Why Didn’t Felix Release Paul?

29 May

Luke leaves us at the end of Acts 24 with Paul still in bonds. Usually, when a procurator left his office he either executed the prisoners he had taken captive for crimes worthy of death or released others. Yet, Paul’s fate was left for the next Roman governor to decide, while Felix returned to Rome to answer to Caesar for how he handled certain a certain insurrection that developed in Caesarea.

It seems that Felix, as it concerned Paul, was placed in the same type of difficult situation that Pilate was in as it concerned Jesus. Pilate couldn’t afford to have to answer for an insurrection at Jerusalem, because his patron, Sejanus, was executed at the command of Tiberius Caesar, who then investigated and executed many of Sejanus’ appointees throughout the Empire. As for Felix, Nero was at this time Emperor of Rome and had Felix’s brother, Pallas, deposed of his influential office as head of the imperial treasury.[1] It was Pallas who had influenced Claudius to appoint Felix to a post subordinate to or in company with Cumanus while the latter was procurator of Judea. With Pallas’ influence now in doubt, Felix had to tread lightly, as much as possible, as it pertained to sensitive affairs with the Jewish authorities.

Josephus tells us that Felix had Jonathan, the high priest and son of Annas the high priest, executed by one of the leaders of the Sicarii.[2] It seems that Jonathan was constantly interfering in Felix’s affairs and always pointing out that it was he (Jonathan) who had asked Claudius to put Felix in Cumanus’ vacated office as governor of Judea. Knowing that a son of Annas’ high priestly family was always in office whenever persecution of Messianic Jews erupted, one has to wonder if Paul’s case was not secretly discussed often by the Jewish authorities and Felix during the two years Felix kept Paul at Caesarea. The matter against Paul was a situation that Annas, the high priest and real power behind all his sons’ terms in that office, wanted settled in his favor. He was obsessed with the Messianic movement and made himself its personal enemy from the very beginning with Jesus (cp. John 18:13, 24; see also Acts 4:6, 21; 5:17-18, 26-27, 33).

The problem was that, since Felix could no longer depend upon the influence of his brother at Rome, he couldn’t lightly hand over a Romans citizen to the Jewish authorities for execution when nothing could be proved against Paul. On the other hand, since Josephus knew of Felix’s hand in the slaying of one of Annas’ sons, suspicion of his involvement must have been quite common, and Felix could not fuel the fires against himself, for which he was already called into question, by further irritating the powerful high priestly patriarch by releasing Paul. Therefore, he left Paul bound at Caesarea, awaiting a decision by Festus the new governor.[3]

Luke implies that Felix would have set Paul free, if Paul had given him money to secure his release (Acts 24:26).[4] No doubt Felix would have risked angering the powerful Annas family, if he could profit thereby, but the situation changed once he realized he would be sent to Rome to answer to Nero for matters concerning the insurrection at Caesarea.[5]

[1] See Tacitus, Annals xiii, 14.

[2] Josephus: Antiquities of the Jews, 20.8.5.

[3] The Western Text omits the mention of Felix’s desire to please the Jews, replacing it with “but Paul was kept in prison on account of Drusilla, Felix’s wife, who was the daughter of King Agrippa senior of Acts 12. If this is behind the sense of Acts 24:24 is difficult to conclude, for she could have seen Paul as a ‘peace offering’ to the Jewish authorities or the Annas family appealed to Felix through her.

[4] Compare Josephus’ account of the Roman governor, Albinus who succeeded Festus. Josephus claims that the only criminals who remained in prison during Albinus’ term were they who would not or could not give him money for their freedom (see Wars of the Jews; 2.14.1).

[5] See Josephus: Wars of the Jews, 2.13.7 and Antiquities of the Jews, 20.8.7 & 9.

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Posted by on May 29, 2013 in Gospel, Paul in bonds


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