Josephus himself was in charge of defense of the town (JW 4.1-10; Life 1.114-121).

Josephus reports a lengthy speech by Agrippa (JW 2:345-401), although it is likely this speech is as much Josephus’s own view of Rome some twenty years after the war.

“Have pity, therefore, if not on your children and wives, yet upon this your metropolis, and its sacred walls; spare the temple, and preserve the holy house, with its holy furniture, for yourselves; for if the Romans get you under their power, they will no longer abstain from them, when their former abstinences shall have been so ungratefully requited. I call to witness your sanctuary, and the holy angels of God, and this country common to us all, that I have not kept back anything that is for your preservation; and if you will follow that advice which you ought to do, you will have that peace which will be common to you and to me; but if you indulge your passions, you will run those hazards which I shall be free from.”

Agrippa was rewarded for his loyalty with additional territory and was permitted mint coins in 73-74 in Caesarea with the words “For Emperor Vespasian Caesar Augustus.” He died about the year 100 after a 47 year reign.




Bibliography: David C. Braund, “Agrippa (Person),” ABD 1:99-100; Emil Schürer, A History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ 2:191-204; Frank E. Dicken, “Agrippa II,” The Lexham Bible Dictionary.

Acts 25 – Who was Festus?

As soon as Paul arrives in Caesarea, prominent Jews from Jerusalem approach Festus for a “favor,” to release Paul to their custody.  What we know about Festus is generally good, especially when compared to Felix.  He dealt quickly with two separate messianic movements (Antiq. 20.8.10).  Unfortunately, Festus died after less than two years in office (A. D. 61-62) and his replacement Albinius was not an able administrator at all.

Porcius FestusWhen he arrives in Judea, Festus finds himself it a difficult situation politically.  He needs the help of the “ruling Jews” to manage the province of Judea. The elite of Jerusalem included the former high priests and other Herodians.  They were, by and large, interested in power and wealth (as most politicians are). There is a certain irony here, since these men do not represent a very large segment of the population on Judea in the mid first century! They are but one small splinter group of many at the time.  Festus buys very little influence over the people of Judea if he does do this elite group a “favor.”

The language of their request points to a formal alliance.  If Festus expects to have the support of the local elite, then he needs to hand Paul over to them for justice rather than release him.  It is quite remarkable that there is still a plot afoot to assassinate Paul (25:3). It has been two years since Paul’s alleged offense yet there is still a faction which considers him guilty of desecrating the Temple.  While this seems extreme, remember that bringing a Gentile into the court of the (Jewish) men was nearly as bad as the blasphemy committed by Antiochus IV Epiphanes.  That act of desecration was a major factor in the Maccabean revolt.  These enemies of Paul are burning with the same Zeal for the Law Paul had in Acts 9 when he traveled to Damascus to arrest followers of the Way.

Festus sees that there is nothing about Paul that requires punishment.  In fact, these are not even real accusations being made against Paul!   Paul’s accusers are not present, therefore the very basis of a case against him in Roman law is missing.  This was Paul’s point in his defense before Felix (his accusers are the Asian Jews, who disappear when the action moves to Caesarea).

Luke only briefly comments on Paul’s defense before Festus, although he adds the claim that Paul has neither offended the Temple or Caesar.  This is the first time that Paul has emphasized that he is not guilty of anything under Roman law.  Paul clearly realizes that his only chance at justice is to rely upon his citizenship.

Acts 24 – Who was Felix?

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).

Antonius_FelixFelix 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.

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.”

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 or 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?

Acts 22 – Paul’s Defense

When Paul speaks to the crowd in Acts 22, he goes out of his way to show that he is a faithful Jew. In this speech he tries to demonstrate his commitment to the faith of his ancestors by calling to mind a series of witnesses who can attest to his zeal within Judaism.

He begins by citing his personal credentials. Notice first that Paul switches to Aramaic.  The people are hostile to him, and consider him a traitor.  By speaking in Aramaic he demonstrates that he is no Hellenistic Jew who does not know the language of the Hebrew Bible.  In fact, it is possible that the Greek says he spoke in Hebrew, but that is less likely since the crowds may not have understood him at that point.

He states that he was born in Tarsus, but he raised in Jerusalem.  Unlike the Roman, who would be impressed with citizenship from Tarsus, the Jewish audience would be impressed with Paul’s association with Jerusalem.

Paul’s education is impeccable – he was a student of Gamaliel.  We met Gamaliel in chapter 5 as the rational voice among the Sanhedrin.  He was the pupil of Hillel, one of the greatest of the Rabbis.  His decisions and opinions are constantly cited in the Mishnah.  Paul does not claim to be a Pharisee here (cf., 23:6), but by claiming to be a student of Gamaliel he is associating himself with one of the most respected teachers in Jerusalem.

At one time, Paul was as zealous for the Law as the crowd is at this moment.  As we have seen many times in Acts, this zeal took the form of violent action against those who claimed that Jesus was the Messiah. Paul calls upon additional witnesses here, since his authority to arrest followers of Jesus came from the High Priest and “council of elders.”  They can attest to his zeal for the Law.  Like Phineas or Judas Maccabees, Paul was willing to use force to compel fellow Jews to keep the Law completely, if it was necessary.   Paul briefly describes his intention to go to Damascus to arrest followers of the Way, another fact that might be confirmed by the High Priest.

Ananias is described as a devout Jew, someone who keeps the Law, and respected by all the Jews living in Damascus.  Luke used the same Greek rod for devout to describe Simeon in the Temple (Luke 2:25) as well as the devout men in the temple who in the Temple at Pentecost (Acts 2:5) and the devout men who buried Stephen.

The speech of Ananias is slightly different from chapter 9.   The way he describes God and Jesus are very Jewish – the “God of Our Fathers” and “Righteous One” are typical phrases used for the God of the Hebrew Bible. In fact, that Jesus is the Righteous One is found in Luke-Acts only in Jewish contexts (Luke 23:47, Acts 3:14, 7:32,13:23).  Ananias does not say here that Paul is called to go to the Gentiles.  Why?  This is probably because Paul wants to emphasize his divine calling, and waits to share this calling until the Lord calls him from the Temple.

Ananias tells Paul to be baptized, but this is an unusual way to express the command in Greek.  Luke uses an aorist middle (quite distinct from the aorist passive), the nuance of meaning ought to be “go baptize yourself.”) This may imply that Paul was to baptize himself in a mikveh, as we have observed several times in Acts. This unusual expression ought to be translated as middle and taken as yet another indication that Paul claims to be a “proper Jew” who is not at all guilty of desecrating the Temple.

What can we make of this claim orthodoxy from Paul?  How can the apostle to the Gentile stand before a Jewish crowd and claim to be an outstanding example of Law-Keeping?  We will continue to deal with this problem as Paul’s defense continues before the Sanhedrin.