Acts 22:22 – 29
The crowd listened to Paul until he said this (his statement in verse 21 about the Lord sending him to witness to gentiles). Then they raise their voices and shouted, “Rid the earth of this man! He is not fit to live!”
As they were shouting and throwing off their cloaks and flinging dust into the air, the commander ordered Paul to be taken into the barracks. He directed that he be flogged and questioned in order to find out why the people were shouting at him like this. 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?”
When the centurion heard this, he went to the commander and reported it, “What are you going to do?” he asked. “This man is a Roman citizen.”
The commander went to Paul and asked, “Tell me, are you a Roman citizen?”
“Yes, I am,” he answered.
Then the commander said, “I had to pay a big price for my citizenship.”
“But I was born a citizen,” Paul replied.
Those who were about to question him withdrew immediately. The commander himself was alarmed when he realized that he had put Paul, a Roman citizen, in chains.
Revolts, rebellions, and riots were the order of the day in Roman colonies during the Roman Empire. The Guals of Spain and France, the Celts in the British Isles, the Barbarians north of the Rhein River, the Jews, Persians, and Egyptians all had factions which fought among themselves. The central authority of Roman was less concerned with these internal conflicts, but wanted to keep them contained. Sounds like Pax Britiana in the 19th Century, and Pax Americana now, right? We have seen references to these struggles, in this narrative, and earlier when Jesus was arrested and crucified. The Roman governors only stepped in to try to keep some level of peace.
In the last episode, when Paul spoke to the Roman commander about talking to the crowd, then when he talked to the crowd, he spoke in two different languages. He spoke to the commander in Greek (Acts 21:37), and to the crowd in Aramaic (21:40). he spoke Hebrew when he taught at the Temple in Jerusalem. This implies that Paul was educated, and knew his audience, by which language he used.
He would have grown up with each langauge because of his Jewish birth and education to become a Pharisee (Hebrew), reared in Tarsis, a major city where Greek was the language of formal education, but also near the region where Aramaic was the langauge of common people and his trade (tent maker). Thus, Paul speaks Greek to the Roman commander and Aramaic to the crowd (implying that the crowd was not the Jewish leaders who opposed him, but those whom the leaders stirred up… bet they would have a Twitter feed of vile rhetoric… sound familiar?)
Paul also knew his legal rights as a Roman citizen. A Jewish or Egyptian, rabble-rouser could be arrested, flogged and interrogated without due process of law (an enemy combatants, should we say?) to separate him for a conflict. A Roman citizen would need cause to be arrested. Paul declares his Roman citizenship to the centurion, who passes on the oversight to the commander. Furthermore, Paul points out that he was born a Roman citizen. The commander replies that he paid a high price for his citizenship, implying that he was previously a Roman slave. Most Roman slaves were from regions that the Roman Empire conquered. Under Roman law, they could work, save their earnings, buy their freedom, and progress in social status.
The theological implications here are rich. Paul was born free, but became enslaved to the Jewish law through his education and work as a Pharisee. He was freed, not through his efforts, but by the calling of Jesus and his willingness to follow. He has just recounted this in verses 22:1 – 21. The commander was enslaved, but purchased his freedom. Yet, his rank is less than Paul’s. In the fresco, Paul gestures to the Roman Standard with the Eagle. He is a free man. Furthermore, look at the illumination on their feet. Paul has both feet on the top step; the commander has only one.