“I Appeal to Caesar!”
A MOB seize a defenseless man and begin beating him. They think that he deserves to die. Just when that outcome seems certain, soldiers appear and with difficulty snatch the victim from the violent crowd. The man is the apostle Paul. His attackers are Jews who vehemently object to Paul’s preaching and accuse him of defiling the temple. His rescuers are Romans, led by their commander, Claudius Lysias. In the confusion Paul is arrested as a suspected evildoer.
The last seven chapters of the book of Acts outline the case that began with this arrest. Understanding Paul’s legal history, the charges against him, his defense, and something about Roman penal procedure throws light on these chapters.
In the Custody of Claudius Lysias
Claudius Lysias’ duties included keeping order in Jerusalem. His superior, the Roman governor of Judea, resided in Caesarea. Lysias’ action in Paul’s case can be seen as protection of an individual from violence and as detention of a disturber of the peace. The Jews’ response moved Lysias to take his prisoner to the soldiers’ quarters in the Tower of Antonia.—Acts 21:27–22:24.
Lysias had to find out what Paul had done. During the chaos, he had learned nothing. So without further ado, he ordered that Paul ‘be examined under scourging, that he might know why they were shouting against Paul.’ (Acts 22:24) This was standard practice for extracting evidence from criminals, slaves, and others of low rank. The scourge (flagrum) may have been effective to that end, but it was a dreadful instrument. Some of these whips included metal balls dangling on chains. Others had thongs interwoven with sharp bones and pieces of metal. They caused grievous wounds, tearing flesh to ribbons.
At that point Paul revealed his Roman citizenship. An uncondemned Roman could not be scourged, so Paul’s assertion of his rights had an immediate effect. Abusing or punishing a Roman citizen could cost a Roman officer his post. Understandably, from then on, Paul was treated as an unusual prisoner, one who could receive visitors.—Acts 22:25-29; 23:16, 17.
Unsure of the charges, Lysias led Paul before the Sanhedrin to seek an explanation for the furor. But Paul ignited a controversy when he spoke of being judged over the issue of the resurrection. The dissension was such that Lysias feared that Paul would be torn to pieces, and again Lysias was obliged to snatch him from angry Jews.—Acts 22:30–23:10.
Lysias did not want a murdered Roman on his hands. On learning of a death plot, he hurriedly had his prisoner taken down to Caesarea. Legal formalities required that reports outlining the case accompany prisoners to superior judicial authorities. Those reports would include results of initial inquiries, the reasons for the action taken, and the investigator’s opinion of the case. Lysias reported that Paul was ‘accused about questions of Jewish Law, not of anything deserving of death or bonds,’ and he ordered Paul’s accusers to present their complaints to the procurator, Felix.—Acts 23:29, 30.
Governor Felix Fails to Pass Judgment
Provincial jurisdiction was based on Felix’s power and authority. He could follow local custom if he chose to or statutory criminal law—applicable to high society and government officials. That was known as the ordo, or list. He might also adopt extra ordinem jurisdiction, which could be used to deal with any crime. A provincial governor was expected to ‘consider not what was done at Rome, but what ought to be done in general.’ Thus, much was left to his judgment.
Not all details of ancient Roman law are known, but Paul’s case is considered “an exemplary account of the provincial penal procedure extra ordinem.” The governor, assisted by advisers, would hear accusations made by private individuals. The defendant was called in to face his accuser, and he could defend himself, but the burden of proof lay with the plaintiff. The magistrate inflicted any punishment he saw fit. He could decide immediately or postpone judgment indefinitely, in which case the defendant would be detained. “No doubt,” says scholar Henry Cadbury, “with such arbitrary power the procurator was in position to yield to ‘undue influence’ and to be bribed—either to acquit, to condemn, or to postpone.”
High Priest Ananias, older men of the Jews, and Tertullus formally charged Paul before Felix of being ‘a pest who stirred up seditions among the Jews.’ They claimed that he was a ringleader of “the sect of the Nazarenes” and that he tried to profane the temple.—Acts 24:1-6.
Paul’s original assailants imagined that he had led the Gentile named Trophimus into the courtyard reserved for Jews only.a (Acts 21:28, 29) Strictly speaking, the alleged trespasser was Trophimus. But if the Jews interpreted Paul’s supposed action as aiding and abetting trespass, it too could be construed as a capital offense. And Rome seems to have made the concession of recognizing the death sentence for this crime. So had Paul been arrested by the Jewish temple police instead of by Lysias, the Sanhedrin could have tried and sentenced him without a problem.
The Jews reasoned that what Paul taught was not Judaism, or lawful religion (religio licita). It ought, rather, to be considered illegal, even subversive.
They also claimed that Paul was “stirring up seditions among all the Jews throughout the inhabited earth.” (Acts 24:5) Emperor Claudius had recently denounced Alexandrian Jews for “stirring up a universal plague throughout the world.” The similarity is striking. “The charge was precisely the one to bring against a Jew during the Principate of Claudius or the early years of Nero,” says historian A. N. Sherwin-White. “The Jews were trying to induce the governor to construe the preaching of Paul as tantamount to causing civil disturbances throughout the Jewish population of the Empire. They knew that the governors were unwilling to convict on purely religious charges and therefore tried to give a political twist to the religious charge.”
Paul defended himself point by point. ‘I have caused no disturbance. True, I belong to what they call a “sect,” but this implies observance of Jewish precepts. Certain Asian Jews provoked the riot. If they have a complaint, they should be here to make it.’ Paul essentially reduced the charges to a religious dispute among Jews, over which Rome had little competence. Wary of rankling already restive Jews, Felix adjourned, effectively forcing a judicial stalemate. Paul was not delivered to the Jews, who claimed competence, nor was he judged by Roman law, nor was he freed. Felix could not be compelled to pass judgment, and in addition to wanting to curry favor with the Jews, he had another motive for delay—he hoped that Paul would bribe him.—Acts 24:10-19, 26.b
The Crisis Under Porcius Festus
In Jerusalem two years later, the Jews renewed their charges on the arrival of Porcius Festus, the new governor, asking that Paul be delivered to their jurisdiction. But Festus adamantly responded: “It is not Roman procedure to hand any man over as a favor before the accused man meets his accusers face to face and gets a chance to speak in his defense concerning the complaint.” Historian Harry W. Tajra notes: “Festus readily recognized that a judicial lynching was in the works against a Roman citizen.” So the Jews were told to present their case in Caesarea.—Acts 25:1-6, 16.
There the Jews asserted that Paul “ought not to live any longer,” yet they presented no evidence, and Festus perceived that Paul had done nothing deserving of death. “They simply had certain disputes with him concerning their own worship of the deity and concerning a certain Jesus who was dead but who Paul kept asserting was alive,” Festus explained to another official.—Acts 25:7, 18, 19, 24, 25.
Paul was clearly innocent of any political charge, but in the religious dispute, the Jews likely argued that theirs was the only competent court. Would Paul go to Jerusalem for judgment of these matters? Festus asked Paul if he would do that, but really it was an inappropriate proposal. A remand to Jerusalem where accusers would become judges meant that Paul would be surrendered to the Jews. “I am standing before the judgment seat of Caesar, where I ought to be judged,” said Paul. “I have done no wrong to the Jews . . . No man can hand me over to them as a favor. I appeal to Caesar!”—Acts 25:10, 11, 20.
A Roman’s utterance of these words interrupted all provincial jurisdiction. His right of appeal (provocatio) was “real, comprehensive and effective.” So after conferring on the technicality with his advisers, Festus declared: “To Caesar you have appealed; to Caesar you shall go.”—Acts 25:12.
Festus was glad to get rid of Paul. As he admitted to Herod Agrippa II some days later, the case perplexed him. Festus then had to compose a statement of the case for the emperor, but for Festus, the charges involved incomprehensible complexities of Jewish law. Agrippa, however, was an expert in such matters, so when he expressed an interest, he was at once asked to help draft the letter. Unable to grasp Paul’s subsequent exposition before Agrippa, Festus exclaimed: “You are going mad, Paul! Great learning is driving you into madness!” But Agrippa understood perfectly well. “In a short time you would persuade me to become a Christian,” he said. Whatever they felt about Paul’s arguments, Festus and Agrippa agreed that Paul was innocent and could have been released had he not appealed to Caesar.—Acts 25:13-27; 26:24-32.
The End of a Judicial Odyssey
On arriving in Rome, Paul summoned the principal men of the Jews not only to preach to them but also to see what they knew of him. That may have revealed something of his prosecutors’ intentions. It was not uncommon for the authorities in Jerusalem to seek the help of Roman Jews in the prosecution of a case, but Paul heard that they had no instructions about him. Pending trial, Paul was allowed to rent a house and to preach freely. Such leniency might have meant that in Roman eyes, Paul was an innocent man.—Acts 28:17-31.
Paul remained in custody for two more years. Why? The Bible gives no details. An appellant would normally be held until his prosecutors appeared to press charges, but perhaps the Jews of Jerusalem, recognizing the weakness of their case, never arrived at all. Maybe the most effective way of keeping Paul shut up as long as possible was to fail to appear. In any event, it seems that Paul stood before Nero, was declared innocent, and was finally freed to resume his missionary activities—some five years after his arrest.—Acts 27:24.
Opponents of truth have long ‘framed mischief by law’ to hinder the Christian preaching work. This should not surprise us. Jesus said: “If they have persecuted me, they will persecute you also.” (Psalm 94:20, King James Version; John 15:20) Yet, Jesus also guarantees us freedom to tell the whole world the good news. (Matthew 24:14) Thus, just as the apostle Paul resisted persecution and opposition, Jehovah’s Witnesses today ‘defend and legally establish the good news.’—Philippians 1:7.
a An elaborate stone balustrade, three cubits high, divided the Court of the Gentiles from the inner courtyard. At regular intervals in this wall stood warnings, some in Greek and some in Latin: “Let no foreigner enter inside of the barrier and the fence around the sanctuary. Whosoever is caught will be responsible for his death which will ensue.”
b This, of course, was illegal. One source states: “Under the provisions of the law on extortion, the Lex Repetundarum, anyone holding a position of power or administration was forbidden to solicit or accept a bribe either to bind or unbind a man, to give judgement or not or to release a prisoner.”