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Bible Commentaries

Schaff's Popular Commentary on the New Testament
Acts 23

 

 

Introduction

Verse 1

St. Paul brought before the Sanhedrim by the Roman Officials in JerusalemHe defends himself before the Great Council, 1-10.

Acts 23:1. And Paul, earnestly beholding the council. The Greek word άτενί σας, rendered ‘earnestly beholding,’ is used by the apostle on more than one solemn occasion, and describes the strained earnest gaze with which he endeavours to make up for that weakness of sight of which mention has already been made. It has also been suggested as more than probable that this dimness of vision, accompanied no doubt often with grievous pain, was occasioned by the glory of the Damascus vision, and most likely was the celebrated ‘thorn in the flesh’ alluded to in such touching language in 2 Corinthians 12:7-9. Still, though the eyesight was dim, we do not, as will be seen, accept the theory that he could not discern whether the one speaking to him was the high priest. The very word here used seems to imply the contrary. Once more, after all those many years, Paul was present at a meeting of that august assembly of which he once was most likely a member, certainly was a confidential and trusted official. With strained fixed gaze he looked round on that once familiar scene, on some old and once-loved faces, all now looking on him with the deepest hate and aversion. He could not fail to distinguish the high priest, seeing he noticed the several party groups (Acts 23:6) into which the Sanhedrim was divided.

Said, Men and brethren. Rendered simply, ‘said, Brethren.’ This time he omits the words ‘and fathers,’ with which he prefaced his address on the steps of ‘Antonia,’ to the multitude crowding in the temple area below him. Then it was a more impassioned address, and he appealed especially to the elders present; now, standing formally arraigned before the Sanhedrim, he remembers his ancient position among them,—a position he is conscious he has surely, by his long devotion to his Master, never forfeited. So he begins as an equal speaking to equals; a former Sanhedrist to his ancient colleagues: ‘Brothers!’

I have lived in all good conscience before God until this day. Well paraphrased by ‘I have lived as a true and loyal Jew, for the service and glory of God, from my youth up until now.’ Paul more than once refers in a similar way to ‘conscience.’ So in 2 Timothy 1:3, he says he had all his life served God with a pure conscience; and again, in 1 Timothy 1:5, he writes how a good conscience was the end of the commandment. See, too, Romans 2:15. Paul teaches us that a man must never act against the dictates of his conscience, though, however, he plainly demonstrates from his own early experience that conscience is by no means an infallible guide; it requires light from on high. He shows us again, by his own example, from what ‘good conscience before God’ proceeds: 1. From true faith in Christ, by which the remission of sins is obtained. 2. From the assurance of Divine grace. 3. From the faithful performance of the duties of our calling.

The words ‘until this day’ cover all his preceding life. He felt he had acted conscientiously before the Damascene vision, according to the dim light he then possessed; and after that solemn meeting with the Lord Jesus by the way, he had changed his life and conversation, according to the dictates of his conscience, illuminated by the ever presence of the Holy Spirit sent by his Master.


Verse 2

Acts 23:2. And the high priest Ananias. We can imagine the wrath of the haughty prelate at the first words of the accused. What unheard of presumption that this Paul, a renegade and outcast, the enemy ‘of all that the Sanhedrim held sacred,’ should dare to arrogate to himself ‘a brotherhood with them.’ His former close connection with that august senate only rendered his present strange claim more insupportable; and when the poor prisoner went on to assert that, after all the years of apostasy, Nazarene leader though he had been, he was still a loyal Jew, faithful to the God of his fathers, the anger of the high priest flamed forth, and he bade the officials standing near the accused to smite him on the mouth.

Ananias, who presided over this meeting of the Sanhedrim, the son of Nebedæus, was appointed to this high office by Herod, king of Chalcis, in A.D. 48, some ten years before St. Paul was arraigned before the supreme Jewish council. While Cumanus was procurator of Judæa, Quadratus, president of Syria, arrested and sent Ananias to be tried at Rome, on the complaint of the Samaritans, A.D. 52. Herod Agrippa the younger procured the acquittal of the Jewish party, whom the Samaritans accused of certain acts of violence. Ananias then resumed the high-priesthood. He was superseded by Ismael, the son of Phabi, just before the departure of Felix from Judæa. This change was brought about by Herod Agrippa the younger, A.D. 59. He then held the great office of high priest for about eleven years, an unusually lengthened period in those stormy days of intrigue. After his deposition, he still continued to exercise great influence among his countrymen. He was famous for his violent and illegal acts. This evil though successful man was assassinated by the Sicarii at last.

Commanded them that stood by him to smite him on the month. A similar insult was offered to the Lord Jesus when He stood accused before the same council, John 18:22. Commentators often quote from Morier’s Second Journey through Persia to show that this treatment is by no means uncommon in the unchanging East in our own days. ‘As soon as the ambassadors came,’ writes this traveller, ‘he punished the principal offenders by causing them to be beaten before them; and those who had spoken their minds too freely, he smote upon the mouth with a shoe;’ and in another passage Morier writes thus, “Call the Ferasches,” exclaimed the king, “let them beat the culprits until they die!” The Ferasches appeared, and beat them violently; and when they attempted to say anything in their defence, they were struck in the mouth.’


Verse 3

Acts 23:3. Then said Paul unto him, God shall smite thee, thou whited wall. These strange words, spoken no doubt in hot anger and excitement by the indignant prisoner, must of course be understood not as an imprecation, but as a prophetic denunciation of a future doom. The prophecy was fulfilled to the letter, for in the early days of the Jewish war, we learn from Josephus, that in consequence of a sedition raised by his own son Eleazar, the Sicarii, led by Menahem, the son of Judas of Galilee, entered Jerusalem, and after committing many evil excesses, burned the palace of this Ananias, and having dragged him and his brother Hezekiah from their place of concealment, murdered them both (Bell. 2:17; 2:9). The expression ‘whited wall,’ or hypocrite, was used with a slight variation by the Lord to the Pharisees and scribes (Matthew 23:27; Luke 11:44). The simile, after this use by their Master, had most likely become proverbial among the Christians of the first days, and was singularly applicable in the case of this violent and haughty priest, who no doubt presented externally, as he sat on his throne of honour in the Sanhedrim, with his grey hair and white priestly garments, girt with the insignia of his lofty office, a venerable and imposing appearance; but internally, his heart was full of rage and of deadly hatred, of injustice and tyranny. The Jews, as a rule, painted their sepulchres conspicuously white, that they might not defile themselves by unexpectedly coming in contact with them. Thus the walls of the sepulchre would be white and fair-seeming to the eye, but they would contain within, dead men’s bones and a mass of putrefying corruption. This is most probably the thought contained in St. Paul’s comparison, ‘Thou whited wall;’ although it is possible the allusion was simply to a wall roughly and coarsely built of clay, and then neatly and carefully coloured white to imitate stone on the outside.

This expression of anger on the part of Paul was no doubt a singular one; and although the hasty wrathful words were allowed by God to take the form, in this case, of a prophecy, they are not to be excused. Paul himself evidently felt he had done wrong by thus giving way to what seems to be a natural expression of fiery indignation. We hear him, after a moment’s reflection, recalling them and expressing his sorrow for having uttered them. In this passage again, as so often in these Divine records, we cannot help noticing the strict accuracy of the compiler of these ‘Acts’ of the first days; concealing nothing, passing over nothing which belonged to the memories of the first grand days of Christianity, though these memories contained not a few details which could not fail to mar in the eyes of coming generations the characters of those great ones,—men like Peter, and Paul, and Barnabas, whom the Holy Ghost had made choice of to lay the early stories of the Church of Christ on earth.

We dare not blame very hardly this very natural ebullition of anger on the part of the long-suffering apostle, who was thus requited, by an insulting and painful blow, inflicted by the order of the high priest, for his brave patient life of utter self-denial and self-surrender, seeing that the noble Luther (quoted by Lange) thus writes of the transaction: ‘If St. Paul in this manner assails the priest who was appointed by the law of Moses, why should I hesitate to assail those painted bishops and monks that come from the pope, without any authority from God or from man.’

But though perhaps we should be slow to blame, we may at least compare the conduct of the servant Paul with the behaviour of the Master Christ, when He stood as a prisoner before these same haughty judges. Jerome felt this, and very hotly asks, ‘Where (here) is that patience of the Redeemer, who, when He was brought as a lamb to the slaughter, opened not his mouth, but gently says to the men that struck Him: “If I have spoken evil, bear witness of the evil; but if well, why smitest thou Me? . . . .” We do not then detract from the apostle; but we do proclaim the glory of the Lord, who, when He suffered in the flesh, rose grandly above all sense of injury done to the flesh, rose above the weakness of the flesh.’

For sittest thou to judge me after the law. As we shall point out further down, there is no ground for supposing that Paul, when he thus spoke in fierce wrath, was for a moment ignorant who it was to whom he addressed his bitter words, ‘thou whited wall.’ He pointedly here addresses as ‘the whited wall’ the one presiding over that august and venerable assembly with which he was once so intimately acquainted.


Verse 4

Acts 23:4. And they that stood by said, Revilest thou God’s high priest? It was—and St. Paul knew it well—contrary to the law of Moses (see Exodus 22:28, subsequently quoted by him) to revile one placed in a position of authority, such as the high priest, or any one sitting as president of the Sanhedrim council,—‘the father of the house of judgment,’ as the Talmud calls him.


Verse 5

Acts 23:5. Then said Paul, I wist not, brethren, that he was the high priest: for it is written, Thou shalt not speak evil of the ruler of thy people. What is meant by these words? ‘I wist not ( οὐ κ ᾔ δειν) that he was the high priest.’ Several well-meant but mistaken interpretations have been suggested in order to avoid what seems the only correct conclusion, viz. that Paul on this occasion ‘spoke unadvisedly with his lips,’—a fault which the noble-hearted man was himself, as we shall see, swift to acknowledge. Of these, the following are the principal: (a) Paul did not personally know the high priest. He had been absent—save on his very few brief visits—for so many years (between twenty and thirty) from Jerusalem, and the high priest was so frequently changed, that he did not know this high priest Ananias by sight, (b) ‘I wist not;’ in other words, Paul said: I did not know that it was the president of the Sanhedrim who was addressing me. I heard, indeed, a voice commanding the rough officer to smite me on the mouth; but my dim vision prevented me from distinguishing the speaker, (c) Paul would not acknowledge one who could thus transgress the law, who could forget himself so far as to give such an unjust and cruel command as the order to smite on the mouth a defenceless prisoner pleading for his life before so august a court- This interpretation of the words would then understand them as spoken ‘ironically.’ (d) The apostle did not consider that Ananias was the lawful high priest. He looked on him only as the puppet set up by Rome, or Rome’s agent, the younger Agrippa, and not as the legally constituted head of the sacred Jewish hierarchy. But of these (a), (c), and (d) are quite unsatisfactory, mere baseless suppositions; while (b) is refuted by the fact already referred to in these notes. Paul (Acts 23:3) speaks expressly to the president ‘sitting there to judge him after the law;’ so the dimness of his eyesight cannot be pleaded as an excuse. It is better then to concede, as we have done above (see note on Acts 23:3), that Paul, at once recognising he was wrong, simply and truthfully confesses that when he had uttered the reviling angry words, he had not considered that it was the high priest of Israel whom he was addressing. We might paraphrase Paul’s words thus: I spake the angry words without reflection. I thought at that moment of bitter indignation nothing of high priest or president of the supreme council of Israel. Had I reflected, I had never spoken thus; for it is written in the sacred law, which I reverence with as deep a veneration as any of you, ‘Thou shalt not speak evil of the ruler of thy people.’ This quotation is verbatim from the Septuagint Version of Exodus 22:28.


Verse 6

Acts 23:6. But when Paul perceived that the one part were Sadducees, and the other Pharisees. The great council now for many years seems to have been divided roughly into two great parties, the Sadducees and the Pharisees. (See on the position held in Israel at this time by these two sects, Excursus at the end of the chapter.)

He cried out in the council, Men and brethren, I am a Pharisee and the son of a Pharisee: of the hope and resurrection of the dead I am called in question. The true reading here is ‘the son of Pharisees.’ Paul’s conduct in thus involving the Pharisees and Sadducees present in the Sanhedrim in a violent dispute, has been the theme of much controversy. The very praise lavished on what has been called ‘a strategic act’ on the part of the apostle, raises doubts in the mind of the seeker after God, whether or no Paul’s action here was right and wise. For instance, the celebrated Roman Catholic expositor Cornelius A. Lapide, builds on it the famous maxim, ‘The war of heretics is the peace of the Church.’ He calls this the only method of maintaining the unity of the Church. Alford’s words here are singularly happy: ‘Surely no defence of Paul for adopting this course is required, but our admiration is due to his skill and presence of mind. Nor need we hesitate to regard such skill as the fulfilment of the promise, that in such an hour the Spirit of Wisdom should suggest words to the accused, which the accuser should not be able to gainsay. All prospect of a fair trial was hopeless. He well knew, from past and present experience, that personal odium would bias his judges, and violence prevail over justice; he therefore uses in the cause of truth the maxim so often perverted to the cause of falsehood, Divide et impera.’

On considering Paul’s words, ‘I am a Pharisee,’ it must not be forgotten that after all, the great doctrine which distinguished the Pharisees of those days was their belief in the resurrection. It was this which really separated them from their rivals the Sadducees. The Pharisee teachers, it has been truly remarked, had given to this doctrine a prominence which it never had before. Many of their noblest members, even leaders, mainly on this account had been secret disciples of our Lord, such as Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea, and possibly the Rabbi Gamaliel. Some seven or eight years before this time we know that already among the members of the Christian Church were many avowed Pharisees (see chap. Acts 15:5). The apostle really said, to use Plumptre’s paraphrase of his words here: ‘I am a Pharisee; yes, 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?’

There was a common ground on which Paul with the Christian teachers and the Pharisees met together, and the apostle longed to lead those who had already grasped a part of the truth yet higher into the regions of gospel light. The hope of the fathers fulfilled by the coming of Jesus the Messiah, and the resurrection of the dead sealed by the resurrection of Christ, these two themes were the groundwork of all Paul’s preaching. We gather from the ‘Acts’ and the inspired Epistles that the Christianity of the first days was founded on the fact of the resurrection of Christ (see 1 Corinthians 15:15-20, where the apostle presses home this argument with what we may dare to term a sublime temerity). Thus Paul in his words, ‘I am a Pharisee .... of the hope and resurrection of the dead I am called in question,’ took his standing on the same platform with his former friends and now jealous and relentless foes the Pharisees. My only crime, he urged with passionate earnestness, is that I preach with a strange success that great doctrine of the resurrection, the maintaining of which at all risks, in an unbelieving and faithless generation, is the reason of existence of the whole Pharisee sect. On that doctrine Paul as a Christian knew how to flash a new strong light, but the ‘teaching’ itself for which he really suffered was only the teaching of the purest Pharisee school.


Verse 7

Acts 23:7. And when he had so said, there arose a dissension between the Pharisees and the Sadducees. The effect of Paul’s words was to suggest to one of the great parties, the Pharisees, that after all, the chief doctrines taught by this man and his fellow-believers were much more akin to their own school of teaching than were the doctrines of their rivals the Sadducees. It would surely never do, thought the Pharisee leaders, to unite with the Sadducees here, and do to death one who really is helping us and doing our work in opposition to those hateful unbelieving Sadducees.


Verse 8

Acts 23:8. For the Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, neither angel, nor spirit; but the Pharisees confess both. The strict accuracy of this description of the author of the ‘Acts’ is borne witness to by Josephus, who tells us, in his Wars of the Jews, that ‘the Sadducees reject the permanence or existence of the soul after death, and the rewards and punishments of an invisible world;’ and in his Antiquities, that ‘the Sadducees hold that the souls of men perish with their bodies.’ The same Jewish writer speaks, on the other hand, of the Pharisees’ opinions in his Antiquities in the following terms: ‘Souls [of men] have an immortal strength, and are destined to be rewarded or punished in another state according to the life here, as it has been one of virtue or vice.’ It has been asked how the alleged unbelief of the Sadducees in angels and spirits can be reconciled with their acknowledgment of the Divine authorship of the Pentateuch, which contains so many accounts of the appearance of angels, which holds so many distinct references to the life of the soul in another state (see, for instance, the words of the Eternal speaking from the burning bush, when He declares Himself to Moses to be the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, though when He thus spoke these patriarchs had been long dead and buried, and we know the Eternal of Hosts was no God of the dead, only of the living; therefore these supposed dead ones must have been, when Moses listened to the voice from the flaming fire, still living, though not among men). Plumptre suggests the following able solution of this surface difficulty: ‘The great body of the higher priestly class were, we know, mere Sadducees (chap. Acts 5:17); and what on these 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. . . . For them the angels of the Pentateuch were not distinct beings, but evanescent manifestations of the Divine glory’—like clouds.


Verse 9

Acts 23:9. The scribes that were of the Pharisees part arose and strove. As a rule the ‘scribes.’ belonged to the sect of Pharisees, as that party reverently attended to the Law and the Prophets, and the multitude of traditions and teachings that had grown up round the sacred writings. These comments and interpretations were especially the charge of the ‘scribe.’ There were, however, some scribes attached to the sceptical Sadducees. They appear here prominently as being men of high culture and learning, and accustomed to argument. They were naturally put forward as the speakers.

We find no evil in this man. The appeal of Paul had found the heart of the Pharisee section in the Sanhedrim. These recognise now that the Christian teacher was not the enemy they should fear: they and Paul had another and a common foe in the sceptic Sadducees.

But if a spirit or an angel hath spoken to him, let us not fight against God. The words ‘let us not fight against God’ do not occur in the most trustworthy and ancient MSS. They .were evidently introduced from the speech of Gamaliel to the Sanhedrim spoken nearly a quarter of a century before (see Acts 5:39), to complete the sentence, which at first sight appears unfinished. Some have supposed the concluding words were drowned in the tumultuous cries of the Sadducees, and were consequently unheard; but the explanation suggested by Dr. Hackett is the most satisfactory, and probably represents the true cause of the seeming abruptness: ‘Undoubtedly a designed aposiopesis. A significant gesture or look toward the Sadducees expressed what was left unsaid: If a spirit spoke to him or an angel—that is not an impossible thing: the matter then assumes importance. For other examples of aposiopesis, see Luke 19:42; Luke 22:42.’ It is possible there is a special reference here to what Paul had said in his speech on the steps of the tower of Antonia concerning the appearance of Jesus to him on the way to Damascus.


Verse 10

Acts 23:10. And when there arose a great dissension, the chief captain, fearing lest Paul should have been pulled in pieces of them, commanded the soldiers to go down. The excitement in the council hall continued to increase. The Sadducees endeavouring to seize him as a blasphemer, the Pharisees laying hold on him to rescue and protect him, the apostle was literally in danger of being torn to pieces. Claudius Lysias, who was present in the assembly, at once intervened and ordered a guard of his soldiers to interpose and bring the accused again into the Roman barracks in Antonia. He felt he was responsible for the safety of one who claimed to be a citizen of Rome.


Verse 11

Acts 23:11. And the night following, the Lard stood by him, and said, Be of good cheer, Paul; for as thou hast testified of me in Jerusalem, so must thou bear witness also at Rome. Probably the Lord Jesus made this revelation to the apostle in a dream. Paul saw his Master standing by him, and heard His comforting cheering words. It was indeed a most solemn crisis in his eventful life. He had but just escaped death, owing his safety on the two preceding days alone to the intervention of the Roman soldiery. He was on the threshold of a prison whence he knew that, owing to the sleepless cunning of the Jewish hierarchy, there would be no going out till the morning of his execution. He had, besides, good reason for feeling very dispirited with the result of the witness he had borne at Jerusalem.

All these gloomy thoughts no doubt weighed on the wearied apostle’s mind as he lay down and tried to sleep that night in the barrack prison-room in Antonia. But the Lord had pity on His harassed servant, and reassured him, telling him that not only would he be preserved in all his present dangers, but that, improbable as it then seemed, he would live to bear his gallant testimony in distant Rome—in Rome where he had so long and so earnestly desired to labour. ‘So may one crumb of Divine grace and help be multiplied to feed 5000 wants and anxieties’ (Alford). Paul’s voice, so said his Master to him, was to be heard in the two capitals of the world—in Jerusalem the metropolis of the religious, and in Rome the metropolis of the civil world. The results of his preaching in each of these centres deserve attention. In Jerusalem, Paul’s mission was a complete failure: his words there were spoken to the winds, they were written upon the sand; but when Paul left Jerusalem, the days of the city were numbered. In about ten years from the day when his pleading voice was drowned by the execrations in the temple, and a few hours later in the Sanhedrim hall, not one stone of the doomed city was left on another. In Rome he helped to build up a flourishing church. His presence had been long looked for in the great metropolis; and when the sovereignty of the world was lost to the imperial city, the once despised religion of Paul and his companions restored to the Rome which had welcomed him and received his message, a new and even grander empire than the proudest of the early Cæsars had ruled over. The words of the Master in the vision were indeed fulfilled—fulfilled, too, in that deeper sense which the solemn word ‘to bear witness’ was beginning to assume in the familiar language of Christians.

Paul would be preserved to help in laying the foundation stories of the Roman Church; and besides this, the day was not so far distant when the veteran soldier of Christ should again bear his true loyal witness to the Master, when in the martyr’s painful death he should pass to his rest at Rome.


Verse 12

The Jews now conspire against the Life of PaulThe Romans, alarmed for his Safety, send him strongly guarded to Cæsarea, the Headquarters of their Power in those Parts, 12-35.

Acts 23:12. And when it was day, certain of the Jews banded together, and bound themselves under a cone, saying that they would neither eat nor drink till they had killed Paul. ‘The contrast is great between the peaceful assurance thus secretly given to the faith of the apostle in his place of imprisonment and the active malignity of his enemies in the city’ (Howson, St. Paul). The Jews here alluded to were doubtless composed of Paul’s bitter foes from Asia then present in Jerusalem for the Pentecostal feast, together with his Sadducæan opponents. It is more than probable that a considerable number of these Jews belonged to that wild and fanatic association which played so prominent a part in the Holy Land in the last years of Jerusalem—the Sicarii or assassins. These violent men bound themselves with a dreadful oath (kherem, חֵדֶם, ἀνάθεμα), that is, they invoked the curse of God upon themselves in the event of their violating their vow, binding themselves neither to eat nor drink until they had murdered Paul, the enemy of their race. In the case of such fearful vows, by no means uncommon in that wild time of disorder and hatred, the Talmud, however, provided a loophole of escape for those who so rashly took this burden on themselves; they furnished the means of releasing the man from the vow and the curse, if the carrying it out in its entirety became impossible: ‘He that hath vowed not to eat anything, woe to him if he eat, and woe to him if he eat not: if he eat, he sinneth against his vow; if he eat not, he sinneth against his life. What must one do in such a case? Let him approach the wise ones, and they will release him from his vow, as it is written, “The tongue of the wise is health,” Proverbs 12:18’ (from the Talmud, quoted by Lightfoot, Horae Heb. et Talm.). The above is a fair specimen of the casuistry of the Jewish doctors.


Verse 14

Acts 23:14. And they came to the chief priests and elders, and said, We have bound ourselves under a great curse, that we will eat nothing till we have slain Paul. No doubt the party of religious assassins went to that group of the Sanhedrim known as bitterly hostile to Paul. We have no definite information which would tell us that Ananias the high priest was a Sadducee; but from our knowledge that by far the greater number of the priests in high position at that time belonged to that sect, and also from the tone of rancorous hatred assumed by Ananias towards Paul when he was arraigned before the council, we may conclude with some certainty that he did belong to that party, and was one of ‘the chief priests’ to whom the conspirators came.


Verse 15

Acts 23:15. Now therefore ye with the council signify to the chief captain that he bring him down unto you tomorrow . . . and we, or ever he come near, are ready to kill him. This seems at first sight a strange story, that so monstrous a design should have been conceived and communicated to the chief priests and elders,—to the leading members, in fact, of the august council of the Sanhedrim,—and positively should have received the approval of these venerable men; ay, more than their approval, their hearty concurrence and the promise of their assistance. Still, strange as it may seem, it was in perfect accordance with the practice of the leading members of the Jewish state in these unhappy days. We read, for instance, in the Antiquities of Josephus, how zealots of Jerusalem had conspired together to assassinate Herod the Great because he had built an amphitheatre and celebrated games in the Holy City. Philo, the famous Alexandrian Jew, who wrote in this age, and may be taken as a fair exponent of the views of morality which were held in the first century of the Christian era in the great Jewish schools, thus writes: ‘It is highly proper that all who have a zeal for virtue should have a right to punish with their own hands without delay those who are guilty of this crime’ [that is, forsaking what the orthodox Jew considered the worship of the true God] . . . ‘not carrying them before any magistrate, but that they should indulge the abhorrence of evil and the love of God which they entertain, by inflicting immediate punishment on such impious apostates—regarding themselves for the time as all things . . . judges . . . accusers, witnesses, the laws, the people; so that, hindered by nothing, they may without fear and with all promptitude espouse the cause of piety’ (Philo, quoted by Dr. Hackett). ‘It is melancholy,’ writes Professor Plumptre, ‘to remember how often the casuistry of Christian theologians has run in the same groove. In this respect the Jesuit teaching absolves subjects from their allegiance to heretical rulers, and the practical issue of that teaching in the history of the Gunpowder Plot and of the murders perpetrated by Clement (Henry 111.) and by Ravaillac (Henry IV.) presents only too painful a parallel.’


Verse 16

Acts 23:16. And when Paul’s sister’s son heard of their lying in wait, he went and entered into the castle, and told Paul. It is singular that this is the only mention in the ‘Acts’ of any of Paul’s relations. We hear nothing further of this young man. It is not probable that he or his mother-Paul’s sister—was resident in the Holy City, otherwise the apostle would hardly have lodged with Mnason during the visit (chap. Acts 21:16). It is more likely that, as Paul had been years before, so his nephew now was a stranger student, perhaps from Tarsus, in the great Jerusalem schools; and that there he had heard the plot against the arch-traitor to the old customs of Judaism, as some termed him, discussed.

There were evidently many belonging to the family of the missionary apostle. We know there were some dwelling at Tarsus; here at Jerusalem we meet with his nephew; at Rome, we also read in two passages of his kinsmen (Romans 16:7; Romans 16:11).

Apparently there was no difficulty of access to Paul in his temporary imprisonment in Antonia. Here, as in several other places, the courtesy of the higher Roman officials towards the seemingly friendless and persecuted missionary is noticeable. See especially Acts 16:33; Acts 24:23; Acts 26:32; Acts 27:3; Acts 28:30.


Verse 17

Acts 23:17. Then Paul called one of the centurions unto him, and said, Bring this young man unto the chief captain. Attention has been justly called here to the fact that, although Paul had just received the Divine promise of protection in all these present dangers, yet he neglected none of the ordinary means of safety which were presented to him, evidently looking on them as the saving hand of the Lord stretched out to him. There was nothing of wild unreasoning enthusiasm in the great missionary apostle.


Verse 18

Acts 23:18. Paul the prisoner called me unto him, and prayed me, etc. The ‘prisoner;’ the Greek word signifies ‘one bound.’ We may conclude, that Paul was fastened by a chain to the arm of a soldier. As a Roman citizen he was in custodia militaris. ‘We may well believe that at this time he little thought how long that name (of the prisoner) 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; Philem. Acts 23:1; Acts 23:9’ (Plumptre).


Verse 19

Acts 23:19. Then the chief captain took him by the hand. It is evident that the Roman commander was favourably impressed with something in Paul’s bearing, and probably with his words. He was clearly glad to be able in any way to assist him. His sympathies are evidently with Paul, not with his priestly foes, as years before Pilate’s had been with another prisoner greater than Paul.

Claudius Lysias listens carefully to the story of the plot as it was detailed to him by Paul’s sister’s son, and is at once convinced of the truth of the information. To avoid the necessity of any further explanation with the Sanhedrim, he makes immediate preparation for sending the prisoner, who had evidently incurred such deep hatred at the hands of the turbulent and seditious Jews, under cover of the night, to the Roman headquarters at Cæsarea, where resided an official of the highest rank. The custody and the ultimate disposal of such an important prisoner as Paul evidently was, the commander of the Jerusalem garrison felt ought to be in the hands of one armed with far greater authority than was possessed by the simple commander of a thousand.


Verse 23

Acts 23:23. And he called unto him two centurions, saying, Make ready two hundred soldiers to go to Cæsarea, and horsemen threescore and ten, and spearmen two hundred, at the third hour of the night. Four hundred and seventy soldiers seems to have been a large force to have guarded a single prisoner from the murderous design of forty Sicarii, but the disturbed uneasy state of the entire country must be borne in mind, and the Roman commander in Antonia was perplexed and alarmed about the whole matter. He suspected there was more in the charge against Paul than met the eye, and was anxious to deliver the accused safe into the hands of the superior authority at Cæsarea. The fact, too, of the Roman citizenship of the prisoner, whose death was evidently earnestly desired by the Jewish Sanhedrim, made him more cautious. This large and powerful escort was to set out in all secrecy, when it was dark, at the third hour of the night,—that is, nine o’clock in the evening,—as Claudius Lysias desired, if possible, to avoid any collision with the zealots and their supporters in the supreme council. There is some doubt as to the meaning of the Greek word translated ‘spearmen’ δεξιολά βους), rendered in the Vulgate lancearios, as the term is never found in any Greek writings before the time of Constantine Porphyro-genitus, who makes use of it hundreds of years later to describe some light-armed troops. Some commentators, arguing from the meaning of the words with which the term is compounded, have supposed that they were a body-guard who protected the right side of the commanding officer, others that they were military lictors. Ewald suggests they were Arabian auxiliaries attached to the Roman forces in Judæa, Arabia being famous for its slingers. On the whole, our English translation ‘spearmen,’ which reproduces the Vulgate lancearii, is likely to be correct.


Verse 24

Acts 23:24. And bring him safe unto Felix the governor. The career of this powerful and unprincipled man, who, owing to his meeting with the despised Jew Paul, has obtained a conspicuous niche in history, is principally interesting to us as affording a good instance of the way in which high position and great dignity were acquired under the rule of the Cæsars in the first and second centuries of the Christian era. Felix and his brother Pallas were originally slaves, and then freedmen in the house of a noble Roman lady, Antonia, mother of the Emperor Claudius. Pallas became the favourite and subsequently minister of the emperor. He procured for his brother Felix the important post of procurator of Judæa about A.D. 52. The historian Tacitus writes of him as one who, trusting to his brother’s powerful influence at court, knew he could commit any wrong with impunity. He was notoriously avaricious, cruel, and licentious, but withal a man of great energy and talent, wielding, however, as Tacitus tells us, ‘the power of a tyrant with the temper of a slave.’ According to Josephus, he was one of the most corrupt and oppressive governors ever despatched from Rome to rule over Judæa. Suetonius, in his history of Claudius, mentions this Roman official as the ‘husband (in succession) of three queens:’—(1) Drusilla, the daughter of Juba, king of Mauritania, and Selene, the daughter of Antony and Cleopatra. (2) Another princess of the same name—Drusilla—the daughter of Herod Agrippa I., and sister of Herod Agrippa II.; she left her first husband Azizus, king of Emesa, to marry Felix. The name of the third royal lady who married this Roman is unknown.

Felix reigned over Judæa some seven or eight years until he was recalled by Nero, who replaced him by Festus, A.D. 60. He owed his deposition to the fall of his brother Pallas, who was subsequently put to death, A.D. 63.


Verse 25-26

Acts 23:25-26. He wrote a letter after this manner: Claudius Lysias unto the most excellent governor Felix sendeth greeting. This was in strict accordance with the Roman law, which directed a subordinate official, in sending a prisoner to the higher authority for trial, to send a written statement, termed an ‘elogium,’ of the whole case. On this occasion, the ‘elogium’ was rather a letter in favour of Paul than a formal accusation. ‘The most excellent’ ( τῷ κρατί στῳ) was the official title which was usually given to a governor holding the office of Felix. Tertullus the orator thus addresses the procurator in court (chap. Acts 24:3), and Paul, Festus (chap. Acts 26:25). In his dedication of the Gospel, Luke prefixes the same title to Theophilus (Luke 1:3).


Verse 27

Acts 23:27. Then came I with an army, and rescued him, having understood that he was a Roman. This is distinctly a false statement of the facts as they stood. The commander in Antonia wished his superior, Felix, to think that he had interfered on the prisoner’s behalf because he found Paul was a Roman citizen; but, in truth, he did not interpose until after Paul had been chained up to be scourged by his own orders. A desire to exhibit his zeal in the public service induced him to write this distorted view of the facts as they occurred. He evidently wished to throw a veil over the grave fault he had committed in ordering a Roman citizen to be scourged. Meyer well calls attention here to the evidence for the genuineness of the letter afforded by this comparatively trivial circumstance. The English Version, ‘having come with an army, ‘is not happy; it is better rendered ‘with my soldiery,’ or ‘with the guard.’


Verse 29

Acts 23:29. Whom I perceived to be accused of questions of their law, but to have nothing laid to his charge worthy of death or of bonds. Death the highest, and bonds the lowest penalty of the law. Thus Claudius Lysias for his part, from a Roman’s point of view, expressed his belief in Paul’s innocency—a similar testimony was borne him by all his Roman judges, and also by King Herod Agrippa. The questions of their law in the Roman commander’s view were that this stranger had been in some way or other violating the rules of the great temple of Jerusalem, and had been asserting that he had seen and conversed with a hated Teacher whose death by crucifixion many years previously had been brought about by the Sanhedrim. This dead Rabbi, Paul affirmed, was alive, having risen from the dead. But, thought Claudius Lysias, a Roman citizen surely did not deserve death, or even bonds, for such trivial offences.


Verse 30

Acts 23:30. And when it was told me how that the Jews laid wait for the man, I sent straightway to thee. ‘Though I thought him innocent,’ writes Claudius Lysias, ‘yet, hearing of this further plot against the life of a Roman citizen, I judged it wise to refer the whole matter to you, the chief authority in Judæa, as the affair may be more serious than I have deemed it to be.’ The soldier evidently suspected the affair of Paul was mixed up with some movement against the Roman power.


Verse 31

Acts 23:31. Then the soldiers, as it was commanded them, took Paul, and brought him by night to Antipatris. This was the ancient Caphar Saba (town of Saba), and was built by Herod the Great, and then named after his father Antipater. It is about ten miles from Lydia. This town is forty Roman miles from Jerusalem. The escort probably arrived there on the day following the night on which they left the tower of Antonia. There were twenty-six miles still to be travelled before they reached Cæsarea.


Verse 32

Acts 23:32. On the morrow they left the horsemen to go with him, and returned to the castle. That is to say, on the morrow after they arrived at Antipatris. Here the foot-soldiers returned to the Jerusalem garrison. As the prisoner had been escorted forty miles from Jerusalem, there was no longer anything to dread from the Sicarii of the plot, and the party of seventy horse were an amply sufficient guard for the remaining twenty-six miles. These were, we read, safely travelled, and Paul was presented to the procurator Felix at Cæsarea.


Verse 34

Acts 23:34. He asked of what province he was. Felix was not the principal Roman official in that part of the Empire. The proconsul of Syria bore supreme authority over Judæa. Felix was procurator or deputy of Judæa under that great official. The powers, however, of the procurators were considerable. Still, in the matter of trying a Roman citizen, accused by so mighty a body as the Jewish Sanhedrim, Felix deemed it expedient to inquire respecting the nationality of the prisoner, as it might have been desirable to have sent him at once to the seat of the government of some other procurator or proconsul. Compare the procurator Pilate’s action in sending our Lord, a Galilean, to be judged of Herod, Luke 23:6-7. When he heard he was from Cilicia, he determined to try him at once in Cæsarea. The political motives which induced him to retain a Cilician in Judæa are to us now unknown.


Verse 35

Acts 23:35. I will hear thee, said he, when thine accusers are also come. The Greek word rendered ‘I will hear,’ suggests the idea of a complete and searching investigation into all the matters in question.

And he commanded him to be kept in Herod’s judgment hall. Better rendered ‘in Herod’s praetorium.’ This was the palace built by Herod the Great for his own residence; it now was used as the official dwelling of the Roman governor. Most likely some portion of it was set apart as the lodgings of state prisoners. We know later that during the imprisonment at Cæsarea, Paul had many privileges rarely accorded to one in his condition. His friends were allowed to visit him as they pleased (chap. Acts 24:23). He was, we must remember, a Roman prisoner and uncondemned; nor is it improbable that secretly the hostility of the chief priests and Sanhedrim pleaded for him with Felix.

 


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Bibliography Information
Schaff, Philip. "Commentary on Acts 23:4". "Schaff's Popular Commentary on the New Testament". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/scn/acts-23.html. 1879-90.

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