I now have an app of the entire Bible on my phone now and just like any kid with a new toy, I've gone sort of crazy with it. After reading through all of the book of Acts in three days (thanks to the Sydney metropolitan area being so vast), the really weird thing that struck me was the almost bloodthirsty nature of the Jews and surprisingly, the ambivalence of the Romans due to their adherence of law.
Paul has disputes in multiple cities, is thrown into prison a lot but upon mention that he is a Roman Citizen, the attitude of the Romans changes entirely.
It got me thinking and asking that most annoying of questions... "Why?"
According to Plutarch who lived in latter half of the first century AD, the rights that a Roman Citizen could expect to enjoy included, the right to make legal contracts and to hold property , the right to vote, the right to sue in the courts (and the right to be sued), the right to stand for civil office and the right to have a legal trial.
Most of these sound strange to us, mainly because they seem obvious to us (even as little as 120 years ago people fought very hard for the right to vote), that last one, the right to a trial even more so. It does help to explain though why Paul ended up in Rome though.
The Roman Empire wasn't secular but it was exceptionally tolerant of the religious practices going on within it. It pretty well much equated local gods with the panoply of the Roman system and let people retain their practices. Occasionally, it would absorb local festivals into its calendar and found it useful to do so if it meant that tribute and taxes were still being extracted from the conquered peoples.
Paul's basic problem was that the Jewish leaders essentially had a power issue. Various Jewish groups of rabbis simply had to label "the Way" a sect, for if they didn't then people might see and learn about Christ for themselves, thus eroding their power base and with it, potentially their incomes.
At the risk of painting the Romans as a peaceful nation, the one thing you can say about them was that they were sticklers for discipline, order and law, to a fault. Quite frankly, the military machine demanded it. How could you get an army under direct attack by sword, pike and spear to maintain its composure unless the army had been drilled ad nauseum? Literally a soldier's life depended at times on how well the unit could follow orders. This disciplined adherence to the law flowed into normal society because it was the soldiers themselves who provided law and order in lieu of what we would consider a modern police force. Also, instead of a sitting judiciary in the same way we find ourselves today, the Romans didn't exactly have professional judges but rather their governors made legal decisions directly.
Just as Paul was about to speak, Gallio said to them, “If you Jews were making a complaint about some misdemeanor or serious crime, it would be reasonable for me to listen to you. But since it involves questions about words and names and your own law—settle the matter yourselves. I will not be a judge of such things.”
- Acts 18:14-15
In Corinth in Acts 18, the proconsul Gallio takes the opinion that because the dispute fell under Jewish and not Roman law, he really couldn't be bothered with it. At first this sounds like dereliction of the law but if you consider that Gallio wasn't trained in Jewish law, he hadn't studied it and had no background in its traditions, then his decision to tell the Jews to deal with it themselves is perfectly valid.
As they stretched him out to flog him, Paul said to the centurion standing there, “Is it legal for you to flog a Roman citizen who hasn’t even been found guilty?”
- Acts 22:25
In Jerusalem in Acts 22, a problem arises that Paul who was a Roman citizen was about to be flogged. Paul questions the centurion standing close by and this triggers two minds to explode at the weight of law. The centurion probably has no legal training but knows that the law is a good thing to follow, and the commander above him probably didn't really care about a Jewish squabble but feared punishment from above if his superiors found out that a Roman citizen had had their rights violated. Take note:
Those who were about to interrogate him withdrew immediately. The commander himself was alarmed when he realized that he had put Paul, a Roman citizen, in chains.
- Acts 22:29
I find it interesting that the commander isn't necessarily worried about whether or not justice was being administered, or even taking any compassion for his prisoner, but the mere fact that a Roman had been put in chains irked him, for it violated his personal sense that the law as a concept had been desecrated.
In Acts 25-26, the operation of Roman law is even more blatant. Paul as a Roman citizen not only had the right to appear in court but to appeal to a higher court and even to Caesar and his representatives. This aspect of law continues today with our own court system.
Again at the end of chapter 26, we see two aspects of Roman law at play. Firstly, the pluralism of the Romans allowed Jewish law to hold sway in some facets but a Roman citizen would only be tried under Roman law. Secondly that one of the rights of a Roman citizen was the right to an appeals process; again something which we take for granted but something which after the end of the Roman Empire would not be seen again until the middle ages.
After they left the room, they began saying to one another, “This man is not doing anything that deserves death or imprisonment.”
Agrippa said to Festus, “This man could have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar.”
- Acts 26:31-32
Almost in the same breath though. Agrippa concedes that it was only because Paul was a Roman that he had and rights of appeal at all. The text does not convey though what sort of mindset he had though. This line can be read with sarcasm, contempt, amazement, or even a rolling sort of disappointment (the original Greek is also of no help here) but whatever the tone it does illustrate something which is often overlooked by scholars.
Every piece of commentary which I read during this, focussed on the spiritual, theological and doctrinal issues that the text presents. Very little thought is given to the overall climate of Roman law which exists here.
Paul was a Pharisee which meant that he had read and studied law. Acts is written by Luke who as a physician approached what he saw with a scientific mind; recording what he could verify.
Yet the very fact that Paul was a Roman citizen meant that he wasn't just summarily executed but thrown into prison to be dealt with later.
Paul's imprisonment meant that Luke had the time and presumably space to find more verifiable evidence and whilst in prison or under house arrest, Paul was a prolific letter writer. Those two men by themselves wrote most of the New Testament and if Paul hadn't had the right of appeal then it probably wouldn't have existed in the form that we know it at all.
I really don't know what sort of debt we owe to the Romans and their almost adherence to the law as they saw it. I do know that it's seriously undervalued though.