Thursday, April 20, 2023

Acts 22:30-23:11

Acts 22:30—23:11 (ESV)✞: Paul Before the Council


In the last passage Paul was in jail and about to be whipped but they stopped that at the last minute when they realized he was a Roman citizen. But now the tribune, who’s in charge of Paul’s case, doesn’t seem to know what to do with him. What (if anything) should be be charged with? What (if anything) has he done wrong?

So he brings the Jewish chief priests and council and sits back to see what unfolds. I don’t see this as a “trial,” it’s more of a fact-finding mission on the tribune’s part.

Things don’t start well, however:

1 And looking intently at the council, Paul said, “Brothers, I have lived my life before God in all good conscience up to this day.” 2 And the high priest Ananias commanded those who stood by him to strike him on the mouth. 3 Then Paul said to him, “God is going to strike you, you whitewashed wall! Are you sitting to judge me according to the law, and yet contrary to the law you order me to be struck?” 4 Those who stood by said, “Would you revile God’s high priest?” 5 And Paul said, “I did not know, brothers, that he was the high priest, for it is written, ‘You shall not speak evil of a ruler of your people.’”

Acts 23:1–5 (ESV)✞

If the centurion was hoping for a clear debate in which he could determine who has done what wrong (Paul breaking a law, or the Jewish leaders for accusing him of breaking a law), instead he’s getting a taste of the same violence that caused him to break up the previous riot! And yet also getting a bit of this weird respect for authority that Paul has for the very people who’ve been clamouring for his execution.

And, unfortunately for him, Paul is about to make it worse: he realizes that there are both Pharisees and Sadducees in attendance and decides to play them off each other, claiming that the reason he’s on trial is “with respect to the hope and the resurrection of the dead” (v. 6✞). He says this because, “Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, nor angel, nor spirit, but the Pharisees acknowledge them all” (v. 8✞), so he’s just prompting another round of a long-standing argument between them.

This seems to have the desired effect and suddenly the Pharisees are strongly on Paul’s side, saying, “We find nothing wrong in this man. What if a spirit or an angel spoke to him?” (v. 9✞), which, to me, seems more like just fighting with the Sadducees than actually talking about Paul’s situation – especially since I’m sure the Pharisees would be more upset with Paul in general than the Sadducees would!

The net result of all of this is that the centurion is no farther ahead than he was the previous day! Once again he finds himself preventing Paul from being torn to pieces by a mob (albeit a smaller one), and throwing him back into the barracks for his own safety. He’s no closer to finding a charge to lay against Paul.

The passage ends with a message to Paul from God:

11 The following night the Lord stood by him and said, “Take courage, for as you have testified to the facts about me in Jerusalem, so you must testify also in Rome.”

Acts 23:11 (ESV)✞


Whether I’m right and this is a “fact-finding meeting” or whether we want to call it a “trial,” the centurion doesn’t find himself any further ahead at the end of it. All he really knows is that Paul is saying something that’s contentious to the Jewish religious leaders, but what that thing may be or why it’s contentious he doesn’t find out. He can probably deduce that more riots are going to occur—Paul hasn’t exactly endeared himself to the religious leaders—but without having anything with which to charge Paul what is he supposed to do?

Paul himself is part of the centurion’s problem. Whether the whole thing with the high priest is his fault or not he’s definitely the one who fans the flame of the disagreement between the Sadducees and the Pharisees, which derails the meeting. (It should be noted that Paul himself is a Pharisee, though I don’t think he’s just poking at the Sadducees because he doesn’t like them.)

Paul being struck

As mentioned above, I think the centurion might have found it weird for Paul to show so much deference to the very religious leaders who are hoping to have him executed. (Or maybe not? Is this a culture where respect for authority would have been seen as very normal, regardless of the circumstances?)

Regardless, Paul’s words read to me as genuine; I don’t think he’s playing games with the high priests when he says, “You shall not speak evil of a ruler of your people.” (Paul says this is “written” somewhere but I don’t know where.) The way I read this text—coming at it centuries later and probably missing a lot of nuance, so I could be way off on this—Paul’s response to the high priest(s) seems genuine, even if his handling of the Pharisees and Sadducees seems designed to cause strife.

And, in case it’s not obvious, Paul does not defer to the religious authorities because they’re doing a good job, he defers to them because you’re supposed to defer to the ruler of your people regardless of whether they’re good at it or not – the way Paul reads the Scriptures (which is where I’m assuming he’s getting this idea), there are no caveats on when you’re supposed to defer and when you’re not. As the ESV Study Bible points out, Ananias was “a particularly bad high priest,” and I think they’re referring, at least in part, to the fact that this isn’t the first time we’ve seen this kind of violence during a “trial” he’s part of.

Writing this from North America in the year 2023, I think this is a lesson anyone engaging in political debate should take into account!

The Pharisees vs. the Sadducees

When I first started reading the Scriptures I’d always put the Pharisees and the Sadducees together in my mind. I’d see them mentioned occasionally but I didn’t have a lot of information on either group. What I did have, however, were the lyrics to a children’s song called “I Just Wanna Be a Sheep,” part of which is:


Verse 3

Don’t wanna be a Pharisee

Don’t wanna be a Pharisee

‘Cause they’re not fair you see

Don’t wanna be a Pharisee


Verse 4

Don’t wanna be a Sadducee

Don’t wanna be a Sadducee

‘Cause they’re so sad you see

Don’t wanna be a Sadducee

I Just Wanna Be A Sheep

As you can see, there’s not a lot of factual information included in these verses upon which I could make conclusions about what Pharisees or Sadducees believe, all I knew was that they were opposed to Jesus. Somehow. (I’ve never seen any account in the New Testament of Sadducees being “sad.” I’ll keep looking…)

Only much later in life did I start to learn about Pharisees being ultra-conservative Jews who pushed strict adherence to the Scriptures1, while the Sadducees were similar to the Samaritans in that, though they were Jews, they only followed certain books of the Scriptures (I believe the Mosaic books), not the rest, which shaped their belief system.

All that to say, when I knew so little about the Sadducees I should have just read Acts 23:8✞, and I would have known what I needed to know about them!

All of which is nice background, but doesn’t answer why Paul is strategizing this particular “trial”—or, as I keep calling it, “fact-finding meeting”—the way that he is. Why not have the conversation with the religious leaders? He seems to be ducking the question – “instead of talking through what I believe, and whether there have been any crimes committed, I’ll just throw this contentious topic into the mix and derail the conversation!”

Is it possible that he’s purposely trying to get himself sent to Rome, rather than handling things locally? If that’s the case, there are shades of Jesus in this tactic: these are trumped-up charges, not valid ones, but instead of just arguing them away immediately he’ll seek a higher goal.

It’s also possible—and I say this with great respect, since this is Paul we’re talking about—but it’s possible that Paul was just trying to game the system in order for the tribune to release him so he could go back to spreading the Gospel. Perhaps Paul was purposely trying to derail the conversation so that the tribune would see the way the conversation was going, realize there wasn’t anything to properly charge Paul with, and just… let him go.


  • I’m not getting into it here, but I’m assuming it was also the Pharisees—or a prototypical group that became the Pharisees—who also added their own rules to the ones listed in the canonical texts. And, to be fair, these were initially intended as a help: “the Scriptures say we’re not supposed to ‘work’ on the Sabbath, so here are some helpful rules you can follow to ensure you’re not doing anything on the Sabbath that we might classify as ‘work.’” Later on these additional rules became problematic, however, as they got viewed as being as binding as the original Scriptures, if not more so.

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