Paul’s defence before Felix the procurator
70 CE to 130 CE
Title of work:
Acts of the Apostles
Keywords in the original language:
Thematic keywords in English:
In this passage Paul stands before the Roman procurator, Antonius Felix (52-60 CE), defending himself against charges brought against him several days before (verse 11) by some Asian Jews, who in Acts 21 incited a Jewish crowd in Jerusalem into seizing Paul while he was in the Temple. Paul is here responding to Tertullus, the hired orator who represents the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem (on Tertullus’s speech, see Brian Rapske, The Book of Acts and Paul in Roman Custody, p. 158-163). As Stanley Porter recognises, there are five elements to Paul’s defence speech: 1) his direct address of the governor, Felix, 2) his statement that he is going to defend himself, 3) a description of Paul’s history, 4) an emphasis on God’s role in these events, and 5) a mention of the resurrection (The Paul of Acts, p. 154-158). Unlike Tertullus, whose speech flatters Felix at some length, Paul simply states that he is happy to be able to present his case to the governor, whom he knows has judged the region for some years. Paul’s statement of ‘happiness’ might simply be an attempt to gain favour with Felix, or perhaps reflects the fact that Felix was perceived as a fair and neutral judge by the Jews in his region (see Gottfried Schille, Die Apostelgeschichte, p. 432). It is also perhaps noteworthy here that Felix was married to Drusilla, the daughter of the Jewish client king Herod Agrippa I (see Josephus, Jewish Antiquities XVII.1.2), and that the local Jews therefore felt as though they had something of a link with the governor. This said, expressing confidence in the ability of one’s judge/s was a common rhetorical practice (for various supporting citations, see Craig Keener, Acts, p. 3390-3391).
The charges levelled against Paul, particularly that he stirred up the Jewish people, would have been something that Felix needed to take seriously – indeed, we know of Felix quashing several rebellions during his administration (for details, see Bruce Winter, “The Importance of the Captatio Beneuolentiae,” p. 516-519). Paul recounts his recent troubles to Felix, stating what it was that he did not do in Jerusalem – i.e. disputing with others and causing riots, despite what he is now being accused of (verse 12). What Paul does admit, however, is that his troubles are due to his commitment to “the Way” (ὁδός, i.e. Christianity, although not specifically named as such here), and that he had gone to Jerusalem initially to give a gift to his “people” - ἔθνος (verse 17) (it is uncertain as to whether this gift is that which Paul refers to in his letters: e.g. Romans 15: 26, 2 Corinthians 8:13, 9:9-12 – see Gottfried Schille, Die Apostelgeschichte, p. 434). It may be that by mentioning the giving of alms to Paul’s own people (implying the Jewish community) that the author intends to reduce tension and weaken the accusations of Paul as a perverter of Judaism. However, it is likely that this gift would have actually gone to Jewish converts to Christianity. It is interesting that Paul does not specifically mention Jesus in his defence speech. Rather, he speaks of God’s will and his own duty to maintain a clear conscience, and serve Him who lies behind the law and the prophets (verses 14-16) (see Stanley Porter, The Paul of Acts, p. 157). The Lukan author has Paul make clear here, therefore, that in his own mind at least, he has not abandoned Judaism (see Harry Tajra, The Trial of St Paul, p. 127).
Paul argues that his Asian Jewish accusers are essentially mistaken, and have no solid proof for the crimes of which they accuse him (verses 19-21). He states that it is simply untrue that when he first entered the Temple there was unrest among the crowds – the Jerusalem Jews only began to protest against him when the Jews from Asia incited them to do so. For this reason, these Asian Jews should have come personally to Felix themselves to give testimony, instead of having the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem do it for them. The only issue that Paul cites for the Jerusalem council’s continued pursuit of the cause began by the Asian Jews is that while standing before them he spoke about the resurrection of the dead (verse 21). Again, he does not specifically mention Jesus in this regard, and it was not a criminal offence in either Jewish law or Roman law to argue about this matter (see Luke Johnson, Acts, p. 414). This statement about the resurrection, however, is what causes Felix to interject, and Luke simply tells us that Felix had some accurate knowledge of “the Way” (ὁδός) (verse 22), which Paul states is labelled a “sect” (αἵρεσις) by his Asian Jewish accusers, who saw Paul’s beliefs as a perversion of Judaism (it should be noted that despite the pejorative overtones that the term “sect” has come to carry, in this instance it is not intended in such a negative sense). It is uncertain as to whether Felix interrupts here, stating that he wants to consult with the tribune, Lysias, because he was convinced that Paul’s accusers did not have sufficient evidence (Adrian Sherwin-White, Roman Society and Roman Law, p. 52-53), or because he knew that the issue of the resurrection rendered Paul’s case one belonging to religious factionalism, rather than Roman law (Brian Rapske, The Book of Acts and Paul in Roman Custody, p. 164-167). Either way, unlike in some of Paul’s other speeches in Acts (see Acts 22:22; 26:24-28), the interruption is not “hostile or reactive,” but rather seems to be based in something substantive (Stanley Porter, The Paul of Acts, p. 157). It may be that the Lukan author has Paul shift from political to theological grounds for the accusations against him in order to imply that the accusers are being disingenuous, their hostility to Paul being grounded not in Paul’s behaviour, but in their disagreement with his theology (see Craig Keener, Acts, p. 3421).
The passage concludes with Felix having Paul kept in custody (although with access to his friends), and the governor and his Jewish wife summoning Paul to talk with him about his beliefs (verses 23-24). Luke’s overall portrayal of Felix in this passage is not overwhelmingly negative, but the accusation of his hope for a bribe (χρῆμα) (verse 26) certainly does not give the reader the impression that he is of good character (for Horace, Satires II.2, corrupt judges are incapable of examining their case properly; see Craig Keener, Acts, p. 3437-3442 for a detailed discussion of bribery and corruption in the Roman legal context, particularly amongst governors). Unsurprisingly, Paul does not offer money to his captor, instead taking the opportunity to speak about his faith in his frequent meetings with Felix, with the Lukan author thereby further insinuating not only the superior character of Paul to the governor (who is afraid when he hears Paul speak about issues of morality and justice), but also that it is indeed Paul’s theology and preaching that present the greatest issue to his opponents, not any political wrongdoing. By ending the account of Paul’s defence with Paul teaching the governor about his beliefs, the false charges of inciting Jewish rebellion somewhat fade into the background, just like the Asian Jewish accusers who have failed to appear before Felix.