Paul before Agrippa
Paul's defence before Agrippa ranks as one of the highlights of the Book of Acts. In masterly style he presented the case for Christianity as the logical development of Judaism to a man high in authority in Jewry, one qualified by birth, education and experience to understand the force of the argument. Perhaps, if only we knew, he came within an ace of persuading his listener. No one has ever really understood what lay behind Agrippa's cryptic remark "Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian".
The new governor of Judea, Porcius Festus, was an upright and resolute man and not one to let the grass grow under his feet. He had been appointed to succeed Felix, following the latter's disgrace and recall to Rome. He took up his duties with the intention of stamping out the corruption and lawlessness that had flourished under his predecessor. Had he lived longer, history might have been different. He died in A.D. 61 only a year after assuming office, and his successors did nothing to arrest the mounting lawlessness which culminated ten years later in the horrors of the Jewish War and the dispersion of the Jews among all nations.
Within a few days of Paul's appeal to Caesar and the consequent decision of Festus to send his prisoner to Rome, the new governor received a courtesy visit from the highest Jewish dignitary in the land, no less a person than King Herod Agrippa II. Agrippa was a king in name only, his title being a courtesy one given him by Rome in recognition of his descent from the Herodian family, and on account of his father's personal friendship with the Emperor Claudius. He exercised no imperial authority of any kind in Judea. He was, however, designated the Protector of the Temple, and this fact, coupled with his very considerable wealth, gave him considerable standing and power with the priestly hierarchy and the ruling classes generally. His great-grandfather, Herod the Great, the slayer of the 'Innocents' soon after Jesus birth, had been dead for many years and so had his great-uncle, Herod Antipas, who executed John the Baptist. His own father, Herod Agrippa I, by whose orders James the brother of John had been executed (Acts 12. 2) had died sixteen years earlier in this very town of Cassarea, following the celebrated oration on account of which the listeners had hailed him as a god. Now the last of the Herods was to come face to face with the foremost of those who espoused the 'Cause' against which his own forbears had fought in vain.
So this Jewish nobleman, in all the regalia of his meaningless royalty, accompanied by his sister Bernice who shared his pseudo-imperial state, came to pay his respects to the representative of Roman rule and with the intention doubtless of establishing a business understanding for the future. Agrippa is known to have been an astute 'man of the world' but also a zealous orthodox Jew upholding the State religion and the Law of Moses. On the other hand he also took good care to keep on the right side of the secular power emanating from Rome. It was by Agrippa's energy and initiative that the magnificent Temple, begun by his great-grandfather, Herod the Great, forty-six years before the time of Jesus (John 2.20), was at length completed. It had taken three quarters of a century to build. Ten years later, as Jesus had predicted, it was totally demolished by the Romans under Titus at the siege of Jerusalem.
The Jewish king had no thought of that calamitous ending of his life's work on the day he entered the old Herodian palace at Caesarea, now the official residence of the Roman governor, to make the acquaintance of Festus. Neither could he have suspected that at this moment, like his forbears before him, he was to be brought into contact with the challenge of Christ. Unlike them, he was not to fight against it, but in measure to further its interests. There is not much doubt that Agrippa's considered judgment in the matter at issue was a contributory factor to Paul's acquittal when he stood his trial before Nero two years later.
After several days' discussions on matters of State, of Roman policy and Jewish intransigence, Festus brought up the matter that was troubling him. He had this prisoner on his hands, Paul the Christian, who after two ineffectual trials had appealed to the tribunal of Caesar and must now be sent to Rome. Festus' problem was that he had no idea of with what crime under Roman law Paul was to be accused. It was quite obvious that Festus, like Felix and the commander Claudius Lysias, believed Paul innocent of any crime, but the insistence of the Jews that he was worthy of death made it necessary to get to the root of the matter. Had it been a matter of transgression against the ordinary civil law Festus would have known where he was, but realising his ignorance of matters Jewish, and finding, as he said rather helplessly to Agrippa, that the accusations related to "questions of their own religion, and of one Jesus, which was dead, whom Paul affirmed to be alive" he felt at a loss. He rather welcomed the opportunity of getting the advice of so acknowledged an expert as Agrippa.
The king probably beamed expansively. There might have been another factor. He could not but have been well aware of Paul's name and reputation. Secretly, perhaps, he would long since have liked to meet and hear him but the dignity of his position forbade. Here was a golden opportunity. "I would also hear the man myself" he remarked. "Tomorrow" promised a greatly relieved Festus "you shall hear him". The ensuing proceedings were probably the most elaborate of any at which the Apostle had been the central figure. Festus did not do anything by halves. When Paul was ushered into the council chamber he found himself facing all the exotic pageantry of an Eastern king. Agrippa sat in royal state with his consort Bernice and their retinue, gorgeously arrayed in a blaze of colour and ornament. In addition there was the armed might of Rome, commanders and centurions with their men in gleaming armour, and the civic leaders of the city in their robes of office. Everybody who was anybody in Caesarea was present, and it is to be hoped that Agrippa was suitably impressed by the organising ability of Festus and his efforts to make this a memorable occasion.
"And Festus said, King Agrippa and all men which are here present with us, you see this man, about whom all the multitude of the Jews have dealt with me, both at Jerusalem and also here, crying that he ought not to live any longer. But when I found that he had committed nothing worthy of death, and that he himself had appealed to Augustus, I have determined to send himů.I have no certain thing to write to my lord. Wherefore I have brought him before you, and specially before you, King Agrippa, that, after examination, I might have somewhat to write, for it seemed to me unreasonable to send a prisoner and not to signify the crimes laid against him". (Acts 25.24-27).
This was not a trial, as were the two previous occasions. Having appealed to Caesar, Paul had taken his case completely out of the hands of provincial officials. This function was an invitation to Paul to state his own position before a leading representative of his own nation who could be relied upon for a true appraisal of the position and advise the Governor accurately. Paul himself understood this and was ready accordingly. Agrippa looked down upon him from his seat and invited him to say what was on his mind. "You are permitted to speak for yourself" he said urbanely.
"I think myself happy, King Agrippa" Paul responded, "because I shall answer for myself this day before you touching all things whereof I am accused of the Jews, especially because I know you to be expert in all customs and questions which are among the Jews". This was not fulsome flattery. There was probably no living Jew better qualified to weigh up the logic of his arguments. Paul would seek to prove that Jesus of Nazareth fulfilled in his person and life all that the Old Testament, the Jewish Scriptures, had foretold concerning the suffering Messiah and his relation to the out-working purpose of God. Agrippa was an educated man and thoroughly conversant with the literature and the history of his nation. He was not a religious fanatic, and he was not biased in favour of the priestly hierarchy of his people. All the evidence goes to show that he took Paul and all he had to say very seriously and judged the entire matter on its merits.
Paul was now well launched on his favourite theme. He knew that the man before him was well able to understand the thesis he had to propound. He commenced on the basis of the age-old hope of Israel, that it might be the Divine instrument for the conversion of the world under the leadership of the Messiah in God's good time. "And now I stand and am judged for the hope of the promise made of God unto our fathers". From this he swung quickly into the connecting link between that promise and its claimed fulfilment in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. "Why should it be thought a thing incredible with you, that God should raise the dead?" Gentiles might doubt such a thing, but never Jews. In all the fierce conflicts that Jews had, first with the Greeks and afterwards with the Romans, during the troubled two centuries before Christ, the fixed belief of every Jew, faced with death at enemy hands, was that God would raise him from the dead. One of the fundamental doctrines of Judaism was that at the Last Day there would be a resurrection of the dead, both of the just and unjust, and that rewards and punishments would then be distributed. It is true that, in general, Jewish thought equated the just with the Jews and the unjust with the Gentiles, and looked forward to sanguinary vengeance upon all their opponents when the day of the Messiah should dawn. In this they have not been so very much different from many of their Christian successors. The only real points of difference in Paul's theology were that Jesus of Nazareth was that promised Messiah and that Gentiles as well as Jews had part and lot in the Divine purpose. To neither of these propositions would orthodox Jewry give assent. Agrippa, however, was a man of broad mind and liberal education and he probably saw the force of Paul's argument much more clearly than has usually been supposed.
The Apostle proceeded, describing the circumstances of his conversion to Christ on the Damascus road, his sudden change from being a persecutor of the disciples to an adherent of their cause, his call to preach Christianity to the nations outside Israel and his implementation of that command.
Festus could contain himself no longer and broke in with a loud exclamation "Paul, you are mad; your great learning is turning you mad" (Acts 26.24 RSV). With exquisite courtesy the Apostle turned to him, "/ am not mad, most noble Festus, but speak forth the words of truth and soberness. For the king knows of these things, before whom also I speak freely; for I am persuaded that none of these things are hidden from him; for this thing was not done in a corner". Swinging round again to face the Jewish monarch, his voice rang out with that stentorian challenge which was the dramatic climax to this dramatic scene. "King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know that you believe"
Agrippa's historic answer, "Almost you persuade me to be a Christian", has been hailed as an intimation that the king was within an ace of being converted to the faith. On the other hand, many scholars have criticised this rendering of the Greek phrase in Acts and averred that the king really passed a somewhat sarcastic remark to the effect that Paul expected to convert him much too easily. There is a certain difficulty in translating the expression and room for some difference of opinion. It does not seem likely, however, that Agrippa was being sarcastic or treating the matter lightly; the narrative goes on to show that he did in fact take Paul's words very seriously in his subsequent discussion with Festus. The word translated "Almost" has the sense of something little in respect of size, few in respect of number, brief in respect of time, and so on. There is no evidence that the remark was a question. Agrippa did not say, as some have suggested, "Do you expect so easily to make me a Christian?" It is to be feared that popular exegesis of this verse has been somewhat influenced by a refusal to believe that Agrippa was in any way whatever influenced by Paul's appeal, but this is both unjustified and unworthy. It is quite possible that the sense of his reply, expressed in present day idiom, was something like "with a little effort you will persuade me to become a Christian" as though not much more was needed to turn the scale. It is not likely that Agrippa was really on the point of conversion, but it is possible that his thoughtful mind had perceived the logic of Paul's presentation and was more than half inclined to accept the intellectual premise on which it was based. His use of the term "Christian", which was not as yet a widely used term, shows that he already had some knowledge of the progress of the new faith.
The hearing was concluded. Agrippa rose from his seat as a sign that he had heard enough. Taking Festus and a few high officials aside, he conferred with them in private. Paul was guilty of no crime against the law; "this man might have been set at liberty" was Agrippa's judgment "if he had not appealed unto Caesar". Without much doubt the king helped Festus draft the document which was to go to Rome in explanation of Paul's despatch to the Imperial tribunal. It is quite likely that the opinion of Agrippa as to Paul's innocence was added to the letter and that opinion must have carried weight when the trial took place. After two long year's inactivity in Caesarea, Paul's heart must have beat faster in anticipation of the imminent attainment of his great ambition ‑ to see Rome.
(To be continued)