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Paul, the Roman Citizen

16 May

The Jews reaction to Paul’s statement that he was being sent far away to the gentiles, is a bit controversial. “Away with him!” they cried, punctuating their words by “throwing dust into the air and “casting off their clothes” (Acts 22:23). The Greek for “casting off” is rhipeto (G4496). Are we to understand them as casting aside their cloths (outer robes) in order to stone Paul (cp. Acts 7:57-58), to shake the dust from their outer garments as a gesture of contempt (cp. Acts 13:51), or to tear their cloths as a gesture of astonishment when witnessing the utterance of blasphemy (cp. Mark 14:63-64)? Any one of these suggested propositions could be true, but whichever one is the truth, it was clearly evident to all that the crowd was hostile to Paul and was out for his blood.

Upon seeing the Jews’ response to Paul’s defense, the Roman tribune had Paul taken into the Antonia and commanded that he be flogged in order to understand what Paul had done to cause the riot (Acts 22:24). Flogging was a legitimate means of Roman interrogation used whenever other means had failed to extract the desired truth.[1] The Greek used here is mastix (G3148) and means to scourge. On eight separate occasions Paul had been beaten—with rods, three times, presumably by Roman lictors; and five times with the lash by Jewish authorities (2Corinthians 11:24-25; cp. Acts 16:22)—but these methods couldn’t match the cruelty of the mastix or flagrum. The instrument had a wooden handle with leather strips or a chain attached and strung with pieces of bone or metal. It left the prisoner maimed for life, often crippled, and at times the prisoner never recovered and died shortly afterward.

As the Roman guard stretched out Paul for the flogging, he asked the centurion in charge of the interrogation if it were legal for him to use flogging as a method of inquiry upon a Romans citizen (Acts 22:25). Upon hearing this, the centurion approached the tribune, telling him of Paul’s statement. When the tribune asked Paul if it were true, Paul replied it was (Acts 22:26-27). The tribune’s reply is a matter of some controversy. He told Paul that he obtained his citizenship with a great sum of money (Acts 22:28), with the implication (according to the Western text)[2] that the price of citizenship was pretty cheap if such a one as Paul was able to obtain it! Paul’s reply put both the tribune and the centurion in fear, for Paul claimed to be a citizen by birth.

Paul’s statement shows that he outranked the tribune in Roman society. The tribune was afraid for not only had he attempted to flog a Roman citizen, but had publicly put him in chains—both of which were crimes, according to Roman jurisprudence. According to Cicero, to bind a Roman citizen was an outrage, to scourge him was a crime and to kill him was considered murder.[3] A Roman citizen could not be bound or beaten until found guilty by a provincial governor’s court (not an ordinary municipal court).[4] Therefore, Paul’s appearance before the Sanhedrin the next day must be viewed as another method of inquiry used by the Roman tribune, because Paul was now in his protective custody, and Jewish authorities must from this point forward seek extradition proceedings, if they intended to punish Paul.


[1] See The Acts of the Apostles, by Ben Witherington, page 677 (cf Digest 48.18 prol. 1).

[2] “Venerable Bede, in his exposition of Acts says here: ‘Another edition indicates more clearly what he said: —Do you claim so easily to be a Roman citizen? For I know at how great a price I obtained this citizenship.’” See note 36 in F.F. Bruce The Book of Acts; page 446.

[3] See Against Verres 2.5.66.170.

[4] See Robert H. Smith: Acts, page 333.

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