Festus, An Uncertain Governor

Paul before Festus

Bible Reference: Acts chapters 25-26

Heart of the Story: Very soon after becoming governor of Judea, Festus heard Paul’s case. Festus wanted to return Paul to the Jews in Jerusalem; however, Paul demanded that his case be heard by Caesar.

Back Story: When Nero recalled Felix to Rome in 62 AD, Porcius Festus became governor of Judea. Three days after arriving in Caesarea, he went to Jerusalem to meet with the Jewish leaders. By then a full two years pasted since Felix refused to indict Paul of profaning the Temple, however, the Jews didn’t forget Paul. They asked Festus to return Paul to Jerusalem so he would stand trial in front of the Sanhedrin. They planned to kill Paul while he was transported the approximate 60 miles between Caesarea and Jerusalem.

Instead of acceding to their request, Festus invited the Jews to present their case against Paul in his court in Caesarea. Very likely Festus was thoroughly briefed to the machinations of the Jews against Paul to include their original plan to murder him.

Story Line: When Paul was brought before the Roman civil court in Caesarea, three groups were present. The first was Festus and his council. In complex cases Roman governors often used officials and legal experts as a council to explore all the nuances of a legal matter. The second group was Jews from Jerusalem who brought charges against Paul. The Bible is silent on the Jewish group; however, probably the chief priest didn’t make the trip to Caesarea. Finally, Paul was present to answer the charges and present a defense. Supporters to include Luke (the author of Acts) were with him.

Neither the Jews accusations nor Paul’s defense were outlined in Acts chapter 25, probably because they mirrored those elaborated in Acts chapter 24. The outcome was that Festus—wishing to do the Jews a favor—asked Paul if he was willing to go to Jerusalem and stand trial. Essentially, Paul’s response was “of course not.” As a Roman citizen Paul had the right to a trial in a Roman court where he was currently standing; however, to prevent Festus from remanding him to the Jewish Sanhedrin, Paul appealed his case Caesar.

When King Agrippa II and his sister Bernice came to pay a congratulatory call of the new governor, Festus asked them to hear Paul’s case. Agrippa was an authority on Jewish matters. Emperor Claudius gave Agrippa authority over the Jerusalem Temple and the right to appoint the Jewish high priest. Festus wanted Agrippa’s advice on what to write in the charges against Paul.

The following day, a large group convened in the audience room of Festus’ palace. The group included not only Festus, King Agrippa and Bernice, but high ranking officials and leading men of Caesarea. Festus and allowed King Agrippa to conduct the inquiry. When Agrippa told Paul he had permission to speak, Paul gave a thorough account of his conversion to Christianity to include seeing a vision of Christ on the Damascus road. Paul noted that Christ’s suffering was prophesied by Jewish prophets.

Festus broke into Paul’s narrative and accused Paul of being out of his mind; he concluded that Paul’s great learning drove him insane. Paul denied the accusation. He observed that the king was familiar with all of these happening. Paul asked Agrippa if he believed the prophets. Agrippa didn’t answer Paul’s question, but concluded to Festus that Paul could have been released except that he appealed to Caesar.

Analysis of the Relationships: When Festus took over the governorship of Judea he had to meet Nero’s requirement to secure peace in Judea and to reduce the Jew’s bitter feelings toward Rome. Festus knew that Jewish complaints were a reason governor Felix was recalled to Rome. Judea was overrun with robbers, imposters and murderers. To calm the aggressive populace, Festus needed the good-will trust of the Jewish establishment.

A challenge for Festus was that the Jews believed that they had “special privilege” or entitlement associated with their religion. The special privilege meant that Jews could pass and enforce religious laws and hold court to enforce the ecclesiastical laws. In Paul’s case, Jewish ecclesiastical law butted heads with laws of Roman citizenship.

Appeal to Caesar (or his representative) was the right of every Roman citizen. It mirrors an appeal to the United States Supreme Court. Roman law required that the lower court write an explicit report on a case when it was sent to Caesar. Regional governors weren’t permitted to send petty cases before the Roman Emperor; however, once a Roman citizen appealed to Caesar, Roman courts and Roman officials were required to see that the appeal was implemented.

Any decision made by Caesar over turned rulings of lower courts. Caesar could acquit Paul of charges of breaking Jewish law. Importantly Caesar’s ruling would recognize that Christianity wasn’t merely a Jewish sect subject to Jewish laws, but a religion distinct from Judaism. Such a distinction would curtail future Jewish intrusion into Christian matters.

Conclusion: Had Paul not been a Roman citizen, probably Governor Festus would have turned him over to the Jews where he would have been killed.

As depicted in the Bible, Governors were a mixed lot; some were really capable and some were inept. If you want to read more about biblical governors check my book on Lesser Known Bible Characters on Carolyn Roth Ministry (http://www.CarolynRothMinistry.com).

Copyright: April 6, 2015. Carolyn A. Roth, all rights reserved.

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