[Texts: Acts 21:27-23:30]
Claudius Lysias, the Roman tribune on assignment in Jerusalem, was just doing his job. Alerted that a riot was flaring up in this most incendiary of conquered cities, he hastened to the scene with his troops and forcibly extricated the instigator from the violent embrace of the mob. The weather-hardened lout was accordingly arrested and chained, and then Rome pursued the facts. Who was he? What had he done?
In fact interrogation turned out to be a much trickier task than Claudius Lysias anticipated. Some in the crowd were shouting one thing, some another, and in the upsurge of renewed passion his soldiers literally had to carry the man up the steps of the barracks. No doubt this fellow was one of those criminals on Rome’s Most Wanted list – come to think of it, wasn’t he that Egyptian who recently stirred up a revolt and led the four thousand men of the Assassins out into the wilderness? Lysias thought he recognized him from the mug shot. A feather in the tribune’s cap for certain, if so –
– but not so fast: events suddenly lurch in an unexpected direction as the prisoner, in cultured Greek, courteously requests permission to speak to the crowd.
“So, you’re not the Head Assassin?” (disappointed).
“Nope. Just a Jew of Tarsus – citizen of no obscure city,” replies the ruffian (is that a twinkle in his eye? Claudius Lysias isn’t sure – ).
“Well, go ahead, then –” (doubtful nod).
The tribune follows with some difficulty the man’s measured speech in fluent Aramaic, noting that the crowd grows intently still as the cadence of their native tongue reaches their ears. It’s as if he’s taming them with his words, holding their violence in check with ideas. The spell lasts only a few moments, breaking abruptly like a shattered amphora when the speaker says something about his God sending him far away “to the nations” – and then it’s chaos again, the crowd shouting, “Away with such a fellow from the earth!” Lysias understands the intent of these words clearly enough, especially as they’re accompanied by the shedding of cloaks and the flinging of dust in the air. This mob is out for blood.
Impatient now, the tribune decides it’s time to abandon diplomacy for a little expediency. Examination by flogging is always a handy recourse. But as his soldiers strap the man’s arms to the whipping post in the barracks, Lysias is blindsided again by the unexpected: his centurion marches up to report (perhaps with a hint of relish? The tribune isn’t sure –) that they’ve bagged a Roman citizen, complete with a pretty keen understanding of due process. Lysias feels his head begin to ache as he verifies this development: yep, and citizen by birth, too, not by purchase like himself. This has not turned out to be a very good day.
Well, Roman citizen or not, Lysias still has to get to the bottom of that riot. In the morning, feeling a bit more proactive, he summons the Jewish high priest and ruling council, figuring that the man’s words about his God put this matter squarely in the religious bin. Let the grayheads sort this one out between them.
But once again, it’s not so easy. The prisoner exchanges some sharp words with the high priest (was there a hint of irony in his respectful apology? Claudius Lysias isn’t sure –) and then, almost casually, he flings out a challenge that falls among the grayheads like a soup bone to a pack of hungry strays. In an instant they’re on their feet, shaking fists and walking sticks, vying with each other for the Most Vehement award, verging on the violence of the street mob, until Lysias is afraid the man will be torn to pieces by them. The prisoner, it must be said, doesn’t seem so much anxious as amused; but the tribune hauls him out of there anyway. So much for another day’s work.
Next day, wouldn’t you know it, another wrinkle in the case appears, this time in the form of a sincere Jewish lad who insists that his uncle, the prisoner Paul, is in danger of a conspiracy by the Jews. “They’re going to invite him back to the Council as if they want to question him some more,” the boy gasps, overawed by his attentive Roman audience, “but they don’t really mean it. They’ve vowed to kill him before they eat or drink again!”
Lysias may be slow on the uptake, but he is sensing a pattern. Someone Up Above seems to be looking out for this Paul. Maybe taking sides. Well, he won’t argue with fate or the gods; he decides to believe the young messenger. Perhaps there’s a way to finish this that will satisfy both Rome’s standard of justice and Lysias’ intuition about divine favoritism. He calls for his commanders and a quill and parchment. A hundred – no, two hundred foot soldiers, that should do it. And seventy mounted men, with a couple of mounts for Paul. Should get him to Caesarea before the grayheads can round up their donkeys. He dips his pen in the inkwell.
“Claudius Lysias, to his Excellency the governor Felix, greetings. This man was seized by the Jews and was about to be killed by them when I came upon them with the soldiers and rescued him, having learned that he was a Roman citizen…”
Lysias likes this line. As long as his centurion keeps quiet about the order of events, it makes the tribune sound pretty good. After all, he was just doing his job.
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