Claudius Lysias, A Roman Tribune
References: Acts 27:23-30 and chapter 23.
Heart of the Story: Commander Lysias rescued Paul from almost certain death from a Jewish mob. He investigated the reason for the Jews animosity while protecting Paul.
Claudius Lysias was the commander (tribune) of the Roman soldiers garrisoned at the Tower of Antonio. These barracks were adjacent to the Jerusalem Temple. Claudius Lysias led a cohort, or 1/10, of a Roman Legion; thus, he commanded between 600 – 1,000 men including foot soldiers and cavalry. Lysias was a Roman citizen. Although Roman citizenship was sometimes awarded to successful military commanders at discharge, Lysias was still on active duty. He bought his citizenship at a high price. Given his name, conceivably Emperor Claudius conferred citizen ship on Claudius Lysias. Often citizens assumed the name of their patron and Claudius was known to have given many citizenships.
In the middle first century Jerusalem, specifically the Temple, was the center of a rebel movement against Rome. A short time before this story, the Roman cohort beat back an Egyptian leader with 4000 assassins amassed on the Mount of Olives.
St. Paul was a Roman citizen, Jew, and Christian. He was in Jerusalem to celebrate the seven-day festival of Pentacost (Shau’ot, Festival of Weeks). Undergoing purification in the Temple, Paul was attacked by a mob who claimed a) Paul taught against the Mosaic Law and the Temple and b) defiled the Temple by bringing a Greek into it. The mob seized Paul, dragged him from the Temple, and attempted to kill him.
Hearing the uproar, Claudious Lysias left the Antonio Fortress, ran into the crowd, and rescued Paul. Lysias couldn’t get a clear answer from the Jews why they tried to kill Paul so he put Paul in chains and took him to the barracks. On the barracks steps, respectfully Paul asked Lysias in Greek if he could address the crowd. Surprised that Paul spoke Greek, Lysias inquired if he was the Egyptian terrorist leader. When Paul denied the charge, Lysias agreed to let Paul address the mob. Paul’s words further incited the mob who cried that Paul wasn’t fit to live.
To escape the mob, Lysias took Paul into the barracks. There, he ordered a centurion to flog Paul to find out why the Jews wanted to kill him. Flogging a prisoner to learn the truth seems like a peculiar process, but it was standard practice in Roman times. Consistent with the Roman custom for flogging, Paul was tied to a post with his arms stretched above his body. As the centurion was about to order Paul flogged, Paul asked, “Is it legal for you to flog a Roman citizen who hasn’t even been found guilty?” Paul knew the answer was “No” and so did the centurion, who immediately reported Paul’s words to Commander Lysias. Lysias was alarmed when he learned that he put Paul, a Roman citizen, in chains.
The following day Lysias convened the Sanhedrin and brought Paul into the assembly. For the most part the Sanhedrin was composed of Sadducces and Pharisees. Paul was a Pharisee. In contrast to the Pharisees, Sadducces didn’t believe in the resurrection of the dead. Paul declaration that he was on trial because he believed in the resurrection caused an argument between the Pharisees and Sadduccees. They were so combative that Lysias removed Paul, fearing that he would be torn apart. Lysias returned Paul to the barracks, more to keep him safe than for breaking Roman law.
The next day 40 Jewish men vowed not to eat or drink until they killed Paul. Paul’s nephew learned of the plot and apprised Commander Lysias of the death threat against Paul. Aware of the zealotry of the Jews, Lysias determined to get Paul out of Jerusalem. He ordered two centurions with 200 soldiers, 70 horsemen and 200 spearmen to leave during the night and take Paul to the safety of Governor Felix in Caesarea Maritime. The letter that Commander Lysias wrote to Governor Felix is in the side bar. Felix agreed to hear Paul’s case and put him under guard in Harod’s palace.
Often Roman military officers are represented as cruel and thoughtless. Commander Lysias was different. His actions demonstrate a career military officer who tried to live with the rebellious and volatile Jews rather than cruelly suppress them. When confronted with a lethal mob outside the Temple, many Roman commanders would have indifferently let them kill their captive or squashed the riot by knocking Jewish head together. Lysias did neither – instead he rescued the captive and investigated the cause of the disturbance.
Even after Lysias knew Paul was a Roman citizen, he was sufficiently open-minded to consider whether or not the Jews had just cause to want Paul dead. He didn’t assume that Paul’s Roman citizenship meant he was without blame; nor, that citizens notorious for insurgency were automatically wrong.
Readers suspect that Commander Lysias would have preferred to free Paul with a warning to get out of Jerusalem; however, he learned the 40 Jews conspired to kill Paul. Given that Paul was a Roman citizen, Lysias couldn’t allow anarchists to kill him lest Claudius’ superiors doubt his decision-making and command abilities.
Commander Lysias shaded the truth in his letter to Governor Felix. Piously, Commander Lysias wrote that he rescued Paul because Paul was a Roman citizen. His rescue of Paul was unrelated to Paul’s citizenship; Lysias didn’t know that Paul was a Roman citizen when he originally rescued him. Obviously, he wanted to present himself as competent commander to the Roman governor. Showing leadership behavior, Lysias reported that he ordered Paul’s accusers to present their case before Felix. Lysias didn’t send Paul to Governor Felix without initiating a follow-up plan to resolve the problem of the Jews demanding Paul’s death.
As a former military officer, I am impressed by Commander Lysias’ actions. He was calm, thoughtful, and even-handed. He took actions to protect his captive and put into place a mechanism to resolve the dispute between Paul and the Jewish leaders. Those in leadership positions whether in the home, church, or job can a role model some of his behaviors.
Most of us like to read about and study military officers in the Bible. If you want to learn more go to: http://www.CarolynRothMinistry.com/ and check out the book, Lesser Known Bible Characters. There is an entire chapter of good and not so good Bible military officers.
Copyright: Carolyn A. Roth 3/14.