The Response of the People Part 2 of 2

by John Lowe
(Woodruff, S.C.)

At the tribune’s command, Paul was seized and bound and the instrument of torture brought out of its case. Then Paul played his trump card, one kept in reserve against such a moment as this. Paul was not about to undergo such torture unnecessarily; and as they stretched him out for the flogging, he produced his Roman citizenship. He inquired: “Is it legal for you to flog a Roman citizen who hasn’t even been found guilty?”{2] The seemingly innocent question immediately caught the attention of the centurion in charge of the scourging. It definitely was not legal to examine a Roman citizen by scourging. The Valerian and Porcian laws clearly established the illegality of such an act, and any Roman officer who transgressed this exemption would himself be guilty of a serious breach of law. To bind a Roman citizen was serious enough but to scourge him was clearly illegal, and to do either to an uncondemned Roman was worst of all. The centurion was thoroughly alarmed. Off he went to apprise the tribune of this new and unexpected turn of events.


26 When the centurion heard that, he went and told the chief captain, saying, Take heed what thou doest: for this man is a Roman.

The centurion immediately halted the process and lost no time in reporting the new development to his commanding officer.

There are times for a believer to claim his civil rights. A believer should be willing to suffer for the cause of Christ, but there is no virtue in suffering merely for suffering’s sake. Where protection of the law exists and can be invoked without compromise or complication, it can be invoked. A believer should not resort to the law for every petty offense, but in matters where the alternatives are serious and the means of legal redress exists, it is not wrong to seek the protection of the law.

27 Then the chief captain came, and said unto him, Tell me, art thou a Roman? He said, Yea.

Back the tribune came in a hurry. No doubt Paul was quite a spectacle from the rough treatment he had received at the hands of the soldiers and the mob. The tribune could hardly believe that this scarecrow was a Roman. By now Lysias must have been thoroughly perplexed about Paul. At first he mistook him for an Egyptian revolutionary. Then he learned that he was a Jew and a citizen of the important city of Tarsus, a man of some culture who spoke polished Greek. Now he learned that Paul was a Roman citizen. The surprises were not over. Soon he learned that Paul was no Johnny-come-lately to citizenship status like himself but one who was born a citizen (28). There were five ways to become a Roman in those days:
1) Citizenship was sometimes granted by imperial decree as a reward for services rendered, etc.
2) It was possible to become a Roman by birth. This was the case with Paul; he was born in Tarsus, a free city of the Roman Empire, and his father was a Roman citizen.
3) It was possible to purchase citizenship, often at a very high price. Thus the commander had obtained his citizenship by paying a large sum (28).
4) It could be given to a retired auxiliary soldier as a reward for long service to the Empire.
5) It was common practice that after a slave was freed by his or her owner that he was given Roman citizenship.

28 And the chief captain answered, With a great sum obtained I this freedom. And Paul said, But I was free born.

AND THE CHIEF CAPTAIN ANSWERED, WITH A GREAT SUM OBTAINED I THIS FREEDOM. Emperor Claudius, and especially his wife Messalina, had made the much-prized citizenship available to almost anyone for a suitably large cash payment. Since the tribune included the name “Claudius” in his signature (23:26) we can assume he had acquired his citizenship (and possibly his military rank) in that fashion, but he could not see how this beggarly-looking Jew could ever have afforded such a luxury. “You?” he said, “a Roman? Why, I paid a fortune for my citizenship.”

Lysias’s comment that he had purchased his citizenship would have been most unlikely in the earlier empire. Citizenship was often conferred for performance of some service to the state or for military duty. Slaves of a citizen who were freed on the basis of service to their owner were granted citizenship. With the granting of colony status, whole towns were given citizenship. But individual purchase of the rights of citizenship would have been looked on suspiciously. There is evidence, however, that under Claudius there was increasing abuse of the privilege; and purchase citizenship became common. That Lysias purchased his citizenship during this time is highly likely given his name, Claudius Lysias (23:26). One generally took the name of the patron through whom citizenship was obtained. It is possible that

Lysias was being a bit sarcastic when he mentioned paying a “GREAT SUM” for his citizenship, the implication being perhaps that “now it seems that just anyone can afford it.”{1] If that was so, Paul’s response would have been a shocker: no, he did not pay a big price but was born into it.

AND PAUL SAID, BUT I WAS FREEBORN. “I WAS FREEBORN,” said Paul. “I did not buy my citizenship. I was born a citizen, and my father was a citizen before me.” Possibly Paul’s family acquired citizenship for some outstanding service rendered to the Empire, perhaps to Pompeii or to Mark Anthony. The status of Roman citizen would put Paul’s family in high society at Tarsus, though probably, as practicing Orthodox Jews, they refrained from taking full advantage of their position.

There has been much speculation about how Paul’s family received their citizenship. One theory is that they were part of a large resettlement of Jewish freedmen by Pompey in Cilicia in 63 b.c. This is based on a misunderstanding of Pompey’s action as well as on a misapplication of a tradition reported by Jerome that Paul’s family migrated to Tarsus from Gischala in Galilee. Another view suggests that the tent making trade of Paul’s family may have proved useful to the Roman military and been rewarded with citizenship. Such suggestions are wholly speculative. We simply do not know for certain just how his family came into citizenship status. Luke made his point well; however, Paul was a Roman citizen and one of considerable status. Those who were born citizens had higher status than those who achieved yet; Paul thus has superior citizenship status in some sense. His citizenship would hereafter play a large role in the narrative of Acts as Paul interacted with Roman officials.

29 Then straightway they departed from him which should have examined him: and the chief captain also was afraid, after he knew that he was a Roman, and because he had bound him.

The usual way of trussing up a man about to be scourged was to tie his hands. He was then tied to a pillar or hauled up by his hands and suspended in the air. Evidently, things had progressed to this point before Paul spoke. He now had the tribune very much on the defensive. It was a serious offense to violate a Roman citizen’s rights, especially in the high-handed way Paul had been manhandled, and the Tribune knew it. He acted at once to redress the wrong as far as he could, but Paul was too much of a Christian to press his advantage.

On learning of Paul’s citizenship, the whole procedure was stopped immediately. There is a question which might be asked at this point in the narrative. Someone may want to know; couldn’t anyone avoid flogging by simply claiming to be a Roman citizen? Perhaps; but if a person falsely claimed to be a citizen, he was liable to the death penalty. So, how could a person show that he was really a Roman citizen? There were several ways. For example, there were citizenship papers, and the Roman toga of citizenship could be worn, but usually, a verbal assurance was accepted, with a heavy penalty imposed for falsifying.

Lysias was himself quite alarmed, realizing that he had placed Paul in chains. The picture here is not entirely clear, and our knowledge of Roman law is limited. Evidently, the Julian and Porcian laws protected Roman citizens from sudden arrest, from being placed in chains without a preliminary hearing. Paul’s situation was complicated by the fact that his detention could be considered protective custody rather than arrest. However, that may be, from this point on Lysias and his men were especially kind to Paul now that they knew he was a Roman citizen. God was using the great power of the Empire to protect His servant and eventually get him to Rome. Lysias still did not know the charges against his prisoner. Examination by scorching had been ruled out, so now the tribune turned to another avenue for answering his questions—the Jewish Sanhedrin.


Special Notes
{1]A Roman historian, one Dio Cassius seems to bear this out, noting that Claudius’s wife Messalina and the members of her court would sell citizenship rights for their own personal gain. He adds that at first the price was high but gradually degenerated to the point where citizenship could be had for a few scraps of glass.
{2] Although Paul had neither been charged nor condemned, Roman citizens were evidently subject to scourging only when actually convicted of a crime. Cicero’s famous quote would indicate that in his day flogging a Roman citizen was simply not conceivable: “to bind a Roman citizen is it a crime, to flog him is an abomination, to slay him is almost an act of murder.”
{3] The Tower of Antonia served as both a residence for the governor and a barracks for soldiers.

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