Paul’s Mockery of the Roman Empire as Exposed by Josephus

Paul’s opening salvo in his trial before the Roman leader Agrippa in Acts 26 seems straightforward. But Josephus shows us that Paul is really mocking Rome’s representative.

Having been arrested after an altercation with a group of Jews, Paul says (Acts 26:2-3):

I consider myself fortunate that it is before you, King Agrippa, I am to make my defense today against all the accusations of the Jews, because you are especially familiar with all the customs and controversies of the Jews; therefore I beg of you to listen to me patiently.

To modern readers, it seems like a simple, perfunctory bit of flattery.

Agrippa, according to Acts 25:13, has just arrived at the Roman administrative center of Caesarea: “After several days had passed, King Agrippa and Bernice arrived at Caesarea.” Again, modern readers see nothing of note here.

But Josephus tells us what’s really going on. Even though the text of Acts reads as though Bernice is Agrippa’s queen, she is actually his sister, with whom he is having an incestuous affair!

In this context, Paul’s words to Agrippa — “you are especially familiar with all the customs and controversies of the Jews” — assume a tone of ironic mockery, as if to say, By what authority could you possibly judge me? You are publicly breaking one of the most fundamental laws of the Jews (and of the Christians). A modern parallel would be if Gandhi appeared in court before Stalin and told the Russian dictator that he was glad to be appearing before a man so widely known for his pacifism.

This brief interchange, in fact, underscores a major theme of the New Testament: Rome is powerful but corrupt, while the new Christians, though politically and militarily outgunned, hold the moral high ground. The mighty Agrippa, representing Rome, thinks he can determine Paul’s fate. But Paul, representing Christianity, sees the wider picture.

The true drama becomes clear only in light of the background that ancient readers would all have known, but which is not itself in the Bible. Fortunately, Josephus provides it.

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