Acts 21 – Accusations against Paul

After Paul participated in the Nazarite vow with Jewish Christians, Asian Jews stirred up trouble for Paul. In Acts 21 these Jews from Asia Minor begin spreading accusations against Paul, primarily a common misunderstanding of Paul’s teaching, that he is now fallen away from the practice of the Law. Paul is not anti-Jew in the sense that he wants Jews to stop being Jewish, he wants them to stop relying on the Law for salvation.  To the orthodox Jews, this is worthy of death.  The charge the bring against Paul is that he brought a Gentile into the Temple.  This would be a serious offense, worthy of death (for the Gentile, as well!)  The Jews did not allow women or Gentiles into the central courts of the Temple, believing them to be unclean.

Apostle Paul ancient painting

Is this anger credible, or is Luke exaggerating the situation for rhetorical reasons? The evidence seems indicate that there were zealots in Jerusalem in the mid first century who were willing to use violence to guard the sanctity of the Temple.

m.Sanhedrin 9:6 He who stole a sacred vessel [of the cult (Num. 4:7)], and he who curses using the name of an idol, and he who has sexual relations with an Aramaean woman— zealots beat him upon the spot. A priest who performed the rite in a state of uncleanness— his brothers, the priests, do not bring him to court. But the young priests take him outside the courtyard and break his head with clubs. A non-priest who served in the Temple— R. Aqiba says, “[He is put to death] by strangling [Num. 18:7].” And sages say, “[He is put to death] at the hands of Heaven.” (Translation from Neusner)

Philo, Spec.Laws 2.253 And such a man will never entirely escape, for there are innumerable beings looking on, zealots for and keepers of the national laws, of rigid justice, prompt to stone such a criminal, and visiting without pity all such as work wickedness, unless, indeed, we are prepared to say that a man who acts in such a way as to dishonour his father or his mother is worthy of death, but that he who behaves with impiety towards a name more glorious than even the respect due to one’s parents, is to be borne with as but a moderate offender.

Luke points out  these accusations against Paul are not true, that the Gentile that had been seen with Paul did not enter the temple. The charge comes from “Jews from the province of Asia,” quite possibly from Ephesus.  They would have been the most likely pilgrims to recognize Trophimus as a Gentile convert and associate of Paul. These men are never called disciples, so the implication is that they are Jewish pilgrims.

If this is true, there is a hint here that the Jews from Ephesus were anti-Paul and quite willing to make accusations against Paul that are not quite true (or at least based on rumors). I have speculated earlier that Paul’s time in Ephesus was more troubled than Luke lets on; this is another bit of evidence in that regard.   Perhaps Paul was in prison on Ephesus after all!

That Diaspora Jews are interested in rioting in the Temple over potential desecration indicates that Diaspora Jews cannot be considered “liberal” on Law.  These are people who are very zealous for the traditions of the Law and the sanctity of the temple and are willing execute Paul for breaking the sanctity of the Temple.  Like Paul before his conversion, the Hellenistic Jews are willing to use force if necessary to defend the Law and the Temple.