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Paul Before the Sanhedrin

04 Jun

It has been argued that, due to a lack of a plaintiff argument, the Sanhedrin proceedings were informal.[1] However, strictly speaking Claudius Lysias, the Roman tribune who commanded the Roman army in the Antonia and second in authority only to Felix, called the court together. How informal could that have been? Whether the intention was to hear Paul as a kind of grand jury to determine whether or not Paul had committed a crime or whether the court was convened in the manner in which Festus had thought to do in Acts 25:9 is uncertain. Nevertheless, a formal hearing was called, and judging from the cry of innocence by some of the members of the court (Acts 23:9), it functioned as either an authentic trial on Paul’s life or as a kind of grand jury.

Paul was released from his bonds for his public hearing (Acts 22:30), and was permitted to address the court. He said that he had served God in good conscience throughout his life (Acts 23:1), but before he could say much more Ananias, the high priest, ordered him to be struck by one of the Temple guards standing by (Acts 23:2).[2] The incident reminds me of a similar occurrence at the trial of Jesus (John 18:13, 19-23). Paul also reacted in similar fashion that Jesus did, for this was not a time to turn the other cheek (cp. Matthew 5:39). Turning one’s cheek concerns meekly accepting an insult, but we are called upon to confront leaders who use their office unjustly (Proverbs 28:4; cp. Psalm 58:1; 2Samuel 12:1).

Paul rebuked the high priest, and a hurried reading might give one the impression that he didn’t know the high priest’s identity, but how could he not know? This was a formal proceeding and the high priest had a specific place in that court. Moreover, Paul had claimed to know the high priest the day before (Acts 22:5). I believe the incident has a tongue-in-cheek kind of meaning. The high priest acted unrighteously, therefore, whoever commanded an unrighteous act in a formal court proceeding, like striking an uncondemned man, couldn’t have been the high priest. So, Paul gets away with rebuking the leader of the people by speaking facetiously and claiming ignorance—but everyone in the court knew exactly what went on.

Paul looked over the assembly of Jewish authorities and, understanding that it was a divided court part Pharisee and part Sadducee, he declared he was charged with the crime of believing in the resurrection (Acts 23:6). Of course Paul is referring to the resurrection of Jesus, but his statement merely divides the court. Many in the assembly at this time—some 20 years after Paul had any connection with the Sanhedrin during the days of Stephen (Acts 7)—would not have known Paul personally, but the Pharisees believed in the doctrine of the resurrection, of spirits of the deceased and in angels, but the Sadducees deny all of these (Acts 23:8).

Paul had hoped that the mention of the resurrection, which he had attributed to Jesus the day before in his address before the people, would gain some credence with the Pharisees, but this hope proved false, despite the cry of the Pharisees concerning Paul’s innocence. Notice that they attributed Paul’s Damascus experience (mentioned by Paul on the previous day) not to the resurrected Jesus, but to Jesus’ spirit or to an angel (Acts 23:9). Paul’s intention was not merely to obtain his freedom but to preach Christ, but the Gospel, though receiving some sympathy in the Pharisaic body, was really rejected in effect by the whole assembly.

The result was one group crying out for Paul’s innocence while the other sought his death. The Roman tribune once again had to rescue Paul from danger (Acts 23:9-10). Afterward, Paul received a vision from Jesus, saying he preached the Gospel at Jerusalem, and so he would also testify of him at Rome (Acts 23:11). This is all the vision claimed. Paul didn’t know how he would get to Rome, but he presumed he would be eventually found innocent and travel there freely. Only later, as the events of his imprisonment took different turns, did he realize he would be brought there in chains.


[1] David G. Peterson, Acts of the Apostles, page 612.

[2] This is Annas, the most powerful of all Jewish high priests of the first century. It was he who interrogated Jesus. His sons and son-in-law, Caiaphas, officiated the office at various times, but Annas ruled. Jonathan, Annas’ son, officiated the office of high priest during Paul’s imprisonment at Jerusalem and much of the time he spent at Caesarea. Jonathan, however, was murdered by Felix for interfering with his office as governor (see Josephus, Antiquities 20.8.5). Some scholars believe the Ananias in Acts 23:2 is Ananias, son of Nabedaius, but that Ananias was sent in chains to Jerusalem cir. 51-52 CE by Quadratus, the governor of Syria, to answer insurrection charges in Samaria. It is inconceivable that he would not have been deposed from his office. When the Quadratus came to Jerusalem suspecting insurrection there, he found all in order, showing a change of leadership of the priesthood had already occurred (Josephus, Antiquities 20.6.2). Josephus notes that it was Jonathan who influenced Claudius Caesar to appoint Felix as governor of Judea in the first place (Antiquities 20.8.5), implying he was the officiating priest at the time.

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