If you’re a follower of Jesus, the gospel makes sense to you. Jesus died for you, then rose again, vindicating his message and authenticating the promise that we too will one day be raised to life.
But it may not always have made sense to you. And it may not make much sense to others who don’t already believe. As Paul once wrote, “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. … Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? … God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe” (1 Cor 2:18-21, NRSV).
As we’ve seen, the Roman governor Festus has been briefing his guest, King Agrippa II of Chalcis, on the curious case of the apostle Paul. I’ve suggested that Festus was a thoroughly political animal, as anyone who wanted to survive and thrive in the Roman system probably needed to be. One didn’t just report the “facts” to one’s superiors. Words had to be massaged and spun to the proper effect: “Hey, aren’t you glad you hired me?”
Having said that, some of what he tells Agrippa may give us a relatively uncensored look into his confusion about the situation. Here again are his words:
When the accusers took the floor, they didn’t charge him with any of the crimes I had expected. Instead, they quibbled with him about their own religion and about some dead man named Jesus, who Paul claimed was alive. (Acts 25:18-19, CEB)
The Jews who had come from Jerusalem to Caesarea for the official hearing surrounded Paul and hurled accusations. But to Festus, the “crimes” of which they accused the apostle were real head-scratchers. Who cares? he may have thought to himself as the tirade went on; none of this has anything to do with Roman law. To him, it was all about some abstract religious quibble (the word translated “religion” may have a pejorative air to it) that was over his head.
When Paul had stood before the previous governor, Felix, he had said he was glad Felix would be the one to hear the case. When it came to Jewish ways — indeed, when it came to The Way — Felix knew his stuff. Festus? Not so much. He doesn’t seem to have even heard about Jesus.
What he’s saying to Agrippa is something like this: When it came time for Paul’s accusers to speak, I couldn’t make heads or tails out of what they were saying. I thought they would accuse him of a real crime. Instead, they just blathered on about some terrible difference of opinion they had with Paul. It was all about some dead guy named Jesus. They said this Jesus guy is dead, but Paul insisted that Jesus is alive. Go figure.
We can’t make too much out of the wording, of course. We don’t know how Luke would have known what was said in private between Festus and Agrippa. He may have followed the protocols of the time, projecting how the conversation went on the basis of what he had, perhaps from Paul, perhaps from the public meeting he describes next.
But whatever the case may be, the conversation should remind us of just how odd the idea of death and resurrection is, from the standpoint of what seems obvious to worldly wisdom. We make take the idea for granted, but we shouldn’t.
And perhaps, we might remember to speak of resurrection with grateful wonder instead.