Exploring the Book of Acts Chapter 23
“In all good conscience” (Acts 23:1-2)
Luke dispensed with any introductory material in his narration of Paul’s attempted defense before the Sanhedrin. He presented no charges or evidence, and what we have is but a brief summary of the occasion. The readers already know what sparked the riot and the Jews’ original accusations (21:28). General charges will later be presented against Paul before Felix (24:5-7).
When Luke opened the scene, Paul was standing before the Sanhedrin, ready to make his defense. “My brothers,” he said, “I have fulfilled my duty to God in all good conscience to this day…” (23:1). Paul was again maintaining he was still a good Jew, even though he had become a Christian. The idea of a “conscience” (Greek, syneidesis) is something that Paul alone of New Testament writers spoke about (Romans 2:15; 9:1; 13:5; 1 Corinthians 8:7, 10, 12; 10:25, 27-29; 2 Corinthians 1:12; 4:2; 5:11). For Paul, the “conscience” was the moral aspect of one’s awareness and thinking. The aim of a Christian life was to live with a pure, good or clean conscience before God (1 Timothy 1:5, 19; 3:9; 2 Timothy 1:3).
Apparently the high priest didn’t agree that Paul had fulfilled his duty before God. (Perhaps he didn’t appreciate Paul’s pronouncing the divine name, especially in support of himself.) Whatever the reason, the high priest was so bothered by Paul’s claim that he ordered those standing nearby to slap him on the mouth (23:2). The high priest in this case was Ananias. He had received his office from one of the Herods in about A.D. 47, and held his position for about 12 years. He was known for his greed. Josephus accused him of embezzling the tithes of the ordinary priests and for handing out lavish bribes (Antiquities 20:205-207, 213).
Ananias was hated by Jewish nationalists because of his pro-Roman policies. They burned his home in A.D. at the beginning of the Jewish-Roman war. Then, the nationalists hunted him down and he was killed along with his brother (Josephus, Wars 2:426, 441-442, 448).
“Whitewashed wall” (Acts 23:3)
Caught off guard, and stung by the command, Paul lashed back at the high priest, “God will strike you, you whitewashed wall!” he said. “You sit there to judge me according to the law, yet you yourself violate the law by commanding that I be struck!” (23:3). Paul had not been tried and found guilty of any infraction of Jewish law. He hadn’t even been officially charged with any infraction. For him to be struck as though he was guilty of a crime violated the very law the high priest claimed to uphold.
The phrase “whitewashed wall” referred to a person who was a hypocrite, as the high priest had shown himself to be. Ananias claimed to uphold the law but he was trampling all over Paul’s rights according to that law. Compare this with Jesus’ evaluation of the teachers of the law and Pharisees, whom he called “whitewashed tombs” (Matthew 23:27-28).
Some commentators seem surprised by Paul’s sharp reply. They note that it contradicts the spirit of Jesus’ call to turn the other cheek (Matthew 5:39) as well as Paul’s own advice to bless when cursed (1 Corinthians 4:12). But the problem exists only if we think of Paul as some quasi-divine person who had achieved sinless perfection. That is not the way Paul spoke of himself (Romans 8:9-25). The simple answer is that Paul was a human being who sinned, as we all do. Paul was an emotional individual, a reactive person. This is not the only time Paul was guilty of saying something cutting and passionate (1 Corinthians 11:19; Galatians 2:11; 5:12; Philippians 3:2). Here he momentarily lost his composure. Though he spoke the truth about Ananias, it was probably not something he would have said under more ideal circumstances.
We should not forget that Jesus in a similar situation also protested the action of the high priest Annas, who had slapped him (John 18:21-23). (Luke was drawing a parallel between the two events.) Jesus also spoke out in biting terms against the corruption and hypocrisy of the Jewish teachers (Matthew 23:13-33).
“Insult God’s high priest?” (Acts 23:4-5)
Those standing next to Paul said, “How dare you insult God’s high priest!” Paul said: “Brothers, I did not realize that he was the high priest; for it is written [in Exodus 22:28]: ‘Do not speak evil about the ruler of your people’” (23:5). It seems unusual that Paul should have failed to recognize the high priest. He presided at regular meetings of the Sanhedrin, and he should have been identifiable. The answer may be that this was not a regular meeting, and that someone else other than the high priest was presiding. Paul may not have known the high priest at the time by sight. He had been in Jerusalem only a few times in the past two decades or so. Meanwhile, the office had passed to another individual with whom he may not have been familiar (or whose appearance had changed over the years.
Another answer sometimes given is that Paul’s eye condition caused him to have poor vision. A less convincing answer is that Paul was speaking ironically. That is, he would be saying, “I didn’t think that the kind of person who would order me struck contrary to the law could be the high priest.”
In any case, Paul quickly apologized. Even his apology showed that he continued to live by the principles of Torah and according to the law. Since the Scripture condemned speaking evil of the high priest, no matter what his character, Paul admitted that he had erred.
Paul divides the Council (Acts 23:6)
Paul’s speech had been cut short by the action of the high priest. He must have realized that it was pointless to make any further defense before a council headed by someone of the likes of Ananias. Instead of going on, Paul suddenly thought of a different strategy. He realized how he could pit the council against itself. Luke described Paul’s tactic: “Then Paul, knowing that some of them were Sadducees and the other Pharisees, called out in the Sanhedrin, ‘My brothers, I am a Pharisee, descended from Pharisees. I stand on trial because of the hope of the resurrection of the dead’” (23:6).
Luke had already defined the Sadducees, one of the major Jewish sects of the time, as a group “who say there is no resurrection” (Luke 20:27). Josephus, who briefly described the three major groupings of the Judaism of the time—Essenes, Pharisees and Sadducees—said the latter believed that the soul died with the body (Antiquities 18:16). Hence, there would be no resurrection. The Pharisees, however, believed in a resurrection (23:8). Josephus also attested to this. Those who “have lived virtuously” the Pharisees believed “shall have power to revive and live again” (Antiquities 18:14; Wars 2:164-165). Many references in rabbinic writings also attest to their belief in the resurrection.
This is the first time Paul was identified in the book of Acts as being a member of the Pharisaic sect. He will again be so identified in 26:5. Paul also spoke of himself as a Pharisee in his epistle to the Philippians (3:5). We might think it strange that Paul, a Christian, would still speak of being a Pharisee. But like many other Christian Jews, he saw no contradiction in doing so. He even “boasted” of his background to the church because false apostles were comparing themselves to him (2 Corinthians 11:22). When it came to salvation, however, Paul saw no particular value in his Pharisaic background (Philippians 3:4-9).
A Christian Pharisee would have a different view of the role of Jewish institutions such as the law and temple. The most important thing that divided Christian and non-Christian Pharisee was whether to accept or reject Jesus as Messiah and Savior.
Hope of resurrection (Acts 23:6)
Paul’s appeal to the resurrection was more than just a hope in the raising of the dead as a general belief. There is no resurrection without Jesus, so the true hope is really one that is centered in him. The question for Paul, then, was whether Jesus had been raised. We see this interest in Jesus’ resurrection at various places in Acts. It began with Peter’s speech at Pentecost (2:24, 31-33) and was found in Paul’s earliest preaching in Pisidian Antioch (13:30-35). For Paul, the resurrection of Christ was the basis of hope—and the good news—that Christians also would be raised to immortal life (1 Corinthians 15:1-4, 12-20).
In a sense, Paul was the true Pharisee in terms of believing in a resurrection of the just. The ultimate ancestral hope of Israel was bound up with the resurrection of the dead, when rightly understood. But for Paul, the belief in the general resurrection was dependent on understanding and accepting that Jesus had been raised from the dead and glorified.
A dispute broke out (Acts 23:7-10)
Paul kept this all in the background when he yelled out that he was on trial because of his hope in the resurrection. His immediate interest was not to preach about Christ (now obviously hopeless) but to divide the council, something he succeeded in doing. His tactic, apparently based on a sudden impulse, caused a dispute to break out between the Pharisees and Sadducees (23:7). The assembly was divided and there was “a great uproar” (23:9). Some of the Pharisees even began to defend Paul. They said, “We find nothing wrong with this man…. What if a spirit or an angel has spoken to him?” (23:9).
The Pharisees and Sadducees were not on the best of terms to begin with. The Sadducees had little public support, so they had to acquiesce to the Pharisees on many occasions. This gave some power to the Pharisees, although they were a minority on the Council. The Pharisees had more in common with the messianic Christians and might, on occasion, feel a degree of kinship with them. It was the Sadducean group, including the high priestly families, that seemed to form the most virulent opposition to the Christians.
On this occasion, Paul claimed to be a Pharisee. The Pharisees may have suspected that the Sadducees were trying to discredit their position by trying Paul on beliefs they held. The Pharisees may also have surmised that Paul was not that bad a character, given his background in Torah. One might conclude that Luke was painting the Pharisees in a good light. But this is not necessarily so, as we saw in our discussion of Gamaliel. True enough, the Pharisees may have had some beliefs right, and might counsel a more moderate course. However, their response to Jesus as Savior was non-committal at best, as it had been earlier (5:34-39). They may have defended Paul, but they did not accept Jesus.
Paul was able to use the disagreements and differences in viewpoint between Sadducees and Pharisees to good advantage. The dispute between the two groups became so violent that Lysias, the commander, was fearful that his prisoner would be hurt. Lysias ordered a detachment of troops to take Paul from the council by force and bring him into the barracks (23:10). Paul was now taken into protective custody by the Roman authority. For the rest of Acts, for a period in excess of four years, Paul would remain a prisoner of the Romans.
“Testify in Rome” (Acts 23:11)
The situation must have seemed bleak to Paul. He had been warned over and over again that he would face dire troubles in Jerusalem. He had barely survived three attempts on his life in just a couple of days or so (21:31; 22:22; 23:10). That his life would end in Jerusalem must have seemed like a likely possibility. Jesus had spoken about a Jerusalem that killed the prophets and stoned those whom God had sent to its people (Matthew 23:37). Paul himself had seen and applauded the death of Stephen in this city. Now, it must have seemed that his turn to be killed had come.
But in one of the darkest nights of his life, Jesus appeared to Paul and said, “Take courage! As you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome” (23:11). As during other critical moments of Paul’s ministry and life, God gave him special reassurance through a vision (9:4; 16:9; 18:9-10; 22:17; 27:23). Earlier, Paul had voiced his desire to visit Rome (19:21). The vision shows that Paul had Christ’s approval in his desire to move the center of his preaching westward to Rome.
Now, Paul was certain that he would get to Rome after all. We as readers can breathe a sigh of relief. We know Paul will somehow escape this perilous situation, no matter how many twists and turns it may take.
Plot on Paul’s life (Acts 23:12-22)
A comforting vision in Corinth had been given to Paul just before the Jews made a united attack on him. The attempted persecution proved totally unsuccessful. Now, another vision that told Paul he would escape Jerusalem with his life came just hours before conspirators hatched another plot to kill him.
In the morning following the vision, more than 40 fanatical Jews bound themselves with a solemn oath not to eat or drink until they had killed Paul (23:12). They went to the Sanhedrin asking it to petition the commander to bring Paul before the council on a pretext that it needed to gather more information about his case (23:15). The conspirators would lay in ambush and kill Paul as he was being transferred from the Antonia barracks to the place where the Sanhedrin was meeting. Jerusalem’s narrow and winding streets would make the assassination easier.
Presumably, the chief priest was willing to go along with the plot, which shows something of his violent and evil character. He represented the epitome of the Jewish opposition, which was shown to be irrevocably antagonistic to Paul, and willing to use any means possible to “rid the earth of him” (22:22). Since Paul preached Christ, the chief priest had shown himself to be against the very Savior that his religion’s holy writings had spoken of.
Luke skillfully juxtaposed God’s promise with the conspirator’s desperate plot. There is an element of humor in Luke’s telling of what was a very serious story. The conspirators had such high hopes for finally doing away with Paul and had devised what they thought was a brilliant plot. But God had already worked out events so that Paul would escape. The plotters still had no idea that their scheme would fail, but we the readers do.
As it happened, Paul’s nephew heard about the plot. He went to the Antonia barracks and told Paul about it (23:16). We don’t know how Paul’s nephew learned about the conspiracy, especially since we know nothing about him personally. Perhaps he or a member of his family was connected to the Sanhedrin or others who may have known about the plot. The fact that Paul’s nephew was allowed access to the fortress, and to speak with Paul, argues that the family had some influence in Jerusalem. In any case, Paul’s nephew was risking his own safety in going to see him.
After Paul heard about the plot, he called a centurion, asking him to take his nephew to the commander with the story. Paul’s nephew then told the commander of the plot to kill Paul (23:20-21). The commander dismissed the young man, cautioning him not to tell anyone what he had reported (23:22). The commander immediately began preparations to transfer Paul under guard to Caesarea. Thus, the Jewish plot failed.
We may wonder what happened to the 40 men who had vowed not to eat or drink until they killed Paul. Rabbinic custom would allow such vow-takers an escape clause. The rabbis provided relief from vows that were “broken under constraint.” The example given in the Mishnah is that of a person who imposed a vow on a friend to eat with him. However, the friend became sick or he couldn’t cross an overflowed river. Such unforeseen “constraints” freed him of the vow (Nedarim 3.1, 3). In short, if circumstances prevented one from fulfilling a vow, then he or she was absolved from it. In this case, the plotters couldn’t get at Paul because he was protected by the military and sent away. Thus, they were excused from their vow not to eat or drink.
Paul at Caesarea (Acts 23:23-26:32)
Transfer to Caesarea (Acts 23:23-24)
The commander could not risk having a prominent Roman citizen assassinated while in his custody. He at once took steps to transfer Paul to Caesarea, the capital of the province of Judea. He called two centurions and commanded them to organize a detachment of 200 foot soldiers, 70 cavalry troops and another 200 heavily armed soldiers (spearmen) to escort Paul to Caesarea Maritima, about 60 miles northwest of Jerusalem. Paul and the contingent were to leave under the cover of darkness, at 9 p.m. that very night. “Horses” (in the plural) were to be provided for Paul (23:24). This probably referred to a horse for Paul to ride and another one for his baggage. Some make the intriguing suggestion that the plural meant that some of his friends, like Luke, were going to Caesarea with Paul.
If the commander had 1,000 troops under his authority, he was committing almost half the Jerusalem garrison to escort Paul. This may seem “a ridiculously large escort for a single prisoner” (I. Howard Marshall, Acts, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, page 369). Perhaps the soldiers needed to go to Caesarea anyway. However, since the Greek word for “spearman” translates an otherwise unknown Greek word, some scholars suggest that they were in reality horses. But this is merely a conjecture.
Whether there were 270 or 470 soldiers in the detachment, Lysias was not taking any chances of having his prisoner murdered by a group of fanatics. Meanwhile, the plotters were still waiting for word that Lysias had granted the Sanhedrin’s wish to question Paul again.
“He wrote a letter” (Acts 23:25-30)
Lysias wrote a letter about the prisoner to Felix, governor of the province of Judea. The centurions were to take the letter to Caesarea with Paul. We may not have a word-for-word copy of the letter. It would have been difficult, at least under ordinary circumstances, for Luke to have seen a copy of what was a “top secret” piece of official correspondence. The letter almost certainly was written in Latin. David Williams writes, “Its realistic style makes it possible that Luke had seen it [the letter about Paul] or at least heard it read, perhaps in open court before Felix. Or a copy may have been given to Paul as part of the documentation for his appeal to Caesar. It bears the impress of what a Roman officer might have said” (Acts, New International Biblical Commentary, page 391).
His Excellency, Felix (Acts 23:26)
This is an opportune time to introduce the procurator who will be hearing Paul’s case. Lysias addressed Felix as “Excellency” (Greek, kratistos). It was a polite address, used as a title of honor for important officials in the Roman government. The same title was applied to the recipient of Acts, Theophilus (Luke 1:3). The orator Tertullus also addressed Felix with a similar title (24:2), and so did Paul of Festus (26:25).
Antonius Felix was born a slave and freed by Antonia, the mother of the emperor Claudius. He was the first ex-slave in Roman history to become governor of a province. According to Josephus, Felix was appointed governor by the emperor Claudius, succeeding Ventidius Cumanus (Antiquities 20:137; Wars 2:247-249). This occurred about A.D. 52. However, another writer, Tacitus, had Felix as the governor of Samaria and Judea during the time of Cumanus, who he said was procurator of Galilee (Annals 12.54). Most commentators follow Josephus. It is thought that Felix may have been appointed to a post in Samaria under the governor Cumanus, around A.D. 48. The fact that Paul said he was “for a number of years” in Judea lends support to this idea.
The office of governor was usually reserved for individuals of the Roman equestrian order (ranked below that of the senatorial order). It is thought that Felix must have obtained his post through intrigue. His brother Pallas had great influence at Rome, and he may have had something to do with his brother’s rise to power (Josephus, Antiquities 20:182). Felix was not well spoken of by the ancient writers. Tacitus said he “played the tyrant with the spirit of a slave” (Histories 5.9). F.F. Bruce gives us a spirited translation: “He exercised the power of a king with the mind of a slave” (The Book of Acts, page 437). In his Annals (12.54), Tacitus said Felix “believed himself free to commit any crime.” Josephus concurred with this view. He portrayed Felix as an incompetent administrator who used excessive violence and allowed citizens to be plundered. Under his governorship Jewish violence reached new heights (Josephus, Wars 2:253-270; Antiquities 20:177, 182).
Felix was the governor of Judea from A.D. 52 to A.D. 58 or 59. He was then recalled to Rome by Nero and replaced by Porcius Festus (24:27). We can fix the date of Paul’s imprisonment for two years in Caesarea with some degree of certainty because it occurred during the governor’s last two years of rule (24:27). It is under the governorship of Felix that a fateful turning point was reached in the affairs of Judea. Violence in the province escalated and got so out of control that it ultimately led to the Jewish-Roman War of A.D. 66-70.
Of conditions in Judea during Felix’s governorship, Josephus wrote: “All Judea was filled with the effects of their madness [the insurrectionists]. And thus the flame was every day more and more blown up, till it came to a direct war” (Wars 2:265). These facts serve as a useful background for Paul’s visit to Jerusalem and his two-year imprisonment in Caesarea. The political situation in Judea was so unstable that the Roman governors had to be careful not to alienate their constituencies.
Paul became a hot political potato. If either governors Felix or his successor were to simply free Paul, the Jews may have caused a massive disturbance. What to do with Paul (who was obviously guilty of no crime) must have been a political headache for the governors. As we shall see, Paul provided the governor Festus with a way out by appealing to Rome. The solution was to send him out of the province.
Contents of letter (Acts 23:27-30)
Lysias’ letter to Felix summarized the events, from the riot at the temple to the discovery of a plot against Paul’s life. He began his letter by putting a favorable spin on the situation. Lysias wrote as though he had learned Paul was a Roman citizen at the time the Jews first assaulted him. He described his intervention as a “rescuing” of Paul (23:27). Lysias then explained how he brought Paul before the Sanhedrin to discover what the ruckus was about only to find that “the accusation had to do with questions about their law” (23:29). Lysias carefully forgot to mention that he originally assumed Paul to be an insurrectionist. Neither did he mention that he was about to illegally flog a Roman citizen, and that he was saved from the dire consequences of doing so only by Paul’s last-minute protest.
Of most interest is that Lysias admitted in the letter that “there was no charge against him that deserved death or imprisonment” (23:29). In essence, Lysias was saying that Paul was innocent so far as Roman law was concerned. The Jewish charges against Paul—that he had brought Greeks into the temple—had disappeared (21:28). There was no proof that Paul had brought any Gentiles into the forbidden area of the temple. The charge that he teaches “against our people and our law and this place” was one of those “questions about their law.” It held no interest to the Romans, as it wasn’t a criminal matter. The entire vignette—including the riot, the attempts to kill Paul, and the Roman rescue—dramatically contrasts the attitude of the Jewish leaders toward Paul with the Roman military’s view of him.
The Sanhedrin has committed itself to Paul’s death by its cooperation with these assassins, and will continue that commitment by its pursual of Paul by legal harassment (24:1-9). The tribune seeks to save Paul’s life simply on the basis of Paul’s Roman citizenship and the young man’s report, and commits himself and his resources to securing Paul safety within the Roman legal system….In short, the behavior of the empire is better in every respect than that of the Jewish leadership. (The Acts of the Apostles, pages 407-408)
Luke was telling his readers that Paul could defend himself and do his work only if he is protected by the Roman military and political authorities. Luke again made it clear that the real enemies and problem-makers were the Jews. Christians had no difficulty with the established authority during these years.
To Caesarea (Acts 23:31-33)
Paul and his military escort left Jerusalem by night and traveled as far as Antipatris, reaching it the next morning. Antipatris was about 35 miles (56 kilometers) northwest of Jerusalem, and 10 miles northeast of Joppa. The town, on the border of Judea and Samaria, served as a military way station. Herod the Great had built the city in honor of his father Antipater, hence its name. The second leg of the journey to Caesarea took place the next day. Paul and his escorts traveled from Antipatris to Caesarea, a distance of about 25 miles (40 kilometers) or so along the road that connected the two cities to Jerusalem.
Caesarea, or more precisely Caesarea Maritima, was a major seaport about 30 miles (48 kilometers) north of present Tel Aviv and almost 30 miles south of Haifa, both of which are also on the Mediterranean coast. Herod the Great built Caesarea over a 12-year period on the site of Strato’s Tower, beginning in 22 B.C. He made the new city into a major international port, in the style of a Roman provincial capital. He named Caesarea for his imperial patron Augustus Caesar. Josephus gave a detailed description of Herod’s work (Antiquities 15:331-341).
After Herod the Great died, Judea became a province of the Roman Empire, ruled by Roman prefects who lived in the new capital city, Caesarea. The seat of Roman government for the province of Judaea was in Caesarea, not Jerusalem. Caesarea’s great harbor complex would rival Alexandria’s port as the great emporium of the eastern Mediterranean. It became a major transhipment point on the busy maritime trade routes leading to Rome from the east.
Caesarea became a great Greco-Roman urban center as well, with pagan temples, a theater, hippodrome or circus, and amphitheater. The city had elaborate sewer and water systems as well as paved streets. Today, the ruins of the Roman theater built by Herod greets the person reaching Caesarea from the present-day Route 2. The revitalized ancient theater can hold 2,500 people, but probably had twice that capacity in ancient times. Caesarea’s theater has become the most famous in Israel. Performances ranging from rock to opera are given in the spring and summer.
A mounted plaque greets the tourist just inside the gate of the theater complex. This is a replica of an inscription found here during the excavations of 1959-63 (the original is in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem). Although the plaque is partly destroyed, tourists can clearly read the words “TIBERIVM,” a reference to Emperor Tiberius) and “…TIVS PILATUS,” referring to Pontius Pilate. This is the only archeological evidence of Pilate, the Roman governor during the time of Jesus.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com
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This article was written by Paul Kroll in the mid 1990s and updated in 2012. Copyright Grace Communion International. All rights reserved.
The city figured prominently in the early church. Philip first brought Christianity to this city from Jerusalem (8:4-10). Peter baptized the Cornelius the centurion here as well (10:3-48). Paul was spirited away by the church to Tarsus from Caesarea’s harbor (9:29-30). He later passed through the city on several of his journeys (18:22; 21:8-16). He also returned to Jerusalem via Caesarea on his ill-fated trip, staying at the home of Philip the evangelist (21:8). Agabus the prophet came here to warn Paul of impending troubles in Jerusalem (21:10).
“From what province?” (Acts 23:34-35)
When Paul arrived in Caesarea, the leader of the military detachment delivered the letter to Felix and handed Paul over to him. Felix read the letter and interrogated Paul. He asked what province he was from (23:34). Felix asked this question because it was diplomatically polite to consult with the client king or ruler, if any were involved, on such matters. Since Paul had come from a Roman province, Felix apparently felt comfortable to try the case without any further consultation. As the “crime” was committed in Judea, he had proper jurisdiction in the matter.
A similar situation had come up during Jesus’ trial. When Pontius Pilate, then governor of Judea, heard that Jesus was from Galilee, he referred his case to Herod Antipas, the local ruler of the territory. But Antipas declined to get involved in the heated issue (Luke 23:6-12).
In this case, Felix told Paul he would hear his case when his accusers came down from Jerusalem. Meanwhile, Paul was retained under guard in Herod’s palace.