Acts (Part 33) - Paul Before the Sanhedrin
Lysias, the commander in whose custody Paul remained, was not satisfied. Felix, the Roman procurator, had left him in Jerusalem to maintain order. But a mob scene within the temple involving Jews seemingly intent on killing this man, Paul, surprised the commander. Yet, after settling the violence and allowing Paul to speak to the people, Lysias still had no idea what had gotten the Jews worked into a frenzy about Paul. His regular means of extracting information through torture had been taken away once he learned that Paul was a Roman citizen. So the next day, Lysias determines to place Paul before the Jewish council, the Sanhedrin, in hopes of discovering their complaint concerning Paul.
Lysias ordered the council to convene and brought Paul to them. Immediately Paul began by saying, “Brothers, I have lived my life before God in all good conscience until this day” (23:1). What did Paul mean by this? Was he claiming never to have sinned? Of course not. Elsewhere we read that Paul called himself chief of sinners (1 Tim 1:15), and Romans 7 surely shows his struggle with sin. No, Paul here was claiming a clear conscience regarding his effort to serve God. Even in his days of persecuting Christians before his conversion, Paul had thought his actions honored God. This also should cast some light on Paul’s motivation in chapter 21 for pursuing the course James suggested in supporting those Jews involved in the temple vow. According to his own testimony, Paul was not merely looking out for himself in opposition to God’s intent, but rather acted in clear conscience to establish his innocence regarding antagonism toward Jewish law.
Paul’s constant organization in presenting the gospel is to the Jew first and also to the Gentile. This does not imply some order of witness only to Jews until they reject the gospel. “To the Jew first” asserts the continuity of God’s program from old covenant Judaism to its fulfillment in Christ. It argued that Paul was not starting some new religion. The gospel message of Jesus was that the reconciliation with God through faith—begun in God’s covenant with Abraham, developed through Moses, and promised through David—was accomplished in Jesus, the very Messiah for whom they watched, prayed, and hoped.
Paul began with his statement of good conscience before God to remind the Jews of what he had told them the day before. At that time he spoke of his zealous focus on the Law and on persecuting Christians to honor the God of the Jews. His Damascus road conversion was an arrest by Jesus—the Messiah, God himself—making him realize that God’s plan through Judaism found fulfillment in Christ. And it was then through the Jews, because of Christ, that this gospel could be proclaimed to the Gentiles. The Jews had interrupted Paul the previous day on this last point. So in this new trial, Paul sought to begin again where he left off—he followed God in good conscience.
The high priest Ananias ordered that Paul be struck, and immediately those near Paul carry out the command. Paul lashed out in anger, calling Ananias a white-washed wall. This is another instance matching Paul’s activity to that of Christ in Luke’s Gospel. Jesus also stood before a mock trial of the Sanhedrin. He too was struck for his speech to the council. Paul’s term of white-washed wall also puts us in mind of Christ’s woe to the Pharisees in Matthew 23 where he refers to them as white-washed tombs full of dead men’s bones. The tombs surrounding Jerusalem were often white-washed, especially in feast times when the city had many visitors, to ensure notice so that people would not accidentally touch the graves and thereby render themselves unclean and unable to participate in the feast’s celebration. The contrast then is an outward appearance of beauty or rightness compared to an inside contagion of death.
But was this merely a rash, hateful outburst by Paul, insulted by the slap? Notice how verse 1 of chapter 23 begins. Luke tells us that Paul “looked intently at the Sanhedrin.” Twice before Luke has told us of Paul looking intently at people. In chapter 13 during his first missionary journey, Paul looked intently at Elymas, the magician also called Bar-Jesus. After that intent look, he called him “son of the Devil” (in a play on words in contrast to the Aramaic “bar” which means “son of” in Elymas name—Bar or “son of” Jesus). Again, and offering greater insight, chapter 14 shows us Paul looking intently at a lame man of Lystra to see ”that he had faith to be healed” (14:9). This “looking intently” by Paul had as its purpose the Spirit-supplied gift that Paul mentions in 1 Corinthians 12:10—the gift of discernment of spirits. So Paul’s intent look at the Sanhedrin revealed to him godless hearts of stone. Thus, when one of them orders Paul to be struck, Paul responds with the same vehemence with which he responded to BarJesus in denouncing the hypocrisy.
Why was it that Ananias ordered Paul to be struck? Many argue that Paul’s comment may have seemed an arrogant defense. But these men had heard Paul’s speech of the previous day. Surely they understood that he was trying to tie together that speech with his current defense. More likely, Paul was struck because Ananias determined that he spoke out of order. These highly prideful Jews had been summoned to meet by a Roman. The council may have not yet begun its orderly process of accusation with witnesses prior to the high priest calling on the defendant to speak. Paul, possibly considering this a continuation of his prior day’s defense, merely started things off speaking. Ananias, wishing to assert his authority, had Paul struck to let him know he had presumed to speak out of order. Paul then responded saying that it was hypocritical to punish him for disorder when the punishment itself was not lawful.
Paul’s harsh comment probably shocked them all. Those near Paul asked partly in rebuke but partly in wonder, “Do you dare revile God’s high priest?” Paul responded to them saying that he did not know Ananias was the high priest. Then Paul quoted a portion of the Law (Exodus 22:28) that commanded against speaking evil of a ruler.
Many commentators struggle with Paul’s response. Should Paul have remained silent? Should Paul, instead of lashing out, merely asked why he was slapped as Jesus did during his trial? After all, if it is wrong to speak evil of a ruler, and Paul called him a whitewashed wall, Paul did do something wrong, right? What confuses the issue is that Paul said he did not know Ananias was the high priest. It is difficult for any scholar of Paul to be satisfied that Paul did not know the current high priest whether he had been in Jerusalem for years or only a few days. Paul’s background in the law and with the Sanhedrin surely kept his interest in Jerusalem piqued. And the high priest wears high priestly robes identifying himself as the Sanhedrin ruler. Can we blame Paul’s poor eyesight? Perhaps. But a more compelling explanation can be found.
A review of the high priests from the AD 40s to the AD 60s gives us the following list:
Joseph Cabi 62-63
A list of the governors (procurators) included the following:
Tiberius Julius Alexander 46-48
Ventidius Cumanus 48-52
Marcus Antonius Felix 52-60
Porcius Festus 60-62
Lucceius Albinus 62-64
A concise history of Paul’s travels during this time period reveals the following:
1st missionary journey 46-47
Jerusalem Council 48
2nd missionary journey 48-51
3rd missionary journey 52-57
Arrest in Jerusalem (Acts 22) 58
Before Felix (Acts 24) 58
Before Festus 60
To Rome 60-61
Notice that Paul’s arrest is in AD 58. Felix was indeed the Roman procurator at the time, having begun his rule in AD 52 and not concluding until AD 60. But Ananias concluded his high priesthood in AD 52, years prior to Paul’s arrest.
Ananias was a violent man, in the tradition of Annas and Caiaphas whom we read of in Luke’s Gospel and also earlier in Acts. His violence, in fact, was so pronounced that he was accused by the Syrian governor (who ruled both Syria and Palestine) of excessive violence. In AD 52, Ananias had to go to Rome to stand trial before Claudius and account for his actions. Claudius dismissed his case (influenced by Agrippa II, a friend of Claudius who also happened to be in Rome at the time). But even though cleared of his charges, Ananias no longer was high priest. When he left for Rome, Agrippa appointed Jonathan as the next high priest.
So the situation at Paul’s trial in AD 58 was that Ananias was not, in fact, the current high priest. In AD 58, Ishmael was high priest. We must recall how the Jews regarded former strong, controlling high priests. In both his Gospel and in Acts, Luke refers to Annas as the high priest when we know that Annas had been replaced by Caiaphas (Luke 3:2; Acts 4:5). So too in this section does Luke refer to Ananias as high priest. Although Ishmael was technically high priest, Ananias held the power and respect of the council.
Now our passage in Acts 23 becomes a bit clearer. Paul was not guilty of speaking evil of the high priest because Ananias was not high priest. Paul, just as aware of the affairs of Jerusalem as any Jew, knew exactly who the high priest was. Paul’s response to Ananias was Spirit-led (through Paul’s gift of discerning spirits). Paul never apologized to Ananias or the council. He merely acknowledged the Law and, by implication, let the council know that he had done nothing wrong as he stated that which they all also knew, “I did not know, brothers, that he was the high priest” (23:5). “Of course, that’s right,” they must have thought, “he isn’t really the high priest.”
Paul knew he was not going to get a fair trial. He also knew that these men of the council were not interested in God’s plan or control. Paul, therefore, set in motion something to accomplish two purposes. Paul called out that he was on trial for the hope of the resurrection of the dead. Of course, he knew that statement would pit Pharisees against Sadducees and disrupt the trial. But although helpful to him, that probably was not the primary reason for saying that.
Remember, this trial was convened by Lysias, the Roman commander. Lysias wanted the trial to determine what Paul’s crime was. Paul knew that he was in custody of the Romans, not the Jews. So Paul’s declaration was intended to demonstrate to Lysias that he was not seditious or treasonous. The argument was a matter of doctrinal debate. When the Pharisees and Sadducees began fighting with each other, Paul’s point with Lysias was confirmed.
That night Paul is visited by Jesus who shows that he is pleased with Paul’s presentation of the gospel. Jesus tells Paul that just as he testified of Christ in Jerusalem, he would testify in Rome.
The Sadducees were not satisfied. They still wanted Paul dead. Forty Jews with zeal for the Law vowed to kill Paul. They devised a plan to get Paul sent back to the Sanhedrin for further questioning. They planned to kill Paul before he traveled the short distance from the Roman garrison just outside the corner of the temple courtyard to where the Sanhedrin met in the temple. But providentially, Paul’s nephew overheard the plan and reported it to Paul and Lysias. Lysias, whose main purpose was peace and order in Jerusalem, immediately decided to send Paul to Felix. He sent him at night, albeit with a huge armed escort. But we note from his letter in 23:26-30, that Lysias did understand the point Paul made during the trial. Lysias wrote, “I found out that the accusations were about disputed matters in their law, and that there was no charge that merited death or chains” (23:29).
Thus, Paul appeared before Felix after his Sanhedrin trial, just as Jesus appeared before Pilate after his Sanhedrin trial. Just as Pilate asked Jesus, so did Felix ask Paul from what province he was. Paul replies from Cilicia, and since no other authority except the governor of Syria could rule the case, Felix decided that it was politically expedient for him to settle the matter. He allowed Paul to stay in Herod’s palace until his accusers arrived.
Herod’s palace is the palace of Agrippa II. The following chart should help remind us of how Agrippa II fits in to the government of Judea.