Acts (Part 35) - Paul Before Festus
The following timeline will serve to coordinate our thinking of the events in our study in relation to some of the other events and appointments and reigns that affected the region.
52 Ananias ends term as high priest
Remember that Ananias was the one who ordered Paul to be struck during his defense before the Sanhedrin in AD 58. He was referred to as the high priest although that was only an honorary reference since his actual term ended in AD 52.
52 Jonathan becomes high priest
52 Felix becomes procurator
53 Agrippa II begins reign
Agrippa I (his father) died in AD 44. Agrippa II was in Rome at the time, having been sent there years earlier for his education. Although a favorite of Claudius, Agrippa II was not immediately appointed to take over his father’s kingship since he was only 17. Eventually, however, he was given first Philip the Tetrarch’s area to rule (ENE of the Sea of Galilee) and then finally in AD 53, Agrippa II took control of most of Judea, including Jerusalem and its temple.
54 Nero begins reign
56 Agrippa II appoints Ishmael as high priest
The appointment of Ishmael marked a stark change from most of the line of previous high priests since Annas began his tenure in AD 6. Ishmael changed from Sadducean leaning to favoring Pharisee doctrine. This caused confusion and conflict within the temple priesthood and the Sanhedrin. This may also have been the motivation for Paul to cry out that he was a Pharisee during his Sanhedrin trial (Acts 23:6) just after learning that Ananias (a Sadducee) was being presented as high priest although Ishmael (a Pharisee) was the true high priest at the time.
58 Paul arrested in temple; trial before the Sanhedrin
58 Paul before Felix
59 Agrippa II builds tower dining room
60 Ishmael builds temple wall
Agrippa II built a tower in an extended wing of his palace in the far western portion of Jerusalem. His purpose was to have a place to dine while looking out over the whole city. He was even able to look into the temple courtyard. Ishmael took offense at his “spying” on the religious activity of the temple, and therefore began construction of a wall at the temple that would obstruct Agrippa’s view.
60 Paul before Festus; then before Festus and Agrippa II
61 Paul goes to Rome
61 Agrippa II (and Festus) want the newly constructed temple wall torn down
61 Ishmael and delegation of priests travel to Nero to have him rule on the wall
Ishmael argued that the wall was then a part of the temple and Agrippa had no authority to tear down part of the temple structure.
61 Nero agrees with Ishmael, leaving the wall in place. Ishmael detained.
Nero’s wife was captivated by the spiritual. Because of this she wanted to keep Ishmael in Rome. Therefore, Nero ordered that Ishmael stay behind (along with another priest) when the delegation left. Ishmael then became a captive priest to Nero’s wife.
61 Agrippa II appoints Joseph ben Cabi as high priest
61 Festus dies
62 Agrippa II appoints Ananus high priest
63 Ananus has James, the brother of Jesus, killed
With Festus dead and the newly appointed procurator, Albinus, not yet arrived in Jerusalem, Ananus orders a special session of the Sanhedrin to try certain leading Christians among whom was James, Jesus’ brother and lead elder of the church in Jerusalem. The Sanhedrin immediately finds them guilty of blasphemy and orders their execution. Because of this violence, Agrippa II immediately removes him from office after only 3 months.
63 Agrippa II appoints Joshua as high priest
63 Albinus arrives to take Festus’s place
Motivation of the Jews
From only this short account we can understand that Jerusalem was a place of conflict. Agrippa II was fighting with the priests. The priests were fighting among themselves. And the normal battles of traditionalists vs. Hellenists and zealots vs. pacifists were heating up. At the time Festus began his rule in Palestine, the Jewish War was only six years away. Amid all this fighting, however, the issue that still fueled the passionate loathing of Jerusalem’s leaders was Christianity. So it is no real surprise that even after two years have passed since Paul’s trial before Felix, he is one of the first orders of business concerning which the Jews approach the new governor, Festus.
Paul is still a major player in Christianity, although under house arrest in Caesarea. And the Jews figure this new governor may be more favorably disposed to them since his job was to maintain peace in the area and his predecessor had been removed from office for antagonism toward the Jews. So the Jews accused Paul to Festus asking for him to be summoned to Jerusalem for judgment. They hoped to have Paul killed on transport from Caesarea. But even if not, they hoped to gain custody of him in Jerusalem.
Motivation of Festus
In Acts 25 Festus seems to flip-flop in his decision but perhaps with good reason. When first approached by the Jews with their request during his Jerusalem visit, Festus pushes back. He tells them he would not be staying in Jerusalem that long, and that they could accompany him back to Caesarea for Paul’s hearing. Verse 6 tells us that Festus was in Jerusalem only 8 to 10 days. Taking the time to send someone for Paul (at least 3 days), for Paul to prepare (1 day), and for Paul to travel to Jerusalem (at least 3 days), would take up 7 days before the trial even began. Assuming that the request was made on the second or third day of Festus’s visit, we find that his entire planned stay would indeed have to be lengthened in order to conduct the trial of Paul.
Festus would also have been hesitant to conduct a trial there in the Jews’ capital city, about which they were so passionate, in which he might have had to rule against them. That would prove the undoing of the point of his visit. He came to begin his rule with peaceful relations. Should he have to find against the Jews in the trial, there was no telling how unsettled the region would become.
True to his word, the day after arriving back in Caesarea, he began Paul’s trial. Luke provides only a scanty account. Verse 7 tells us that the Jews brought serious charges that they were unable to prove. Verse 8 tells us that Paul defended himself by saying he had done nothing against the Law, the temple, or Rome. In other words, this trial went exactly as detailed in the trial before Felix. And the result was the same, Festus, like Felix, found no fault with Paul. This was not a trial of Roman law. Festus could see nothing but a squabble over some religious doctrine. But again like Felix, Festus was unwilling simply to rule in Paul’s favor. The people over whom he was sent to maintain peace were the ones who would be infuriated should he rule in Paul’s favor.
So Festus forms a plan. This is a doctrinal squabble. Why not send it back to the Sanhedrin to be resolved? After all, part of Paul’s defense was that the Sanhedrin did not find him guilty of anything. The Jews probably responded that Paul had disrupted the meeting before they could pronounce a verdict. So Festus probably reasons, why not send them back to finish the interrupted trial. If they found him guilty, maybe it would help define his guilt so that Festus could apply some violation of Roman law as well. If it was merely a doctrinal matter, that was fine too. He could simply turn it over to the Jews to resolve. If the Sanhedrin could not come up with a guilty verdict, Festus again was off the hook for letting Paul go.
Motivation of Paul
Paul was not impressed with Festus’s plan. He did not want to be tried by the Jews who already proved in front of the governor that they would lie and present false witness just to gain a guilty verdict. Paul knows Festus has made up his mind to send Paul back.
Paul’s first statement is that he is before Rome’s tribunal where he should be tried (25:10). Paul’s reasoning is that the Jews are accusing him of speaking doctrinal heresy around the world. That is a matter for Roman law to decide. Rome decided which religions were sanctioned. If Rome found that Paul was doing nothing wrong, the Jews would have no basis for complaint since Rome had effectively sanctioned Christianity as an approved religion.
But since Festus seemed intent on sending Paul to the Sanhedrin in which he would have no chance, he appealed to Rome. Festus had to confer with his officials (25:12). Normally, only a prisoner condemned to death who was a Roman citizen could appeal to the emperor. The governor who had found him guilty would then act as his prosecutor in presenting the case to the emperor. Paul was not actually condemned although in his mind being turned over to the Jews was the same as being condemned to death. Festus agreed, and therefore decided to send him to Rome.
The rest of chapter 25 recounts a visit by Agrippa II and his sister-wife, Bernice. They also are interested in hearing Paul speak. Notice the parallel to Jesus. Pilate sends Jesus to Herod Antipas who is interested in hearing Jesus speak. Now Festus presents Paul to Herod Agrippa II who is interested in hearing Paul speak.
Festus invites several prominent men to listen to Paul along with Agrippa. Festus knows that Agrippa was educated in Rome and therefore has a good knowledge of Roman law. At the same time, Agrippa is a Jew and therefore knows the laws and customs of his people. If anyone can help him construct a charge against Paul it would be Agrippa. But Festus also invites others for any legal help he can obtain. Although his statement in verses 26 and 27 sound humorous, they held sober truth for Festus. He needed a charge for Paul so he didn’t look foolish sending him to Nero.