Acts 22: 22 – 29 Paul the Roman citizen
[‘Then the Lord said to me, “Go; I will send you far away to the Gentiles.” ’]
The crowd listened to Paul until he said this. Then they raised their voices and shouted, ‘Rid the earth of him! He’s not fit to live!’
As they were shouting and throwing off their cloaks and flinging dust into the air, the commander ordered that Paul be taken into the barracks. He directed that he be flogged and interrogated in order to find out why the people were shouting at him like this. As they stretched him out to flog him, Paul said to the centurion standing there, ‘Is it legal for you to flog a Roman citizen who hasn’t even been found guilty?’
When the centurion heard this, he went to the commander and reported it. ‘What are you going to do?’ he asked. ‘This man is a Roman citizen.’
The commander went to Paul and asked, ‘Tell me, are you a Roman citizen?’
‘Yes, I am,’ he answered.
Then the commander said, ‘I had to pay a lot of money for my citizenship.’
‘But I was born a citizen,’ Paul replied.
Those who were about to interrogate him withdrew immediately. The commander himself was alarmed when he realised that he had put Paul, a Roman citizen, in chains.
* * *
Roman citizenship brought many benefits, but perhaps the greatest was freedom. Most people in the Roman Empire were not Roman citizens. They could be detained, interrogated and tortured without any justification if an official of the empire thought it necessary or desirable.
The commander initially thought that Paul was not a Roman citizen. Although he’d heard Paul speak Greek, and therefore knew he was educated, he would have expected a Roman citizen to wear a toga (a privilege that only a citizen was permitted) and to move in Roman social circles. Paul did neither. The commander’s mistake was understandable.
Faced with someone who had been at the centre of a riot, not once but twice, the commander lost patience and left his soldiers to flog the truth out of Paul. Paul waited until the last moment, and then disclosed he was a Roman citizen.
The commander was brought back, and when Paul confirmed that he was indeed a Roman citizen, the commander had to release him from restraints. He knew it was most unlikely Paul would have falsely claimed Roman citizenship. There would be documentary evidence of his citizenship; as he was born a citizen, it would take the form of a birth certificate. It would have been a wooden diptych inscribed with his name, and the names of seven witnesses. He might even have been carrying the proof with him. The penalty for falsely claiming to be a Roman citizen was death.
I’m really not sure what lesson to take from this passage. Paul, once a devout and zealous Jew and still an observer of the Jewish Law, has made use of the secular power of Rome to protect him from devout and zealous Jews.
Paul is a highly privileged Roman citizen, a part of the power structure of the world of his time, and he uses his privilege to combat another power structure, the Jewish theocracy. This doesn’t seem altogether in line with the life of Jesus, who, as far as possible took himself outside power structures altogether.
What am I missing here, I wonder?
I don’t understand what you’re trying to teach me here. Please help me to be open to your word.
In Jesus’ name, Amen