Acts of the Apostles: Acts Chapter 21
Put out to sea (Acts 21:1-3)
Luke continued to reflect the emotional scene surrounding Paul’s departure by saying the travelers had to “tear themselves away” from the elders (21:1). Luke reminded us he was traveling with Paul by inserting another “we” into the narration. He also continued to provide a port-by-port travel guide of Paul’s trip. After leaving Miletus, the ship sailed south to the island of Cos, where it anchored for the night. The next day the ship sailed southwest to the island of Rhodes. From there the party docked at the coastal city of Patara.
Patara was a commercial city and possessed a fine harbor. It was a popular port-of-call for large vessels plying such eastern Mediterranean areas as Macedonia, Achaia, Asia, Syria, Judea and Egypt. At Patara, Paul’s party changed ships and boarded a large merchant vessel that would travel non-stop to Tyre, a distance of about 400 miles (644 kilometers).
Luke again demonstrated his accuracy in details. He correctly described the stages of a coast-hugging ship’s journey, as well as sea travel in general of those times. For example, individuals journeying by sea would have to find available ships and accept delays caused by loading and unloading cargo. In this case, when Paul’s ship reached Tyre it had to unload its cargo, which apparently took several days. Paul and his delegation disembarked and located some disciples in the city with whom they stayed a week (21:4). A church in Tyre had probably been established by the Christian Hellenists who had been forced to flee Jerusalem after Stephen was martyred (11:19). Paul and a delegation from Antioch had earlier met with Christians in Phoenicia (and presumably in Tyre) on their way to the Jerusalem council (15:3).
Through the Spirit (Acts 21:4)
The disciples in Tyre urged Paul “through the Spirit” not to go to Jerusalem (21:4). This reference to warnings of the Spirit picked up the thought that in every city the Holy Spirit had been warning Paul of the hardships awaiting him in Jerusalem (20:23). This again brings up the question of whether Paul was disregarding the voice of the Spirit in going to Jerusalem. Perhaps that is framing the question in the wrong terms. Rather, the Holy Spirit seemed only to be giving Paul some advance warning about what to expect when he got to Jerusalem, so that he would not be taken off his guard.
The believers would be expressing natural concern about Paul’s safety and would be trying to dissuade him from going. The Holy Spirit seemed to be expressing a neutral position regarding whether he should or should not go to Jerusalem. Paul appeared to have a choice about the matter. He could go to Jerusalem or not. Paul chose to go to Jerusalem, and was willing to suffer the consequences of his action—which he did.
Continued on their way (Acts 21:5-7)
After a week at Tyre, the ship was ready to sail, and Paul prepared to continue his trip to Jerusalem. The entire church—men, women and children—accompanied Paul from the city to the coastal port area. In a scene reminiscent of Paul’s departure from Ephesus (20:36-37), the group knelt together on the beach and said a final prayer (21:5-6). Emotional goodbyes were exchanged and Paul’s party boarded the ship.
The ship made its way south to Ptolemais, about 25 or so miles (40 kilometers) south of Tyre, where it stopped overnight (21:7). Ptolemais, called Acco in the Old Testament (Judges 1:31), had been an important Phoenician seaport. It was renamed Acre in Crusader days. Today, Haifa is the important port in the area. The ship continued south, and the next day Paul’s party reached Caesarea, about 35 miles (56 kilometers) south of Ptolemais. The city had a magnificent harbor built by Herod, and it served as the port for Jerusalem. It was also the Roman provincial capital of Judea. (See additional comments on 10:1.)
Philip the evangelist (Acts 21:8-9)
In Caesarea, Paul and the delegation stayed at the house of Philip the evangelist for “a number of days” (21:8, 10). Luke had left Philip at Caesarea at the end of a missionary tour some two decades earlier (8:40), and this is his only reappearance in the book. Philip was apparently living in Caesarea, possibly throughout those two decades. By now he had “four unmarried daughters who prophesied” (21:9). According to traditions the church historian Eusebius preserved, Philip and his daughters later moved to Hierapolis in the province of Asia. The daughters supposedly provided information on the early days of the church to a bishop of Hierapolis, Papias, for his now lost books on Jesus’ teachings (Ecclesiastical History 3.39.9).
During his years in Caesarea, Philip probably continued to evangelize the maritime plain. No doubt, he was also an elder in any church that might have existed in the Caesarea area. Luke here identified Philip as “one of the Seven” (21:8). This refers back to his appointment along with six others to take care of the Hellenistic Jewish widows in the Jerusalem church (6:1-6). The title “the Seven” was complementary to “the Twelve,” and perhaps they had a special ministry to Hellenistic Christian Jews.
Philip was called an “evangelist” (21:8). The Greek word for “evangelist” occurs only twice more in the New Testament (Ephesians 4:11; 2 Timothy 4:5). Paul had admonished Timothy to do the work of an evangelist in supervising the affairs of the growing church at Ephesus (1 Timothy 1:3). David Williams writes, “Philip was called ‘the evangelist’ when he had settled in one place. Perhaps, then, this was the distinction (or one of them) between evangelists and apostles. One was itinerant, the other local” (Acts, 363).
Agabus the prophet (Acts 21:10-11)
While Paul was at the home of Philip, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea (21:10). Caesarea was in the province of Judea, but the city was not considered part of the Jews’ land because of its Gentile population and outlook. Agabus had appeared in Luke’s account when he prophesied of a severe famine that would eventually touch much of the Roman world (11:27-28). Agabus apparently lived in Jerusalem, and earlier he was said to be from that city.
Agabus now took Paul’s belt and tied his own hands and feet with it. Then he told Paul: “The Holy Spirit says, ‘In this way the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem will bind the owner of this belt and will hand him over to the Gentiles’” (21:11). The prophecy was fulfilled in principle, but not in detail, when a mob of Jews grabbed Paul and the Roman garrison commander “ordered him to be bound with two chains” (21:33). Technically speaking, the Jews leaders did not “bind the owner of this belt,” and they did not “hand him over”—rather, the Romans rescuedPaul from a Jewish mob. But Luke is not troubled by such discrepancies; he does not see prophecy as being an exact picture, but as a general prediction of the outcome: Paul ends up being imprisoned by the Gentiles.
Luke chose his wording to bring out, in a literary manner, the similarity between the fate of Jesus and Paul in their final trip to Jerusalem. Luke Johnson writes,
The language of the oracle once more conforms Paul to the image of the prophet Jesus on his journey to Jerusalem: Agabus declares that Paul, too, will be “handed over” and “into the power of the Gentiles,” which makes his prophecy remarkably close to the passion predictions of Jesus (9:44; 18:32). And like Jesus, Paul declares his willingness to die in Jerusalem for the name of his Lord (21:13). (The Acts of the Apostles, 372).
Many of the Old Testament prophets had begun their oracles with the words, “Thus says the Lord…” (Isaiah 3:16; Jeremiah 2:31; Ezekiel 4:13; Amos 3:11; Nahum 1:2; Haggai 1:6; Zechariah 1:16). In Luke, the Holy Spirit substitutes for the Lord, but Agabus is shown to be in the tradition of Israel’s prophets of old. Agabus’ prophecy also reminds us of Old Testament oracles in that the message was conveyed through action as well as word. Ahijah the Shilonite tore his cloak to demonstrate how Solomon’s kingdom would be broken up (1 Kings 11:29-39). Isaiah walked about naked and barefoot to demonstrate how the Assyrians would humiliate the Egyptians and take them captive (20:2-4). Jeremiah shattered a clay jar to show how God would cause Jerusalem to be destroyed (19:1-13). Ezekiel built a model to portray the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem (4:1-3).
Paul had earlier stated that the Holy Spirit had warned him that he faced prisons and hardships in Jerusalem (20:23; 21:4). Luke now gave his readers an example of how the Spirit warned him. In this case, it was through an inspired prophet from the Jerusalem church. We should note that Agabus’ prophecy contained no command that Paul should break off his journey and not go to Jerusalem. On the other hand, neither did Agabus tell Paul to continue his journey to fulfill some purpose of God. Paul’s decision was apparently in his own hands.
Pleaded with Paul (Acts 21:12-16)
Luke, the Gentile delegation and the Caesarean disciples “pleaded with Paul not to go up to Jerusalem” (21:12). Earlier, the disciples at Tyre had also strongly urged Paul not to go (21:4). But Paul’s inner conviction to go to Jerusalem was stronger. “Why are you weeping and breaking my heart?” said Paul, “I am ready not only to be bound, but also to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus” (21:13).
Seeing Paul’s determination, Luke said everyone “gave up and said, ‘The Lord’s will be done’” (21:14). The group then made preparations for the final leg of the trip to Jerusalem. Some of the disciples from Caesarea decided to go with Paul and the delegation.
When the group arrived in the Jerusalem area, it stayed at the home of Mnason, a long-time disciple from Cyprus (21:16). Perhaps he was one of the missionaries from Cyprus who had preached the gospel in Phoenicia during the early days of the church (11:20). Mnason must have been a well-to-do member of the church. He had a large enough home, as well as the resources, to host not only Paul but also his delegation (and perhaps the disciples from Caesarea).
Paul comes to Jerusalem (Acts 21:17-23:22)
Paul arrives (Acts 21:17)
Luke now began a fateful chapter in Paul’s life with the casual words, “When we arrived in Jerusalem…” (21:17). The remaining chapters of Acts will be devoted to about four years of Paul’s life, all of it spent as a prisoner of the Roman government. Luke devoted a disproportionate amount of space to these four years. He especially emphasized a few speeches Paul delivered as well as his harrowing sea voyage to Rome.
Luke’s main concern with the Jerusalem trip was to show his readers that Paul continued to receive the blessing of the mother church in Jerusalem. Luke wrote that when the delegation arrived in Jerusalem the believers there “received us warmly” (21:17). The “us” referred to Luke and the delegates from the Gentile churches who had brought the relief fund to the mother church.
The third “we” section ends here (21:17-18). However, we shouldn’t assume Luke left Judea. He may have used this time to gather information for the writing of his Gospel and the early chapters of Acts. He remained close to Paul. (He will be with Paul on his sea voyage to Rome.) But because Paul’s activities became such a focus of Luke’s narrative, he may have chosen to speak of him as though he were alone.
Went to see James (Acts 21:18-19)
The day after arriving in Jerusalem, Paul and the delegation had a meeting with James and the elders. James was the leader and spokesperson of the Jerusalem church, just as he was during the landmark conference of A.D. 49 (15:13). Paul reported in great detail on his missionary journeys and the impact of the gospel among the Gentile populations. Luke summarized Paul’s report as being positively received, saying, “When they heard this, they praised God” (21:20).
James and the elders recognized that God’s direction had been present in Paul’s work, and Luke wanted to point this up. We remember that the Jerusalem leaders had also given Peter a positive review when he explained how the first Gentiles had been converted (11:18). Luke wanted his readers to know that Paul’s work, no less than Peter’s, had been accepted by the mother church as divinely inspired. Luke Johnson writes:
Like that earlier delegation, this one is “welcomed gladly by the brothers” (15:4). Like the earlier delegation as well, this one “relates what God had done” (15:4, 12). And like the Jerusalem leadership’s response to Peter’s defense of his Gentile initiative, we find the brothers “giving glory to God,” (11:18), which is Luke’s signal for a recognition of God’s visitation. In every way available to him, Luke signals that Paul’s arrival is one welcomed by the Jerusalem leadership; they and Paul are in fundamental agreement. (page 379)
Paul had feared that he might be rejected by the Jerusalem church (Romans 15:31). But quite the opposite had happened; he had been accepted. The church, both its Jewish and Gentile portions, had remained united. Paul was at one with the rest of the Jewish Christian element of the church.
What happened to the offering? (Acts 21:19)
Almost certainly, Paul and the delegates presented the collection for the poor saints when they reported the progress of the Gentile mission. What happened to the offering? How was it received? From Paul’s epistles, it seems that presenting the offering personally was the chief reason for his going to Jerusalem (1 Corinthians 16:1-4; Romans 15:25-27, with 2 Corinthians 8-9). Perhaps Paul saw the collection as a way of completing his mission to the eastern part of the Empire, before embarking on an evangelizing tour of the West.
But Luke referred to the offering only once, in an aside in Paul’s speech before Felix (24:17). This showed that Luke knew about the offering (how could he not know about it, since he was part of the delegation?). He must have also been aware that the relief fund was a major reason for Paul coming to Jerusalem. Given Luke’s tendency for trying to show that Paul’s Gentile mission and the Jerusalem church marched together, it seems odd that he would not discuss the offering. Some speculate that Luke’s silence means that the offering was rejected, and the attempt to demonstrate unity failed. But due to Luke’s silence, we do not know for sure.
Zealous for the Law (Acts 21:20-21)
While the church leaders received Paul and his delegation warmly (21:17), many Jerusalem disciples apparently still had some doubts about him. James had recognized that Paul’s work had been guided by God. But now he also had to address a public-relations problem in his own congregation.
There is a good reason why Paul was mistrusted. Some within the Jerusalem church were giving credence to rumors that Paul had been teaching against the ancient Jewish customs. That is, that he was teaching Jews not to practice their ancestral religion. The elders explained the problem to Paul: “You see, brother, how many thousands of Jews have believed, and all of them are zealous for the law. They have been informed that you teach all the Jews who live among the Gentiles to turn away from Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or live according to our customs” (21:20-21).
The phrase “many thousands” translates the Greek wording that is often used for a very large number, or myriads. Luke had already told us that many thousands had responded to the gospel message in the Jerusalem area during the earliest days of the church. It began with 3,000 on Pentecost (2:41), increased to 5,000 (4:4), to which were added more converts (6:7). These believers were all zealous for the law and the Jewish religious customs, as Paul had been (Galatians 1:14). They would distrust to anyone who insulted the Torah. And Paul had been accused of that by Diaspora Jews.
For Paul, circumcision made no difference regarding one’s status before God (Galatians 5:6; 6:15). However, so far as we know, Paul never told Jewish converts not to circumcise their children, nor was he opposed to its practice by Jewish believers. We have already been told in Acts that Paul does not teach against the Jewish Torah in and of itself. He circumcised Timothy for the sake of expediency (16:3); he observed some of the Jewish pilgrim festivals (20:5, 17); he even took part in a Nazirite vow (18:18). The rumors the Jerusalem church heard were not true.
But the zealous Christian Jews of Jerusalem were concerned lest the rumors were true, that Paul was telling Jews to stop observing their ancestral customs. (Teaching the Gentiles to do so was not the issue here.) As long as Paul was out of sight travelling through the empire, he was out of mind. But with his arrival in the city, the Jerusalem church leaders found themselves with a great problem. Its leaders had received a person who was possibly tainted as being a renegade—and worse still, teaching others to be renegades. By welcoming Paul, the leaders seemed to be aiding and abetting the “apostate” Paul. Something had to be done to put the evil rumors to rest.
Join in purification (Acts 21:22-24)
The church leaders thought they had a solution to their public-relations problem. As it happened, four Jewish church members were in the middle of observing a Nazirite vow. The elders approached Paul with a request regarding these four individuals. They said: “Take these men, join in their purification rites and pay their expenses, so that they can have their heads shaved. Then everyone will know there is no truth in these reports about you, but that you yourself are living in obedience to the law” (21:24).
Richard Longenecker writes, “They were saying to Paul, ‘We can accept this gift from the churches and so identify ourselves with your Gentile mission, if you will join with these men and identify yourself openly with the nation.’ Thus they were protecting themselves against Jewish recriminations while at the same time affirming their connection with Paul and his mission” (“Acts,” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, page 520).
The Nazirite vow, unless it had a specified time, normally lasted 30 days. During the period of the vow, the confessor would abstain from wine and strong drink, from any defiling contacts such as with a dead body, and would not cut his hair. When the period of the vow was over, the vow-taker would present an offering in the temple. His hair would be cut and sacrificially burned, also at the temple. Another Jew might associate himself with a Nazirite by paying for his offering, something that was regarded as a devout deed. However, if he had just returned from residence among Gentiles (as Paul had), he would be considered as defiled. He himself would have to undergo a separate purification rite.
Luke’s account is hazy on exactly what Paul did. It is not altogether clear as to how and why Paul was to be purified. However, his being ritually unclean after a long residence in Gentile lands seems to explain this adequately. The fact that the four men were to have their heads shaved at the end of their vow period indicates they were undertaking a Nazirite vow (Numbers 6:1-21). (For additional comments on the Nazirite vow, see the commentary on 18:18.)
By joining in the rites of the four men and paying for their required offerings, Paul would be making a public demonstration of his respect for Jewish tradition. He would be participating in a hallowed ancestral custom, and no one could claim he was teaching Jews to abandon the laws of Moses.
Decree restated (Acts 21:25)
The elders had asked Paul to show everyone that he still lived as a Jew. They felt constrained to explain again that no such demands would be made of Gentile believers. They had no intention of going back on their previous ruling. The Gentiles’ freedom in not having to live their lives as Jews did had been established during the Jerusalem conference of A.D. 49 (15:19-22). The charter still stood, with the exceptions set down at the conference.
The elders reaffirmed the Gentiles’ freedom by pointing out the same four regulations that had been part of the earlier decree (21:25). It seems odd that the elders repeated the decrees word-for-word back to Paul. He knew them thoroughly, having been a major player at the conference. He himself read the decrees to a number of churches. Perhaps it was Luke who was repeating the four regulations as a literary device for the benefit of his readers. Today, we would put such information in a footnote.
It’s possible Paul initially objected to the elders’ suggestion of participating in the purification ritual. Paul may have thought that Judaizers in the church would now claim that he and James had gone back on their agreement. He wanted reassurances that if he participated in the purification rites and vow this would not be interpreted as the church’s rejecting the prior agreement. This could be done by publicly reiterating the Jerusalem church’s commitment to the decree of Acts 15. The elders would have also needed to reaffirm the exceptions, which they did (21:25). That might be the reason they were repeated word for word here in Luke’s account.
There may be a third reason why the elders repeated the four prohibitions stated in Acts 15. Paul apparently had ceased teaching the importance of at least one of the four regulations. He wrote in his letter to the church in Corinth that there was nothing wrong in eating food sold in the meat market, although most such meat had previously been sacrificed to an idol (1 Corinthians 8:4). One merely needed to be careful not to offend a church member who thought it was wrong. Perhaps the elders had heard about what amounted to Paul’s departure from the agreement. They repeated the four stipulations to emphasize that, as far as they were concerned, the stipulations were still valid.
In any case, the request of James and the elders had nothing to do with the way Paul was carrying out the Gentile mission. They were not trying to renegotiate the terms under which Gentiles could be allowed into the church. The problem to be solved was Paul’s negative image, that he had supposedly taught Jews (not Gentiles) to “turn away from Moses” (21:21), and its impact on the church. We as readers of Acts already know the accusation is false.
No gentile may enter (Acts 21:26-30)
For the sake of unity and to help the Jerusalem church, Paul agreed to follow its urging and join the purification rites of the four believers. On the next day Paul took the four men and purified himself along with them (21:26). Then he went to the temple, where he gave the priest notice as to when the purification period would end. He would have also taken care of the offering to be made by each of the four men.
Apparently, the purification time still had a week to go. When the seven days were about over, some unconverted Jews from the province of Asia spotted Paul in the temple (21:27). (They were in Jerusalem for Pentecost, as in 2:5.) That’s when the riot began. The Jews seized Paul and began shouting, “Help us! This is the man who teaches everyone everywhere against our people and our law and this place. And besides, he has brought Greeks into the temple and defiled this holy place” (21:28).
Earlier, the Jews had seen Paul in Jerusalem with Trophimus. Apparently, they knew Trophimus to be a Gentile, and assumed Paul had brought him into the temple. (The mob said Paul had brought “Greeks” into the temple, that is, more than one. Perhaps they thought Paul had brought the entire delegation into its inner courts.) No Gentile was allowed into the temple’s inner courts. The Romans even allowed the Sanhedrin to execute the death penalty for anyone who violated this regulation, something that Josephus (Antiquities 15:417; Wars6:124-126) and Philo (Embassy to Gaius 212) both mention.
Josephus wrote that there was a stone wall separating the Court of the Gentiles from the inner courts reserved for Jews alone (Josephus, Wars 5:193-194). At regular intervals, pillars warned in Greek and Latin that no foreigner was permitted to go into the inner courts or Holy Place. “One of these Greek notices was found by C.S. Clermont-Gannau in 1871 and two Greek fragments of another were found in 1935. The complete notice reads: ‘No foreigner is to enter within the balustrade and embankment around the sanctuary. Whoever is caught will have himself to blame for his death which follows,’” (Longenecker, page 522).
Paul was a Jew and was entitled to pass beyond the dividing wall into the inner courts. The death penalty was applicable only to a Gentile who had violated the ban. But since Paul had been accused of defiling the holy temple, the mob was not interested in discussing the finer points of the law. According to Luke, they were trying to kill him on the spot, without even a trial (21:31).
It was the Diaspora Jews from Asia who started the riot. No doubt these were some of the same Jews who had been so hostile to Paul in Ephesus (19:9; 20:19). Paul’s trouble was caused by a mob of unconverted Jews, instigated by Diaspora Jews from Asia. It was not caused by the Jewish Christians of Jerusalem. Most likely the church would have liked to help Paul, but it was powerless to intervene. (The church in Jerusalem, along with James, now disappears from Luke’s account.)
The suggested strategy by the church elders to have Paul take part in the purification rites had backfired. Paul’s appearance in the temple provoked the very situation among unconverted Jews that the elders hoped to avoid within the church.
Commander of troops (Acts 21:31-32)
When the Jerusalemites heard the commotion in the temple area, they came running from every part of the city (21:30). Paul was dragged from the inner courts of the temple, and its gates were shut by the temple police. The mob apparently began beating Paul, probably in the outer court of the temple. Luke repeated the thought that “the whole city of Jerusalem was in an uproar” (21:31, 30).
The commander of the Roman troops quickly heard about the rioting. He took some soldiers, and they ran into the crowd to disperse it (21:32). The Roman garrison in Jerusalem was positioned to intervene at a moment’s notice if any disturbance occurred in the temple. The festivals were a particularly dangerous time, according to Josephus (Antiquities 20:105-112; Wars 5:238-247). To be able to quell any temple disturbance, the garrison was quartered in the fortress of Antonia, in the northwest corner of the temple area. The Antonia tower overlooked the temple, and two flights of steps gave troops stationed there direct access to the court of the Gentiles. The troops could rush down and quickly quell any disturbance, and this is what probably saved Paul’s life.
The commander of the fortress was a Roman military officer, the chief Roman authority in Jerusalem. We will soon learn that his name was Claudius Lysias (23:26). He would have been directly responsible to the procurator at Caesarea. Lysias had a Greek name, and he had probably advanced through the ranks of the Roman army. He had earlier paid some official to place him on a list of consideration to receive Roman citizenship. The fact that he had the name Claudius probably means that he received his citizenship under the reign of this emperor, and took his name as a token of honor.
As a commander (Greek, chiliarchos), Lysias was the “leader of a thousand” or the head of a “cohort.” At full strength, the cohort would have consisted of a thousand troops, including foot soldiers and horsemen. The Jerusalem garrison is thought to have consisted of some equivalent number of troops. We will learn later that the Roman military contingent in the city could afford to send some 470 soldiers to escort Paul to Caesarea, so it must have been at full strength (23:23).
Paul arrested (Acts 21:33)
When the rioters saw the troops coming, they stopped beating Paul. Since Paul seemed to be the focus of the disturbance, the commander arrested him, and ordered that he should “be bound with two chains” (21:33). This probably meant that Paul was handcuffed to a soldier on either side of him, much in the manner of Peter (12:6). At this point, in a roundabout way, the prophecy of Agabus had come true (21:11).
The commander tried to ascertain what Paul had done to cause such a riot. But people were shouting different things, and with the din of the crowd, confusion reigned. The commander then decided to take Paul into the Antonia barracks (21:34). Meanwhile, some in the mob were still trying to get at Paul, so he had to be carried by the soldiers into the fortress (21:35). A crowd followed the soldiers, shouting, “Get rid of him!” (21:36). The shout was similar to that which greeted Jesus in about the same spot over a quarter of a century earlier (Luke 23:18; John 19:15). Luke was pressing the similarity and wanted readers to note it.
“Aren’t you the Egyptian?” (Acts 21:37-39)
As Paul was about to be carried into the fortress, he spoke to the commander in Greek, asking if he might say something to him (21:37). The commander was surprised to be addressed in Greek. Why he should have been startled to hear Paul speak Greek is not clear, since it was the lingua franca of the Roman world at the time. Perhaps the commander thought Paul was an uneducated foreigner, but Paul spoke Greek like a native, without the accent common in Judea.
Also unclear is why the commander should surmise that Paul was a well-known Egyptian insurrectionist “who started a revolt and led four thousand terrorists out into the wilderness some time ago?” (21:38). Josephus spoke of such an Egyptian who perhaps three years earlier had appeared in Jerusalem during the procuratorship of Felix, claiming to be a prophet. According to Josephus, he led some 30,000 followers to the Mount of Olives in order to overthrow Jerusalem (Wars 2:261-262; Antiquities 20:169-172. (The commander estimated the Egyptian’s followers at 4,000, which was probably nearer the correct size, given Josephus’ tendency to exaggerate.)
Commentaries on Acts of the Apostles
The Romans killed and captured many of the Egyptian’s followers, though he escaped. The commander’s conclusion that Paul was that Egyptian is perhaps not too unreasonable, given the circumstances. Perhaps he thought the Jews, after discovering the Egyptian in the temple, had set upon him as an imposter.
Paul responded by saying to the commander, “I am a Jew, from Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of no ordinary city” (21:39). The Tarsus of Paul’s day was an important center of Hellenistic culture. Paul was telling the commander he was no uneducated anarchist from Egypt, but came from elsewhere, a cultured city of the empire. Paul quickly identified himself as a Jew. He wanted to be sure the commander didn’t summarily hand him over to Jewish authorities as a Gentile who had violated sacred temple areas (22:25).
However, when Paul said he was a “citizen” of Tarsus, he wasn’t appealing to his Roman citizenship. That he had such citizenship will come out only later (22:25). Paul here was underscoring his loyalty to the Roman Empire. He came from an important city in the empire—and was proud of being one of its citizens.
Paul also asked the commander for permission to speak to the people, which he received. This defense is the first of a series of speeches that dominate the rest of the narrative until Paul leaves Caesarea for Rome. Why the commander allowed Paul to speak is not clear. Perhaps by doing so he hoped to get at the reason why Paul had been attacked by the Jews. Neither is it clear why the crowd, which was in a hysterical frame of mind, would have even listened to a word of what Paul had to say.
There are probably logical explanations for both situations, but Luke chose not to discuss these things in order to keep his account brief and moving along. It’s also been argued that Paul would have been in no condition to speak after receiving a thorough beating. However, it’s not certain just how much he had been pummelled before being rescued. In any case, in another situation at Lystra Paul apparently had been stoned into insensibility, but was still able to get up and go into the city (14:14). Then, on the next day he left on a rugged trip into the next town, Derbe.
When the commander gave Paul permission to speak, he motioned to the crowd from the steps of the Antonia fortress. Surprisingly, everyone quieted down. Paul began his defense in Aramaic, which caused the crowd to be even more attentive (21:40). “They became very quiet,” Luke said (22:2). Aramaic was the language of Judea, and of those in the eastern Roman Empire who did not speak Greek. This is the first of three speeches that Paul would make in his defense, and which take up a considerable part of this section (22:1-21; 24:10-21; 26:2-23). (His attempted defense before the Sanhedrin in 23:1-9, a fourth speech, never really got under way.)
Author: Paul Kroll, 1995, 2012