Acts 23:1-35

Paul focused intently on the members of the Sanhedrin and said, “Men, brothers, I have acted with a completely good conscience before God down to this [very] day.” As fellow Jews, the members of the high court were his brothers. Paul’s manner of life as a Jew had been and continued to be upright. While engaged in a campaign of persecution against the followers of Jesus Christ, he believed that he was doing what was right, upholding the law and defending the cherished traditions. In retrospect, however, Paul came to see himself as a blasphemer and an insolent man, but this is not how he would have been regarded by members of the court in his role as a persecutor. (1 Timothy 1:13) They would have looked at him differently since his coming to be a disciple of Jesus Christ, and the objectionable part of Paul’s words would have been his insistence that he continued to have an undefiled conscience. (23:1)

He must have spoken in a firm and bold manner as a man without the slightest doubt of his innocence. His words, the manner in which he expressed himself, and his bearing as a guiltless man must have enraged the high priest Ananias. In no way did Paul appear to be intimidated in the presence of the highest Jewish authority. Ananias gave the command for those standing near Paul (probably the high priest’s attendants) to “strike him on the mouth,” which would have constituted an insulting rejection of his words as falsehood. Thus, contrary to the law, Ananias expressed a judgment before giving Paul the opportunity to complete his defense. (23:2; see the Notes section regarding Ananias.)

Paul responded indignantly with an expression of condemnation and rebuke, “God is about to strike you, you whitewashed wall. Are you sitting [there as one] judging me according to the law and, contrary to the law, commanding me to be struck?” The retort indicated that Paul regarded the one giving the command as merely having the appearance of being an upholder of justice (as a member of the Sanhedrin) but being a violator of justice. The outward appearance was comparable to the whitewash that concealed the defects of a wall. Thus Paul identified this member of the court as a hypocrite. (23:3)

The reason Paul did not know who had given the command to strike him on the mouth is not revealed in the account. At the time, while viewing the various members of the court as he addressed them, Paul may not have been looking in the direction where the high priest was seated. Those standing nearby spoke up, saying to him, “Are you insulting God’s high priest?” (23:4)

Unlike the sinless Son of God who had been slapped when before the Sanhedrin but who responded without an expression of condemnation (John 18:20-23), Paul had not been able to restrain his tongue when being treated unjustly and insultingly. He responded to those who objected to his having reviled that he did not know that the high priest had given the command, and then quoted from Exodus 22:27, “You must not speak evil of a ruler of your people.” Paul’s reference to the law constituted an acknowledgment that he had sinned with his tongue. (23:5)

Even if another member of the Sanhedrin had given the command to strike him, Paul’s words would have been contrary to the law and what he had personally written to believers in Rome, “Bless those who persecute.” (Romans 12:14) “Return evil for evil to no one.” (Romans 12:17)

Doubtless Paul recognized that the members of the court would not declare him innocent and that his having to make an apology for his words had weakened his defense. Moreover, he was fully aware of the opposing views to which the Pharisees and Sadducees adhered. So it appears that he deliberately chose to set the members of the court against one another while, at the same time, defending the truth that he had been proclaiming about the Lord Jesus Christ. As he looked at the members of the Sanhedrin, he could see that they were Pharisees and Sadducees. Apparently Pharisees could easily have been recognized, for they wore distinctively large phylacteries and garments with longer fringes than did Jews generally. (Matthew 23:5) So, with specific reference to a belief to which he faithfully adhered and which he shared in common with the Pharisees, he called out to the members of the court, “Men, brothers, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees. Concerning the hope [of Israel (28:20)] and the resurrection of the dead I am being judged.” (23:6)

The “hope” related to the coming of the Messiah and the blessings that would result. That hope is inseparably associated with the resurrection, for it was Jesus’ being raised from the dead that undeniably confirmed his identity as the promised Messiah or Christ and the unique Son of God. Moreover, the realization of this hope in the case of the many who had died depended on their being resurrected. In connection with the “hope” and the “resurrection of the dead,” Paul shared the same basic belief as did other Pharisees, including his parents. (23:6)

His having made belief in the resurrection the issue caused division among the members of the Sanhedrin, with the Pharisees and Sadducees being at odds. (23:7) The Sadducees did not believe in a resurrection nor in the existence of “angel” or “spirit.” They denied that the law (the Torah) supported belief in a resurrection. The Sadducees may have regarded belief in angels and archangels as well as good and evil spirits as a later development, and not as originating from the time of Moses. The Pharisees, however, believed in the resurrection and the existence of angels and spirits. In the Greek text, the word used respecting what the Pharisees confess or acknowledge is a form of amphóteroi, which can mean “both.” If “both” is the meaning, then “resurrection” is one, and “angel and spirit” are represented as the other. It is also possible that amphóteroi signifies “all,” that is, “all three.” (23:8; see the Notes section.)

The atmosphere among the members of the Sanhedrin became emotionally charged, leading to loud screaming. Some of the Pharisees stood up, insisting that they found nothing wrong with Paul and then continued, “If a spirit or angel spoke to him.” This being an incomplete thought may suggest that the rest of the words could not be heard on account of the shouting or that the one or the ones speaking had been interrupted and not allowed to finish. (23:9)

Observing that the dissension between the Sadducees and Pharisees had become violent and fearing that they might pull Paul to pieces, the commander ordered soldiers to snatch him away from the disputants and to bring him to the quarters in the Tower of Antonia. (23:10)

The following night, the Lord Jesus Christ appeared to Paul in a vision and told him, “Take courage.” Jesus’ words suggest that Paul had said more during his defense before the Sanhedrin than is narrated in the account. Jesus referred to the apostle’s defense in Jerusalem as testifying to the things about him and that he would likewise be testifying in Rome. The preserved account does not include any specific testimony about Jesus Christ, suggesting that the narration of events is highly condensed. (23:11)

In the morning following the night on which Jesus had appeared to Paul, a group of Jews plotted to kill him. More than 40 men bound themselves by an oath neither to eat nor to drink until they had accomplished their objective. (23:12, 13) According to the Mishnah (Nedarim, 3:3), a vow that became impossible to fulfill would be considered as a vow “under duress” and, therefore, invalid. So when it subsequently became impossible for these men to carry out their plot, they would not have been forced to die by never again eating or drinking.

The conspirators informed the chief priests and the elders of the people (likely members of the Sanhedrin whom they may well have known as being the most hostile toward Paul) about having bound themselves by a curse not to eat anything until they had killed Paul. (23:14) To attain their objective, they wanted the chief priests and the other members of the Sanhedrin to have the commander bring Paul to them for further consideration of his case. The conspirators would then be prepared to kill him while he was being conducted to the meeting place of the Sanhedrin. So determined were these men to kill him that they were willing to risk their own lives by having to fight armed Roman soldiers who would be accompanying Paul. (23:15)

Upon coming to know about the plot, Paul’s nephew, his sister’s son, went to the Tower of Antonia (to the quarters where his uncle was confined) to inform him. (23:16) Paul called one of the centurions, requesting that the “young man” (his nephew) be taken to the commander (Claudius Lysias [23:26]), for he had something to disclose to him. (23:17) The centurion conducted Paul’s nephew to Claudius Lysias and informed him that he had brought the young man to him at Paul’s request because he had something to tell him. (23:18)

Although a prisoner, Paul was treated as a Roman citizen who had not been found guilty of any crime. He was permitted to have visitors and had the right even to request centurions to render service for him.

Recognizing that the young man’s report must have been of a serious nature, Claudius Lysias “took him by the hand” to a location where they could speak privately. He then asked Paul’s nephew what he had to report. (23:19)

The young man informed him that he would be asked to bring Paul to the Sanhedrin the next day for a further investigation of the case, but that he should not allow the Jews to persuade him. More than 40 men would be lying in ambush along the way. These men had bound themselves by an oath neither to eat nor to drink until they had killed Paul. All that the men were waiting for was the commander’s consent to the request, and they were prepared to carry out their assassination plot. (23:20, 21)

Claudius Lysias must have known that the conspiracy also posed a real threat to Roman soldiers who would be conducting Paul, and he took the report seriously. Before having Paul’s nephew leave, he charged him not to let anyone know that he had disclosed the plot to him. (23:22)

Claudius Lysias acted quickly to secure Paul’s safety. He summoned two centurions, ordering them to get ready to leave by the “third hour of the night” (about 9:00 p.m.) to head northwest toward Caesarea with two hundred soldiers. Besides the 200 soldiers, the centurions were to arrange for 70 horsemen and two hundred “spearmen” (dexiolábos) to accompany them. The commander thus made sure that the force was large enough to deal with any possible threat. There is a measure of uncertainty about the significance of the term dexiolábos. While “spearman” is often suggested as a possible meaning, the term may refer to some other light-armed soldier (possibly a bowman or a slinger). (23:23; see for pictures of and comments about Caesarea.)

In view of the great distance involved via a route in excess of 70 miles (over 110 kilometers), the commander also directed that mounts be made available for taking Paul safely to Felix, the procurator of the Roman province of Judea. (23:24; see the Notes section regarding Felix.)

As Roman law required, the commander provided a letter he had written to Felix, explaining the case about Paul. The letter bears the unmistakable earmarks of authenticity, for the commander portrayed himself in the best light possible, with no hint of his having trampled on the rights of a Roman citizen by having him bound before any guilt had been legally proved. (23:25; see the Notes section.)

The commander identified himself as Claudius Lysias and addressed Governor Felix as krátistos, which has commonly been rendered as “his Excellency” (NAB, NIV, NJB, NRSV, REB). “Lysias” is a Greek name, which may mean that its bearer was Greek from birth. At the time he purchased his Roman citizenship (22:28), he may have adopted the name “Claudius” (the name of the emperor at that time). The expression krátistos is a respectful term of address and can denote “most noble” or “most excellent.” A form of the Greek word chaíro (chaírein) is often found at the beginning of other ancient letters and is commonly translated “greetings.” The verb chaíro means “rejoice” and so chaírein is a greeting that wishes one well. (23:26)

Claudius Lysias factually related that the Jews had seized “this man” (Paul) and were about to kill him, but he then represented himself as having gone to his rescue with a troop of soldiers because of having learned that he was a Roman citizen. While he did rescue Paul, he had made no inquiry about his citizenship and had bound him and later commanded that he be scourged, thereby unknowingly disregarding the rights of a Roman citizen. (23:27)

The commander explained that he brought Paul before the Sanhedrin because of wanting to know the charges the Jews had against him. (23:28) The accusations involved their law but nothing that would have merited death or bonds (apparently on the basis of Roman law). (23:29) “But,” Claudius Lysias continued, “a future plot against the man has been disclosed to me. [So] I am immediately sending him to you, having also ordered the accusers to speak against him before you.” It appears that Claudius Lysias planned to inform the accusers that Paul had been transferred to Caesarea and referred to it as having been accomplished. Doubtless by the time Paul arrived in Caesarea, the leading men of the Jewish community would have been duly informed. (23:30)

In keeping with the orders Claudius Lysias had given, the soldiers took Paul to Antipatris (about midway between Jerusalem and Caesarea) during the night. Herod the Great had rebuilt Antipatris on what is thought to have been the site of ancient Aphek in the Plain of Sharon. (23:31; see Antipatris for pictures of and comments about the site.)

The next day all except the 70 horsemen returned to their quarters in the Tower of Antonia at Jerusalem, whereas the horsemen took Paul to Caesarea. (23:32) Arriving at Caesarea, the horsemen delivered the letter Claudius Lysias had written to Felix and “also presented Paul to him.” (23:33) Felix read the letter and asked Paul from which province he originated. After Paul answered that he was from Cilicia, Felix assured him that he would give him a hearing when his accusers arrived. Felix then commanded that Paul be guarded in the “praetorium of Herod.” In Caesarea, the praetorium was Herod’s palace, which served as the official residence of the Roman procurator. (23:34, 35)


Herod the king of Chalcis (the brother of Herod Agrippa I) appointed Ananias (verse 2) the son of Nedebaeus (Nebedeus) as high priest. (Josephus, Antiquities, XX, v, 2) Later, along with other prominent Jews and eminent Samaritans, Quadratus (legate of Syria) sent Ananias in bonds to Rome to give an account about his role in violent conflicts between Jews and Samaritans. Claudius ruled in favor of the Jews, and Ananias was acquitted. This was primarily because Herod Agrippa I, who was then in Rome, succeeded in his entreaty for Agrippina, the wife of Claudius, to persuade her husband to listen to the cause of the Jews. (Antiquities, XX, vi, 2, 3; War, II, xii, 5, 6) When Paul appeared before him and the rest of the Sanhedrin, he was firmly established in his office. Josephus referred to him as having been a “great hoarder up of money.” (Antiquities, XX, ix, 2) After others functioned as high priests, Ananias continued to wield great power. In 66 CE, while hiding in an aqueduct from those who had revolted against the authority of Rome, he was discovered and then assassinated. (War, II, xvii, 6, 9)

Evidence of how strongly Pharisees would have opposed those who denied belief in the resurrection (verse 8) is found in the Talmud. Sanhedrin 90a indicates that anyone who said that there is “no resurrection of the dead,” claiming that the Torah does not teach it, would have no share in the “world to come.”

Felix (verse 24) and his brother Pallas had once been slaves, but the Roman emperor Claudius had granted them freedom. The Roman historian Tacitus referred to Felix as a man who “practiced every kind of cruelty and lust, wielding the power of king with all the instincts of a slave.” (Histories, V, ix)

It is likely that the “letter” (verse 25) would have been part of the documentation of Paul’s case that accompanied him to Rome. So there is the possibility that Luke came to see it then and included its contents in the Acts account.