THE ACTS OF THE APOSTLES, which our Church reads publicly from Pascha to Pentecost, climaxes with the trial of St Paul and his journey to Rome where he would ultimately be beheaded. The story of his conflict with the Jewish leadership, his arrest and the various hearings which followed is told in Acts, chapters 20 to 28.
After what has come to be known as his third missionary journey, St Paul resolved to return to Jerusalem for the pilgrimage feast of Pentecost. Paul traveled south and landed at the port of Caesarea, the Roman military center in the region. There “a certain prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. When he had come to us, he took Paul’s belt, bound his own hands and feet, and said, ‘Thus says the Holy Spirit, “So shall the Jews at Jerusalem bind the man who owns this belt, and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles’” (Acts 21:11, 12). Despite this and other warnings Paul was determined to return to Jerusalem.
St Paul’s reputation was well known among the Jews of Jerusalem. His doctrine that Gentiles who became Christians did not need to be circumcised was particularly offensive in their circles. To devalue circumcision and the Jewish dietary laws was “to forsake Moses” (Acts 21:21) and undermine the very basis of Judaism.
Knowing the animosity of the Jewish leaders, who considered Paul an apostate, St James and the elders of the Christian community in Jerusalem devised a plan to keep Paul safe. They urged him to “…do what we tell you: We have four men who have taken a vow. Take them and be purified with them, and pay their expenses so that they may shave their heads, and that all may know that those things of which they were informed concerning you are nothing, but that you yourself also walk orderly and keep the Law” (Acts 21:23, 24).
St Paul complied, but “Jews from Asia, seeing him in the temple, stirred up the whole crowd and laid hands on him, crying out, ‘Men of Israel, help! This is the man who teaches all men everywhere against the people, the Law, and this place; and furthermore he also brought Greeks into the temple and has defiled this holy place.” (For they had previously seen Trophimus the Ephesian with him in the city, whom they supposed that Paul had brought into the temple” (Acts 21:27-29). St Paul was seized and had to be rescued by the commander of the local garrison.
What followed was a series of hearings which would determine St Paul’s fate, fulfilling Agabus’ prophecy concerning him. As Christ had been tried before the Sanhedrin (the religious leaders), King Herod (the Jewish ruler) and Pontius Pilate (the Roman Procurator), Paul’s trial followed a similar route. He first was tried by the high priests and their council, the Sanhedrin, as recorded in Acts 22. Paul began his defense before the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem by tracing his personal religious history: “I am indeed a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, taught according to the strictness of our fathers’ law, and was zealous toward God as you all are today. I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and delivering into prisons both men and women, as also the high priest bears me witness, and all the council of the elders, from whom I also received letters to the brethren, and went to Damascus to bring in chains even those who were there to Jerusalem to be punished” (Acts 22:3-5).
Paul was then taken to the current Roman governor, Antonius Felix by the Jewish authorities to validate their judgment against Him. Once it was clear that Paul was a Roman citizen, however, he was taken from the Sanhedrin by the Romans. He was not subject to their jurisdiction.
Citizenship in the Roman Empire
While full Roman citizenship was restricted to those born in Rome and its environs, people from associated states were granted a form of Roman citizenship, without some of the rights which full citizens enjoyed. Judaea, however was a conquered province with none of those rights. Although a Jew, St Paul had been born in Tarsus, a city of Cilicia, in Asia Minor, and the citizens of Tarsus were eligible for Roman citizenship.
When St Paul revealed that he was a Roman citizen, the Sanhedrin knew that they could not touch him. It was illegal to whip or torture Roman citizens who could only be put to death for treason, and never by crucifixion, a punishment for slaves and subject peoples.
As a result, some Jewish activists, with the blessing of the chief priests and elders, planned to kidnap Paul and kill him. When the Roman military commander in Jerusalem learned of the plot, “he called for two centurions, saying, ‘Prepare two hundred soldiers, seventy horsemen, and two hundred spearmen to go to Caesarea at the third hour of the night; and provide mounts to set Paul on, and bring him safely to Felix the governor’” (Acts 23:23, 24).
Acts continues describing St Paul’s time in custody under Felix and his journey to Rome to be tried before Caesar. During the journey the ship carrying St Paul is shipwrecked off the coast of Malta. After three months on that island, St Paul continues his journey to Rome, meeting with Christians along the way, showing how the Church had spread into Europe even before the death of the last apostles. Acts ends with Paul in Rome, telling us that “Paul dwelt two whole years in his own rented house, and received all who came to him,
preaching the kingdom of God and teaching the things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ with all confidence, no one forbidding him” (Acts 28:30, 31).
A New Identity in the Making
In addressing Felix St Paul used the original term to describe the Christian faith among its Jewish adherents. This term, “the Way” suggests that the earliest Jewish-Christians did not consider that they had abandoned Judaism. Rather, their Way was simply a recognition that the prophecies in the Torah, the Psalms, and the other Scriptures had been fulfilled. They saw themselves as observing a “completed Judaism,” to use a modern term, not a different religion.
Contemporary authors often point out that “the Way” suggests a way of life, not a new set of beliefs. The followers of “the Way” had the same Scriptures as other Jews, worshipped in the temple and celebrated God’s promise of a Messiah. The difference between them was that the followers of Jesus believed that He was the Messiah. The uniqueness of their Way was that Greeks as well as Jews were welcome in their company if they accepted Jesus as Lord.
As we read in Acts 11, it was among the “Greeks,” the Gentiles in Antioch, that the term “Christian” was first used. Many commentators hold that Christian was originally a term of derision. It contrasted these followers of Jesus with the Caesarians, who patriotically worshipped the Roman emperor. It was certainly used in that way by King Agrippa, who told St Paul sarcastically, “You almost persuade me to become a Christian!” (Acts 26:28)
The third ancient term for believers in Acts is found in chapter 24. Paul is brought before the Roman procurator and is accused by the Jewish spokesman Catullus of being “a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes” (24:5). Paul and his company were called Nazarenes because they followed Jesus of Nazareth. While “Christian” became the common name for Christ’s followers in the Greco-Roman world, the Aramaic/Semitic world generally preferred the term Nazarene (Nasrani). Thus the members of the Syriac Churches of India are called Mar Thoma Nasrani, because they trace their identity to the mission of St Thomas the Apostle who brought the Gospel to their nation