Paul’s Defense—“I am a Jew!”

27 May

After Paul was seized and taken from the Temple compound, the gates of the Temple were shut, presumably to undergo purification rites over the assumption that a gentile had entered into the forbidden area beyond the great wall, which separated the court of the gentiles from the court of the Jews. Josephus tells us that a sign had been placed on the wall forbidding anyone of any other race to enter the inner Temple courts under pain of immediate execution.[1]

The Roman guard, which had been particularly alert for such riots during Jewish festivals, saved Paul from certain death. The Roman tribune came with a detachment of soldiers of no less than two hundred in number (Acts 21:32 – centurion is in the plural; cp. Acts 23:23). When the chief captain couldn’t get an accurate answer concerning who Paul was or of what he was accused, he had him chained to two soldiers and took him up the steps to the Antonia fortress, amid the cries of the Jews: “Away with him! (Acts 21:36, compare Luke 23:18 and John 19:15). At first the Roman commander believed Paul must have been the Egyptian who had stirred up 4000 men against Rome and caused the execution and imprisonment of many of his followers (Acts 21:38). It would be natural to assume the riot in the Temple erupted in response to his deception and bringing calamity upon former disciples,[2] but Paul responds that he is a Jew from Tarsus. Paul’s manner and use of educated Greek may have influenced the class conscious commander to permit Paul to speak, for his suspicion of Paul being an Egyptian rebel could be taken as an insult, if Paul turned out to be of equal or higher rank that the Roman commander.

Chapter twenty-one ends with a battered Paul standing on the steps of the Antonia, where Jesus was tried by Pilate some twenty-six years previous, ready to offer his defense to his brethren, which he does in Acts 22. In essence Paul’s defense before the Temple was simply: “I am a Jew!” He identified with his countrymen, saying that he, too, was zealous for God just as they all showed themselves to be on that day. Perhaps only a few in the crowd who were bent on killing Paul knew who Paul was. All the crowd knew was that Paul had been accused of blasphemy—i.e. desecrating the Temple (cp. Luke 22:69-70; Matthew 26:64-65). Paul needed to identify himself, showing the crowd that he was not the man they took him to be. This is why a simple denial of the accusation wouldn’t have been enough. It wasn’t a “their word against mine” sort of thing. The crowd had become a mob and needed to see a person before them rather than an enemy.

Paul began by speaking in the Hebrew dialect, which in itself had a calming effect upon them (Acts 22:1). It had a “he is one of us” type of affect upon them. He told them he was born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but raised there in Jerusalem under the tutelage of the honored and respected Gamaliel, whom many in the crowd would have known by name and reputation. Paul also claimed that when he was younger he even persecuted the very Way that he embraced that day, and the then present and officiating high priest, Jonathan (son of Annas), could verify what Paul was telling them. Indeed, it could have been Jonathan, during his first time officiating the high office, who was the high priest some twenty-one years previous, when Paul had gained writs of extradition addressed to the elders of the Damascus synagogues to arrest and hand over Messianic Jews in their company so they could appear before the high court in Jerusalem to be tried and punished even to the death.

It was upon this very journey that Paul met Jesus. The long-story-short of Paul’s testimony is that later in Jerusalem Jesus appeared to him while he was praying in the Temple—all very Jewish things, whether Paul spoke of his zeal for the traditions of the fathers in persecuting the Messianic Jews or his embracing the faith afterward, Paul was an orthodox Jew.[3] Nevertheless, according to Paul’s vision, his Jewish faith in Jesus would be misunderstood, and he must leave the city. When Paul attempted to argue with Jesus, he was told to leave the city, because he was to be sent to the gentiles.

True-to-form, the crowd listened to the point where Paul mentioned that he was being sent to the gentiles. Once again the crowd of people became a single-minded mob requiring Paul’s death (Acts 22:22; cp. Luke 23:18 and John 19:15). The time for listening was over, as the more zealous in the mob cast their outer garments aside in order to stone Paul (cp. Acts 7:58). He was no longer a Jew but an apostate or a renegade who had desecrated the Temple and must die for his blasphemous act.

[1] Josephus: Wars of the Jews 6.2.4, quoting Titus the Roman commander-in-chief. Two of these signs were uncovered in archeology digs, one in 1871 and another in 1935. This barrier that separated Jew from gentile in the Temple was a very real one and may have been the very thing referred to by Paul in Ephesians 2:14.

[2] Josephus mentions an Egyptian messianic figure who rose up about this time in Antiquities of the Jews 20.8.6. He also describes the assassins mentioned in Acts 21:38 calling them sicarii in Antiquities 20.8.5 and 10 and in Wars of the Jews 2.13.3. The name is a Hellenized Latin word meaning dagger men.

[3] Remember, the accusations the Asian Jews (presumably) had been spreading against Paul was that he was a renegade Jew who had been advocating Jews of the Diaspora to abandon the Law of Moses by ceasing from following it traditions and stop circumcising their sons (Acts 21:21).

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Posted by on May 27, 2013 in Kingdom of God, Paul in Jerusalem


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