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Bible Commentaries

Cambridge Greek Testament Commentary for Schools and Colleges

Acts 23

Verses 1-99

23:1 10 . St Paul before the Sanhedrin. Disagreement between the Pharisees and Sadducees

1 . And Paul, earnestly beholding the council ] The verb is one which St Luke very frequently employs to note a speaker’s expression at the commencement of a speech, and it is one of those features in the Acts which shew us where the compiler has acted as editor to the narratives which he used. He very generally gives some word to indicate the gesture or look of the person who speaks. This verb is often rendered in A.V. “looking stedfastly” and that rendering the Rev. Ver. gives here.

Men and brethren ] Better, “Brethren.” See note on 1:16.

I have lived in all good conscience before God until this day ] The pronoun “I” is emphatically inserted in the Original. It is as though the Apostle would say, ‘You see me before you as though I were an offender, but personally I feel myself innocent.’ The verb is one which in profane authors signifies ‘to discharge the duties of a citizen.’ St Paul implies by its use that he has been obedient to God’s laws, as a good citizen would be to the laws of his country. So far as being devoted to God’s service, his whole life up to the present moment had been of one piece, it was only that his conscience had been enlightened, and so his behaviour had changed. He had at first lived as a conscientious and observant Jew, his conscience now approved his conduct as a Christian.

2 . And the high priest Ananias ] This was Ananias the son of Nebedæus. (Joseph. Ant . xx. 5, 2.) In the time of the Emperor Claudius he had been suspended from his office for some offence and sent to Rome ( Ant . xx. 6, 2) but afterwards seems to have been held in great reputation in Jerusalem ( Ant . xx. 9, 2).

to smite him on the mouth ] No doubt St Paul’s address, before the high priest gave this order, had extended much beyond the single sentence which St Luke records, and he only preserves for us that which appears to have moved the anger of the authorities, by his claim to have led a life of which in God’s sight he was not ashamed. The action was intended to put a stop to what would be counted the presumptuous language of St Paul.

3 . God shall smite thee, thou whited wall ] Here we may see how very far even the excellence of St Paul comes short of the behaviour of the Divine Master, who when he suffered threatened not, and when reviled, reviled not again. We need not however consider that St Paul’s language here was a wish for evil upon the high priest, but only an expression of confidence in God that such conduct as that of Ananias would not be allowed to go unpunished. We know from Josephus ( Wars , ii. 17. 9) that Ananias did come to a violent end. St Paul calls him “whited wall” because he bore the semblance of a minister of justice, but was not what he seemed. Cp. “whited sepulchres” (Matthew 23:27 ).

for sittest thou , &c.] The original has merely the copulative conjunction, which the Rev. Ver. consequently represents by “ and sittest thou , &c.” The translation misses the force of the Greek, which has the pronoun emphatically expressed. The connexion seems to be this. The Apostle had just named the high priest “a whited wall;” he then continues “and dost thou (such an one) sit, &c.”

after the law ] i.e. according to the law (as Rev. Ver. ). Cp. Pr. Bk . “Deal not with us after our sins.”

contrary to the law ] For St Paul had not yet been heard. Cp. John 7:51 .

4 . God’s high priest ] So styled because he sat on the judgment-seat as God’s representative, cp. Deuteronomy 17:8-5.17.13 . In the Old Test. the priestly, and even other, judges are sometimes called by God’s own name “Elohim.” (See Exodus 21:6 , Exodus 21:22 :8, Exodus 21:9 and cp. Psalms 82:1 .)

5 . I wist not, brethren, that he was the high priest ] Several explanations have been given of this statement of St Paul. Some think that it may have been true that St Paul from defect of sight, with which he is supposed to have been afflicted, could not distinguish that the speaker was the high priest; others that the high priest was not in his official position as president of the court; or that owing to the troublous times, and St Paul’s recent arrival in Jerusalem, he was not aware who was high priest; or that he was speaking in irony, and meant to imply that the action of the judge was of such a character that none would have supposed him to be high priest; or that he meant by “I wist not” that for the moment he was not thinking of what he was saying. It is most consonant with St Paul’s character to believe that either his own physical deficiency, or some lack of the usual formalities or insignia, made him unable to distinguish that he who had given the order was really the high priest.

for it is written ] The quotation is from Exodus 22:28 and is another illustration of what was said above on verse 4. The whole sentence of the O.T. is “Thou shalt not revile the gods, nor curse the ruler of thy people” and the marginal note on “gods” is “ Or , judges” which margin should be in the text. The Rev. Ver. in this verse omits “the” before “high priest” and renders “ a ruler” instead of “ the ruler.”

6 . But when Paul perceived , &c.] We are not told in what way the knowledge which the Apostle here acted on was gained. Perhaps the Pharisees, as in the parable of the Pharisee and publican, kept themselves apart; or to a Jewish eye some mark of their dress may have been enough to bespeak a difference of party. St Paul used this party spirit in a perfectly legitimate manner. What he did was not done merely to set them by the ears, but to secure an opportunity for speaking on that central doctrine of Christianity, the resurrection of the dead. (Cp. 24:21.)

Men and brethren ] Better “ Brethren .” See note on 1:16.

the son of a Pharisee ] The best MSS. give a son of Pharisees . This reading has the advantage of removing St Paul’s language beyond the questioning which has sometimes been raised about it. “I am a Pharisee,” he says. And the question has been raised, whether he had a right to describe himself thus. When he continues “a son of Pharisees” we see that he is stating that by descent and birth his family had for generations been members of that party. Having said this, he then propounds that doctrine which, of all their teaching, was that which severed them from the Sadducees. That this point also was the central doctrine of Christianity makes St Paul’s address not disingenuous, but an appeal to those who agreed with him thus far in his belief, to hear what he had further to say which might meet with their acceptance. And it is not as if the Apostle had raised the question in their midst on some side-issue. The whole teaching of the Christian church rested on the truth of the resurrection, and therefore with much wisdom and without any thought of deception he cries, “I am a Pharisee, and for teaching the doctrine of the resurrection (which they hold) I am now called in question.”

7 . and the multitude [ Rev. Ver. assembly] was divided ] The verb in the original is that from which our English “schism” is derived, and this points to the character of the division. God made the division work for the safety of his servant, as He many times brings good out of evil.

8 . the Sadducees say that there is no resurrection ] It is said that their teaching had its rise in the thought that “God’s servants should not do service with the hope of reward.” As the life to come would be a reward we are told that their doctrine developed into the denial of the Resurrection. As we meet with them in the New Testament, they are mainly members of the priestly order, and appear to have accepted only the written Law, as distinct from tradition, yet in spite of the mention of angels in the Pentateuch they appear to have explained the language in such wise as to identify these angelic appearances with some manifestation of the divine glory, and thus to have come to deny the existence of any spiritual beings distinct from God Himself. In political matters they were on the side of Rome, and in consequence are found uniting at times with the Herodians.

9 . And there arose a great cry [ Rev. Ver. clamour] The noise was of an excited mob. It is the same word that is used in the parable of the Ten Virgins, to describe the shout “the bridegroom cometh.”

and the scribes that were of the Pharisees’ part ] The best authorities read “ some of the scribes of the Pharisees’ part .”

let us not fight against God ] These words are not found in the oldest MSS, and it may be that St Luke left the sentence as an incomplete exclamation. This the Rev. Ver. has endeavoured to represent by rendering the preceding clause “And what if a Spirit hath spoken to him, or an angel.” The temper of these Pharisees is so very much akin to the counsel of Gamaliel in chap. 5:39, that it is not difficult to understand how a thoughtful reader filled up on his margin the unfinished exclamation by an adaptation of Gamaliel’s language, and that these words found their way in a short time into the text.

10 . the chief captain ] He must have been in some position where he could watch all the proceedings, though we can hardly think that he was presiding in the Sanhedrin.

pulled in pieces of them ] The Pharisees had constituted themselves protectors of the Apostle, and so the possession of his person had become the object of a struggle between them and their opponents.

commanded the soldiers ] They were in the tower of Antonia, overlooking the Temple-precincts, and so were ready to interfere in the struggle as soon as they were bidden. They were in considerable numbers, for below (ver. 27) the A. V. renders this word by “army.” Jerusalem was at this time in such an excited state that the presence of a large Roman force was necessary.

11 25 . Paul is cheered by a Vision. The Jews conspire to kill him

11 . And the night following ] The Apostle was now, though not rightly a prisoner, yet kept, that he might be out of harm’s way, under the charge of the Roman soldiers. The hearing of his case having been interrupted, another time was to be appointed when the examination should be completed.

the Lord stood by him ] Appearing in a vision as before at Corinth, cp. 18:9.

Be of good cheer ] The Apostle could hardly be otherwise than downcast with the events of the previous day. He had entered the Temple and undertaken the Nazarite vow with a view of conciliating the Jews and he had only been saved from being torn in pieces of them through the interference of the Roman commander.

so must thou bear witness also at Rome ] He had already written to the Roman church of his “longing to see them,” and that “oftentimes he had purposed to come unto them (Romans 1:11-45.1.13 ),” and St Luke (Acts 19:21 ) records the intention in the history of St Paul’s stay at Ephesus. The way to compass such a visit had not yet been found, but now it is pointed out by the Lord Himself.

12 . And when it was day ] While Paul was receiving comfort from the Lord, the Jews were plotting to secure his destruction and they let no time be wasted. Their plans are ready by the next day, and as soon as it arrived they set about their execution.

certain of the Jews banded together ] The best MSS. omit certain of . The addition looks like a marginal comment of some one who felt that the plot would only be contrived by the Sadducees. The men who banded themselves thus together were probably belonging to the Zealots of whose fanaticism Josephus gives several instances.

bound themselves under a curse ] Lit. placed themselves under an anathema. The noun is used in very solemn language twice over by St Paul (Galatians 1:8 , Galatians 1:9 ), “Let him be accursed.” It was an invocation of God’s vengeance upon themselves, if they failed to do the work which they undertook.

they would neither eat nor drink ] So that there was no time to be lost; their work must be promptly executed.

13 . more than forty ] Shewing the excited state of popular feeling at this moment among the Jews. They may have been prompted to this method of getting rid of the Apostle, because they had not the power of life and death any longer, and were not likely to procure Paul’s death at the hands of the Roman authorities, on any accusation connected with a religious question.

14 . they came to the chief priests and elders ] Who were most likely of the Sadducees’ part, and who therefore would have no wish to save St Paul’s life.

We have bound ourselves under a great curse ] Lit. “with a curse have we cursed ourselves.” A Hebrew mode of expressing the intensity and earnestness of any action. Cp. “to die the death, &c.”

that we will eat nothing ] More literally (with Rev. Ver. ) “to taste nothing.”

15 . Now therefore ye with the council , &c.] Rev. Ver. “do ye ,” to mark more clearly the imperative. The chief priests and elders, of the Sadducees’ party, were to use their influence in the council, that a request might proceed from the whole body of the Sanhedrin, that Paul should be again brought before them by the chief captain. From what we read of the Sadducees, in the N. T. and Josephus, it is easy to believe that they would be in a majority.

that he bring him down ] i.e. from the tower of Antonia to the place where the Sanhedrin held its meetings.

unto you to morrow ] The oldest MSS. omit the last word. It is found in verse 20 below, and may have been early inserted here to make that verbal accord of the desire for which the received text of the Acts of the Apostles furnishes so many illustrations.

as though ye would inquire something more perfectly concerning him ] Rev. Ver. “as though ye would judge of his case more exactly,” which is more in accordance with the classical meaning of the verb.

we … are ready to kill him ] So that the suspicion of complicity in the crime would not fall upon the chief priests and elders. Their intention would appear to have been to give St Paul a fair hearing, and the murder would seem to be the work of some fanatics unconnected with the Council.

16 . And when Paul’s sister’s son , &c.] The Rev. Ver. keeps to the Greek construction, “But Paul’s sister’s son heard … and he came, &c.”

We have no other mention of the family of St Paul anywhere in the history. It seems improbable that the sister and her son were settled inhabitants of Jerusalem, or we should have been likely to hear of them on Paul’s previous visits. His imprisonment at this time was only to keep him from being killed, and so any relative or friend was permitted to come to him.

he went and entered into the castle ] The margin of the Rev. Ver. gives the rendering of the text with a different punctuation: “he heard of their lying in wait, having come in upon them and he entered, &c.”

17 . Then Paul called one of the centurions , &c.] The Apostle was under the charge of a military guard, and so would have no difficulty in getting his message conveyed. And the knowledge that he was a Roman citizen, and that by birth, would have spread among the soldiery and would not be without its influence.

for he hath a certain thing [ Rev. Ver. something ] to tell him ] We have nothing to guide us to a knowledge of how Paul’s nephew became acquainted with the plot to murder his uncle. As we know nothing of any kinsmen of St Paul being Christians we may perhaps be right in supposing that the young man was a Jew, present in Jerusalem on account of the feast, and that he had heard among the Jewish population about the uproar, and the undertaking of the would-be assassins. In his interview with the chief captain it is clear that he was prepared with evidence which was convincing to that officer.

18 . he took him, and brought him , &c.] With soldier-like obedience and raising no questions.

Paul the prisoner ] A name which St Paul was often afterwards to apply to himself. Cp. Ephesians 3:1 , Ephesians 3:4 :1; Philemon 1:0 and 9, &c.

and prayed me ] In the older English the verb “pray” as here used is no more than “ask,” which latter verb is here given by the Rev. Ver. , but it is a needless interference with the older diction.

19 . the chief captain took him by the hand ] The messenger from a Roman citizen was entitled to some consideration, and the action of the chief captain is meant to encourage the young man. The chief captain would naturally incline to favour Paul after his conversation with him, rather than his Jewish accusers. We can gather this from the tone of the letter which he subsequently sent to Cæsarea.

and went with him aside privately, and asked him ] The adverb “privately” is better joined with the verb “asked” as in the Rev. Ver. : this is more in accordance with the Greek order, and such an adverb is somewhat out of place with the first verb, in which privacy is implied without such an addition.

20 . as though they would inquire ] The oldest MSS. give “ as though thou wouldest inquire .” It is more probable that this older reading was altered to agree with the plural in verse 15, than that the plural was changed into the singular. It was natural enough for the speaker among the Zealots to say to the chief priests “as though ye would inquire,” and it is equally natural that Paul’s nephew, speaking to the chief captain, who had control of the whole proceedings, should say “as though thou wouldest inquire.”

21 . But do not thou yield unto them ] More literally, “Do not thou therefore yield, &c.” (with Rev. Ver. ).

which have bound themselves with an oath ] The Greek is the same as in verse 12. It is better therefore to render as there “bound themselves under a curse.” Beside which, the invocation implied in the original is much stronger than is indicated by our English “oath.” And to vary the English rendering gives an idea of variation in the Greek, which in one continuous narrative should be avoided.

looking for a promise ] Rev. Ver . “ the promise” i.e. the one which they are coming to ask you to make.

22 . So the chief captain then let the young man depart ] There is but one conjunction in the original, which is doubly rendered here by So and then . It is better to omit the latter.

and charged him, See thou tell no man , &c.] The Rev. Ver. has “charging him, Tell no man, &c.” The Greek is literally “charging him to tell, &c.” but though this is correct enough in Greek when a sentence like “that thou hast shewed, &c.” is to follow it cannot stand in English; so for the infinitive “to tell” an imperative or its equivalent must be substituted. The A. V. has taken the one, the Rev. Ver. the other way of rendering.

that thou hast shewed [ Rev. Ver. signified] &c.] This change is made because the same word was so rendered in verse 15.

23 . to go to Cesarea ] The residence of the Roman governor and the seat of the chief jurisdiction. The preposition is not the usual one. Hence the Rev. Ver. gives “to go as far as Cæsarea.” The distance between Jerusalem and Cæsarea is about 70 miles.

and spearmen ] The Greek word is an unusual one, and signifies ‘graspers by the right hand.’ Hence it has been explained, as in the A. V., of soldiers who carried a spear in their right hand; others have thought a military guard was meant who kept on the right hand of the prisoners of whom they had charge. The Vulgate gives lancearii , lancers.

at the third hour of the night ] This would be, according to Jewish reckoning, at 9 p. m.

24 . and provide them beasts ] Here is an infinitive, in dependence on the verb in the previous verse, to mark which the Rev. Ver. inserts he bade them .

Felix the governor ] He was made procurator of Judæa by Claudius in a.d. 53. He was the brother of Pallas, the favourite freedman of Claudius, and it was by the interest of his brother, that Felix was advanced, and retained in his position even after the death of Claudius. The character of Felix, as gathered both from Roman and Jewish historians, is that of a mean, profligate and cruel ruler, and even the troublous times in which he lived are not sufficient to excuse the severity of his conduct. After his return to Rome, on the appointment of Festus to be governor in his stead, Felix was accused by the Jews of Cæsarea and only saved by the influence which his brother Pallas had with Nero, as he had had with his predecessor. Felix was connected with the Herodian family by his marriage with Drusilla the daughter of Herod Agrippa I. He continued to hold office at Cæsarea for two years after St Paul’s coming there (24:27) and during the whole of that time the Apostle was his prisoner.

25 . a letter after this manner ] [ Rev. Ver. form ]. As both the writer and receiver of the letter were Romans, it is most likely that Latin would be the language of the original, and that St Luke has given us a representation of the substance of the document rather than its very words.

26 30 . Letter of Claudius Lysias to Felix

26 . the most excellent governor ] The title “most excellent” is that which is given by St Luke at the beginning of his Gospel to the Theophilus for whom he wrote it. Hence it is probable that Theophilus held some official position, it may be under the Romans in Macedonia, where St Luke remained for some time and where he may probably have written his gospel.

sendeth greeting ] The Rev. Ver. omits the first word. The original has only the infinitive “to rejoice” which is of course governed by some word indicating a wish, i.e. = “biddeth to rejoice,” “wisheth joy.”

27 . This man was taken of the Jews ] The verb implies a seizure or arrest. It is used (Matthew 26:55 ; Mark 14:48 ) of the party of men who came to seize our Lord, and (Acts 12:3 ) of Herod Agrippa’s arrest of St Peter.

It is to be noted that the chief captain employs the word for man , which in the original implies respect, no doubt because he was presently about to mention that he was a Roman citizen. The same distinction exists in Latin as in Greek, so that the original may have been in either language. There can be little doubt that Roman officers at this time were familiar enough with Greek to write in it, if need were.

and should have been killed of them ] The Rev. Ver. modifies the obsolescent English, and reads “was about to be slain of them.” The chief captain does not give a very exact report of what had happened. He says nothing about the strife between the two religious parties; perhaps he did not understand its nature and cause.

then came I with an army, and rescued him ] Rev. Ver. when I came upon them with the soldiers, and , &c.” This must refer rather to the first rescue from the mob in the Temple-precincts (21:32). There is no word said of what happened afterwards, the binding with two chains, and the intention of scourging the prisoner.

having understood [ R. V. learned ] that he was a Roman ] The chief captain put this in such wise as to claim credit for interference on behalf of a Roman citizen, and in so doing omits to state that it was only when Paul was about to be scourged and protested against it, that he was discovered to be a citizen of Rome by birth.

28 . And when I would have known , &c.] The Rev. Ver. more literally “and desiring to know, &c.” The method by which the chief captain proposed to learn the charge against Paul was by scourging the prisoner. Cp. 22:24.

29 . whom I perceived [ R. V. found] to be accused , &c.] At first he would have discovered that the outcry against St Paul had something to do with the regulations of the temple, then that there was a dispute about the resurrection of those who were dead, and that on this point some of the Jewish leaders sided with Paul. Such questions about their law would seem to the Roman officer quite as unworthy of consideration as they did to Gallio at Corinth (18:15).

30 . And when it was told me how that the Jews laid wait for the man ] In the oldest MSS. there is no mention made of “the Jews.” The Rev. Ver. therefore renders “and when it was shewn to me that there would be a plot against the man.”

I sent straightway to thee ] i.e. I sent him. The pronoun is supplied in the Rev. Ver. as needful to the sense. Of course Lysias implies by his language that he felt that Felix was a more fit person than himself to deal with such a case.

and gave commandment , &c.] By reason of the text in the oldest MSS. the Rev. Ver. has, in the latter part of this clause, “to speak against him before thee.” The word “Farewell” is also unsupported by the earliest authorities.

31 35 . Paul is brought to Cesarea, and kept prisoner by Felix

31 . Then [ So ] the soldiers , &c.… took Paul ] i.e. they formed a party for his escort, and took him among them.

and brought him by night ] i.e. that same night, starting off early in the night and travelling during night-time, thus getting clear away from Jerusalem before the ambush of the Jews was prepared.

to Antipatris ] This place was 42 miles from Jerusalem and 26 from Cæsarea. It was in early times called Capharsaba, but Herod the Great rebuilt it and named it Antipatris in memory of his father Antipater. It lay in a beautiful part of the Vale of Sharon and was both well watered and rich in wood. The remains of a Roman road have been found close by it. For notices of the older city, see Josephus, Ant . xvi. 5. 2; 1 Macc. 7:31; of the place as rebuilt, see Josephus, B. J . i. 4. 7; ii. 19. 1 and 9; iv. 8. 1.

32 . On the morrow ] The original has a conjunction which the Rev. Ver. represents by “But.” These men would return to Jerusalem again on the day of the intended plot.

they left the horsemen to go with him ] Now that they were far away from Jerusalem and in no fear of a surprise, seventy horsemen were guard enough for the remainder of the way. But it may give us some idea of the dangerous state of the country at the time when we consider that the chief captain thought it needful to send with this one prisoner a guard of 470 soldiers. We may also form some idea of what the garrison in Jerusalem must have been when so many men could be detached at a moment’s notice.

and returned to the castle ] Apparently coming back as quickly as it was possible for them to do so. As the road was one much travelled they were probably able to obtain a change of horses here and there.

33 . who, when they came to Cesarea ] The Rev. Ver. breaks up the relative into a conjunction and a personal pronoun. “And they, when, &c.” This makes the reference to the horsemen more clear.

and delivered the epistle [ letter ] to the governor ] It is not easy to see what led the A. V. to give “epistle” here and “letter” for the same word in ver. 25. Sometimes rhythm may account for such a variation, but that is not the case here.

presented Paul also ] If the letter as given above be a copy of the original, the prisoner was not mentioned in it by name, but the soldiers would merely declare that this was the man that had been committed to their charge.

34 . And when the governor had read the letter ] The oldest MSS. have nothing either for “the governor” or “the letter.” Read (with Rev. Ver. ) “And when he had read it.”

of what province he was ] Cilicia had been at one time, and perhaps still was, attached to the province of Syria. It was so in the time of Quirinus. This will explain why at once Felix without question decided that, at the proper time, he would hear the cause.

35 . I will hear thee ] The verb implies a complete and thorough hearing of a case. “I will give thee a full hearing.” The Rev. Ver. renders “I will hear thy cause.”

when thine accusers are also come ] Assuming that they would appear, since they had been bidden to do so by the chief captain, as he had explained in his letter. Of course Lysias had not said a word of this to the Jews when his letter was written, but intended to do so when Paul was safely on the road to Cæsarea.

to be kept in Herod’s judgment hall ] The word rendered “judgment hall” is “prætorium,” and may signify either the palace of a prince, the tent of a general, or the barracks of the soldiery. Here it is probably the name of the palace which Herod had erected for himself, and which now was used as the governor’s residence. It seems (from 24:24 26) that it was close to the quarters of Felix himself, and that Paul could speedily be sent for. Render “Herod’s palace” (with Rev. Ver. ). The verb employed in the sentence only implies that Paul was to be taken care of; he was not kept in close imprisonment. “A Roman and uncondemned” would not be subject to needless indignities, when his accusers were Jews who could make no such claim for consideration. Cf. 24:23.

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Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on Acts 23". "Cambridge Greek Testament for Schools and Colleges". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/cgt/acts-23.html. 1896.