We can probably date King Agrippa’s visit with Festus just after one of the Jewish annual feast days, either Pentecost or Tabernacles, cir 59 CE. No doubt the king and his sister, Bernice, celebrated the Jewish holy day(s) at Jerusalem and afterward came to Caesarea to pay their respects to the new Roman governor of Judea (Acts 25:13). Since the royal couple’s visit lasted for some time, Paul’s house arrest would have no doubt been noted, and whoever initiated the discussion of Paul’s state, Festus took the opportunity to seek Agrippa’s advice on how to accuse Paul in his letter to the emperor (cp. Acts 25:26).
What follows in Festus’ description of the events surrounding Paul’s case is strangely reminiscent of Claudius Lysias’ letter to Felix. It is difficult to know for certain what new matter Festus is revealing about those events and what is embellished in order to secure what he wants from Agrippa. Festus begins by blaming Felix for the problem he (Festus) inherited (Acts 25:14). He goes on to point out how the high priests and Jewish ruling class had asked him to rule against Paul and have him executed. However, Festus then claimed Rome’s policy was to permit the accused to face those who accuse him in trial and defend himself before any judgment could be made. Yet, clearly this doesn’t match up with what Luke says occurred in Jerusalem during Festus’ visit (cp. Acts 25:2-5). What can we conclude from this?
I doubt that the Jewish authorities informed Festus of their plan to ambush Paul on the way to Jerusalem (Acts 25:3). Therefore, his refusal to have Paul brought to Jerusalem implies some knowledge of Paul’s case, especially how he came to Caesarea in the first place—i.e. due to a plot by the Jewish authorities to have him killed. If this is logical, then Festus could be telling Agrippa that the authorities at Jerusalem then asked Festus to rule on the matter and execute him (cp. Acts 25:16). However, if we know that Festus had some knowledge of Paul’s case, then he should have known that Paul already faced his accusers under Felix, but this is ignored in his statement in Acts 25:16b. In other words, Festus hides from Agrippa that he (Festus) could have dismissed the charges against Paul had he simply ruled on Paul’s case as tried by Felix, but Festus had granted the Jewish authorities the opportunity to lay new charges against him, which he would then consider (cp. Acts 25:5).
Festus further informs Agrippa that when the Jewish leaders came down to Caesarea to accuse Paul, he was surprised to discover that nothing they claimed against Paul had any legal importance (Acts 25:17-18). In other words, their charge of Paul’s treasonous activity against Rome or Caesar (cp. Acts 25:8) was without merit. At this point Festus could have dismissed the case against Paul and released him, but this is where Festus begins to really embellish the account in order to appear as fair judge who found himself in a bad situation because of his inexperience with Jewish religious affairs, and at this point we begin to recall the embellishments of Claudius Lysias’ letter to Felix.
We know that Festus wanted to grant a favor to the Jews by sending Paul to Jerusalem to be judged by them (Acts 25:9). We also know that this amounted to handing Paul over to be executed, since these men would not only judge the case but were also Paul’s accusers. What kind of trial would that be? Nevertheless, Festus veils the real truth by telling Agrippa he was ignorant of the Jew’s religion and asked Paul if he would go to Jerusalem to be tried there (Acts 25:19-20). However, we know Festus already knew of Paul’s trial before Felix and that all the charges whether against the state or against the Jewish religion were unsubstantiated. Paul even accuses Festus of bias in Acts 25:10, saying Festus knew he was innocent of the Jews charges against him, which Festus, himself, seems to admit in Acts 25:25. Therefore, Festus was hiding his bungling of the judicial affair and was seeking to salvage his reputation before Caesar through Agrippa’s aid in finding some unseen matter, with which he could accuse Paul in his letter to the emperor (Acts 25:24-27).