We do seem to love our conspiracy theories. Powerful, secret cabals pull invisible strings, making people dance unknowingly to their tune… You can almost envision the theatrical trailer, filmed mostly in shadow. You can hear the overwrought music, the tense narration. Potential enemies lurk around every corner. Who can you trust?
As the saying goes, Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean that they’re not out to get you. Some conspiracies are real. And Luke is about to go Hollywood on us.
. . .
The previous passage in Acts 23 ended on an encouraging note — literally. Jesus appeared to Paul, telling him to keep up his courage, for he would continue to bear witness to Jesus not just in Jerusalem, but also in Rome. After all that Paul had been through since coming to Jerusalem, this vision must have greatly lifted his spirits. His work wasn’t done, and he would get to Rome after all.
But the drama in Jerusalem was far from over yet:
In the morning the Jews joined in a conspiracy and bound themselves by an oath neither to eat nor drink until they had killed Paul. There were more than forty who joined in this conspiracy. (Acts 23:12-13, NRSV)
Luke doesn’t tell us who these men were, but chances are they were part of the mob that had tried to beat Paul to death for allegedly defiling the temple. We can only imagine the general frustration and anger the mob felt at the interference of the Romans, at having their self-righteous zeal thwarted. And surely they resented having to watch their quarry being carried away by armed soldiers into protective custody.
Forty of them therefore banded together and drew up a plan; they weren’t going to let Paul get away, and they weren’t going to be intimidated by the Romans. They made a pact with each other, taking an oath before God.
No doubt there was a certain amount of bluster and braggadocio involved in this. One biblical scholar calls their oath “silly”: did anyone think through how hungry they would get if their scheme didn’t work? But even if the plan itself was hasty and ill-conceived, their intent was deadly serious.
The plan was to get the Sanhedrin to deceive the tribune into thinking that they wanted a second chance at examining Paul more thoroughly (the first examination having quickly deteriorated into an undignified fistfight). The gang of forty would then ambush Paul somewhere between the barracks and the council chambers.
They had to know that Paul would be escorted by armed soldiers. Some of the conspirators would likely be killed or maimed, and whatever the outcome, there would be a swift and serious reprisal from Rome. But such was their passion for vengeance; no price was too high to pay.
If this were a Hollywood screenplay, the action might go something like this. The tribune is deceived as planned, but is somehow suspicious. He assigns a detail of soldiers to escort Paul. At a prearranged cue, the conspirators attack and gain the upper hand. Things look bleak for Paul. Who will save him?
Then the tribune himself swoops in, sword drawn. He’s outnumbered, but no matter; he is a masterful warrior, accompanied by some well-muscled and equally skilled backup. Throw in some mixed martial arts and a few slow-motion action shots. Then wrap with the conspirators sprawled everywhere in defeat, and the tribune explaining to a grateful Paul how he figured out at the last second that there would be an ambush.
But this ain’t Hollywood.
Yes, there are scenes in Acts that involve dramatic rescues. But God also works through quieter means. And as we’ll see, in this case, Paul is saved because he has a young nephew in the city who happened to be in the right place at the right time.