From Jerusalem To Rome: Jerusalem Again

My dear readers, we continue reading the book of Acts. We are now in chapter 23, again in Jerusalem, and therefore there are a lot of details in this chapter that require the knowledge of its Jewish background.

Paul and Sanhedrin

Chapter 23 opens with the convening of the Sanhedrin. Luke’s words “Paul, looking intently at the Council,” probably reflect the custom of bringing witnesses into the midst of the judges. At this time, in spite of Roman occupation, the Great Sanhedrin in Jerusalem was still the highest judicial, political and administrative authority in the Land. The Apostle presumably was standing in the center of the court, the interrogating members of Sanhedrin sitting around him, and Paul thereby directly facing them. Those accused were given the opportunity to speak on their own behalf before the Sanhedrin – and that is exactly what Paul is doing here.

These opening words are extremely remarkable. Looking intently at the Council, Paul probably recognized many familiar faces in Sanhedrin, since he himself may have once been a member of the Sanhedrin.  How do we know that? Do you remember the story of Stephen? When Stephen was stoned by the Sanhedrin, Paul was present:  “The witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.”[1] This is the first mention of Paul in the New Testament. We all know that soon, Saul will experience a revelation of Jesus, and will become his passionate follower and Apostle. Meanwhile, however, he was there – Why? Was he there because of his zeal or because of his formal status? Did he want to be there – or did he have to be there?

Sanhedrin was the supreme religious body in the Land of Israel during the time of the Second Temple. While Shaul clearly had some formal authority, we can’t say for sure whether he was a member of the Sanhedrin or just hired by the priests to persecute believers. However, here is what the Talmud says about the sentence of stoning during the time of the Second Temple: “a man was stationed at the door of the court with the signalling flag in his hand, and a horse-man was stationed at the distance yet within sight of him, and then if one says, ‘I have something to state in his favor’, the signaller waves the flag, and the horseman runs and stops them.”[2]. This signalling flag was called in Hebrew sudar, the word could also mean “scarf, shawl”.

David Stern, in his “Jewish New Testament Commentary”, expresses the opinion that a Greek writer of Acts (or a Greek translator of Acts from a presumed original Hebrew text) didn’t understand the Jewish context and therefore wrote of laying coats at Shaul’s feet, while Shaul was in fact a member of the Sanhedrin holding the signaling flag – sudar. If this interpretation is correct, then the story of Stephen can be read as an evidence of Paul being a member of the Sanhedrin before his conversion. Moreover, the opening scene of chapter 23, describing Paul, looking intently at the faces of the members of the Sanhedrin, might be read as an additional proof of this interpretation: Paul is actually speaking before his former colleagues. Maybe, this is the reason why he calls them “brothers”?

Pharisees and Sadducees

In verse 6, Luke informs us that in Sanhedrin, “one part were Sadducees and the other Pharisees”. Later we read that “a dissension arose between the Pharisees and the Sadducees; and the assembly was divided”. Who were Pharisees and Sadducees, and why were they divided?

You probably know that the followers of Jesus were not alone on the Jewish scene during the Second Temple period, and in order to read the New Testament properly, one has to understand who else was on the scene and what was going on there. There were many different directions and teachings in Judaism before the destruction of the Temple – and even though the Torah was an unshakable and unquestionable foundation for all these directions and teachings, they still had very different understandings and interpretations of the Torah, and differed significantly in both theology and practice. In this sense, the two main groups of the religious establishment of the time – Pharisees and Sadducees – present a wonderful example.

The Sadducees (Tz’dukim) were the priests and their supporters, called after the High Priest, Tzadok (“righteous”), appointed by King Solomon. They were mainly responsible for the sacrificial system in the Temple. The second group, that actually challenged the authority of the priests, was called Prushim (Pharisees). Their main concern was not the sacrifices in the Temple, but living according to the Torah and separation from the world and worldly ways (P’rushim means “separated ones”).

During the Second Temple period, Sadducees tended to be more wealthy, more willing to cooperate with Roman rulers, and more worldly – more occupied with this world and this life. One of the expressions of this worldliness was their denial of the resurrection of the dead. Therefore, when Paul said that “concerning the hope and resurrection of the dead,” he was being judged—the Pharisees’ party arose and said, “We find no evil in this man!” We read that “there arose a great dissension” and we understand that Paul succeeded in diverting the Sanhedrin’s attention away from himself, to a long-stand dispute among themselves. One really needs to know the ideas and interpretations of the different schools of this time, in order to understand this peculiar episode and not to miss what the original audience would have seen, heard or felt.

The Uncle and the Nephew

In Acts 23:16, we meet “the son of Paul’s sister,” who tells Lysias about the plot and actually helps to save Paul’s life: “So when Paul’s sister’s son heard of their ambush, he went and entered the barracks and told Paul…”

Although Luke writes about it in such a casual manner, as if his readers are well acquainted with Paul’s family, we actually wonder: who was this nephew? Paul’s family lived in Tarsus; but we know nothing about Paul’s sister and his nephew who was visiting or living in Jerusalem. Why was he in Jerusalem? How did he know about the plot? And how did he enter Roman barracks?

First of all, how old was this “son of Paul’s sister”? The Greek word used in verse 17 usually refers to a young man. However, since “the commander took him by the hand” (Acts 23:19), he is likely to have been quite young—a child, not an adult. According to Acts 22:3, Paul grew up in Jerusalem “at the feet of Gamaliel“; Paul’s nephew may have been following his example. The uncle and nephew may have been very close, and that would explain the boy’s daring expedition to save Paul’s life. Since he was a child, his presence would not have alarmed the plotters—perhaps that’s why he knew about the plot. Since he was a child, he could enter the Roman barracks easily; in those days, it was common for prisoners to be fed by their family, and a child would be considered a family member. His easy access to the Antonia was probably a consequence of his youth.

However, the most important point is this: since he was a minor, he was wholly exempt from any criminal responsibility, and therefore he would not be legally responsible before the Sanhedrin. According to the Jewish law, minors (קטינים) are incompetent as witnesses until they reach the age of thirteen. Once again, knowing the details of Jewish life helps us get new understanding of these familiar stories.

[1] Acts 7:58

[2] Sanhedrin 42b


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About the author

Julia BlumJulia is a teacher and an author of several books on biblical topics. She teaches two biblical courses at the Israel Institute of Biblical Studies, “Discovering the Hebrew Bible” and “Jewish Background of the New Testament”, and writes Hebrew insights for these courses.

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