Paul Talks with the Roman Commander
As Paul was about to be taken inside, he said to the commander, “May I have a word with you?”
“Do you know Greek?” the commander asked, surprised. “Aren’t you the Egyptian who led a rebellion some time ago and took 4,000 m embers of the Assassins out into the desert?”
“No,” Paul replied, “I am a Jew and a citizen of Tarsus in Cilicia, which is an important city. Please, let me talk to these people.”
The commander agreed, so Paul stood on the stairs and motioned to the people to be quiet. Soon a deep silence enveloped the crowd, and he addressed them in their own language, Aramaic.Acts 21:37-40
The important detail Luke has given us:
Act 21:39 “No,” Paul replied, “I am a Jew and a citizen of Tarsus in Cilicia, which is an important city. Please, let me talk to these people.”
Act 22:25 When they tied Paul down to lash him, Paul said to the officer standing there, “Is it legal for you to whip a Roman citizen who hasn’t even been tried?”
Act 22:26 When the officer heard this, he went to the commander and asked, “What are you doing? This man is a Roman citizen!”
Act 22:27 So the commander went over and asked Paul, “Tell me, are you a Roman citizen?” “Yes, I certainly am,” Paul replied.
Act 22:28 “I am, too,” the commander muttered, “and it cost me plenty!” Paul answered, “But I am a citizen by birth!”
Act 22:29 The soldiers who were about to interrogate Paul quickly withdrew when they heard he was a Roman citizen, and the commander was frightened because he had ordered him bound and whipped.
Act 23:27 “This man was seized by some Jews, and they were about to kill him when I arrived with the troops. When I learned that he was a Roman citizen, I removed him to safety.
Citizen is mentioned seven times in the wider passage.[Note to self: the word citizen is important to Luke’s account.]
This may seem like an inconsequential way to move the story on but it is not. My Greek Professor, Basil Brown ( now with the Lord) taught me to pay careful attention to every word of Scripture. This is not an aside, the theme of citizenship is repeated and developed in the subsequent storyline as you can see above. At this point I will investigate the text we have before us and then draw some parallels to what is ahead but leave the main comments for when we get to the part in the weeks to come.
Why does Paul highlight his citizenship of Tarsus and leave telling the Commander of his Roman citizenship until Acts 22:27-28? And as you can see above it is developed again in Acts 23:27. Why didn’t he tell him that he was a Roman Citizen in the passage before us now? It would have made things easier for Paul and Luke and it would have made our Bibles shorter by perhaps as much as two chapters, which would have pleased those who are keen to publish The Abbreviated Bible. (Those who know me know what I think about that).
- What was conveyed to the Roman regiment commander by Paul saying he was a citizen of Tarsus?
- What significance did that carry?
Notice the words Paul uses: I am a Jew and a citizen of Tarsus in Cilicia, which is an important city. The literal words of this statement are: “But Paul said, Indeed I am a man, a Jew of Tarsus, of Cilicia, a citizen of no mean city.” The adversative particle here (but) carries a contrastive sense. I would choose “on the contrary” for Ian’s translation. The commander has asked him, Aren’t you the Egyptian who led a rebellion some time ago and took 4,000 members of the Assassins out into the desert? Paul answers, “On the contrary, I am a Jew and a citizen of Tarsus in Cilicia.” The Commander’s question is a response to Paul’s request “to have a word with him”. The Commander’s question is prefaced by [ouk ara] “not then”. The negative particle with [ara] expresses surprise. Why would the Commander be surprised? I think it is because Paul said to him, “Can we have a private word?” or “a word inside”, “a quiet word” or more formally – “May I say something to you?” I think even just the words would be enough to catch the Commander’s attention. But I fully believe Paul spoke to him using the Greek language. The explains the inclusion of the words, “Do you know Greek?” the commander asked, surprised. The surprise in this sentence actually literally comes from [ouk ara] but I believe the NLT has rightly placed it with the Commander’s question, “Not then an Egyptian” coupled with “Do you know Greek?” This evidenced to him that he was not talking to a country bumpkin, a backwoods hick. This was clearly an educated man. Hence Paul’s addition of “Tarsus, a no mean city”. It is understated for a reason. Paul didn’t say – important city – what he said was “Tarsus, not an insignificant city”, not a small city, no little town.
Tarsus was indeed the chief city of Cilicia, on the south-eastern portion of Asia Minor and it was on the chief highway of communication and trade between Cilicia and the interior of Asia Minor and the educated world of the Romans and the Greeks. Under Greek control Tarsus was granted autonomy and was consider an ideal city and praised by the Greek leaders. It was Hellenized and had adopted Greek government, coinage and education. Inhabitants of Tarsus had a passion for learning and philosophy. Strabo, writing about 19 AD, tells us (of the enthusiasm of its inhabitants for learning) and said “Tarsus surpasses Athens and Alexandria and every other university town” inferring that Tarsus was a university town in its own right. Under Roman control, Tarsus was the capital of the new enlarged province of Cilicia. The Romans granted Tarsus the status of an independent, duty free state in 32 BC. It was highly regarded, Cicero lived there and Julius Caesar visited Tarsus in AD 47. Though not a native born Roman, Paul had clearly been granted Roman Citizenship status by birth as we see in Acts 22:28 and will investigate when we get to that verse.
At this point the Commander is surprised when Paul talks to him in Greek. This man was clearly an educated intellectual from a notable city. This fact suggested he comes from the elite of Tarsus – well educated and cultured. It is quite likely that Paul’s appearance as he stood before the Commander inferred otherwise. Having been beaten up and no doubt his clothes torn, Paul’s appearance would not have suggested he was a learned man from a prestigious city. Hence when this roughly dressed looking man standing before him suddenly starts talking to him in Greek, and no doubt Classic Greek, the language of the educated, Paul had his attention.
Paul’s request to talk with the people outside the Roman fort is granted. Then notice what happens!
Luke writes: “The commander agreed, so Paul stood on the stairs and motioned to the people to be quiet. Soon a deep silence enveloped the crowd, and he addressed them in their own language, Aramaic.” (Acts 21:40)
Paul switches languages and then starts talking in Aramaic to the inhabitants of Jerusalem. I favour translating the Paul’s act of standing here and speaking to the people as participles. I am convinced the action of standing on the steps and addressing the crowd in Aramaic was what held them in rapt attention. A number of translations handle this as a temporal clause – when Paul stood on the steps above them and began to speak to them in Aramaic a deep silence enveloped the crowd.
Not as the order in the ISV suggests – The tribune gave him permission, and Paul, standing on the steps, motioned for the people to be silent. When everyone had quieted down, he spoke to them in the Hebrew language: . . . The timing is important. I suggest it was when Paul started speaking their language Aramaic (Hebrew) that they feel into deep silence. When the Commander heard his own language, Greek, coming from the mouth of this miscreant, he too was captivated. Oh the power of one’s mother tongue. That’s why our goal in Wycliffe Bible Translators is to see a Bible translation in the language they understand the best for every people group that needs it by the year 2025.
We will return to the matter of Paul’s Roman citizenship when we get to the passage in Chapter 22. Clearly Luke has not finished with the theme of citizenship and what’s more Paul is playing the citizenship card very cleverly.
Share the relevant information at the right time on a need to know basis. The sign of a smart leader.Ian Vail
You can only develop character when you’re with someone.A.R. Bernard
The quality of your thinking determines the quality of your life.A R Bernard
Grace is not opposed to effort! It is opposed to earning.Dallas Willard