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.