Paul before Felix
his story continued
The Roman looked down from his seat of judgment with a barely concealed sneer as the High Priest moved arrogantly across the hall and took his place in the position reserved for complainants. A group of fellow priests surrounded him, and in the forefront was a smoothly shaven Greek, Tertullus, a professional advocate, who had been engaged to present their case in the fashion customary at a Roman trial. Opposite to them stood the accused, Paul, guarded by two stalwart Roman legionaries, for this was a civil trial and he was appearing before the representative of Caesar, to be judged according to the laws of Rome.
A nod from Antonius Felix and the trial opened. Tertullus stepped forward, went through the customary formalities of respect to Caesar and acknowledged the authority of Felix by a subservient inclination of the head. He paused a moment, as though for dramatic effect, and with an expression of self-deprecating subservience addressed the watching Roman. "Since through you we enjoy much peace" he began, "and since by your provision, most excellent Felix, reforms are introduced on behalf of this nation, in every way and everywhere we accept this with all gratitude,"
An expression of grim humour flickered across the eyes of the usually impassive Roman guards. There was not a man in the hall, Roman or Jew, who was not fully aware of the flagrant insincerity of Tertullus' fulsome words, for Antonius Felix was one of the worst governors Judea ever had. By birth a slave, he had been able in company with his brother Pallas to worm himself into the court of Claudius Caesar, and while Pallas remained as the Emperor's Court favourite, Felix had embarked on a career of provincial administration by which he had handsomely enriched himself.
Two years as governor of Samaria had been followed by six years in his present position in Judea, which he ruled, says one historian, "with the authority of a king and the disposition of a slave." Relying on the power of his brother at the Imperial Court, he committed every type of crime without restraint. On the one hand he sent his soldiers against the bandits who infested the country and on the other accepted bribes from them to condone their excesses. The High Priest, Jonathan, one of the few upright and God-fearing High Priests of that troubled period, who had reproved and reasoned with Felix on account of his conduct, was treacherously murdered at his instigation. Felix himself, already married twice, had seduced Drusilla, the young sister of King Agrippa, from her husband and married her.
Corruption in high places and flagrant disregard for justice, manifested by this unworthy representative of Empire, was reflected in every kind of violence in the land. Josephus says that it was at this time God turned away from His people because of their wickedness and left them to the fate which befell them ten years later, when Titus destroyed their cities and scattered the nation. Small wonder if the listening soldiers smiled ironically and the Jewish priests writhed inwardly as Felix accepted the undeserved compliments with a complacent smile. Ananias himself, who had seized the High Priesthood illegally after the death of Jonathan, must have remembered for a moment how his predecessor had been murdered by this man now sitting on the seat of judgment, and realised how insecure he himself might be. But his hatred of Paul overshadowed all other considerations and he turned his attention again to what Tertullus had to say ‑ the suave voice went on "But to detain you no further, I beg in your kindness to hear us briefly." It is possible that at this point Tertullus detected a trace of impatience in the Governor's attitude and decided that the courtesies had been sufficiently observed. He plunged forthwith into the accusation. The charge was threefold, to wit, that the prisoner was, first, an inciter to sedition amongst the Jews, second, a ringleader of the Nazarene sect, third, one who profaned the Temple. He disowned responsibility for the matter being obtruded upon Felix' august attention. They would have dealt with the offender themselves had not the chiliarch ‑ commander ‑ Lysias "with great violence" taken Paul out of their hands and sent him to Felix. But now the matter had thus become the subject of an official investigation and Felix could examine the prisoner himself and realise the truth of all that Tertullus had been saying.
The next step in the Roman judicial code was the production of witnesses and the hearing of their statements. Felix waited. The ensuing pause must have constituted something of an anti-climax to Tertullus' noble effort on behalf of his employers. Most regrettably, there were no witnesses. Ananias and his fellow priests had not been present at the time of the riot in the Temple. The Asiatic Jews who caused all the trouble and were the only ones who could offer any evidence had long since gone home and by now were well on their way to Ephesus or Lystra or Iconium and had probably lost all interest in the matter. The only possible witness now available was the Jerusalem garrison commander Claudius Lysias, and he was not likely to be helpful to their side of the case. So after a moment of silence a babble of priestly voices rang out, assuring the governor that all Tertullus had said was true and the prisoner could be condemned and sentenced without further ado. Felix regarded them with sardonic disdain. He knew these Jews ‑ he ought to, having governed them long enough. He had no illusions and probably saw through them at once. He looked now at the prisoner and made a peremptory sign with his hand. Paul had permission to speak.
Of course Paul also knew the character of the governor but quite evidently had no intention of trying to placate him by flattery nor show resentment at being arraigned before him. He treated him simply and solely as the rightful representative of law and order and the man authorised to hear the case and pronounce the verdict. His opening statement is a masterpiece of respectful courtesy without servility. "Realising that for many years you have been judge over this nation, I cheerfully make my defence. It is very likely that his evident respect for Felix' position, coupled with the total absence of either fear or flattery, evoked the governor's interest as no other attitude would have done. He was not used to men who neither cringed before him nor sought to propitiate him. The length of Paul's recorded defence compared with the brevity of Tertullus' accusation indicates that Felix must have given serious attention to the Apostle's words, any trace of possible former impatience gone. The impatience now would have been among Ananias and his fellows.
In quiet and logical fashion Paul met the three accusations with a calm and unequivocal denial. He refuted the charge of sedition by reminding Felix that from his own knowledge of Jewish custom he would know that Pentecost was only twelve days in the past. Paul had arrived in the country just in time to attend the feast and one could not preach much sedition in twelve days. As to the question of profaning the Temple, he flatly denied it and declared that they could not point to any possible action on his part which could be so construed. The third accusation, that he was a ringleader of the sect of Nazarenes, needed no defence, for that was no crime in the eyes of Rome. Christianity was, at that time, just as legal a religion as Judaism. Tertullus, for all his professional acumen, had slipped up when he included this particular charge at a Roman trial. "But" said Paul, "this I admit to you, that according to the Way which they call a sect, I worship the God of our fathers…having a hope in God… that there will be a resurrection of the dead, both of the just and unjust". Here is Paul back on his main theme, the purpose of God in relation to the destiny of man; but this time he was preaching, not to the Jews who had already rejected the testimony, but to one man, the guilt-laden judge who occupied the bench above him. So he desisted from further explanation of his mission and explained the circumstances of his coming to Judea, how he came to bring alms to his fellow Jews and to undergo purification rites in the Temple and concluded by claiming, what the governor was probably already thinking inwardly, that the people who raised the original riot should have been present to accuse him if they had anything against him.
Felix made up his mind. He must have already given weight to his subordinate's estimation of the prisoner's innocence and saw no reason to differ from Lysias' conclusions. There was probably another factor also. Luke says that when Felix heard these things, "having more perfect knowledge of that Way" he ended the proceedings. "The Way" was the expression used in those early days for the incipient Christian community everywhere. "Brethren of the Way" they called themselves and were so known by others. Somehow, in some manner, Felix had acquired a knowledge of the distinctive features of the faith that Paul was now proclaiming before him. He saw, more clearly than Ananias had given him credit for, the real reason for their hostility to the prisoner, and he was not prepared to hand Paul over to his enemies. At the same time he saw no reason why he should offend the Jewish priestly hierarchy unnecessarily. He closed the proceedings by saying that he would defer his decision until Lysias should have occasion to visit Caesarea and until then the prisoner would be kept in custody. Baulked again of their prey, Ananias and his fellows had to return to Jerusalem, sullenly furious at their lack of success and doubtless reflecting on the improbability of Felix doing much more about the matter. In that they were right, for Paul was not brought to trial again during Felix' term of office.
For the next two years Paul was held in a kind of preventive custody which shielded him from physical danger but gave him full liberty of intercourse with his friends. It is tolerably certain that Luke remained with him and in fact there is every probability that it was during this time Luke gathered the materials for his Gospel, which was yet to be written. So far as is known this was his only visit to Judea; he would have ample opportunity to visit the scenes of Jesus' earthly life and to talk with those who had seen and known Him. The intimate details of our Lord's birth, so carefully recorded, could only have been gathered in personal conversation with Jesus' mother Mary. It is also very probable that the Gospel according to Luke was actually written during this two years of Paul's imprisonment.
This chapter in the Apostle's life was not to be closed without showing up in sharp relief the tragedy of a man who caught the vision of eternity but could not bring himself to break from his own base vices in order to embrace it. Luke tells how Felix and his wife Drusilla had frequent conversations with Paul "concerning the faith in Christ". There must have been some remnant of primitive nobility in this man, corrupted as he was by riches and power and self-indulgence, which responded to the shining faith of his prisoner and he wanted to know more about it. But he could not face the implications. As Paul "reasoned of righteousness, temperance, and judgment to come, Felix trembled and answered, 'Go your way for this time: when I have a convenient season I will call for you' ". He thought of his own misdeeds, the grasping cupidity which had made him rich by extortion and theft, of his hands stained with the blood of innocent men. He looked upon the woman at his side whom he had stolen from her lawful husband, and he shrank from the implications of the Apostle's measured words. He half believed in the truth of Paul's declaration that every man must one day render an account of the deeds done in the body. He perhaps understood, in measure, the logic of Paul's insistence that God is working for the ultimate good of all creation but that every man himself has a part to play. But he thought of his immediate tastes and desires and he could not forego them. He trembled when he reflected on the possibility of judgment to come and there may have awakened in his dark nature some feeble desire for the peace and happiness that righteousness and temperance can bring. But again the pull of the present dragged him back and he turned away from the shining vision. As he returned to the darkness, his habitual cupidity reasserted itself and he began to cherish the hope that Paul or Paul's friends might offer a money bribe for the Apostle's release. So he kept up the conversations but all the time was receding farther away from the gleam of light he had but barely seen. And there was no money forthcoming. Paul would have scorned such a method of securing his release, and both the official and personal life of Felix went on as before.
But judgment came, as Paul had declared, and sooner perhaps than either of them expected. "But when two years had elapsed" says Luke briefly "Felix was succeeded by Porcius Festus". He offers no explanation, but history tells all. Felix, at last, had gone too far. There was always jealousy and strife between the Jews and the Greeks of Caesarea and riots were not uncommon. Toward the end of that two years a more than usually serious riot developed and Felix used this as an excuse for throwing his troops in, on the side of the Greeks, with tacit permission to plunder the houses of the wealthier Jews. He himself, of course, stood to receive a considerable portion of the loot. In despair at this latest example of the governor's rapacity, a deputation of leading Jerusalem Jews set sail for Rome to protest to the Emperor. Claudius, under whom Felix had originally risen to power, had been dead for some years and Nero was Emperor. Felix was peremptorily recalled to Rome to stand trial. Porcius Festus was sent to Judea as his successor. Not many months before Paul himself set out for Rome, Felix with his wife, Drusilla, and their young son, left Judea in disgrace to face the Emperor's anger. It seems that he escaped with his life but was stripped of all office and made to disgorge his ill-gotten gains. After that nothing is known about the couple and they evidently died in obscurity.
In what was perhaps a last unavailing attempt to placate the Jews, Felix, on his departure, "desiring to do the Jews a favour" for perhaps the first time in his life, "left Paul in prison". Thus it was that a man of a very different stamp, upright, just, and a firm administrator of Roman justice, Porcius Festus, landing at Caesarea to take up his duties as Governor of Judea, found a prisoner waiting for him and a civil trial on his hands.
(To be continued)