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The “Judicial Adventures” of Paul the Apostle

Copyright © 1994, 2019

Jim Kerwin

A Look at Roman Law in Acts

“Moving in a Roman World”

The student of the New Testament is con­stant­ly made aware that he is moving in a Roman world,”2 and awareness of the Roman en­vi­ron­ment is the first step toward un­der­stand­ing its significance and influence on the second volume of Luke’s magnum opus and on the life of Paul. By providing the serious Bible student a primer of Roman law and legal practices as they intersect with events in Paul’s life, we hope to offer the reader an important tool to help with more accurate and insightful Biblical in­ter­pre­ta­tion. With a basic knowledge in hand of the forensic3 workings and in­flu­ences of Roman law in various passages in Acts, the reader can come away with a better un­der­stand­ing of the events in Acts and the ac­tions taken by various characters. In addition, with a new appreciation of Luke’s accuracy and re­mark­able specificity in these legal and gov­ern­men­tal matters, the dedicated Bible reader will finish this overview with renewed grat­i­tude to God for the reliability and in­spi­ra­tion of the Scriptures.

Yet the gap of intervening time between the First Century and ours is so large that not everything will be as clearcut as we might wish. The reason may be illustrated by a quick mental ex­er­cise. Imagine that another two thousand years have elapsed since this writing, without the return of the Lord Jesus. Picture in the mind’s eye a scholar attempting to do research on a topic that touches on Twenty-first Century law in the former United States of America. Now imagine, most records having been lost through several historic cataclysms, that only vague ref­er­ences are left to the Bill of Rights. No schol­ar, historian, or academe is certain of the con­tents of the Bill of Rights, though it en­gen­ders considerable speculation. (Perhaps the most heavily debated point would be the phrase, “I plead the fifth.” Is it a legal defense of public inebriation, the “fifth” referring to a liquor called “scotch”? Academic careers could rise or fall on the answer!)

What is presently clear to us might be very obscure and debatable to that Forty-first Cen­tury scholar. Keeping such a scenario in mind helps to illustrate the challenges of study­ing Paul’s experiences with Roman law. Some points that were common knowledge to Luke’s contemporaries are still matters of de­bate today. It is hoped that we shall do better than our hypothetical future scholar has done with “I plead the fifth”!

A Brief Overview of Roman Law and Government

We would do well to acquaint ourselves with a few important words and phrases from Roman government and jurisprudence, at least as they touch upon our New Testament studies. And in passing on to the definitions of these words, we should mark two sources of possible confusion at the outset. The first is the evolving nature of Roman law and government. What was true, for instance, of citizenship in Paul’s time was outdated less than one hundred years later. The second involves the bilingual nature of the Roman Empire. Since Latin was the lan­guage of law and citizenship, we shall em­ploy Latin terms and phrases wherever pos­si­ble, pointing out their Greek equivalents where appropriate.

Governors and the Imperium

Under the emperor, someone appointed to rule Rome’s province was usually designated as a proconsul (ἀνθύποτος / anthúpotos). Sherwin-White summarizes their power and authority well:

The proconsul in the first century of the Prin­cipate was still very much the independent ad­min­is­tra­tor that he had been in the Re­pub­li­can period. He held the imperium, and was limited in his use of it over ordinary provin­cials only by certain statute laws, no­tably the law of extortion and the law of trea­son or maiestas minuta.4

Gallio (Acts 18:12ff) and Sergius Paulus (Acts 13:17ff) are two examples. As touching the word imperium, Sherwin-White says simply, “No an­cient authority defines imperium.”5 From its use in various contexts, we might say that in his imperium a governor or proconsul wielded supreme authority of the state, including the power of capital punishment.

In areas which Rome had newly acquired or where military governments were to be pre­ferred (usually over areas with a reputation for rebellion, of which Judaea is an example), the emperor’s representative was known as a procurator (ἐπιτρόπος / epitrópos, usually trans­lat­ed governor), though before the Emperor Claudius’ time, these were known as praefects (pre­fects).6 The procurators of concern to us in Acts are Felix (Acts 24) and Festus (Acts 25-26).

Some other less powerful provincial officials will be dealt with under the headings of the cities with which they were associated.

Ordo and Extra Ordinem

Since the history of Roman law lies well outside the scope of this article, it must suffice for our purposes to say that the main body of law recognized in Paul’s time was called the ordo (“the list”). Once more the Roman legal scholar comes to our aid:

Essentially the ordo dealt with the offences of high society and governing personnel… Rare of­fences, such as offences against the State re­li­gion and incendiarism, and the offences of the common man, such as burglary and rob­bery, were not covered by the ordo.7

Governors looked to the ordo for precedent in crimes which it encompassed. Such offenses as were not covered by the ordo were known simply as extra ordinem (“outside the list”). This is important to bear in mind, for when we consider Paul on trial before Felix, he is being charged with a crime extra ordinem. We shall look at the procedures surrounding extra or­di­nem at that point.

Religio Licita

The phrase religio licita means “legal religion” or “authorized religion.” As Roman dominion expanded, new religions seemed threatening to traditionalists. If such a religion was banned, it became known as a religio illicita. Guterman deals extensively with the subject, particularly as it relates to Judaism, which was granted the status of religio licita.8 We point out the im­por­tance of this phrase because it is at the center of contention in at least one passage in Acts.

Citizens and Peregrini

Viewed at the most elementary level, the Roman world was divided into peregrini (lit., “foreigners’) and those who were citizens. Of the peregrini Lyall gives us an adequate outline:

The peregrini were subjects of Rome, but not Romans, because they were not citizens. They were not subject to military service, but were subject to supervision and the heavy burden of Imperial taxation. In terms of strict Roman law they were rightless and dutiless, existing as ob­jects and not subjects of law.9

Thumbnail Sketch of the History of Roman Citizenship

To answer the question, “Who might be in the privileged ranks of citizenship?”, we must first answer the query, “What period of Roman history are we considering?” In the Republic’s beginning, citizenship was relegated to the patrician class, but later it was given also to soldiers in exchange for their service. When Julius Caesar planted colonies outside of Rome, he declared their inhabitants to be citizens.10 Corinth and Philippi are two such examples.

Certain types of manumission or public ser­vice would qualify a person for citizenship, as would certain types of marriages.11 But the fran­chise of citizenship became “cheapened” as more and more were allowed to join its ranks. Finally, in a.d. 212, the Emperor Caracalla, un­der what is known as the Constitutio An­to­ni­ni­ana declared all freemen in the Roman Empire to be “citizens of Rome.” By then, citizenship was stripped of all its political im­por­tance.

Becoming a Citizen in the Time of Acts

In the time frame of the Book of Acts, how­ever, citizenship was still relatively rare and still a valued possession. Except in cases where it was bestowed by an Emperor’s largess, one had to be born the child of a citizen, or earn the right through years of faithful military service. In addition, during the reign of Emperor Claudius,12 native auxiliary troops were so re­ward­ed on their discharge.13 The element of cor­rup­tion and bribery sur­round­ing citizenship be­came an avenue as well:

…the emperor’s wife, Messalina,14 together with the imperial secretaries, sold the privilege for large sums. It was perhaps under such cir­cum­stances that the tribune Claudius Lysias paid a large sum to become a citizen (Acts 22:28).15

Proof of Citizenship

No one is certain how citizenship was proven, and in several Lukan passages (Acts 16:37; 22:25-28; 23:1 margin16) we should really like to know how Paul proved his citizenship. Grant holds that there must have been some­thing like a passport17 but most scholars seem to think that it was more by personal reference.18 Considering the lifestyles in that day, where most people lived and died not far from their birthplace, the latter seems more likely. Whatever the method, Luke assumes the common knowledge of his readers and doesn’t bother to elaborate.

It should be noted, too, for the sake of elu­ci­dat­ing Paul’s story, that lying about cit­i­zen­ship could prove fatal. Suetonius notes an example wherein “Those who usurped the priv­i­leges of Roman citizenship [Claudius] ex­e­cut­ed in the Equiline field.”19

Privileges of Citizenship

The closest modern analogy that we can draw to the privileges of Roman citizenship might be the English under the British Raj20 or Americans abroad during the first half of the Twentieth Century. Perhaps chiefest among their rights were those in the judicial sphere, especially the right provocatio, or appeal to the emperor. About two decades before the birth of Christ, Rome passed a law, the lex de ui publica, which

forbade any magistrate to kill, scourge, chain, torture, or even sentence a Roman citizen who had announced his intention to appeal, or prevent him from going to Rome to lodge his appeal there within a fixed time.21

The only known statutory exception to this rule deals with citizens who were in military service. Over such troops (as well as all others) gov­er­nors and generals held the ius gladii, the power of execution; it was considered necessary for military discipline.22

Paul’s Citizenships

Paul says to the tribune Lysias, “I was ac­tu­al­ly born a citizen” (Acts 22:28). This clearly means that his family had come into cit­i­zen­ship at some unspecified time. Various theories have been propounded, but are un­sub­stan­ti­at­ed and so will not be discussed here.23

Often overlooked, however, is Paul’s claim to dual citizenship of an earthly nature! In Acts 21:39, Paul says, “I am a Jew of Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of no insignificant city.”24 Not many years after Paul’s death, the Roman orator Dio Chrysostum addressed the citizenry of Tarsus mentioning their citizenship requirements: “…[for] the mere payment of five hundred drach­mas25 a man can be found worthy of cit­i­zen­ship….”26 Such dual citizenship was tra­di­tion­al for many who hailed from the old Greek city-states. In passing, we might make two points: 1) that Paul’s family must have been fairly prosperous to have met this requirement; and, 2) that Paul, having two forms of cit­i­zen­ship, would be all the more aware of cit­i­zen­ship’s rights and privileges.

Paul’s “Judicial Adventures” by City

Having laid some groundwork, we are now ready to enter Acts with eyes open wider than before. We will move seriatim with Paul, the Spirit-filled trouble-maker, through the cities on his itineraries as they appear in Acts, con­sid­er­ing his brushes with the law, or what Sher­win-White calls Paul’s “judicial ad­ven­tures.”27

Bypassing the Cities of Galatia (Acts 14)

We will note the cities of Galatia only in passing. Though there was trouble aplenty in this first missionary journey through Galatia, Luke does not indicate that any of it was of an official or judicial nature. The atmosphere painted by such phrases as “stirred up” (Acts 14:2) produces civil disorder rather than legal proceedings.

Philippi, Duoviri, and Lictors (Acts 16:12-40)

Philippi is the first place we can “get down to cases” with Paul and Roman law. Rather than reiterate the story, we wish to look at the pertinent legal points. Knowing something of Philippi’s history and civic self-image is helpful. After the battle of Philippi (42 b.c.), Octavian settled the city with veteran Roman troops from that war, and the city-colony was soon known by the name “little Rome.”28

In a colony such as Philippi, the rulers were known as duoviri29 (lit., a pair of magistrates; in colonial use, it tended to mean the highest mag­is­trates30). In naming these leaders, Luke displays his care for accuracy and his knowl­edge of local usage. While using the prop­er Greek equivalent of duoviri (ἄρχοντες / árchontes), Luke also employs another word (στρατεγοί / strategoí) meaning Praetor. While this is not technically accurate, it “was fre­quent­ly employed as a courtesy title for the supreme magistrates of a Roman colony….”31

Moving on, we notice the charges brought Paul and Silas: “These men… are proclaiming customs which it is not lawful for us to accept or observe, being Romans” (vv. 20-21). The in­dict­ment, in terms of Roman law, was for pro­mul­gat­ing an un-Roman religion among Roman citizens.32

“Little Rome,” populated by proud military families, patriots all, would tend to closely follow trends in Rome. Therefore it bears re­me­mbe­ring that Claudius’ expulsion of Jews from the empire’s capital (Acts 18:1) was still fairly current news. This probably had the effect of height­en­ing anti-Jewish sentiment, and may be why a “God and country” lynch mob sub­ject­ed Paul and Silas to a kangaroo court and a severe beating. The beating was ad­min­is­ter­ed by lictors, described as “police [who] carried bundles of rods with axes bound to­geth­er with them by a red fillet.”33 This bundle of rods was not merely ceremonial, as they are referred to in v. 22. Paul makes reference to this kind of beating with rods by lictors in 2 Co­rin­thi­ans 11:25 and alludes to it as part of the “mistreatment” he received in Philippi (1 Thes­sa­lo­ni­ans 2:2).

The beating and subsequent imprisonment sets the providential stage for the conversion of the jailer’s family, but the incident is not over. After sunrise word comes from the duoviri that they have decided on relegatio (i.e., “expulsion”) to add to the prisoners’ ignominy (Acts 16:35-37, especially the phrase “sending us away” in v. 37). But there is a hitch in the plans — the of­fi­cers of the law have broken the law them­selves and committed a very serious of­fense (v. 37).

To beat, chain, execute, or deprive a Roman cit­i­zen of due process was such a grave breach of justice that it often resulted in entire cities being punished. As an example, during Claudius’ reign (con­cur­rent with this Acts 16 story) the free state of Rhodes was deprived of its independence because some Roman citizens had been executed there.34 Thus the tone of the duoviri, the magistrates, and lictors quickly changes from scorn to entreaty. If Paul and Silas (for apparently Silas was a Roman citizen, too, evidenced by the “us” of v. 37) made an issue of this treatment, Claudius’ response would not have been welcomed.

The twin questions are raised: Why was it that Paul and Silas did not mention their citizenship until the next day? And why was Paul forward to mention his status in Acts 22? Several thoughts occur, and any combination of them could be correct. In this Philippian in­ci­dent, it could well be that in the tumult there was no time for such a declaration, or that it went unheeded. It might have had some­thing to do with protecting other believers from the fury of the crowd, depending on the timing and cir­cum­stances of the deliverance of the demon-possessed girl (vv. 18-19). It may have been seen as a time for being counted worthy to suf­fer for Jesus’ sake, as in 4:41; certainly a similar rejoicing resulted (16:25). But almost certainly the contrast between Philippi and the Jerusalem incident had something to do with the type of punishment inflicted. We will elab­o­rate on this idea when dealing with Paul’s “ju­di­cial adventure” in Jerusalem.

Thessalonica and the Politarchs (Acts 17:1-10)

Luke again scores high marks for his knowledge of contemporary detail of Thes­sa­loni­ca, the capital of the Roman province of Mace­do­nia. He utilizes the word πολιτάρχης (politárches or politarch, translated city authorities in vv. 6 and 8) for the city magistrates. Ramsay calls this “a curious and rare title,”35 and Gealy explains that it was almost exclusively the Macedonian title for the non-Roman city mag­is­trate.36 The term appears in no extant lit­er­a­ture, but does crop up inscriptionally.37 As with the Philippian account, such detail adds cre­dence to Luke’s credentials as a careful historian; in addition, it helps to bolster the concept of Scriptural inerrancy. “Politarch” is a historical “jot and tittle” underlining the ac­cu­ra­cy of Holy Writ.

The indictment was treason (“they all act contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus,” v. 7). This time Paul and Silas managed not to be in the wrong place at the wrong time (vv. 5-6), so the crowd apprehended Jason and some other brothers. Even though Paul and Silas were not present, the charges were cleverly framed, according to Ramsay, and were

most dangerous. The very suggestion of treason against the Emperors often proved fatal to the accused; and it compelled the politarchs to take steps, for if they failed to do so, they became exposed to a charge of treason, as having taken too little care for the honor of the Emperor. Many a man was ruined by such a charge un­der the Emperor.38

The end of the matter was that Jason had to put up a bond, thus pledging himself

to prevent the cause of the disturbance, Paul, from coming to Thessalonica. This ingenious device put an impassable chasm between Paul and the Thessalonians… so long as the mag­is­trates held this attitude, he could not return….. 39

It may be due to this overriding legal im­ped­i­ment that Paul refers in 1 Thessalonians 2:18, the very agency by which “Satan thwarted us.”

Athens: No Trial (Acts 17:15-18:1)

We will spend less time in Athens than Paul did. The consensus seems to be that his record­ed public address was not a legal defense. Foakes-Jackson views the matter thus: “…there is no suggestion that the religious court was held or that the speaker was on his trial.”40 With him Williams concurs: “…the proceedings here seem to have been informal….”41

Corinth and Gallio (Acts 18:12-17)

In Corinth at last, Paul is able to “settle” (18:11) for eighteen months, assured by a word from the Lord (vv. 9-10). Near the end of that period, the Jewish community filed a complaint against Paul with the proconsul Gallio. The charge and the outcome we will deal with shortly, but as is our want, let us look at Luke’s historiography once more. Gallio’s pro­con­sul­ship is of interest to scholars because most believe it gives us a firm touchpoint in Pauline chronology. But what concerns us here is Luke’s knowledge of Gallio, for Gallio was only pro­con­sul for less than a year (late 51 to August 52 a.d.), leaving the post apparently because of ill health.42 If Luke had been writing at a sig­ni­fi­cant­ly later time or with deficient sources, the chances seem likely that he would not have included someone with so short-lived a pro­con­sul­ship as Gallio.

In considering the charges, we refer the reader back to the concept of religio licita. Luke records the complaint as “This man persuades men to worship God contrary to the law” (v. 13). Some have debated whether Roman law or Jewish law is meant, and Gallio’s response (“your own law,” v. 15) should put the matter to rest — except that the answer to the dilemma is not either/or but both! The Jews were not so naïve as to believe Gallio could or should rule in theological matters; but because of their theological differences with Paul, they wanted a ruling from Gallio to the effect that, though Judaism was a religio licita, what Paul was preaching was not true Judaism, hence a new, unauthorized religion (religio illicita).

“But Gallio,” says Foakes-Jackson, “was too good a lawyer to listen to such a charge, and ordered the court to be cleared.”43 And the import of Gallio throwing the case out of court was that he “had ruled in effect that what Paul preached was a variety of Judaism, and there­fore not forbidden by Roman law.”44 All this was accomplished without Paul saying a word in his own defense!

Ephesus and the Asiarchs (Acts 19:23-20:1)

Paul seems to have had no direct dealings with the law in this city of Asia Minor. Indeed, during the riot Luke records, it is the Asiarchs, the wealthy, annually-elected “city fathers,” who counsel Paul as to his best and safest course of action. Once again Luke scores points for correct usage of terminology for local lead­er­ship:

Luke gives the correct title for these anually [sic] elected officers as literary and inscriptional evidence corroborates… they were foremost men of the province of Asia, chosen from the wealthiest and most aristocratic inhabitants of the province. Luke loses no opportunity of stressing the friendliness of the authorities to St. Paul or the Gospel.45

It is important to note the resolution of the riot. Gaining the attention of the crowd, the town clerk makes three points. First, if Demetrius and the craftsmen feel they have been wronged, they may take the matter as a private lawsuit to civil court or even before the proconsul (19:38). Second, if it is a matter of the civic pride of Ephesus (cf. v. 25), it can be taken up in a city assembly (v. 39). As for the clerk’s third point, we readers remember that Ephesus is the capital of Roman Asia, so we understand that the clerk’s warning about the “disorderly gathering” and its possible consequences looms larger (v. 40).

Was a lawsuit ever brought against Paul? Luke does not say so specifically. Paul had already “purposed in spirit” to leave Ephesus (19:1), but it may be that his departure was hastened (20:1) by pending legal developments. Becoming, as we have, more acquainted with Paul’s legal entanglements, it seems a strong possibility that this was also on his mind when he planned his meeting with the Ephesian elders (Acts 20:16-17). Luke does point out that Paul was in a hurry to arrive at Jerusalem, but the phrase “that he might not have to spend time in Asia” (v. 16) may indicate that Paul was avoiding a legal imbroglio. Perhaps things were still too “hot” in Ephesus! Thus the church leaders’ summit was held on the island of Miletus.

Jerusalem (Acts 21:30-40; 22:2323:30)

Here we carry forward a question from Paul’s “judicial adventure” in Philippi, namely, why was Paul forward to declare his citizenship status before his beating in Jerusalem (as contrasted with his next-day revelation in Philippi)? Claudius Lysias, the military tribune (χιλίαρχος / chilíarchos, translated as commander) responsible for law and order in Judaea, ordered Paul to be “be examined by scourging” (22:24). It was common Roman practice to “beat the truth out of” slaves and aliens. But the instrument used in Philippi was entirely different from the torture device of the Jerusalem story. None of us would willingly volunteer to undergo the beating Paul and Silas received from the lictors’ fasces (rods), but at least the experience was not dangerous to life. However, the flagrum poised for use on Paul’s body in Jerusalem was a device that often killed its victims. The mind recoils imagining the shredded, bloody flesh left by the bits of sharp bone and metal integrated into the lashes of this devilish whip. If Paul had sub­mit­ted to this “examination,” he might have been killed; therefore he pled his rights as a cit­i­zen (22:25).

The concern shown by the soldiers and Lysias (vv. 26-29) under­scores again the priv­i­leges of citizenship in Paul’s time, the esteem in which citizenship was held, and the fear of violating a citizen’s rights. Paul’s ex­change with Lysias about their citizenships has been mentioned above.

Based, no doubt, on his experience with Jewish fanaticism as well as his respect for Paul’s rights (not to mention doing what he could to exonerate himself from possible charges of misconduct), Lysias exercises his dis­cre­tion and sends Paul to Caesarea — and the governor Felix.

Caesarea and Provocatio (Acts 23:31-35; 24; 25; 26; 27:1)

The Trial Before Felix (Acts 23:3124:27)

Paul’s trial before Felix gives us a view of the judicial procedure extra ordinem. Since by def­i­ni­tion the crime is “outside the ordo,” the essence of this procedure was for an accuser to allege a misdeed and for the judge to decide how to deal with it.

Also, according to Sherwin-White, three things were always true of extra ordinem pro­ceed­ings:46

  1. There was a free formulation of charges and penalties;
  2. A formal act of accusation by an interested party was required; and,
  3. Cases were heard by the governor in person as he sat on his tribunal, and he was assisted by his consilium (an advisory cabinet composed of friends, officials, or even family members).47

All three elements are present in this case. The Jews make formal charges and accusations through their solicitor (24:1-9), to which Paul responds (vv. 10-21). The consilium may be assumed as part of standard operating pro­ce­dure, although it helps to see Felix’s de­fer­ral as due in part to the need for Lysias’ advisory input (24:22). (The subsequent hearing with Drusilla in attendance in vv. 24-25, though in­for­mal, may indicate that she served as part of Felix’s consilium.) Foakes-Jackson says of this trial that it

is a model report. Condensed as the speeches for the prosecution and defence are, they give all the necessary points, and leave nothing to be desired.48

It seems that Paul convinced Felix of his in­no­cence, yet was unreleased. This was due in part to Paul being a “hot potato” politically, no doubt, but also because of Felix’s greed (v. 26). Luke, gen­er­al­ly sympathetic in his portrayal of Roman authorities, still tells it like it is.

The Trial Before Festus (Acts 24:27-25:12)

Paul’s trial before Festus is interesting literarily as well as legally. Up to this point we have compared Luke’s accounts against known and little-known history. Now the tables are turned and Luke becomes a legal benchmark of sorts. As legal scholar A. H. M. Jones sees it, Paul’s trial before Festus is “the only account we possess of a provocatio…” (emphasis mine).49 That is, while others write of the process generally, or mention cases wherein provocatio was employed, we have no “court transcripts” other than Luke’s to show the “nuts and bolts” of the procedure.

The three elements of the extra ordinem session are present even more clearly here, for Festus’ consilium is mentioned by name in Acts 25:12.50 The circumstance that triggers Paul’s appeal to Caesar’s tribunal lies just beneath the surface of our English text. Festus is torn between two things: on the one hand, simple justice (Luke points out that the Jews brought charges “which they could not prove,” v. 7); and on the other, political expediency — as the new governor, he “wished to do the Jews a favor” (v. 9). Bruce believes that back of this was the im­pli­ca­tion that Festus “might treat the San­he­drin as his consilium51 if the venue moved to Jerusalem. Thus, while perhaps win­ning Festus a “political honeymoon,” it would hardly have been an even-handed affair. Hence, after over two years of confinement, Paul appeals to Rome.

Luke’s record of the fact that Paul chose to appeal helps to date his work and sources, for less than fifty years later the process had changed. As Bruce states it:

By the beginning of the second century a.d. it evidently became the regular practice for citizens in the provinces, charged with offenses not covered by statute law, to be sent to Rome almost automatically, without having to take the initiative in appealing to Caesar.52

Once again, the record of Paul’s “judicial ad­ven­tures” is on target.

Before Herod Agrippa II (Acts 25:1326:32)

For the sake of brevity, we will summarize the appearance of King Agrippa II in the story by saying that Festus used the monarch’s visit for two purposes. First, it is a time of political bridge-building for the new Roman ad­min­is­tra­tor. Note the honor Festus accords Agrippa: this hearing is attended by much pomp and cir­cum­stance (25:23), and after for­mal in­tro­duc­tions, Agrippa “chairs” (26:1) the meet­ing and effectively dismisses it (note that “the king arose” first, 26:30). Secondly, Festus makes use of King Agrippa’s expertise in mat­ters socio-religious, inviting him to be, es­sen­tial­ly, the chief counselor in his consilium. And it is in this capacity that Agrippa acts when he offers his legal opinion (26:31-32). Soon “it was decided,” (Acts 27:1; by Festus and Agrippa?), that Paul should be put on “the next boat to Rome.”

Rome and the Biennium (Acts 28:16-31)

Paul’s Disposition in Rome

Cover of Jim Kerwin's article 'The Judicial Adventures of Paul the Apostle: A Look at Roman Law in Acts'Available in e-book format for
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Paul, through storm and shipwreck, at last reaches his goal, the city of Rome, which Tajra aptly describes as “the culminating point of his legal trajectory.”53 Once Paul is turned over to local authorities, he is allowed to obtain his own accommodations, under the custody of a one-man guard arrangement (Acts 28:16). He wasted no time (three days! — v. 17) in building bridges with the Jewish community (vv. 17-22), shar­ing the gospel (vv. 23-31), and, we pre­sume, supporting himself.

Assuming (for a moment) that Paul’s case did come to trial, it is very unlikely that the case was heard by Caesar Nero. The Emperor, ac­cord­ing to Tacitus, had been quite firm in the mat­ter of rendering judgments: “‘He would not’ [Nero] said, ‘be judge in all cases…’.”54 Up until a.d. 62 or 63 he made no exceptions, and only a few after that time, up until the burning of Rome. Appeals cases were apparently assigned to various officials.

The Significance of “Two Years” (Acts 28:30-31)

Did someone other than Nero hear Paul’s case? Or was his case heard at all? The Book of Acts is silent on the matter — perhaps. Scholars debate the merits of a theory that says the case was quashed because of the two-year time-lapse (the biennium) mentioned in Acts 28:30-31.

Conservative scholar F. F. Bruce weighs in against the biennium theory:

…the hypothesis of the eighteen-month statu­to­ry period lacks sub­stance… There does not appear to be first-century evidence for any procedure permitting a case to lapse auto­mat­i­cal­ly by default.55

Others argue that the law was such that the case had to be prosecuted. Tajra points out a law aimed at making accusers follow through:

A widespread habit existed of plaintiffs failing to appear at trials to repeat accusations which they had previously made in the lower courts. Emperor Claudius bestirred himself to combat this habit by promulgating concrete measures aimed at discouraging plaintiffs from not fol­low­ing up on charges they had previously made.56

Thus some conclude that the Sadducees involved would have been penalized if they had not come to Rome to prosecute the case.

But other scholars believe that Luke is, to his contemporaries at least, quite explicit about what happened to Paul. What seems at first like an abrupt and unsatisfying ending to a Twenty-first Century reader (“…He stayed two full years… un­hin­dered”) may actually be a triumphal con­clu­sion of sorts. Cadbury carries the flag here when he says:

The real difficulty is not in the meaning of these words, but in their implication; and my suggestion is that this difficulty may be entirely due to our ignorance of the practice of Roman law, and that the passage was probably per­fect­ly intelligible when it was written…. It is extremely probable that the practice in such a case must have been to quash the whole pro­ceed­ings and release the prisoner. It is scarcely less probable that practice fixed a stated time after which proceedings would be quashed in this manner… I would suggest… that the meaning of Luke’s statement is… that Paul waited the statutory time necessary for his release without ever hearing anything more about the matter… Why did Luke not say this explicitly?… The phrase ‘waited two full years without hindrance’ was as explicit in the ears of the first century as ‘served his time’ would be in connection with a con­vict of the present day. We should not need to be told that a convict who had ‘served his time’ needed to be re­leased. The one fact implies the other.57

The quote is impressive, but it is important to give proper emphasis to words such as sug­ges­tion and probable. Cadbury is joined by others who share the view, such as Tajra, who feels it is “the most likely conclusion.”58 Indeed, James Still goes so far as to base his entire book on the thesis that all of Acts was prepared as a legal brief for Paul’s trial, the “two years” cul­mi­nat­ing the entire case for a dismissal of charges.59

While not going so far as Still,60 this writer leans towards the biennium-release theory. His decision is based primarily on Luke’s proven record of accuracy regarding other legal and political points throughout the book of Acts. Viewing Luke’s conclusion in this way gives a more satisfying and logical closure to Acts. One harks back to the hypothetical difficulties of our imaginary Forty-first Century scholar and ponders the possibilities.

In addition, this theory causes one to reflect back to Acts 24:27, where Luke also marks a biennium elapsing. If there is substance to the biennium-release theory, perhaps Luke was making the same point at this juncture — Paul deserved to be released.

Tajra gives an interesting afterthought to the ramifications of the quashing of Paul’s case. If it was not a conviction, neither was it a clean slate. Winning by default, Paul

was not judged innocent of any political charges, a fact which boded ill for the future of his own personal ministry as well as for the communities he founded… he now had a ju­di­cial record and remained liable to re-arrest at any given moment.61

If Tajra is right, Paul’s “record” may have eventually caught up with him in his final trial. Yet we must take care to tread lightly where we have an assumption resting on another as­sump­tion!

Scriptural Reliability

Debate over the biennium-release theory shows that not everything we seek to know about Roman law in Acts can be tied up neatly by consulting our history books. Yet seeking to uncover what is knowable greatly aids our hermeneutical task of “rightly dividing the word of truth.” What did the words mean to the first readers of the inspired text? It is hoped that we are closer to answering that question by being introduced to concepts like provocatio, cit­i­zen­ship, religio licita, and peregrini.

The writer, for one, has a heightened regard for Acts and its writer. Tajra’s words re­ca­pit­u­late what has been observed and ap­pre­ci­at­ed of Luke, the Spirit-inspired physi­cian-historian:

Paul’s legal history in Acts demonstrates a con­si­der­able knowledge of provincial and Roman nomenclature as well as the intricacies of state and local administration. Luke’s writing is characterized by a fine usage of legal terminology. He is well acquainted with legal procedure and with sundry uses of statutory and customary law. Indeed, Paul’s appeal to Caesar is quite in accord with what little we know of appellate procedure in the middle third of the First Century A.D…. Luke pays great attention to the formalities of legal structure; his handling of judicial material where it can be checked is remarkably accurate. Luke’s metic­u­los­i­ty would strongly suggest that one is not dealing with fiction here, but with a trust­wor­thy reminiscence.62 Luke has given a legally realistic account of Paul’s judicial history in Acts.63

Luke’s narrative in Acts 13-28 about the labors of “the apostle to the Gentiles” as they intersected and collided with Roman law may indeed be thought of as a record of Paul’s “ju­di­ci­al adventures.” Those adventures are neither fiction nor a cursory compilation, but a carefully recorded, well-researched account. At every point on which history can throw light on the matter, what we know of Roman ju­ris­pru­dence confirms Luke’s accuracy; and (as we have seen) Luke’s account of Paul’s trial be­fore Festus (Acts 24:27-25:12) actually gives the sole example of a provocatio — that is, Acts throws light back on an obscure corner of Roman legal history! The last sixteen chapters of Acts provide a history-meets-Bible arena in which, once again, the reliability and in­spi­ra­tion of the Scriptures is historically con­firmed. Acts is not only spiritually profitable — it is good and accurate history!


Black, Mark. “Paul and Roman Law in Acts.” Restoration Quarterly: Studies in Christian Scholarship 24 no. 4 (1981): 209-218.

Brand, C. E. Roman Military Law. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1968.

Bruce, F. F. Commentary on the Book of Acts. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, nd.

____. New Testament History. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1969.

Buckland, W. W. A Text-Book of Roman Law from Augustus to Justinian. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1966.

Busch, Fritz-Otto. The Five Herods. London: Robert Hale Limited, 1958.

Cadbury, Henry J. “Roman Law and Trial of Paul.” The Beginnings of Christianity: Part I: The Acts of the Apostles. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1979: 297 -338.

Dio Chrysostum. Dio Chrysostum. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1951.

Dio Cocceianus, Cassius. Dio’s Roman history, with an English translation. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1927.

Durant, Will. Caesar and Christ: A History of Roman Civilization and of Christianity from Their Beginnings to AD. 325. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1944.

Eusebius. The History of the Church from Christ to Constantine. New York: Penguin Books, 1965.

Finegan, J. “Corinth.” The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1962. 682-684.

Foakes-Jackson, F. J. The Acts of the Apostles. London: Hodder and Stoughton, Limited, 1931.

Gealy, F. D. “City Authorities.” The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1962.

Glare, P. G., ed. Oxford Latin Dictionary. Oxford, England: Oxford University, 1982.

Grant, R. M. ‘Citizenship.” The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1962.

Guterman, Simeon L. Religious Toleration and Persecution in Ancient Rome. London: Aiglon Press, 1951.

Hadley, James. Introduction to Roman Law in Twelve Academical Lectures. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1881.

Jones, A. H. M. Studies in Roman Government and Law. New York: Praeger, 1960.

_____. The Criminal Courts of the Roman Republic and Principate. Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield Publications, 1972.

Lüdemann, Gerd. Early Christianity According to the Traditions in Acts: A Commentary. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1989.

Ludwig, Charles. Cities in New Testament Times. Denver, CO: Accent Books (B/P Publications), 1976.

_____. Rulers of New Testament Times. Denver, CO: Accent Books (B/P Publications), 1976.

Lyall, Francis. “Roman Law in the Writings of Paul — Aliens and Citizens.” The Evangelical Quarterly 48 (Jan. 1976): 3-14.

Macgregor, G. H. C. The Interpreter’s Bible: The Acts of the Apostles. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1954.

Marshall, I. Howard. The Acts of the Apostles. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1980.

Munck, Johannes. The Anchor Bible: The Acts of the Apostles. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc, 1967.

Niswonger, Richard L. New Testament History. Grand Rapids, MI: Academic Books (Zondervan Publishing House), 1988.

O’Keefe, J. A. B. “Roman Law.” The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, Vol. 5. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1976. 141-145.

Ramsay, William M. St. Paul the Traveller and the Roman Citizen. London: Hodder and Stoughton, Limited, 1942.

Sampley, J. Paul. “Before God I Do Not Lie” (Gal. 1.20): Paul’s Self-Defence [sic] in the Light of Roman Legal Praxis.” New Testament Studies: An International Journal 23 (Jul. 1977): 477-482.

Sherwin-White, A. N. Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1963.

_____. The Roman Citizenship. Oxford, England: Oxford University, 1973.

Simpson, D. P. Cassell’s Latin Dictionary. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1968.

Still, James I. St. Paul on Trial. New York: George H. Doran Company, 1923.

Suetonius Tranquillus, Gaius. Suetonius. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1951.

_____. The Twelve Caesars. New York: Penguin Books, 1979.

Tacitus, P. Cornelius. “The Annals.” Tacitus: The Annals and The Histories. Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1952.

Tajra, Harry W. The Trial of St. Paul: A Juridical Exegesis of the Second Half of the Acts of the Apostles. Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck),1989.

Williams, C. S. C. A Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles. New York: Harper & Brothers, Publisher, 1957.

Wolf, Hans J. Roman Law: An Historical Introduction. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1951.


  1. Image of Bodarevsky's painting of St. Paul on trial before Festus, King Agrippa II and Berenice is found on Wikipedia.org.
  2. Mark Black, “Paul and Roman Law in Acts”, Restoration Quarterly: Studies in Christian Scholarship, (1981) 209.
  3. forensic: in this context, having to do with courts of law
  4. A. N. Sherwin-White, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament, (Baker Book House: Grand Rapids, MI, 1963) 1. I am indebted to Sherwin-White for the phrase “Judicial Adventures” which inspired this article's title.
  5. Sherwin-White., 3.
  6. Sherwin-White, 6.
  7. Sherwin-White, 14.
  8. Simeon L. Guterman, Religious Toleration and Persecution in Ancient Rome, (Aiglon Press Limited: 1951). His treatment of the legal aspects of Rome’s dealings with Judaism and Christianity is very thorough.
  9. Francis Lyall, “Roman Law in the Writings of Paul — Aliens and Citizens”, The Evangelical Quarterly, (48) 12.
  10. Black, “Paul and Roman Law in Acts” 212
  11. W. W. Buckland, A Text-Book of Roman Law from Augustus to Justinian, 94-100.
  12. Claudius reigned from 41-54 a.d.
  13. R. M. Grant, “Citizenship”, The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, (Abingdon Press: Nashville, TN, 1962) 631-632.
  14. Valeria Messalina was the nymphomaniacally unfaithful wife of Emperor Claudius from ~39-48 a.d.
  15. Grant, “Citizenship”
  16. Acts 23:1 in the New American Standard translation reads this way: “Paul, looking intently at the Council, said, ‘Brethren, I have lived my life with a perfectly good conscience before God up to this day.’ ” However the marginal reading is interesting in light of our discussion: “I have conducted myself as a citizen…”, etc. rendering the Greek phrase ἐγὼ πάσῃ συνειδήσει ἀγαθῇ πεπολίτευμαι. The key verb is πολιτεύομαι / politeúomai which can be translated as have one’s citizenship or conduct oneself / lead one’s life. So a reader is left to wonder: Was Paul speaking Aramaic before the Council at this point? If so, this is Luke’s rendition in Greek of what Paul said in Aramaic, and the accepted (i.e., non-marginal) reading is reasonable. But if, because of the presence of and for the benefit of Claudius Lysias, the Roman commander who had called for the Council meeting (see Acts 22:30 and note the near-instant rescue of Paul in 23:10), those assembled were speaking Greek, Paul’s statement may have been meant as a double-entendre. What the Council would have heard was, “I have lived my life with a good conscience,” (i.e., I’ve lived as a practicing, blameless Jew). But, given that fact that Paul had proven his bona fides as a Roman citizen to the Roman commander just the day before (Acts 22:26-29), the commander might well have heard the veiled appeal to “due process” of a Roman citizen (i.e., “I have conducted myself as a citizen…” etc.). Certainly, given how Luke weaves this matter of the rights of citizenry masterfully through the rest of Acts, this meaning remains a possibility. Note: All scripture passages quoted are from the New American Standard Version unless otherwise indicated.
  17. Grant, “Citizenship”, 632.
  18. C. S. C. Williams, A Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles, (Harper & Brothers, Publishers: New York. 1957) 247.
  19. Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, (Penguin Books: New York, 1979) 51.
  20. Lyall, “Roman Law”, 10. This paints quite a picture for those with some familiarity with British India!
  21. F. F. Bruce, New Testament History, (Doubleday & Company, Inc: New York, 1969) 358.
  22. Black. “Paul and Roman Law in Acts”, 211. It should be noted that the point is still debated. C. E. Brand, a U.S. Army military lawyer, in his book Roman Military Law, points out that the dispute is fueled by a coin inscription and how it is interpreted. Brand does not find the idea of a condemned soldier’s right to provocatio very logical — or appealing. See especially pp. 67-68. Still, he feels that a citizen-soldier’s rights were valid when involved in non-military judicial disputes.
  23. It seems difficult for a scholar to say, “We don’t know, and perhaps we never shall”!
  24. Note that the text indicates that this status with regard to Tarsus does not automatically imply Roman citizenship per se, for after his address to the people from the steps of Fortress Antonia (Acts 22:1-22) and the resumption of the riot (vv. 23-24), Paul had to claim his Roman citizenship to avert flagellation (v. 25). We will consider this declaration in more depth later.
  25. A drachma was “commonly taken as equivalent to the Rom (sic) denarius” according to the article “Drachma” in The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia, 1956, p. 872. A denarius is usually reckoned as a day’s wage.
  26. Dio Chrysostum, “Oration”, XXXIV.23, Dio Chrysostum, (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA, 1951) 359. Note in context, however, that Dio argues the point that this requirement is insufficient in determining who might make a good citizen of Tarsus. Cf. XXXIV.22 and following.
  27. Sherwin-White, Roman Society, 78.
  28. Charles Ludwig, Cities in New Testament Times, (Accent Books: Denver, 1976) 57-58.
  29. Williams, A Commentary on the Acts, 194-195.
  30. Casell’s Latin Dictionary (Cassel & Company Limited: London, 1887; revised 1956).
  31. William M. Ramsay, St. Paul the Traveller and the Roman Citizen, (Hodder and Stoughton, Limited: London, 1942) 217-218
  32. Sherwin-White, Roman Society, 78-83.
  33. Williams, A Commentary on the Acts, 195.
  34. Grant, “Citizenship”, 632. Grant is paraphrasing the incident reported by Dio Cassius (LX.24).
  35. Ramsay, St. Paul the Traveller 227
  36. F. D. Gealy, “City Authorities”, The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, (Abingdon Press: Nashville, TN, 1962) 638
  37. Ramsay, St. Paul the Traveller 227. Inscriptionally means that the word has been used in inscriptions chiseled into the various monuments or buildings uncovered by archaeology.
  38. Ramsay, St. Paul the Traveller 229-230.
  39. Ramsay, St. Paul the Traveller 231.
  40. F. J. Foakes-Jackson, The Acts of the Apostles, (Hodder and Stoughton, Limited: London, 1931) 163.
  41. Williams, A Commentary on the Acts 202.
  42. F. F. Bruce, Commentary on the Book of Acts, (William B. Eerdmans Publishing: Company: Grand Rapids, MI: n.d.) 374. Bruce covers the same material from a slightly different angle in New Testament History, p. 316.
  43. Foakes-Jackson, The Acts of the Apostles, 171.
  44. Bruce, History, 359-360.
  45. Williams, A Commentary on the Acts, 223-224.
  46. Sherwin-White, Roman Society, 18.
  47. Sherwin-White, Roman Society, 17.
  48. Foakes-Jackson, The Acts of the Apostles, 213.
  49. A. H. M. Jones, The Criminal Courts of the Roman Republic and Principate, (Rowman and Littlefield Publishers: Totowa, NJ, 1972) 101. Curiously, after making this statement, Jones goes on to say that it “is unfortunately very confused, and one is led to suspect that neither Paul nor his biographer understood the legal position…”! If it is our only example, as he insists, how does he know that Paul and Luke were “confused”?!
  50. And knowing of the existence and necessity of the consilium, we are not likely to confuse it with the other “council” mentioned in Acts 4:15 and 24:20, when it clearly refers to the Sanhedrin's council.
  51. Bruce, History, 357.
  52. Bruce, History, 358.
  53. Harry W. Tajra, The Trial of St. Paul: A Juridical Exegesis of the Second Half of the Acts of the Apostles, 198.
  54. P. Cornelius Tacitus, “The Annals”, Tacitus: The Annals and The Histories, Robert M. Hutchins, ed, trans. Alfred J. Church, (Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc.: Chicago, 1952), p. 126. See also Bruce in New Testament History, 362.
  55. Bruce, History, 363.
  56. Tajra, The Trial of St. Paul, 193.
  57. Henry J. Cadbury, “Roman Law and Trial of Paul”, The Beginnings of Christianity: Part I: The Acts of the Apostles, F. J. Foakes-Jackson, ed., (Baker Book House: Grand Rapids, MI, 1979) 329-330.
  58. Tajra, The Trial of St. Paul 196.
  59. James Still, St. Paul on Trial, (George H. Doran Company: 1923).
  60. The theory has a certain appeal, but Still’s book is short on hard facts.
  61. Tajra, The Trial of St. Paul, 196.
  62. “Reminiscence” is an especially appropriate word here, since a careful reader of Acts will note that many passages in chapters 13-28 were written as a “first person” account.
  63. Tajra, The Trial of St. Paul, 1-2.
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