The Book of Acts completes its
wondrous tale of the apostle Paul with hearings before the Jewish
multitude, the Jewish high council, Roman procurators Felix and
Festus, the Jewish king Agrippa and (by tradition) the Roman
emperor Nero (twice!). Acts leaves
the story of its hero with the apostle resident in Rome, receiving
all that came to him, and merrily preaching the kingdom of God
and the Lord Jesus. Big finish, or what?
Less it appear too happy an ending, "tradition" – pious
romances scribbled between the 2nd and 4th centuries such as Acts
of Paul, the Apocalypse of Paul, the Martyrdom
of Paul and the Acts of Paul and Thecla – provide
the fabulous nonsense of his beheading by order of Nero, on the
very same day as Peter! Nothing in secular history confirms the
fate of St Paul – but then nothing in secular history confirms
even his existence.
Voyage to Rome – or flight of fancy?
Why did Paul get sent to Rome? Acts itself
provides the answer – Jesus told him he
had to go there!
" And the night following the
Lord stood by him, and said, Be of good cheer, Paul:
for as thou hast testified of me in Jerusalem, so
must thou bear witness also at Rome." – Acts
What this verse betrays is the "plot twist" intended
all along by the story teller who wrote Acts. It explains the odd
series of "warnings" and "hearings" that fill
Acts chapters 21 to 27. From the moment the writer has his intrepid
traveller come ashore at Tyre at the end of his third journey,
it is Rome that beckons, even though the story fizzles out when
Paul finally gets there. (Could it be that merely his presence
in the city is sufficient for the purposes of Roman Catholicism?)
Quite simply, the entire yarn is a theological
construct: the journey to Rome is bogus.
Who made this voyage? Paul? Josephus?
Twice the Holy Spirit "forbids" Paul
to go to Jerusalem (Acts 21.4, 21.11) but the apostle, bumptious
egotist that he is, will have none of it. Paul is "ready to
die" for Jesus. In Jerusalem, Paul is received "gladly" by
the brethren, even though they have heard that he has forsaken
Moses (Acts 21.21). To prove his kosher credentials they require
him to perform a purification ceremony of four selected men in
the temple, thus proving to the wary Jews that he still "walks
orderly and keeps the law" (Acts 21.24).
The gesture goes badly wrong. Paul's presence in
the temple "stirs up all the people". For some reason,
the hostile Jews believe that Paul has profaned the temple by
taking in his Greek helpmate Trophimus. (Nasty!) The temple
doors are shut, the "whole city is in uproar" (the
Christian heroes do love to be the centre of attention). At
this point, the Romans "run down" and rescue Paul from
a beating (Acts 21.32), the commander thinking Paul might be "the
Egyptian" rabble rouser (a character otherwise found in
the pages of Josephus! – Wars, 13).
Bizarrely (surely this is theatre?), the
Romans allow the apostle to address "the people",
giving Paul an opportunity to rehearse his "rabbinic policeman
turned apostle in Damascus" routine. He finishes by telling
his audience that, anyway, in a trance the Lord had
warned him that the Jews would not listen and
that he should get himself off to the Gentiles.
The Jews – en masse, it seems – demand
his execution. The nonplussed Romans think it a good idea to scourge
Paul, the better to get at the truth. But this does not happen.
At this point, the apostle brings a rabbit out of a hat: having
previously stressed his Jewish credentials, he now declares
himself a Roman, "free born" (Acts
The uncertain Romans decide to place Paul before
the Jewish chief priests and council, with the result that Paul
is struck on the mouth but manages to cause "great dissension" between
the Sadducees and Pharisees on the council by claiming
to be a Pharisee and declaring his belief in resurrection.
That is all it takes for the scribes to "find
no evil in this man". Even so, in the supposed melee, Paul
has to be taken into protective custody by the Romans, "lest
he be pulled in pieces" by incensed Jews.
Chatting with Romans
It seems Paul was not safe from Jewish malice even
within the walls of the Antonia fortress. In a turn of events surely
more appropriate to pantomime, a fraternity of fanatics "bound
under a great curse" not to eat until they had killed the
apostle, were so lax about security that Paul's own nephew was
able to learn of the plan and then tip off his incarcerated uncle!
The guard commander is informed yet rather than consulting
with the chief priests or strengthening the guard, he decides instead
to assemble the better part of the garrison to escort his problematic
guest to Caesarea and into the custody of the provincial governor
Felix. The commander writes a letter to Felix (rather curiously, reproduced
in Acts itself! – 23.26,30) in which he says that
Paul has done "nothing worthy of death or of bonds" (Acts
Paul is held by Felix until a posse of senior priests
arrive to present their case through the skills of an orator, Tertullus.
The charges against Paul are "sedition among Jews throughout
the world", being the ringleader of a sect called the Nazarenes,
and profaning the temple. Paul's response is that they "can't
prove a thing" (Acts 24.13) and that he was merely bringing "alms
and offerings". Paul cleverly avoids clarifying to whom
he was bringing the largesse, the temple or the Christian elders?
No wonder Felix hopes for a bribe! (Acts 24.26).
Felix remains undecided about Paul but indulges his
wife Drusilla's interest in the apostle. (One wonders if they
talked about old times, when Paul blinded the magician Atomos – the
very sorcerer who secured Felix his bride!) Paul, for all
his "innocence", begins a two-year term of imprisonment which
ends only when Felix is replaced by Festus.
The new procurator immediately takes up the cause
célèbre. Why, one wonders?
It's hard to credit that an incarcerated Jewish radical
was the most pressing item on a new governor's agenda. The claim
is, of course, merely Christian self-aggrandizement.
In the real world, as recorded by
Josephus, Festus inherited a country beset by turmoil and
in which the procurator was executing "imposters" on
a daily basis. Caesarea was a hotspot not because of "Paul" but
because of strife between the Greek and Jewish communities which
had cost the Jews their civic rights in the year 60. In Jerusalem,
the people were being terrorised by the Sicarii, religiously-motivated
A word with Nero?
In a bizarrely unlikely event, the imprisoned apostle refuses to "do
the Jews a pleasure" and attend a procurator's trial in Jerusalem
(Acts 25.9). But in any case, Festus has already summoned
the High Priest and his men to Caesarea for a new trial
At this point, Paul makes his famous "appeal
to Caesar" (Acts 25.11). This happened to be the notorious
emperor Nero, who in the year 59 ordered the murder
of his mother Agrippina and his aunt Domitia. The Christian
apostle prefers the justice of the effete Roman tyrant to his chances
with the governor's court in Jerusalem!
What is so ridiculous here is that Paul is lodging
an appeal before his case has even been heard!
Where DID they get their ideas from?
As it happens, when Tacitus narrates the high dramas of emperor Nero's reign, he also mentions, in passing, appeals to Caesar and the Senate:
" Nero ... also raised the dignity of the Senate, by deciding that all who appealed from private judges to its house, were to incur the same pecuniary risk as those who referred their cause to the emperor. Hitherto such an appeal had been perfectly open, and free from penalty."
– Tacitus, Annals, book XIV
And why need there be a transfer anywhere? The accused,
the prosecution and the judge are assembled in Caesarea – and
the judge has already decided "they brought none accusations
of such things as I supposed ... I have no certain thing to write
unto my lord ... it seemeth to me unreasonable to send a prisoner,
and not withal to signify the crimes laid against him." (Acts
25.18,27). Festus needs a second opinion and the Jewish king, Agrippa
II, and his sister Bernice happen to be in town. Their presence
affords Paul another opportunity for his "rabbinic policeman
turned apostle in Damascus" routine (it's such a star
performance Agrippa is "almost persuaded to be a Christian – Acts
26.28) The king agrees that Paul deserves "neither death
In what is then the most ridiculous abuse
of Roman judicial process, words placed into the mouth
of king Agrippa declare: "This man might have been set at
liberty, if he had not appealed unto Caesar." (Acts 26.32)
We are asked to believe that because Paul has uttered the magic
words "I appeal unto Caesar" that a process is in train
that neither provincial governor nor king can stop – and
even though there is no discernible crime to report!
Yet only a few years earlier, the procurator Felix
had assassinated the high priest Jonathan with
impunity and his successor Festus was no man of delicate disposition
either, as Josephus records:
"So Festus sent forces, both horsemen
and footmen, to fall upon those that had been seduced
by a certain impostor, who promised them deliverance and
freedom from the miseries they were under, if they would
but follow him as far as the wilderness. Accordingly, those
forces that were sent destroyed both him that had
deluded them, and those that were his followers also."
– Josephus, Antiquities, 20.10.
As it happens, there WAS an appeal made to Nero at
this time – by the Jewish High Priest Ismael, insisting
that a high wall recently built to shield the temple from the gaze
of Agrippa's palace not be torn down. Nero, acceding to his wife
Poppaea's influence (a "God-fearing" Jewish sympathizer)
agreed, though Ismael was kept as a hostage in Rome.
Perhaps with fellow captive Ismael, "Paul" spent
many a happy hour on the banks of the Tiber, mulling over old times
and discussing the finer points of Mosaic law?
And on to Rome?
As it happens, the transportation of the apostle
to the imperial city – complete with shipwreck and snake
miracle – is NOT an event confirmed by Paul's
The so-called "prison letters" – Philippians,
Philemon, Colossians and Ephesians – though
traditionally ascribed to Paul in his Roman
captivity – actually
say nothing beyond the words "prisoner in Jesus Christ" and "bonds"
to endorse that claim. Yet, the Pauline lexicon is redolent with
words of servitude, suffering and "imprisonment", all of which
relate to his service
to Christ, not to a literal state of affairs. "Rome"
is nowhere mentioned in any of the prison letters. A whole edifice
of fraud rests on the single reference to "Caesar's household"
of Philippians 4.22, and a curious use of "palace" in Philippians
"My bonds in Christ are manifest in all the
palace, and in all other places."
We might reasonably
suppose that a "victim of Nero's persecution" might have recorded
some comment on the Great
Fire of Rome which provoked the official hostility, some
the "witchhunt of the Christians" which supposedly
followed the disaster, some comment on the lurid
treatment later scribblers
say was meted out to his fellow Christians, some pithy words of
consolation for martyrs that surely had so recently
gone before him. But no, not a word.
Our heroic Paul is preoccupied
with himself and his own fate. He finds time to brag
of his Hebrew ancestry (Philippians 3.5) – at a time
like this? He
actually anticipates "coming to see" the Philippians (1.27; 2.24);
he speaks of sending Timotheus
("fellow servant of Jesus Christ") and confirms that he has reluctantly
"supposed it necessary" to release his other skivvy, Epaphroditus,
who made himself very ill servicing Paul's needs!:
"Because for the work
of Christ he was nigh unto death, not regarding his life, to
supply your lack of service toward me." – Philippians 2.30.
Damning the missive as late and fake is the opening salutation to the “bishops and deacons” (Philippians 1.1), an anachronism later corrected with a whole raft of less embarassing alternatives (overseers, presbyters, elders, etc.). Yet the Greek is clear: episkopoi and diakonoi.
In the brief 25 verses of Philemon, Paul,
"a prisoner of Jesus Christ" (NOT of Caesar Nero!)
writes to "fellow labourer" Philemon and "fellow soldier" Archippus. Should
we suppose the apostle is also literally a labourer and a soldier?! Yet
by verse 9, Philemon has also become a "prisoner of Christ" and
Paul tells his "fellow prisoner" to put any debts of runaway slave
Onesimus "on his own account"! Paul then gives instructions for
a lodging to be prepared for his own use – quite an extraordinary
request for a prisoner facing martyrdom! Colossians similarly
is ludicrous understood as a "prison letter". Again, the apostle
speaks of sending one of his sidekicks – this time it's Tychicus
– to learn of affairs at Colosse. Another of the brothers, Aristarchus,
is called both "fellow prisoner" (4.10) and "fellow worker" (4.11).
The only reference to the writer's location is verse 4.9.
"They shall make known unto you all
things which are done here."
But where is here? Paul, it
seems, has learned of a church not of his own foundation. He is
anxious to impose his own theology and attacks "errors",
almost the entire content of the letter. Verse 4.9 refers to "correct
practice" in Christ's ministry – and certainly not
to how things are run in a Roman prison!
But not only is the where in doubt but also the when. Detering draws our attention to the Elchasai of the 2nd century whose "errors" are precisely those attacked by a "first century Paul":
"So far, the exegetes’ attempts at identifying the heretics in the Epistle to the Colossians have failed because they started from the unprovable assumption, that the letter had originated in the second half of the 1st century. A better approach would take as its starting-point the parallels found in 2nd century history of religion, and proceed from there in order to finally come to a dating of that letter. A great many parallels between the Colossian heresy and the Jewish-Christian sect of Elchasai that came up in 2nd century CE clearly show that those groups are identical and therefore it’s one and the same faction we have to deal with here. Not only is the synthesis of circumcision and στοιχεῖα (the elementals) worship, of which there isn’t any analogy elsewhere in the history of religion, a feature of both heresies; one can moreover demonstrate it to be probable that Col. 2:18 presupposes knowledge of the Book of
Elchasai." – Dr. Hermann Detering, translated by Frans-Joris Fabri
The final "prison letter", Ephesians,
is the least convincing. It is a veritable comedy of errors. Paul,
we are led to believe by Acts, spent at least three years with
the brethren in Ephesus. Yet Ephesians is the most impersonal
of letters, devoid of any human touch or individual greeting. The
writer has the "detachment" found in Colossians: "After I
heard of your faith ...I cease not to give thanks for you, making mention
of you in my prayers" (1.15,16). Indeed, whole chunks of Ephesians are
copied from Colossians, leading scholars to speculate
Ephesians is a pastiche of earlier letters and is not
really the work of Paul at all. But then,
are any of the letters the work of Paul? Other scholars suggest
Ephesians is a re-labelled letter to the Laodiceans, that
perhaps it was sent from Caesarea, or even from Ephesus itself.
Whatever else, Ephesians gives NO support to the notion that Paul
was ever in Rome.
Indeed, the "Epistle to
the Romans" gives
the game away. Supposedly Romans was written in Corinth
about the year 60 by a Paul who was anticipating his
first visit to Rome, not a prisoner in chains. In chapter
16, the apostle greets by name and personal salutation some 27
individuals in the city he
has never visited! The one person we might expect him to address,
St Peter, first "Bishop
of Rome", is NOT among them! What has been changed is not
the salutations but the address: Romans makes
better sense understood as originally an epistle
to the Corinthians, warning the brethren
men deceiving the simple minded".
Now who could they be, one wonders?
Raskin observes, Paul's commendation of an assistant
our sister, a servant of the church at Cenchrea" (a port
near Corinth) makes no sense to the church
at Rome and
perfect sense to the church at Corinth (Raskin, p468).
As for Rome, we do have a
clue to the source of the "Pauline voyage": our old friend
and cornucopia of the Christian fraudsters, Josephus.
And if we need a template for "martyrdom in Rome" in the mid-60s
we need look no further than the betrayed conspiracy to assassinate
Nero in the year 65 of Gaius Calpurnius Piso.
The "martyrs" to liberty on that occasion included the philosopher
Seneca, the poet Lucan and
"... line after line of chained
men dragged to their destination at the gates of Nero's
Executions now abounded in the city." (Tacitus Annals 15).
Is this reference to condemned men at Nero's garden gate the seed for the bogus tale now found in Tacitus book 15 of "torched Christian martyrs"?
When Nero botched his own suicide a few years later, his former
slave completed the job. The freedman's name is shared by Paul's
supposed playmate from Philippi – Epaphroditus.
DID they get their ideas from?
How many ships, bound for Rome,
and carrying a cargo of priestly
Jewish prisoners for trial before
Caesar, are likely to have been
shipwrecked about the year 63 AD – and to have
left an historical record? Josephus was
on one such ship. He swam all night, finally being
saved by another ship and taken to Puteoli.
Josephus: Shipwrecked on voyage to
"But when I was in the twenty-sixth
year of my age, it happened that I took a voyage
to Rome ... At the time when Felix was
procurator of Judea there were certain priests
of my acquaintance ... whom on a small
and trifling occasion he had put into
bonds, and sent to Rome to plead their
cause before Caesar ...
Accordingly I came to Rome, though it
were through a great number of hazards by sea;
for as our ship was drowned
in the Adriatic Sea, we that were in it, being
about six hundred in number, swam for our lives
all the night; when, upon the first appearance
of the day, and upon our sight of a ship of
Cyrene, I and some others, eighty in all,
by God's providence, prevented the rest, and were taken
up into the other ship.
And when I had thus escaped, and was
come to Dieearchia, which the Italians
St Paul: "Shipwrecked on voyage
to show the Jews a pleasure, left Paul bound." – Acts
"They talked between themselves,
saying, This man doeth nothing worthy of death
or of bonds. – Acts 26.31.
"It was determined that we should sail
into Italy ... And entering into a ship
of Adramyttium ... we came to Myra ... And there
the centurion found a ship of Alexandria sailing
into Italy ... they sailed close by Crete. But not
long after there arose against it a tempestuous
wind ... no small
tempest lay on us ... But when the fourteenth night
was come, as we were driven up and down in
Adria ... And falling into a place where two
seas met, they ran the ship aground; and the forepart
stuck fast, and remained unmovable, but the hinder
part was broken with the violence of the waves.
The centurion ... commanded that they
which could swim should cast themselves
first into the sea, and get to land. And the rest,
some on boards, and some on broken pieces of the ship.
And so it came to pass, that they escaped all safe
to land. And after three months we departed in a
ship of Alexandria ...
And landing at Syracuse ... and came
to Rhegium: and after one day the south wind blew,
and we came the next day to Puteoli."
– Acts 27,28
All at Sea – The Curious Yarn of Paul's "Shipwreck"
Hermann Detering, The Falsified Paul,
Early Christianity in the Twilight (Journal of Higher Criticism, 2003)
A. N. Wilson, Paul, The Mind of the Apostle (Sinclair-Stevenson, 1997)
John Ziesler, Pauline Christianity (Oxford, 1990)
Edward Stourton, In the Footsteps of Saint Paul (Hodder & Stoughton,
J. Murphy-O'Connor, Paul, A Critical Life (Clarendon, 1996)
J. Murphy-O'Connor, Paul, His Story (Oxford, 2005)
Daniel T. Unterbrink, Judas the Galilean (iUniverse, 2004)
Jay Raskin, The Evolution of Christs and Christianities (Xlibris, 2006)
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