How the Charges Against Paul Frame Luke’s Purpose

With Paul on trial, Christianity is on trial.

Nearly every commentator and overview article highlights a number of major themes that receive exceptional emphasis in Luke’s gospel: the poor, women, Gentiles, outsiders, prayer, the word, and the Holy Spirit. The charges against Paul explain why these themes mattered so much to Luke.

 

Last week, I presented evidence from both Acts and Luke to argue that Luke wrote his two-volume history of the early Christian movement to the Roman nobleman Theophilus as a trial-brief for the Apostle Paul’s first hearing in Rome. Part of that evidence is the excessive amount of space Luke dedicates to Paul’s legal situation and to 5 defenses of his innocence (Acts 22-26). I believe this material presents the framework of Luke’s purpose, providing an outline of Luke’s essential thesis regarding Paul’s innocence.

The Charges

In particular, the third of Paul’s five defenses (and the one that presents itself most clearly as a legal/courtroom drama) is preceded by a listing of the charges against Paul, as recounted by Tertullus, the prosecuting attorney hired by the Jewish leaders (Acts 24:4-8).

In particular, through Tertullus the Jews make the following three charges against Paul:

  1. He is a disturber of the Roman peace: “We have found this man a plague, one who stirs up riots among all the Jews throughout the world” (Acts 24:5).
  2. He is in charge of a new, and non-Jewish, religion: “This man…is a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes” (Acts 24:5).
  3. He has committed a capital offense under Roman law: “He even tried to profane the temple” (Acts 24:6).

What’s At Stake

If charge #1 is true, then Paul is a threat to the Pax Romana. He cannot be trusted with freedom in the public sector. And in light of charge #2, Paul is not the only threat to the public welfare; all “Nazarenes” (Christians) everywhere are equally threatening.

If charge #2 is true, then Paul, and his Nazarene followers, ought not to be granted the religious exemptions granted to the Jewish people. The Roman Empire, you see, compelled all citizens, colonists, and conquered peoples to offer not only allegiance but also worship to the emperor. They gave an exemption to only one people group: the Jews. Rome had learned the hard way not to mess in any way with the religion of Israel lest they cause more rioting and upheaval than they bargained for. So they had learned to leave the Jews alone, as far as their religion was concerned. By disassociating from Paul and “the sect of the Nazarenes,” the Jews are bringing this exemption into question for the newfound Christian movement.

If charge #3 is true, then, by nature of the religious freedom Rome has granted to the Jews by law, they must allow the Jewish leaders to put Paul to death.

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