Breaking in the newbie

Here’s a situation that might sound familiar. You’ve just been appointed to a position of leadership over a body of people you barely know, if at all. What you do know is that they’re a fractious group, characterized by warring factions and various intrigues.

In such a situation, it’s good to make allies where you can. But be careful. People often see changes in leadership as an opportunity to take advantage of the newbie’s naiveté. 

. . .

As we saw in the previous post, as a final favor to the Jews as he left office, Governor Felix kept the apostle Paul in Roman custody. Paul had already been in jail for two years, and Felix had never found him guilty of anything. For political reasons, however, he refused to rule on the case, leaving Paul in legal limbo.

No, not that Festus.

The new man was Porcius Festus. From what is known about him (and it isn’t much), he was a fairer and more just governor than Felix. Unfortunately, where the intrigues of the Jews were concerned, he was definitely a newbie. Earlier, Paul had made his defense before Felix gladly; whatever the man’s other shortcomings, at least he was experienced and harder to deceive.

But Festus? Paul didn’t know what to expect.

It didn’t take long, however, for him to lose confidence in the new governor.

. . .

Luke gives the impression that Festus hit the Judean ground running. I imagine Festus being confused and curious as he worked to tie up the loose ends Felix had left behind. Hmm, he thought, as he thumbed through Paul’s case file. This guy’s been in custody for two years, and for no apparent reason that I can see. And he’s a citizen to boot. What’s going on?  Thus, a mere three days after arriving in the province, he traveled to Jerusalem to meet with the leadership there and hear a report on Paul.

As we’ve seen, two years earlier, when Paul was in Jerusalem, the Jewish leaders had colluded with a conspiracy to assassinate Paul. Now, with Felix out and Festus in, they saw an opportunity to finish the job.

Felix had already set the precedent by keeping Paul in custody. Perhaps the new guy could be convinced to do them one teeny-weeny additional favor? All Festus had to do was transfer Paul to Jerusalem. And this time, there would be no one to save Paul from the assassins’ ambush (Acts 25:1-3).

Perhaps Festus refused because he smelled a rat. More simply, however, he may not have seen any logic in their suggestion. “I’m not going to be here in Jerusalem long,” he told them. “If you want to reopen the case, that’s fine. When I go back to Caesarea, you can come with me and make your accusations there” (Acts 25:4-5).

Having no other option, the Jewish leadership agreed. Festus stayed in Jerusalem for a week and a half, then returned to Caesarea. The very next day, he convened a tribunal, and once more, Paul was on the hot seat. Luke tells us very little about the hearing; much of it, no doubt, was a repeat of the earlier hearing before Felix. And once again, the Jerusalem delegation hurled serious but empty accusations, while Paul steadfastly insisted that he had neither broken the Jewish law nor profaned the temple. 

Importantly, however, Paul added one thing to his defense: he had not done anything “against the emperor” (literally, “against Caesar,” Acts 25:8). As Paul knew, in the eyes of the Roman governor, this was the primary issue. After all, Gallio, the governor of Achaia and the brother of Seneca (who was a mentor to Emperor Nero), had established an important precedent by throwing out the complaints the Corinthian Jews had brought against Paul. “Don’t bother me with your internal religious matters,” he told them, essentially. “And don’t come back unless he’s committed a crime against Rome” (Acts 18:14-16).

When Paul said, “I’ve done nothing against the emperor,” it gave Festus an opportunity to put an end to the political shenanigans. But the governor still wanted to curry political favor with the Jewish leaders who were clamoring for Paul’s head. So right there, as they watched, he asked Paul, “Do you wish to go up to Jerusalem and be tried there before me on these charges?” (Acts 25:9, NRSV).

I imagine Festus trying to ask the question with disarming neutrality. I imagine the Jewish leaders holding their breath, waiting for Paul’s answer. And I imagine Paul himself thinking, Umm, excuse me? Have they got to you already? I guess I’m not going to get justice here.  

It was time to change course, radically. Paul had already had two years to think through all the contingencies. As we’ll see, he was ready with Plan B. 

One thought on “Breaking in the newbie

  1. As always, Professor Lee, Has written an accurate interpretation of the text. His commentary was “spot-on” . It will be very interesting to see the possible applications to this text? Is there a lesson for me? Or concerning governance. ? Or about the spiritual status of the Religious Leaders of that day. and b.t.w. what about the religious t.v. evangelists of today? let me Selah.1

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