The big oops

There you are, just going along, taking care of business. You’ve got this, you know what you’re doing.

Then, all of a sudden, you realize you’ve made a horrible mistake. There will be consequences, possibly terrible ones.

Do you know the feeling? That churning in your gut? The frantic way your brain casts about for a way out of the mess?

If you do, then maybe you can have a little compassion for poor Claudius Lysias, the Roman officer who blew it big time with the apostle Paul.

. . .

Cladius Lysias (we’re told his name later; Acts 23:26) was the tribune who snatched Paul away from the Jewish mob that wanted to kill him. He didn’t do it out of compassion for Paul, but because it was his job to keep the peace. Unable to find out reason for the disturbance, he decided to interrogate Paul in the usual way, which meant flogging him until he talked. He took it for granted that he was merely following procedure.

Unfortunately for him, he also took it for granted that there was no need to ask Paul if he was a Roman citizen, which was not proper procedure. By Roman law, citizens were not to be flogged during an investigation. The oversight could cost the tribune his honor, his position, or even his life.

Paul had been brought into the barracks, stripped, stretched out, and tied with straps, ready to be scourged. It was at that strategic moment that Paul turned to the centurion in charge, and calmly asked, “Is it legal for you to flog a Roman citizen who is uncondemned?” (Acts 22:25, NRSV). 

Now there’s a conversation stopper.

Recall the story in Acts 16: Paul and Silas were beaten with rods and thrown into prison without a trial. Only after the magistrates ordered their release did Paul reveal that he and Silas were citizens, setting off a small panic and a lot of apologetic bowing and scraping.

Imagine, then, the centurion’s alarm at Paul’s casual bombshell, just when he was on the verge of doing something far worse than beating Paul with a rod. He headed straight to the tribune: 

When the centurion heard that, he went to the tribune and said to him, “What are you about to do? This man is a Roman citizen.” The tribune came and asked Paul, “Tell me, are you a Roman citizen?” And he said, “Yes.” The tribune answered, “It cost me a large sum of money to get my citizenship.” Paul said, “But I was born a citizen.” Immediately those who were about to examine him drew back from him; and the tribune also was afraid, for he realized that Paul was a Roman citizen and that he had bound him. (Acts 22:26-29)

Paul may have produced proof of his citizenship. Romans often carried diplomas for that purpose, certificates engraved in bronze or wood (today, passports serve a similar function). But even if he didn’t, the centurion knew Paul’s claim couldn’t be an idle one; to lie about being a citizen was a crime punishable by death.

The centurion reports the news to the tribune, with a remark to the effect of, “Do you know what the heck you’re doing?” His responsibility in the matter is done. But the tribune must now question Paul directly. 

The interaction between them is telling. At first, the tribune asks Paul a simple question and receives a simple answer: “Are you…?” “Yes.” At this point, Luke doesn’t describe any reaction. Then the tribune probes further: “I paid a fortune for my citizenship.” Why does he say this?

The reign of the former emperor, Claudius, had a reputation for being (pardon the expression) a diploma mill; officials and insiders got rich off taking bribes to rubber stamp citizenship applications. Indeed, the tribune’s name, “Claudius Lysias,” suggests that he was born Greek but became a citizen under the patronage of the emperor; as he confesses to Paul, he paid handsomely for the privilege.

His statement thus implies a question: “I paid for my citizenship. What about you?” As scholars have suggested, it’s a way of sizing up relative social status. Did you have to pay too? How much? Was it a long time ago, or just recently? 

But nobody expects the answer Paul actually gives: “Well, gents, I was born a citizen.” That means Paul’s father was already a citizen, perhaps his grandfather as well. This was not common, but not unheard of either. The likelihood is they were granted citizenship in gratitude for some notable service to Rome. Given the family business, they may have supplied tents to the army.

And with that, everyone involved in the interrogation suddenly draws back in fear. They know immediately the significance of Paul’s answer: he’s not only a citizen, he’s a man of higher status than they. Even though they haven’t scourged him yet, they’ve already committed a serious breach of protocol.

The tribune knows this is his problem to fix. And as we’ll see in coming posts, he keeps trying to fix it, and his reputation, for a whole chapter.

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