Festus goes to Jerusalem (Acts 25:1-3)
As a new governor, Festus needed to become familiar with the local authorities. Three days after arriving in Judea, he went to Jerusalem to meet with the Jewish leaders. This was a dangerous time for Paul. The religious leaders would see the change in procurators as an opportunity to take advantage of a new and inexperienced governor. (In a similar situation a few years later, James would be killed by the high priest after Festus died and before the next governor arrived to take the reins of office.)
At Festus’ meeting with the Jewish leaders, they “requested” that he transfer Paul to Jerusalem so that he could be put on trial (25:3). They were preparing to ambush Paul on the way and kill him. (Luke didn’t explain how the plot became known.) We are reminded of the 40 men who had sworn to kill Paul two years earlier (23:14-15). There was a difference with this plot, though. The Jewish leadership itself seemed to have concocted the plan. This may explain why Paul appealed to Caesar in Rome (25:10). He knew that he would never survive a trip to Jerusalem.
For their part, the Jewish leaders had nearly abandoned their attempt to get at Paul through the Roman legal process. Perhaps all they could hope for, if the plot failed, was to have Festus give them the opportunity of trying Paul for profaning the temple. They just didn’t have the proof to get him convicted of a state crime.
Festus was in a tricky position regarding Paul. The Jewish leaders had asked him to transfer Paul “as a favor to them” (25:3). This was probably presented in some politely intimidating manner. They may have reminded the new governor that charges against Felix were being prepared (or had already been given) by them in Rome. It was expected that Festus would want to forge a closer and more understanding relationship with the elders. One way Festus could do that would be to grant the Jews’ simple request to bring Paul to Jerusalem.
Transfer is refused (Acts 25:4-7)
Festus, perhaps unwittingly, foiled the Jewish conspiracy. He invited some of the Jewish leaders to come with him to Caesarea and press charges against Paul there (15:4-5). Why he did this isn’t clear. Perhaps it was simple logic. Paul was already in Caesarea, and Festus was returning there (25:4-5). Caesarea was the headquarters of the province, so that seemed the reasonable place to have the trial.
After eight or ten days in Jerusalem, Festus returned to Caesarea. He convened the court the next day. Paul was brought in and the Jewish leaders “stood around him. They brought many serious charges against him,” but Luke says “they could not prove them” (25:7).
If it were not so serious, the case was becoming a humorous farce. It began with a hearsay-caused tumult in the temple. Then came a riotous hearing before the Sanhedrin and an ineffectual plot on Paul’s life by the 40 zealots. The case next moved to Caesarea in which a bumbling Jewish prosecution failed to prove anything against Paul. However, the waffling Felix could make no decision for or against Paul. Now the case was being opened again, with the same unprovable charges flying about. And there was more to come.
Paul’s defense (Acts 25:8-9)
Luke narrated Paul’s defense before Festus briefly, omitting most of the details of the Jews’ charges and Paul’s defense. We already know the case well, from what Luke has previously narrated. We know that the prosecution has no real evidence, so we are confident that Paul will not be convicted.
Luke summarized Paul’s defense in a sentence. He had Paul say to Festus: “I have done nothing wrong against the Jewish law or against the temple or against Caesar” (25:8). This is a summary of the Jews’ three-fold accusation, and Paul has already successfully defended himself against the charges.
Festus must have been puzzled by the accusations. He was in the same situation as Felix had been in. There was no criminal act for which Paul could be prosecuted. But Festus didn’t want to let Paul go free because of the possible repercussions from the Jews.
Then he thought of a possible way out of his dilemma. The Jews had previously asked Festus, as a favor, to transfer Paul to Jerusalem for trial. There seemed no harm in doing this. He could gain their good graces and rid himself of a potentially volatile situation. So Festus turned to Paul and said, “Are you willing to go up to Jerusalem and stand trial before me there on these charges?” (25:9). Luke added that Festus (like Felix before him) said this “wishing to do the Jews a favor.”
It’s difficult to see what this change of venue would have accomplished. The same ground had already been gone over twice, once before Felix and now before Festus. The Sanhedrin also had attempted to try Paul. Nonetheless, Festus wanted Paul to defend himself again in a court session in Jerusalem because he was worried the Jews might riot over Paul. However, it’s not clear that Festus would have acted as judge. In one place he was ambiguous on the matter, saying only that he wanted Paul to “go to Jerusalem and stand trial there on these charges” (25:20). But there should have been no need for any trial since Paul had been found innocent—again.
Festus was dealing with what seemed to be a mish-mash of religious and political offenses. Some issues were properly in the domain of a governor to decide, and some for the Sanhedrin to rule on.
It is unlikely that a formal session of the Sanhedrin could have been held with Festus as president. What may have been in the procurator’s mind was a trial in Jerusalem before the Sanhedrin on the religious charges—contravention of Jewish law and, in particular, violation of the Temple—followed by a trial on the political charges before the procurator himself. (Neil, 238)
He might have reasoned that witnesses would be more easily available in Jerusalem. He might have allowed the Jews to try Paul on the temple or religious issue. They might decide Paul should be executed and Festus could go along with it. Then he would not be in the awkward position of first having to declare Paul innocent on the political issues. The matter simply wouldn’t come up. Perhaps Festus could have dismissed the political charges first without doing himself much political harm. After all, he was still allowing the Jews to try Paul on the religious charges. In his mind, he could give the prisoner his due and still do the Jews a favor. In any case, it must have been clear to Paul that for him it was a lose-lose situation.
“I appeal to Caesar!” (Acts 25:10-11)
Festus couldn’t simply turn Paul over to the Jews. He was dealing with a Roman citizen who had no official charges proven against him. His duty as a Roman ruler was to protect Roman citizens from local injustice. Festus apparently could not make a preemptory decision regarding a place of trial. He had to get Paul’s agreement for a change in venue.
Paul was now at the crossroads. To agree to a Jerusalem trial was to play into the hands of his accusers. He would have been tacitly agreeing that there was, after all, a case to be decided. Perhaps Paul knew of the plot against him, or must have suspected one would be hatched. Besides, since Festus had already made one concession to the Jews, how many more was he prepared to make?
Paul understood that to return to Jerusalem was to place himself in serious jeopardy. It would be tantamount to being turned over to the Sanhedrin; for once he was in Jerusalem, the Jewish authorities would exert every pressure on Festus to have Paul turned over to them for trial on the charge of profaning the temple. (Neil, 545)
So Paul told Festus: “I am now standing before Caesar’s court, where I ought to be tried. I have not done any wrong to the Jews, as you yourself know very well….If the charges brought against me by these Jews are not true, no one has the right to hand me over to them. I appeal to Caesar!” (25:10-11). The right of a citizen to appeal to Caesar was an ancient one. It was called the provocatio ad Caesarem or “appeal to the emperor” for trial. (This should be distinguished from the appeal after a sentence.)
Nero was emperor (Acts 25:11-12)
The emperor at the time Paul made his appeal was the infamous Nero (A.D. 54-68). It may seem odd that Paul would put his life in the hands of an emperor who would be known as a persecutor of Christians. However, we’ve seen that Paul needed to evade the grasp of the Jews in Jerusalem at almost any cost. Neither was he certain of a fair hearing before a governor who had declared him innocent but refused to let him go.
There was a faith issue involved also. Paul must have remembered the vision that spoke of his going to Rome. He may have realized that a sure way to get there and fulfill his calling to preach the gospel was to make his appeal to Caesar (23:11). Also, Nero had not yet become the sinister ruler of his later years. In the early years of his reign, Nero was under the influence of the Stoic philosopher Seneca and the prefect of the praetorian guard Afranius Burrus. They were considered the good years of Nero’s reign, and were even looked upon as something of a Golden Age.
Neither had Nero yet married Poppaea, who Josephus called “a religious woman” (Antiquities 20:195). She was a friend of the Jews, and might have been capable of influencing Nero to be disaffected toward a major Christian leader like Paul. It was only later, about A.D. 62, that imperial policy toward the Christians became malicious. Seneca had retired by this time. Burrus was dead. Nero had divorced Octavia and married Poppaea. But none of this could have been foreseen around the time Paul appealed and went to Rome.
“There was little in the year 60 that would have warned regarding Nero’s later character and relations with Christianity during the last five years of his life” (Longenecker, 546). The great fire of Rome, something for which Nero apparently blamed the Christians of Rome, did not occur until A.D. 64.
When Paul appealed to Rome, Festus saw that his problem was solved. He conferred with his council about the matter, and then told Paul: “You have appealed to Caesar. To Caesar you will go!” (25:12).
Almost certainly, the Jews were unhappy about this turn of events. But Festus could parry their objections by claiming his hands were tied. Paul was a Roman citizen, against whom no certain charges could be proved. It was the law. Paul had to be allowed to appeal to Caesar if he so requested.
King Agrippa (Acts 25:13)
However, the charade was not yet over for Paul. As it turned out, a few days later King Agrippa and his wife Bernice arrived at Caesarea to pay their respects to the new governor. They were spending some time there, and naturally, Festus discussed Paul’s case with them (25:13).
Marcus Julius Agrippa II (A.D. 27-100) was the son of Agrippa I (12:23), and the great-grandson of Herod the Great. He had been brought up at Rome in the court of Claudius and was a favorite of the emperor. The emperors Claudius and Nero had appointed Agrippa ruler of a number of kingdoms, lands and cities in the Holy Land. At the time of Paul’s trial, he was the king over various territories northeast of Galilee.
The emperor had given Agrippa the right to appoint the high priest and to be custodian of the temple’s treasury and priestly garments (Josephus, Antiquities 20:213, 222, 103). This was because Agrippa was from an Idumean-Jewish family and was knowledgeable of Jewish affairs. Politically, this moderated the power struggle between the Jewish leaders and the Roman political rulers in Judea. Since Agrippa was viewed by Rome as an authority on Jewish religious questions, it’s not surprising that Festus discussed Paul’s case with him. He hoped to get Agrippa’s help in drafting a report to Rome regarding the issues involved.
Queen Bernice (Acts 25:13)
Bernice was the sister of Agrippa II, and the sister of Drusilla. She had been married to her uncle, Herod king of Chalcis. At his death she came to live with her brother Agrippa, which caused rumors that they were having an incestuous relationship. At the close of the Jewish-Roman war, she became the mistress of the Roman general Titus, and for a time lived with him in Rome (before he became emperor). Bernice was once described as “a Jewish Cleopatra on a small scale.”
Both Agrippa II and Bernice tried to prevent the Jewish-Roman war, finally opting to take the part of Rome in the struggle. At one point, with considerable risk to her own life, she tried to prevent a terrible massacre of Jews by the governor Florus. (For further details on Bernice see Josephus, Antiquities 20:145-147; Wars 2:425-429; Juvenal, Satires 6.156-160; Tacitus, The Histories 2.2, 81; Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, “Titus” 7; Dio Cassius, History of Rome 56.18.)
King and Festus discuss the case (Acts 25:14-21)
Because of King Agrippa’s role in Judaism, he has been described as “the secular head of the Jewish faith” (I. Howard Marshall, Acts, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, 388). Festus, knowing that Agrippa understood Judaism’s faith and practice, was eager to get his views on Paul’s case. Here were two rulers huddling together to try to sort out the details of Paul’s case. The one was an expert on Judaism and the other on Roman culture. Now, they would once again hear Paul’s line of defense.
In the next chapter, Luke will narrate Paul’s speech before King Agrippa and governor Festus. But before this, he described a private conversation between the two men, in which Festus admitted his consternation (25:14-21). How Luke knew what they discussed is not known.
In his explanation to Agrippa, Festus admitted that when Paul’s accusers got up to speak, “They did not charge him with any crimes I had expected. Instead they had some fine points of dispute with him about their own religion and about a dead man named Jesus who Paul claimed was alive” (25:18-19). These were clearly not offenses punishable under Roman law.
The whole spate of accusations seemed baffling to Festus. Paul’s discussion about the death and resurrection of Jesus had been even more incomprehensible to Festus. He was an outsider who understood nothing about the gospel—nor of the Jewish accusations. He admitted to Agrippa: “I was at a loss how to investigate such matters” (25:20). He hoped Agrippa could help him sort out the complexities of the case and aid him in drafting a letter about Paul to the emperor’s court (25:26).
Agrippa to hear Paul (Acts 25:22)
The case intrigued Agrippa, and he said to Festus, “I would like to hear this man myself” (25:22). Festus granted the king his wish, hoping no doubt for some clarification in the matter. The stage was set for Paul to witness to a both a governor and king at once, as Jesus said his disciples would (Matthew 10:18; Luke 21:12). This meeting with Herod Agrippa II has its parallel in Jesus’ inquest before Herod Antipas (Luke 23:6-12). Both Jesus and Paul were tried before a Roman governor, and each witnessed to a Jewish king who was anxious to meet him.) (Agrippa here played the role taken by Antipas in Jesus’ trial.)
Pomp and circumstance (Acts 25:23)
Luke began to narrate what would be Paul’s longest and final major speech. But before doing so, Luke explained how Agrippa and Bernice “came with great pomp and entered the audience room with the high-ranking military officers and the prominent men of the city” (25:23). Paul’s witness to the gospel would be heard by the most important political leaders of Caesarea and Judea.
Of all of Paul’s defense speeches, Luke gave the most space to his defense before King Agrippa. The speech was tightly constructed and carefully thought out. Luke considered the speech as being very important to his message. It was Paul’s crowning witness before the Jewish authorities and important Gentile dignitaries of the land.
This was not an official trial, nor even an inquiry. Paul had already appealed to Caesar and his wish had been granted by Festus. The informal hearing (if we might call it that) was held because of Agrippa’s curiosity, and in order that he might help Festus construct his report to the emperor. It was also a spectacle and great theater. Agrippa and Bernice had entered the chamber with pomp and circumstance. The lesser dignitaries had marched in behind them. The star was Paul. At the center of a controversy that wouldn’t quit, he had become a media event. Like the Athenians, everyone seemed curious about the new ideas he was expounding. As Luke Timothy Johnson wrote, “One can hardly avoid the impression that Paul is intended to supply the entertainment for this splendid assemblage, as they enter the ‘audience hall’” (page 426).
Not deserving of death (Acts 25:24-25)
Before Paul was to give his defense, Festus made a general declaration of Paul’s innocence to the assembled throng. He told them: “The whole Jewish community has petitioned me about him in Jerusalem and here in Caesarea, shouting that he ought not to live any longer. I found he had done nothing deserving of death” (25:24-25). Lysias had already stated that Paul was innocent (23:29). For a second time, a Roman authority figure declared that Paul had committed no crime that deserved a death penalty. There would be yet one more affirmation of Paul’s innocence (26:31). Like Jesus (Luke 23:4, 15, 22), Paul would be exonerated three times by the Roman authority.
Festus made a second admission to the lords and ladies assembled to hear Paul. He said: “I have nothing definite to write to His Majesty [that is, the Emperor] about him [Paul]. Therefore I have brought him before all of you, and especially before you, King Agrippa, so that as a result of this investigation I may have something to write. For I think it is unreasonable to send a prisoner on to Rome without specifying the charges against him” (25:26-27).
The irony of such a statement should not be lost. There was no charge against Paul of a civil nature. He had not committed a crime and should have been freed. Yet, he was incarcerated and will be sent to Rome to stand trial with no crime being charged to him. The truth of the matter is that he was a prisoner only because the Jews were able to intimidate the political authority who did not have the courage to free Paul.
The complication and prolongation of the trial of Paul arose from the fact that the charge was political—hence the procurators were reluctant to dismiss it out of hand—and yet the evidence was theological, hence the procurators were quite unable to understand it. Not surprisingly, Festus called in King Agrippa as an assessor, to help him to draft the explanation which had to be sent with the prisoner to Rome. (Sherwin-White, 51)
It’s difficult to know what Agrippa could add to what Festus already knew. He had just admitted that there was no chargeable offense against Paul. The ostensible reason Festus was still holding Paul was that the prisoner had appealed to Rome. For a Roman governor to admit there was no definite charge to write Rome about, was an admission that Paul ought to have been freed in Caesarea. If there was no charge to send to Rome, then why send the man?
It may have been that Festus was hoping that Agrippa—with his expert knowledge of Jewish matters—would be able to find something with which Paul could be charged. Or if not, at least he could use the name of a local Jewish leader respected at Rome to underwrite the fact that there was no charge to send.
We are to understand in his deference and referral to Agrippa a very clever political maneuver. Agrippa II and his sister Bernice were, after all, the perfect powers to consult and coopt. On one side they represented the Jews. On the other side, they were ardent clients of the Roman state, and familiar with Caesar’s family…. The Emperor would respect the judgment of a “Jewish king” that Paul’s troubles stemmed from disputes over a superstition and that it was only his stubborn appeal that forced his delivery to the higher court. (Johnson, 428)