Acts 23 – One Shrewd Dude

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Today’s PassageActs 23

Paul is one shrewd dude. On two previous occasions, in order to outmaneuver Roman authorities who would otherwise punish him unjustly, we’ve seen him reveal his Roman Citizen Card (which is, of course, a trap card to be played face-down in the defense position). In today’s chapter, he shows he has more tricks up his sleeve, not only with the Romans, but with his own people.

But before all that, when Paul asserts his innocence before the Council, the high priest Ananias commands those near him to strike him on the mouth. Interestingly, the high priest is the third Ananias we’ve seen in Acts, the first two being a greedy member of the early church (Acts 5:1-11) and the guy who helped Paul regain his sight (Acts 9:10-19). But when threatened by this Ananias, Paul spits back: “God is going to strike you, you whitewashed wall! Do you sit to try me according to the Law, and in violation of the Law order me to be struck?” (3). Those assembled accuse him of disrespecting the high priest, and Paul claims that he didn’t know Ananias was high priest.

It struck me as odd that Paul wouldn’t know who the high priest was. But according to my research (shout-outs to the Timeline of Paul at Blue Letter Bible), Paul fled Jerusalem to Tarsus for safety in AD 37-38, and only came back intermittently between AD 47 and AD 57, which brings us to the events of this chapter. Given that Ananias officiated from AD 47 to 59, it’s possible that Paul never happened to learn of his position, though I’d expect him to keep more up-to-date than that on events in Jerusalem, if only by word of mouth. In any event, Paul indicates that he wouldn’t have spoken so acerbically if he’d known the man’s position, citing Exodus 22:28: “You shall not curse God, nor curse a ruler of your people.” They say ignorance of the law is no excuse, but perhaps ignorance of the high priest’s identity is.

In any event, this is the point at which Paul gets particularly shrewd. Seeing both Pharisees and Sadducees assembled, and knowing that the two groups differ on the possibility of resurrection, Paul exclaims, “Brethren, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees; I am on trial for the hope and resurrection of the dead!” (Acts 23:6). Finding an unlikely ally in Paul, the Pharisees suddenly see no reason to pursue the trial. The assembly breaks out into debate, the debate turns heated, and the Roman commander begins to fear for Paul’s life.

It turns out his fear is well-founded. The Roman soldiers return Paul to the barracks for safety, but later, Paul’s nephew gets wind of a Jewish conspiracy, over forty men strong who have vowed not to eat or drink until they’ve killed Paul. The nephew informs the commander, who does a little political maneuvering to relocate Paul to the care of Governor Felix in Caesarea, where his accusers can bring their charges if they wish to pursue them. Paul is now one step closer to Rome–which is precisely where God wants him to go next (Acts 23:11).

Say what you will about Paul, but while he plays the game aboveboard, he’ll use every social advantage at his disposal to pursue his ends. We’ll see the next moves in the game tomorrow.

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