Acts 21:27-40 and 22:22-29

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Paul is seized in the Jerusalem Temple, and appeals to his Roman citizenship

Date: 
70 CE to 130 CE
Language: 
Greek
Category: 
New Testament
Title of work: 
Acts of the Apostles
Reference: 

21:27-40 and 22:22-29

Commentary: 

This passage, which narrates Paul being attacked by a Jewish mob in Jerusalem, and his subsequent seizing by a Roman tribune and his soldiers, can reveal significant aspects of the Lukan author’s outlook when understood in terms of what it suggests about the relationships between the Jewish population of Jerusalem and its Roman occupiers, and potentially between the Romans and Christianity. Acts is written by the same author as Luke’s Gospel, who models Paul’s arrest and imprisonment account on that of Jesus in the Gospel (see Dennis MacDonald, “Apocryphal and Canonical Narratives,” p. 64-66). Both Jesus and Paul are predicted to suffer in Jerusalem, and do, they are both seized in the temple, both are subject to four trials, during which they are delivered to Gentiles and declared innocent three times, and are both treated well or praised by a Roman centurion (see Luke 9:51-23:47 and Acts 20:1-27:43). An interesting difference is that Luke does not narrate Paul’s death (see David Eastman, Paul the Martyr, p. 18).

In this passage, Paul has returned to Jerusalem and commenced teaching in the Temple. However, his reputation for controversial teaching regarding the Jewish law is proving to be a point of contention. In an attempt to try and counter this bad press, the leaders of the Jerusalem church formulated a plan whereby Paul can show that he is not opposed to observance of the law by performing a purity ritual (see Acts 21:20-26). The seven days at the beginning of the passage mark the completion of this ritual, which evidently has not worked to calm the fears of those uncomfortable with Paul’s reputation, as he is promptly seized by some Asian Jews claiming that he defiles the Jerusalem temple by taking Greeks into it. It seems that the Asian Jews have previously seen Paul with an Ephesian called Trophimus, and falsely assumed that Paul has taken this Gentile into the Temple (verse 29). The Lukan author makes clear that they are wrong, however, they merely “supposed/believed” (νομίζω) (see Luke Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles, p. 381). A combination of Paul’s reputation and the accusations being made against him convince the Jewish mob that he must die. The shutting of the Temple doors as Paul is dragged out by the mob (verse 30) vividly mark his ultimate exclusion from the Jewish community (Luke Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles, p. 382).

The diffusion of the situation by the Roman tribune, Claudius Lysias, effectively saves Paul from almost certain death. Indeed, verse 35 emphasises the close escape that he has, literally having to be carried by the soldiers in order to remove him from the area, the angry crowd’s cry of “Away with him,” echoing the cries of the crowd at Jesus’s trial before Pilate in Luke 23:18-25. As Matthew Skinner argues, it is not necessarily helpful to understand Paul’s seizing by the Romans as an “arrest.” In verse 33, the verb used to describe the tribune’s taking of Paul is ἐπιλαμβάνομαι, which despite often being understood as such (e.g. in the translation of the NRSV), does not have to constitute an arrest for the purpose of legal action. More broadly, the verb refers simply to the taking of something, and so an explicit jurisdictional context for this passage should not be assumed (see Matthew Skinner, Locating Paul, p. 111). Rather, the tribune’s actions are better understood as an attempt to maintain social order by removing the recipient of the violence. The tribune is ready to whip Paul in order to find out the source of problem, so his safety is not the primary concern (see Acts 22:22-29). The prophecy that Paul will be given to the Gentiles by the Jews (see Acts 21:11) is here fulfilled with a vital modification – Paul is not handed over to the Romans (the Gentiles) by the Jewish population, rather the Romans effectively liberate him from them (see F. Scott Spencer, Acts, p. 201). While historically the tribune’s actions cannot be understood as undertaken out of any particular sympathy for Paul, it is very revealing of the viewpoint of the Lukan author, who throughout Luke-Acts presents Jews extremely negatively. The trial of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke, for instance, minimises the responsibility of the Roman governor, Pilate, and maximises that of the Jewish authorities and the Jewish crowd in Jerusalem (see commentaries on Luke 23:1-7; 23:8-12; 23:13-25). Similarly, in Paul’s case here the Asian and Jerusalem Jews are presented as both bloodthirsty and unjustified in their accusations against Paul. The tribune, on the other hand, is essentially dragged into the conflict out of duty, and when the broader narrative function of the Romans in this passage is considered in a broader sense, they have effectively saved Paul from death, and will proceed to transport him to a new location where they later allow him a platform from which to make a speech defending himself to the Jewish people (verses 37-40, see also Acts 22:1-21). It is important to remember, however, that neither Pilate or the Roman tribune in this passage are portrayed as heroes – they both have their own agendas of attempting to maintain the peace and assert their authority. The Lukan author is not seeking to portray Rome positively in and of itself, but just in relation to the Jews who seek to kill Jesus and Paul.

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