The Case of the Crooked Priest

According to Wikipedia, the best selling book series of all time is Harry Potter. No surprise there. Goosebumps is second (is there a theme here?). But in the number three slot stands a series of 82 novels published over the span of four decades, selling a total of over 300 million copies.

Care to take a guess?

Oh, right. You can see the picture. I withdraw the question, Your Honor.

Erle Stanley Gardner wrote an average of 2 Perry Mason novels a year for 40 years — now that’s consistency of output. I personally remember three Perry Mason television series, not counting the new one currently running on HBO. But the most iconic of these is the series that aired from 1957 to 1966, starring the pre-beard Raymond Burr. Perry Mason was a crackerjack attorney who knew how to solve crimes and break down witnesses on the stand; somehow, he was always able to get to the truth. 

Why bring up Perry Mason here? Because we’re about to meet the first lawyer in the book of Acts, a man named Tertullus. Was he as competent as Perry Mason? Was he a shyster? And how did the apostle Paul do, representing himself against high-priced legal talent?

You know what they say: “Anyone who acts as his own attorney has a fool for a client.”

Well, not this time. By the time the trial is over, Paul, not Tertullus, is the one who looks more like Perry Mason.

. . .

Acts 23 ended with Paul in Caesarea, sent there by Claudius Lysias, the Roman tribune who was trying to keep the peace in Jerusalem. Having heard of an assassination plot against Paul, Lysias sent the apostle, with an armed escort, to Governor Felix;  he also sent Felix a carefully worded, self-serving letter that made the tribune look both heroic and professional.

Who knows — maybe he even believed it.

As per the proper procedure, Lysias ordered Paul’s accusers to appear before the governor to present their case (Acts 23:30). Luke doesn’t tell us specifically whom Lysias ordered to do so, but five days after Paul arrived in Caesarea, Ananias the high priest showed up with his entourage, including Tertullus. . The presence of the high priest himself made the case high profile, and put political pressure on Felix.

With Ananias present, Felix called for Paul to be brought to him. Then Tertullus began his spiel: 

Your Excellency, because of you we have long enjoyed peace, and reforms have been made for this people because of your foresight. We welcome this in every way and everywhere with utmost gratitude. But, to detain you no further, I beg you to hear us briefly with your customary graciousness. (Acts 24:2-4, NRSV)

The opening sounds like an obsequious bit of sandal-licking, as if Tertullus knew that his case was weak, and had decided that fawning and flattery were the best bet. But in such situations, flattery was the norm, as was the promise to keep his remarks brief.

There’s no record of Felix actually having made any significant reforms, nor of anyone being particularly grateful to him for anything he did in office. But Tertullus knew which buttons to push. To say that the people had enjoyed “peace” under Felix’s administration was not to say that the region had been conflict-free, but that Felix had done his job of maintaining the Pax Romana. He had been, in other words, a successful servant of Rome.

Tertullus then continued:  

We have, in fact, found this man a pestilent fellow, an agitator among all the Jews throughout the world, and a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes. He even tried to profane the temple, and so we seized him. By examining him yourself you will be able to learn from him concerning everything of which we accuse him. (Acts 24:5-8)

In Luke’s necessarily brief summary of Tertullus’ argument, we get a series of rapid fire accusations against Paul: he’s a pest (literally, a pestilence); he stirs up trouble among the Jews wherever he goes; he’s a ringleader of the Nazarene sect (there was no single accepted name for “Christians” at the time, and “Nazarenes” is still the sobriquet Muslims use for Christians today); he tried to profane the temple.

Felix would have been most interested in the accusation that Paul was an agitator. A more literal translation would be that he incited riots. Tertullus, in other words, was accusing him of sedition and even insurrection (the same word is used of Barabbas in Mark 15:7). Felix could not look the other way and remain a servant of Rome.

But Felix also knew they were lying. He had already received the letter from Lysias, in which the tribune claimed to have rescued Paul from the mob. Tertullus’ claim (or the high priest’s claim through him) that the Jewish authorities “seized” Paul for trying to profane the temple flatly contradicted what Felix had heard from Lysias.

And we can guess whose account he was more likely to believe, even without Luke’s help.

As we’ll see, Paul then gets his turn. Bit by bit, he demolishes Tertullus’ case.

Perry would have been proud.