Studies in the Book of Acts
“Brothers and fathers, listen…” (Acts 22:1)
Luke was concerned with Paul as a credible witness for the gospel both before Jews and Gentile political figures. The speeches afford us an opportunity to learn something of Paul’s background and how he spoke to different audiences. The present speech from the steps of the Antonia fortress dealt with the personal charge against him, that he had acted like a Jewish apostate (21:28). As he spoke, Paul would locate his missionary work in a Jewish context, and would stress that his teaching is based on a revelation from God.
Paul opened his defense by saying in Aramaic, “Brothers and fathers, listen now to my defense” (22:1). By speaking Aramaic, Paul was putting himself on the side of the crowd. When he referred to his listeners in a personal way, Paul was trying to make himself one with the group. Stephen had done the same thing in his speech before the Sanhedrin (7:2).
Born, brought up, trained (Acts 22:3)
Paul began his speech by recalling his birth, upbringing and training. He would do the same thing in his speech before King Agrippa (26:4-11). Paul also gave similar autobiographical material in some of his epistles (2 Corinthians 11:22-29; Galatians 1:13-16, Philippians 3:4-6, and 1 Timothy 1:12-16). As a result, we know a good deal about the apostle Paul’s background. This helps us understand the New Testament writings more completely. (The passages in Paul’s letters should be read in conjunction with this section of Acts for a fuller picture of Paul’s education in Judaism.)
Paul said he was a Jew from Tarsus in Cilicia, but was “brought up in this city” (22:3). Then, he said, “I studied under Gamaliel and was thoroughly trained in the law of our ancestors.” We do not know how old Paul was when he came to Jerusalem. His excellent Greek, his use of the Greek Old Testament, and other marks of a Hellenist culture point to an education outside of Judea. Tarsus, as a university city and international port of call, would have been a good city in which to receive a Hellenistic education.
However, Paul was not specific enough about where he spent his early years for us to do more than conjecture about his youth. What we do know is that Paul’s sister and her family (or at least his nephew) lived in Jerusalem (23:16). It’s possible Paul could have travelled back and forth between Tarsus and Jerusalem in his early years. He may have lived with his sister’s family in the Jerusalem area, perhaps even in his pre-teen years.
“I am a Jew” (Acts 22:3-5)
Not only was Paul “brought up” in Jerusalem, he studied under Gamaliel, a leader of the Pharisees and a highly respected teacher of the law. (Luke introduced us to Gamaliel in 5:34.) Paul could have begun studying Torah under Gamaliel during his teen-age years. Paul was such a good student that he advanced beyond many of those studying with him (Galatians 1:14). In his willingness to use violence against heretics, he was more zealous than his mentor.
As a Pharisee, Paul was “thoroughly trained in the law” (22:3), which consisted of both the written and oral traditions. Later, he would tell Agrippa, “I conformed to the strictest sect of our religion, living as a Pharisee” (26:5). Of course, what Paul was trying to do was to emphasize that he was a Jew of Jews, not a renegade.
Paul also told his listeners: “I was just as zealous for God as any of you are today” (22:3). In a similar vein, he told the Galatians he had been extremely zealous for the traditions of his fathers (1:14). He acknowledged that the Jews were zealous for God as well (Romans 10:2). Paul was telling his listeners that he appreciated their enthusiasm for God, but that he could match and surpass their fervor. Again, Paul was saying he was no outsider, no renegade, no apostate—he was one of them.
But after his conversion, Paul did not put any value on this righteousness of the self, which was not based on true knowledge or faith. Paul counted his former religious accomplishments as rubbish (Philippians 3:8). Knowing Christ, having the righteousness that comes from God by faith—this was what was important to him. He no longer put confidence in his observance of the traditional rites of his community. (However, Paul did practice many of the traditions, since they were part of his cultural heritage—but he was able to put them aside, as needed, if that would serve the needs of the gospel.)
Here in Jerusalem, before this angry Jewish crowd, Paul wanted to emphasize that his former life demonstrated his zeal for God. His Jewishness could not be disputed by any of his hearers, and so they continued to listen to him. Paul continued setting out his “credentials” by saying, “I persecuted the followers of this Way to their death, arresting both men and women and throwing them into prison” (22:4). Paul could cite his earlier persecution as overwhelming evidence for his zeal toward God and Judaism. He made the same claim in several of his epistles (1 Corinthians 15:9; Galatians 1:13; Philippians 3:6).
If anyone didn’t remember Paul the persecutor from something of a quarter of a century ago, they could ask the high priest and the Sanhedrin! He told the crowd: “I even obtained letters from them to their associates in Damascus, and went there to bring these people as prisoners to Jerusalem to be punished” (22:5). Paul was taking every opportunity—through race, language, training, religion and zeal for God—to establish a link with his audience. But now he needed to explain why he had experienced such a complete change of mind.
The heavenly vision (Acts 22:6-11)
Paul used the example of his getting letters of recommendation from the Council as a transition point into the second part of the speech. This is where he began to describe the details of his conversion. Paul spoke of being on the road near Damascus with some traveling companions about noontime on that fateful day. A bright light flashed around him, and he fell to the ground. Then a voice spoke to Paul, saying, “Saul! Saul! Why do you persecute me?” (22:6).
Paul asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The voice answered, “I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting” (22:8). Paul then asked further, “What shall I do, Lord?” (22:10). Thereupon, Paul was told to go into Damascus, where he would be told of his future work. Paul’s companions then led him by the hand into Damascus because he had been blinded by the light.
This is the second account of Paul’s conversion. The first was in 9:1-19, where further details can be found in the commentary. A third account will be found in Paul’s speech to Agrippa (26:12-18). Each telling of the story was adapted to the particular audience being addressed. Each of the accounts also differ somewhat in the details they present or omit. These differences are minor and reflect the fact Paul didn’t tell the story in the exact same way each time. (Of course, none of us use the same wording and detail in retelling our experiences.)
For example, when Luke told the story of Paul’s conversion in Acts 9, he said his companions heard a sound but didn’t see anyone (9:7). A “light from heaven flashed around” Paul but it was not stated whether his companions saw that light (9:3). Paul heard a voice speaking to him (9:4), which was identified as Jesus appearing to him (9:17). In Paul’s retelling of the story before Agrippa, he said he saw about noontime “a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, blazing around me and my companions” (26:13). He also heard the voice speaking to him in Aramaic (26:14), again identified as Jesus (26:15). Paul didn’t say whether his companions heard or saw anything. However, since they “all fell to the ground,” they must have experienced one or both in some way (26:14).
In the present account, Paul wrote of a bright light from heaven flashing around him at noon (22:6). He heard a voice speaking to him, also identified as Jesus (22:7). Paul said “my companions saw the light, but they did not understand the voice of him who was speaking to me” (22:9).
The three accounts of Paul’s conversion are not contradictory. If Luke had seen them as contradictions, he would have “fixed” the problem. The differences in detail are easily explained by the fact that we tell the same story in different ways. The three stories are actually complementary. Each adds details to create a more complete picture of what happened on the Damascus road, and Luke intends for readers to be able to compare and combine the accounts.
The fact that Paul’s conversion experience is told three times shows the importance Luke attached to it. That each was different from the other two tells us that the story was being told at three times, under varying circumstances. It was not a canned story that Luke “plugged” in for verbal color. The important thing that comes out in each account is that God worked a reversal in Paul’s life on the Damascus road. Paul’s conversion was the result of a dramatic confrontation with Jesus. He hadn’t casually adopted a new religion, he hadn’t sought out a new spiritual experience, and his new beliefs had not been imposed on him by any peer group.
Devout Ananias (Acts 22:12-15)
We learned earlier that Paul was visited in Damascus by a disciple named Ananias. Here he was called “a devout observer of the law and highly respected by all the Jews living there” (22:12). Ananias stood next to Paul and said, “Brother Saul, receive your sight!” (22:13. At that moment, Paul could see again. Then, Ananias gave Paul his divine commission: “The God of our ancestors has chosen you to know his will and to see the Righteous one and to hear words from his mouth. You will be his witness to all people of what you have seen and heard” (26:14-15).
The Jewish orientation of the story is seen in the expression “God of our ancestors,” which was the way Jews referred to the God of Israel (Genesis 43:23; Exodus 3:13; Deuteronomy 1:11). “The Righteous One” was a typically Jewish messianic title, one that Stephen also had used (7:52). Paul, speaking to a Jewish audience, stressed that his divine commission had been recognized by a devout Jew—a person like one of those standing before him. The audience should respect Ananias, and that means they should respect Paul’s commission.
F.F. Bruce writes, “As Paul has emphasized his orthodox upbringing and his devotion to the law and the ancestral traditions, so now he emphasizes the part played in his conversion experience by Ananias of Damascus, portrayed as a devout and law-abiding Jew, enjoying the respect of all his fellow-Jews in the city” (The Book of Acts, revised edition, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, page 417). This illustrates another difference between the accounts of Paul’s conversion. Here, Paul wanted to stress that his commission was given through the lips of a pious and highly respected Jew, Ananias. (Note that Paul cleverly did not mention that Ananias was also a Christian at the time he went to Paul.) When Paul later told the story before King Agrippa, there was no need to emphasize the role of Ananias. He simply recounted his commission as coming directly from the Lord.
Another difference between the accounts is that here we don’t read of Ananias’ personal struggle in going to Paul, who was then feared as the persecutor of Christians. Because the story was told from a third-person point of view in Acts 9, that aspect of Paul’s conversion experience was included there.
Praying in the temple (Acts 22:16-18)
Paul explained how Ananias urged him to: “Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name” (22:16). Like any other convert, Paul had to be counseled to repent and put his faith in Jesus Christ, which he did. Paul then recounted how, after being baptized, he returned to Jerusalem, and was praying in the temple. This fact was not mentioned in the earlier account of Paul’s conversion. Paul included it here to show that the temple remained a holy place of prayer and worship for him, even after his conversion.
He was asking the Jewish audience to consider the idea that a man who prays in the temple is not likely to desecrate it. Paul was also pointing out that his traditional values had not changed in a quarter of a century. After all, he had been worshipping in the temple just a while ago when the Jews grabbed him. While praying in the temple after his conversion, Paul said he fell into a trance and saw a vision of the Lord speaking to him (22:17). Now Paul was equating himself with the great prophets of Israel who had a vision of the Lord and received a commission (Isaiah 6:1-10; Jeremiah 14-19).
“Leave Jerusalem” (Acts 22:18)
But the commission Paul received was not to Israel or the Jews. Paul recounted that the Lord told him, “Leave Jerusalem immediately, because the people here will not accept your testimony about me” (22:21). In Acts 9, Luke didn’t tell us anything about any vision instructing him to flee the city. However, Luke did say that when Paul began to preach in Jerusalem, the Hellenistic Jews tried to kill him (9:29). It was then that the converts took him to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus. Now we learn that Paul left the area, not simply because the disciples insisted on taking him to safety, but that he had a divine warning to leave Jerusalem. Probably, Paul’s departure was due to a combination of the vision and the advice of the Jerusalem Christians. Here divine direction and human action worked together.
Some commentators see a contradiction between the two accounts of his departure from Jerusalem. But they are not irreconcilable at all, and merely reflect different aspects of a complex situation. David Williams writes:
In the earlier account, Luke was describing the circumstance as they would have appeared to an objective observer—a Jewish plot against Paul (which he was hardly likely to have mentioned now) that had led the disciples to take the action they did. Paul, on the other hand, speaks here of his own inner experience as he wrestled in prayer with the knowledge of that plot, wondering what he should do. In the end it had seemed that the Lord was endorsing the action proposed by the disciples, bidding him to leave Jerusalem immediately. (Acts, New International Biblical Commentary, page 377)
“Lord…these people know” (Acts 22:19-23)
Paul protested to the Lord about leaving Jerusalem. He repeated what he said on that occasion: “These people know that I went from one synagogue to another to imprison and beat those who believe in you” (22:19). Paul explained that everyone knew that he was part of the mob who killed Stephen, and that he had endorsed his murder. Surely, Paul was saying, the Jews should accept his new faith because they knew how sincere he was in his old beliefs. Paul was inviting his hearers to accept his former zealous persecution of Christians as evidence that his new faith was real. William Neil writes:
In view of Paul’s past record of persecuting the Christians and assisting in Stephen’s execution, the Jews should have recognized that only some divine intervention could have brought about so dramatic a change in his behavior. They might therefore have been expected to listen to his “testimony.” (The Acts of the Apostles, The New Century Bible Commentary, page 225)
However, the Jews’ reaction was the opposite. Paul’s former record of zealous belief in Judaism made his new Christian faith more puzzling and unbelievable. Paul must have suspected that his audience at the Antonia fortress wouldn’t believe it, either. His speech was more of a witness against them.
Then, Paul spoke the line that set off the crowd once more. He told his Jewish audience that the Lord had said to him, “Go; I will send you far away to the Gentiles” (22:21). Paul was emphasizing his calling as a “light for the Gentiles” (13:47). He was a human instrument—extending the work that had been prophesied of his Savior, Jesus (Luke 2:35).
As long as Paul spoke of his work in a Jewish context, the crowd listened, even if impatiently. But when Paul uttered the statement about going to the Gentiles, the crowd went into a fit of rage. “Rid the earth of him! He’s not fit to live!’ they shouted (22:22). Richard Longenecker writes, “In effect, Paul was saying that Gentiles can be approached directly with God’s message of salvation without first being related to the nation and its institutions. This was tantamount to placing Jews and Gentiles on an equal footing before God and for Judaism was the height of apostasy indeed!” (page 526).
Paul faces torture (Acts 22:24)
Confusion again reigned at the temple. The crowd was screaming, throwing clothes in the air and flinging dirt about. The commander still hadn’t been able to find out what crime, if any, Paul might have been guilty of. He probably had not understood Paul’s speech, as it was given in Aramaic, so he didn’t know what his defense had been. The commander was no closer to the truth of the situation, and was losing patience. He directed that Paul be taken into the fortress, and tortured in order to discover the facts of the matter. The torture was flogging, and it was a far worse experience than undergoing a Jewish beating, or feeling the rod of the municipal authority.
The Roman practice of scourging is said to have varied with the victim’s status. A slave or non-Roman might be whipped with a knotted leather cord fastened to a wooden handle. The cord could be studded with pieces of metal or bone. A flogging with such a whip could cripple one for life, or even kill. Somehow the Romans thought that people always told the truth when under severe pain like that. Paul was about to receive the same punishment Jesus endured under Pilate. He had Jesus flogged even after declaring him innocent of any crime (John 18:38-19:1).
“Flog a Roman?” (Acts 22:25)
Paul was destined to escape the flogger’s whip by appealing to his civil rights. As the guards stretched Paul out to torture him, he said to the centurion standing next to him, “Is it legal for you to flog a Roman citizen who hasn’t even been found guilty?” (22:25). Citizenship was a highly prized commodity in Paul’s day. Few had citizenship, as it was limited to those of high standing and those who had performed some exceptional service for the government. (Of course, many paid bribes in order to have their names entered on lists of candidates for citizenship.) Longenecker writes,
New citizens received a diploma civitatis Romanae or instrumentum, and their names were recorded on one of the thirty-five tribal lists at Rome and also on their local municipal register. Succeeding generations of a citizen’s family possessed a professio or registration of birth recording their Roman status and were registered as citizens on the taxation tables of their respective cities….Papers validating citizenship were kept in family archives and not usually carried on one’s person. The verbal claim to Roman citizenship was accepted at face value; penalties for falsifying documents and making false claims of citizenship were exceedingly stiff—Epictetus speaks of death for such acts. (page 528)
Roman citizens were exempt from flogging before trial, often used as torture to ascertain the facts of a case. The Valerian and Porcian laws, enacted over long periods of time, prohibited the beating of Roman citizens. The Lex Julia had further given citizens the right of appeal to Rome. In Paul’s day, a proper trial and sentence had to be given citizens before flogging could be administered to them.
“Pay a big price” (Acts 22:26-29)
It’s no wonder when Paul claimed Roman citizenship, the centurion stopped preparing Paul for flogging. He rushed to the commander and told him Paul was a citizen (22:26). The commander raced back to Paul to verify his claim, which he did. When the interrogation team learned Paul was a citizen, they “withdrew immediately” (22:29). The commander even became alarmed that he had put Paul in chains, there being no charge against him. He knew he had almost done something that would have resulted in some severe action against him, such as dismissal, or even execution.
When Paul told the commander he was a citizen, he said, “I had to pay a lot of money for my citizenship” (22:28). Paul replied that he was born a citizen. The commander apparently had been one of those who had bribed his way into getting on a list of people to be considered for citizenship. Since his name was Claudius Lysias (23:26), he probably bought himself a slot on a candidates-of-citizenship list during the reign of the emperor Claudius (A.D. 41-54). The historian Dio Cassius spoke of citizenship rights being purchased for great amounts of money during the reign of Claudius (Roman History 60, 17, 4-9).
“The ‘great sum’ which Lysias paid was not the price of freedom. It was the bribe given to the intermediaries in the imperial secretariat or the provincial administration who put his name on the list of candidates for enfranchisement” (A.N. Sherwin-White, Roman Law and Roman Society in the New Testament, pages 154-155).
Some commentators feel that Lysias was being sarcastic to Paul when he said he obtained his citizenship at a great price. He was saying something like, “If a trouble-maker like you can buy citizenship rights, it must be rather cheap to buy these days.” That is, the privilege was losing or had lost its value. Paul had turned the tables on the commander. Paul was born a citizen and didn’t need to “buy” his way onto the list. This so-called “Egyptian troublemaker” came from a respected family, a family who had earned citizenship much earlier, when it was harder to get. Bruce writes,
Paul, the man whom the tribune was interrogating rather contemptuously, was born a Roman citizen. This means that his father was a Roman citizen before him. How the citizenship was acquired by Paul’s father or grandfather we have no means of knowing, but analogy would suggest that it was for valuable services rendered to a Roman general or administrator in the southeastern area of Asia Minor, such as Pompey in 66-64 B.C. or Antony a generation later. (page 422)
It may seem surprising that the commander accepted Paul’s claim of citizenship at face value. The severe punishment for a false claim in this regard made it unlikely that one would lie about it. Perhaps there was some way the commander could verify Paul’s claim, or he simply couldn’t take the chance of not accepting it. As mentioned earlier, there were official citizenship roles in the Empire. Eventually, it would be discovered whether someone was falsely claiming citizenship.
We see that Paul had no compunction about using his status as a citizen to protect himself. He had already done so (16:19-39), and would do so again (25:10-11). However, once Paul appealed to his legal rights, he became a captive to the Roman judicial process. He would be under constant military supervision from now on, and his case would ultimately require over four years to be completed. There is a lesson in Paul’s use of citizenship that is important to all Christians. We should feel free to make use of all legal and civil means to protect ourselves from those who would persecute us for our Christian beliefs. William Willimon writes, “Paul appeals to his Roman citizenship as a protection against examination by torture, thus suggesting that Christians may be free to use their legal rights, even those bestowed upon them by pagan governments, as protection against injustice and as a means of enabling them to witness to the truth of Christ” (Acts, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, page 168).
Sanhedrin to assemble (Acts 22:30)
The commander Claudius Lysias realized he had a “celebrity” in his hands. Paul was no uneducated guerrilla terrorist out of some Egyptian backwash. He was cultured, educated religious teacher from a distinguished family who claimed to be a Roman citizen. Lysias couldn’t simply manhandle the suspect, torturing him to find out why he was the focus of a riot. Still, he had to get to the bottom of the situation.
The commander decided to have the Jewish court investigate the cause of the riot. The reason was because Paul’s offense seemed to entail some infraction of Jewish religious custom. The Jewish council seemed the appropriate body to look into the matter. Perhaps sufficient facts would emerge from such a hearing to enable him to either release Paul or hold him for a proper trial.
Lysias ordered the chief priests and the Sanhedrin to assemble for a hearing (22:30). As the ranking Roman official in Jerusalem, Lysias apparently could order the Sanhedrin to meet for such a reason. However, he would have no right to participate in its deliberations—he was just an observer. Meanwhile, Paul was unchained, but held over for the investigation. The next day, the Sanhedrin assembled and Paul was brought in to stand before his accusers (22:30).
Author: Paul Kroll, 1995, 2012