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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Acts 23

 

 


Verse 1

XXIII.

(1) And Paul, earnestly beholding the council.—We note once more the characteristic word for the eager anxious gaze with which St. Paul scanned the assembly. He had not seen it since he had stood there among Stephen’s accusers, a quarter of a century ago. Many changes, of course, had come about in that interval, but some of the faces were probably the same; and at all events the general aspect of the Gazith, or Hall of Meeting, on the south side of the Temple, with its circular benches must have remained the same.

I have lived in all good conscience . . .—The verb for “I have lived” means literally, I have used my citizenship. It had ceased, however, to have this sharply defined meaning (see Note on the kindred substantive in Philippians 3:20), and had come to be used of the whole course of a man’s social conduct. Perhaps My mode of life has been in all good conscience, would be the nearest English equivalent. The reference to “conscience” may be noted as eminently characteristic of St. Paul. So we find him saying of himself that he had all his life served God with “a pure conscience” (2 Timothy 1:3); that a “good conscience” is the end of the commandment (1 Timothy 1:5); or, again, recognising the power of conscience even among the heathen (Romans 2:15). In the phrase “I know nothing by myself,” i.e., “I am conscious of no fault” (see Note on 1 Corinthians 4:4), we have a like reference to its authority. Comp. also Acts 24:16; Romans 13:5; 1 Corinthians 10:25. And in all these passages he assigns to conscience its true functions with an exact precision. It is not an infallible guide and requires illumination, and therefore each man needs to pray for light, but it is never right to act against its dictates, and that which is objectively the better course is subjectively the worse, unless the man in his heart believes it to be the better.


Verse 2

(2) The high priest Ananias.—See Note on Acts 22:5. The son of Nebedæus was conspicuous for his cruelty and injustice, and had been sent to Rome as a prisoner to take his trial before Claudius (A.D. 52). He had been acquitted, or at least released, and had returned to Judæa. To him this assertion of a life so utterly unlike his own seemed almost like a personal insult. He fitted the cap, and raged with a brutal cruelty which reminds us of Jeffreys’ treatment of Baxter.


Verse 3

(3) God shall smite thee, thou whited wall.—The phrase is interesting as showing either that our Lord, in likening the Pharisees to “whitened sepulchers” (see Notes on Matthew 23:27; Luke 11:44), had used a proverbial comparison, or else, as seems equally probable, that it had become proverbial among His disciples as having been so used by Him. The whole utterance must be regarded by St. Paul’s own confession as the expression of a hasty indignation, recalled after a moment’s reflection; but the words so spoken were actually a prophecy, fulfilled some years after by the death of Ananias by the hands of the sicarii. (Jos. Wars, ii. 17, §§ 2-9).


Verse 5

(5) I wist not, brethren, that he was the high priest.—These words admit of three different explanations:—(1) We may take them as stating that St. Paul, either from defective sight (see Notes on Acts 9:18; Acts 14:9), or because the high priest was not sitting as president of the Sanhedrin, literally did not know who it was that had given the order, and thought it came from one of the subordinate members of the council. (2) That the words were a somewhat ironical protest against the authority of Ananias as having been improperly appointed. (3) That the “I wist not” stands for “I did not consider,” and is an apologetic recantation of what had been uttered with a full knowledge that the words had been spoken by the high priest. Of these the first seems by far the most probable. The solemn sneer pointed by words from Scripture suggested by (2) is at variance with St. Paul’s character; and (3) puts upon the words a greater strain than they will bear. It is obvious that St. Paul might well think that greater reverence was due to the high priest than to one filling an inferior position in the councils.

Thou shalt not speak evil of the ruler of thy people.—The passage (Exodus 22:28) is interesting as one of those in which the Hebrew word Elohim, commonly translated “God,” is used of earthly rulers. St. Paul probably quoted it in Hebrew (see Acts 22:2), while St. Luke reproduces it from the LXX. version. It need hardly be said that to act on that law towards the rulers, not, of “the people” only, but of the heathen; to see below all the corruptions of human society and the vices of princes, the scheme of a divine order; to recognise that “the powers that be are ordained of God,” was throughout the ruling principle of the Apostle’s conduct, and, for the most part, of that of the early Christians (Romans 13:1-6; 1 Peter 2:13-17). Christianity was a great revolution, but they were not, politically or socially, revolutionists.


Verse 6

(6) But when Paul perceived that the one part were Sadducees . . .—We recognise the same parties in the council as there had been twenty-five years before. Whether they sat in groups on different sides, after the manner of the Government and Opposition benches in the House of Commons, or whether St. Paul recognised the faces of individual teachers of each sect with whom he had formerly been acquainted, we have no data for deciding.

I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee.—It is natural, from one point of view, to dwell chiefly on the tact of the Apostle. He seems to be acting, consciously or unconsciously, on the principle divide et impera, to win over to his side a party who would otherwise have been his enemies. With this there comes, it may be, a half-doubt whether the policy thus adopted was altogether truthful. Was St. Paul at that time really a Pharisee? Was he not, as following in his Master’s footsteps, the sworn foe of Pharisaism? The answer to that question, which obviously ought to be answered and not suppressed, is that all parties have their good and bad sides, and that those whom the rank and file of a party most revile may be the most effective witnesses for the truths on which the existence of the party rests. The true leaders of the Pharisees had given a prominence to the doctrine of the Resurrection which it had never had before. They taught an ethical rather than a sacrificial religion. Many of them had been, like Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathæa, secret disciples of our Lord. At this very time there were many avowed Pharisees among the members of the Christian Church (Acts 15:5). St. Paul, therefore, could not be charged with any suppressio veri in calling himself a Pharisee. It did not involve even a tacit disclaimer of his faith in Christ. It was rather as though he said, “I am one with you in all that is truest in your creed. I invite you to listen and see whether what I now proclaim to you is not the crown and completion of all your hopes and yearnings. Is not the resurrection of Jesus the one thing needed for a proof of that hope of the resurrection of the dead of which you and your fathers have been witnesses?”


Verse 7

(7) There arose a dissension between the Pharisees and the Sadducees.—As a strategic act St. Paul’s words had immediately the effect which he desired. They prevented the hasty unanimous vote which might otherwise have united the two parties, as they had been united in the case of Stephen, in the condemnation of the blasphemer. What follows shows that it was not without results as regards the higher aim.


Verse 8

(8) The Sadducees say that there is no resurrection.—On the general teaching of the Sadducees, see Note on Matthew 22:23. Their denial of the existence of angels and spirits seems at first inconsistent with the known facts that they acknowledged the divine authority of the Pentateuch, which contains so many narratives of angelophanies, and were more severe than others in their administration of the Law. The great body of the higher priestly class were, we know, mere Sadducees (Acts 5:17); and what, on their principles, was the meaning of the Temple ritual? They were, in fact, carried along by one of the great waves of thought which were then passing over the ancient world, and were Epicureans and Materialists without knowing it, just as the Pharisees were, even to the eye of a writer like Josephus (Life, c. 3), the counterpart of the Stoics. For them the “angels” of the Pentateuch were not distinct beings, but evanescent manifestations of the divine glory.


Verse 9

(9) Let us not fight against God.—If we could receive these words as part of the original text, they would be a singularly characteristic reproduction of the counsel of St. Paul’s master (Acts 5:39). They are, however, wanting in many of the best MSS. and versions, and were apparently added to complete the sentence which St. Luke had left in the emphasis of its unfinished abruptness. Possibly its close was drowned in the tumultuous cries of the Sadducees. The line taken by the Pharisees is altogether that of Gamaliel. After twenty-five years they have not got further than the cautious policy of those who halt between two opinions. They give a verdict of “Not Guilty” as to the specific charges brought against St. Paul. They think it possible that he may have received a vision or revelation of some kind. In the word “spirit” they perhaps admit that the form of Jesus may have appeared to him as a spectre from the world of the dead.


Verse 10

(10) The chief captain, fearing . . .—We may well believe that the priest who had been rebuked as a “whited wall” would not willingly forego his revenge. He, and the Sadducees generally, would now be able to assume the position of being more devoted defenders of the Law and of the Temple than the Pharisees themselves. The fear of the chiliarch was naturally heightened by his knowledge that he was responsible for the life of a Roman citizen. In the barracks of the fortress, as before, probably in the self-same guardroom as that which had witnessed our Lord’s sufferings at the hands of Pilate’s soldiers, the prisoner would at least be in safety.


Verse 11

(11) Be of good cheer, Paul.—The day had been one of strange excitement, and most have roused many anxieties. Personal fear as to suffering or death he was, more than most men, free from; but was his work to be cut short? Was he to fall a victim to the malice of the Jews? Was the desire, which he had cherished for many years, to preach the gospel in the great capital of the empire (Romans 1:13; Romans 15:23) to be frustrated? These questions pressed upon him in the wakeful night that followed the exhausting day; and, with a nature like St. Paul’s, such anxieties could not but find expression in his prayers. To those prayers the “vision and apocalypse of the Lord” of which we now read was manifestly the answer. To him, tossed on these waves and billows of the soul, as once before to the Twelve tossing on the troubled waters of the Sea of Galilee (Matthew 14:27), there came the words, full of comfort and of hope, “Be of good cheer.” There might be delay and suffering, and a long trial of patience, but the end was certain; he was to reach the goal of Rome.


Verse 12

(12) Certain of the Jews banded together . . .—The casuistry of the more fanatic Jews led them to the conclusion that a blasphemer or apostate was an outlaw, and that, in the absence of any judicial condemnation, private persons might take on themselves the execution of the divine sentence. So, they may have argued, Mattathias, the founder of the Maccabean dynasty, had slain the apostate Jew who offered sacrifice at the altar at Modin (1 Maccabees 2:24); so ten Zealots of Jerusalem had conspired to assassinate Herod the Great because he had built an amphi-theatre and held gladiatorial games in the Holy City (Jos. Ant. xii. 6, § 2; xv. 8, § 3). It is melancholy but instructive to remember how often the casuistry of Christian theologians has run in the same groove. In this respect the Jesuit teaching, absolving subjects from their allegiance to heretic rulers, and the practical issue of that teaching in the history of the Gunpowder Plot, and of the murders perpetrated by Clement and Ravaillac, present only too painful a parallel. Those who now thus acted were probably of the number of the Zealots, or Sicarii.

Under a curse.—Literally, they placed themselves under an anathema. This was the Jewish kherem, and the person or thing on which it fell was regarded as devoted to the wrath of God. (Comp. Notes on 1 Corinthians 16:22; Galatians 1:8-9.) So also in the Old Testament we find that Jericho and all that it contained was a kherem, or accursed thing, devoted to destruction (Joshua 7:1).


Verse 14

(14) They came to the chief priests and elders.—It will be remembered that the high priest Ananias had already shown the rough brutality of his nature in his treatment of St. Paul, and was now, we can scarcely doubt, impelled by the spirit of revenge. It lies on the surface that those to whom the conspirators went were the Sadducean party in the Council, not the more moderate and cautious Pharisees.

We have bound ourselves under a great curse.—The Greek follows the Hebrew idiom in expressing intensity by the reduplication of the leading word. laterally, We have anathematised ourselves with an anathema.


Verse 15

(15) Now therefore ye with the council . . .—The plot was necessary, either (1) because the Sanhedrin had lost, under Roman rule, its power to inflict capital punishment (see Notes on Acts 7:59; John 18:31); or (2) because, even if they possessed that power, the chiliarch was not likely to allow its exercise in the case of a Roman citizen; or (3) because the experience of the previous day had shown that the violent party were not likely to obtain a majority in the Council. The plot was, so far, skilfully laid. Even those who had said, “We find no evil in this man,” could hardly oppose a proposal for a further investigation.

We, or ever he come near, are ready to kill him.—The first word stands in the Greek with a kind of ferocious emphasis “You may safely leave us to do our part.”


Verse 16

(16) Paul’s sister’s son.—The passage is note worthy as being the only reference to any of St. Paul’s relations in the Acts. The fact that St. Paul lodged with Mnason, as far as it goes, suggests the probability that neither the sister nor the nephew resided permanently in Jerusalem. We do not even know whether they were members of the Christian society, though this may, perhaps, be inferred from the eagerness of the son to save his uncle from the danger which he know to be imminent. We find that St. Paul had kinsmen at Rome (Romans 16:7; Romans 16:11). Was this nephew one of them who had come to Jerusalem to keep the feast, and heard the plot talked of (it is difficult to keep a secret in which forty men are sharers) in the caravanserai where he and other pilgrims lodged? We see, from the fact thus stated, that St. Paul, though in custody, was allowed to hold free communication with his friends. This, perhaps, accounts for the fulness with which the whole history is given. The writer of the Acts had come up with the Apostle, and was not likely to desert his friend if he could possibly gain access to him.


Verse 18

(18) Paul the prisoner . . .—We may well believe that at the time he little thought how long that name would be used of him, first by others and then by himself, until it became as a title of honour in which he seemed to glory almost more than in that of Apostle. (Comp. Ephesians 3:1; Ephesians 4:1; Philemon 1:1; Philemon 1:9.)


Verse 22

(22) So the chief captain.—The chiliarch is obviously glad of the intelligence. His sympathies are clearly with St. Paul personally as against the high priest and his followers. He welcomes an opportunity for showing his zeal for the safe-keeping of a Roman citizen, and for making a statement of the whole transaction from his own point of view. With true official caution he treats the communication he has received as confidential, and takes his measures accordingly.


Verse 23

(23) Spearmen two hundred . . .—Literally, right hand graspers. The word was a strictly technical one, and seems to have been applied to those light armed troops who carried a light spear or javelin in their right hands, as contrasted with those who carried the old spear, with a heavier shaft, which had to be wielded by both. They are coupled by the military writers of the Byzantine empire with archers and peltastæ, or light shield-bearers. The escort seems a large one for a single prisoner, but the tumults of the previous days, and the information just received as to the conspiracy, gave the chiliarch good reason to apprehend a formidable attack.

At the third hour of the night.—Assuming that St. Luke uses the Jewish reckoning, this would be about 9 or 10 p.m. It was evidently the object of the chiliarch to place the prisoner beyond the reach of an attack before daybreak. With this view, all, as well as the horsemen, were to be mounted.


Verse 24

(24) Felix the governor.—The career of the procurator so named is not without interest as an illustration of the manner in which the Roman empire was at this time governed. In the household of Antonia, the mother of the Emperor Claudius, there were two brothers, first slaves, then freed-men, Antonius Felix and Pallas. The latter became the chosen companion and favourite minister of the emperor, and through his influence Felix obtained the procuratorship of Judæa. There, in the terse epigrammatic language of Tacitus, he governed as one who thought, in his reliance on his brother’s power, that he could commit any crime with impunity, and wielded “the power of a tyrant in the temper of a slave” (Tacit. Ann. xii. 54; Hist. v. 9). His career was infamous alike for lust and cruelty. Another historian, Suetonius (Claud. c. 28), describes him as the husband of three queens, whom he had married in succession:—(1) Drusilla, the daughter of Juba, King of Mauritania and Selene, the daughter of Autonius and Cleopatra. (2) Drusilla, the daughter of Agrippa I. and sister of Agrippa II. (See Acts 23:24.) She had left her first husband, Azizus, King of Emesa, to marry Felix (Jos. Ant. xx. 7. § 1). Their son, also an Agrippa, died in an eruption of Vesuvius in A.D. 79 (Jos. Ant. xx. 7, § 2). The name of the third princess is unknown.


Verse 26

(26) Claudius Lysias unto the most excellent governor Felix.—The letter may have been sent unsealed, or a copy of it may have been given to St. Paul or St. Luke after his arrival. What we have obviously purports to be a verbal reproduction of it. We note (1) that the epithet “most excellent” is that which St. Luke uses of Theophilus, to whom he dedicates both the Gospel and the Acts (Luke 1:3; Acts 1:1), and (2) that the formal salutation, “greeting,” is the same as that used in the letter of the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15:23) and in the Epistle of St. James (James 1:1).


Verse 27

(27) Then came I with an army.—Better, with my troops. The chief captain ingeniously colours his statement so as to claim credit for having rescued a Roman citizen, though, as a matter of fact, he did not discover that he was a citizen until he was on the point of scourging him without a trial. That fact, of course, is passed over without a word.


Verse 29

(29) Accused of questions of their law.—The points which probably presented themselves to the chiliarch’s mind as the result of his inquiries were—(1) that the prisoner was accused of transgressing the rules of the Temple; (2) that the question at issue seemed to be whether he had seen a teacher named Jesus risen from the dead; (3) whether that teacher was entitled to the name of Christ.


Verse 30

(30) Farewell.—The closing formula, like the opening one, agrees with that used in the letter of the Council of Jerusalem. The “commandment” given to the accusers to go down to Cæsarea was probably given in answer to the high priest’s application for another inquiry before the Sanhedrin. We are not told what became of the vow of the forty conspirators. They doubtless considered themselves absolved from it as soon as they heard of the prisoner’s removal, and their fast probably did not last longer than eighteen or twenty hours.


Verse 31

(31) Antipatris.—The town, built by Herod the Great, and named after his father, is represented by the modern Kefr-Saba, answering to the Caphar Saba of Josephus (Ant. xvi. 5, § 2). It was about forty-two miles from Jerusalem and twenty-six from Cæsarea. Traces of a Roman road have been discovered between it and Jerusalem, more direct by some miles than the better known route through the pass of Beth-horon. Having started probably at or about midnight, they would reach this town about six or seven A.M. They would then be practically beyond all danger of pursuit or attack, and the foot-soldiers therefore returned, as no longer needed, to their barracks in the Tower Antonia, leaving the horsemen to go on with him.


Verse 34

(34) He asked of what province he was.—The question was a natural one for a procurator of Judæa to ask as to any prisoner brought before him. (Comp. Pilate’s question in Luke 23:6.) It does not appear why Felix was ready to take cognisance of a matter which apparently, to judge by the precedent set by Pilate, belonged to the jurisdiction of another. Perhaps he had no motive for conciliating the favour of the governor of Cilicia, or thought that the nature of the accusation over-ruled the nationality of the accused.


Verse 35

(35) I will hear thee.—The Greek verb expresses the idea of a thorough hearing.

He commanded him to be kept in Herod’s judgment hall.—The Greek word is prætorium, a word somewhat elastic in its application, and ranging from a palace to a barrack. “Judgment hall” hardly gives the meaning here. The building had probably been intended by Herod for use as a royal residence, and was now used by the Roman procurator for himself and his troops. The Apostle had there a second experience of the life of a prætorium. At Rome he does not appear to have been in the prætorium, though the circumstances of his imprisonment brought him into contact with the soldiers who were quartered there. (Comp. Notes on Matthew 27:27; Philippians 1:13.)

 


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Bibliography Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Acts 23:4". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/ebc/acts-23.html. 1905.

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