Heart of the Story: Felix had the disposition of a slave and the power of a tyrant. He listened to Paul’s witness about Christ in the hope that Paul would offer him a bribe to gain his freedom rather than because he belief Paul’s testimony.
Back Story: Marcus Antonius Felix was the Roman governor of Judea, when Paul was accused of creating a revolt among the Jews in the Temple. Emperor Claudius appointed Felix governor in about 52 AD. Felix governed Judea until about 59-60 AD when he was recalled to Rome to answer for disturbances in the province and irregularities in his rule. Felix’s home base was Caesarea Maritima (Caesarea by the sea), 39 miles north of Jerusalem.
According to Josephus (Whiston, 2011), Jewish affairs deteriorated during Felix’s governorship. The country was filled with robbers and imposters who deluded the people. Felix captured some criminals, often using deception, which caused the Judean populace to mistrust him. Jonathan, a high priest instrumental in securing Felix’s appointment as governor, admonished Felix about the way he governed. Jonathan wanted Felix to succeed and feared his actions would cause Jewish leaders to complain to Caesar. In response, Felix persuaded one of Jonathan’s most faithful friends to bring robbers on Jonathan and kill him.
In fairness, Felix had little experience ruling. He was born a slave, became a freedman, then a high government official. Felix’s brother Pallans was Claudius’ favorite minister and probably obtained the governorship for Felix. In succession Felix married to three royal ladies. While Judea’s governor, he fell in love with beautiful Drusilla, the daughter of King Agrippa. She was the wife Azizus, king of Emesa. Drusilla divorced Azizus and married Felix.
Story Line: Commander Claudius Lysias delivered Paul to Felix in Caesarea Maritima to protect Paul from the Jewish leaders. Five days later, Jews arrived in Felix’s court to a present their case against Paul. Clearly, the Jews wanted to impress Felix about the charges against Paul; the Jewish contingent included Ananias, high priest of the Jerusalem Temple, and Tertullus, a well-known prosecuting attorney.
When Tertullus presented the Jew’s case against Paul, he began with overblown flattery. He identified that Felix’s rule brought peace to the land and his foresight brought reforms to the nation. Then Tertullus listed four distinct charges against Paul:
1) He was a plague, e.g., a pest or nuisance
2) He was a creator of revolt among the Jews
3) He was a ringleader of the Nazarene sect
4) He tried to profane the Temple.
Felix allowed him to respond to the accusations. Paul pointed out that he had arrived in Jerusalem to worship only 12 days before he was arrested. In that short time, he couldn’t have become a nuisance. When his accusers accosted, there was no one with him and he wasn’t arguing with anyone therefore, he couldn’t have caused a riot in the Temple. Paul admitted that he followed of The Way (early name for Christianity) which included the same belief as the Pharisees that there would be a resurrection. Paul noted that he brought gifts for the poor and offerings, requirements for all Jews, but particularly important because Judea was experiencing a famine.
Felix was in a difficult situation. He didn’t want to offend the illustrious Jewish contingent, yet, Paul, a Roman citizen, didn’t break Roman law. Like many judiciaries caught in a perceived no-win situation Felix postponed his decision. He said that after Commander Claudius Lysias came from Jerusalem and testified, he would rule on Paul’s case. Felix ordered a centurion to keep Paul under guard, but to give him some freedom and permit Paul’s friends to take care of his needs.
Analysis of the Relationships: Paul’s trial before Felix occurred two years before Felix was recalled to Rome to answer for his rule. By this time, he alienated the Jews by having Jonathan killed and earned the distrust of the people he governed. He was a cruel tyrant who was personally immoral.
In the two years that remained of his governorship, there is no indication that Claudius Lysias was called to appear before Felix to testify in Paul’s case. Felix brought Paul to him periodically in hope that Paul would offer him a bride to secure his freedom. He was very aware that Paul was a Roman citizen who wasn’t guilty of any crime. Felix wanted to free Paul, but want some gain from doing so.
Felix own words provide insight into his character. While he and Drusilla listened to Paul’s discourse on righteousness, self-control and judgment, Felix became afraid. He told Paul, “That is enough for now! You may leave. When I find it convenient, I will send for you” (Acts 24:25). Felix’s fear demonstrated that he rightfully doubted whether his own actions were right with God; e.g., was he self-controlled, were his judgments just? For this Roman governor who had little morality as a man or as a leader, Paul’s words were antagonistic and perhaps convicting.
Conclusion: Felix received his governorship through nepotism; he was personally unfit to govern. Although both the Jewish priest Jonathan and Paul provided him wise instruction, Felix discounted their words and ruled by greed.
Copyright February 7, 2015: Carolyn A. Roth, All rights reserved.