In our last essay we studied Acts 21:37-22:29 in which we saw Paul’s defense before the crowd following his arrest in Jerusalem. In this essay we are studying 22:30-23:11. The Roman tribune who had arrested Paul was determined to get to the bottom of this conflict between Paul and the Jews. He had tried questioning the crowd on the day of Paul’s arrest, but there were so many conflicting stories that it proved to be a dead end (21:33-34). He was about to resort to torture to get Paul to reveal the truth when the discovery of Paul’s Roman citizenship cut off that route (22:24-29). So the tribune tried another tactic. He called a meeting of the Jewish Sanhedrin so that they could question Paul (22:30). The tribune hoped that the hearing would bring out the reasons for the accusations against Paul.
When the hearing began, Paul took the initiative and declared that he had lived his life with a clear conscience before God (23:1). This defense strikes some interpreters as odd, because Paul persecuted the Christians so severely; and in 1 Timothy 1:15 declared that he had been the “worst” (NIV) or “foremost” (NRSV) of sinners.
F.F. Bruce, in order to explain this, distinguishes between Paul’s public and inner lives and suggests that Paul, in this statement, was referring to his public life. That is to say, Paul was talking about how he always did his duty before God in good conscience. That would have included his persecution of the Christians, because Paul believed he was doing the will of God when he persecuted the Christians. And he didn’t discover his inner sinfulness until Jesus confronted him on the Damascus Road. Thus, in 1 Timothy 1:15, when Paul called himself the worst of sinners, he was referring to his inner life, rather than his public life.
It is not entirely clear why Ananias, who was the high priest at the time (AD 47-58), became so angry. Obviously Ananias was angered by Paul’s claim to have lived his life before God with a clear conscience. The question is why? Perhaps Ananias believed that Paul’s conversion to Christianity amounted to a betrayal of his Jewish people. John Stott believes that Paul’s claim to be leading his life in good conscience before God suggested to Ananias that Paul was claiming that he still was a good Jew in spite of his conversion to Christianity. And in the eyes of Ananias, that was a blasphemous claim.
In any case, Ananias ordered those standing near Paul to hit him on the mouth, though as we shall see in a moment, Paul didn’t realize that the one who gave the order was Ananias. Luke doesn’t say whether or not anyone actually hit Paul, though the implication is that one of them did. In either case, this angered Paul, and he lashed out verbally, “God will strike you, you whitewashed wall! Are you sitting there to judge me according to the law, and yet in violation of the law, you order me to be struck?” (v. 3)
Paul was on solid legal ground with his reply. Jewish law safeguarded defendants. They were presumed innocent until proven guilty, and no punishment was to be handed out until guilt was established. In Paul’s case, he was not even charged let alone tried and found guilty. Therefore it was unlawful to strike him.
However, as Paul himself admits in verse 5, it also was unlawful to speak ill of a leader of the people. And that raises an interesting point about this hearing. Apparently it was not an official meeting of the Sanhedrin, but rather an informal gathering called by the Roman tribune who probably was presiding. In an official meeting, Ananias would have been wearing his high priestly robes, and he would have been presiding. In that case Paul would have known who the person giving the order was. The fact that Paul did not know it was Ananias who ordered him struck demonstrates that the meeting was very informal and probably was not held in the Sanhedrin’s usual meeting room.
Some commentators compare Paul’s reactions to those of Jesus at his trial, and of course Paul comes out looking badly. When Jesus was struck, he objected to the insult in a very calm and cool way (Jn. 18:22-23; cf. 1 Pet. 1:23), whereas Paul responded with anger.
Although it is clear that Paul lost his cool and did not respond with as much grace as Jesus, it also is clear that Paul was wronged. And it is clear that Paul respected the law, because as soon as he found out he had insulted the high priest, he apologized.
Before going on to the next paragraph, let’s take note of the metaphor Paul used to describe the one who called for him to be struck on the mouth. He called that person a “whitewashed wall.” Whitewash is a white liquid that one applies like paint, usually to an outside surface. In New Testament times, it frequently was used on the outside of tombs, which made the tombs more attractive, at least on the outside. It is easy to see how the practice led to metaphorical use. Jesus himself referred to the Pharisees as whitewashed tombs, meaning that they looked good on the outside but were corrupt on the inside (Mt. 23:27-28).
Some interpreters of Paul’s metaphor point to the mention of a whitewashed wall in Eze. 13:8-16 and suggest that Paul was saying that the person calling for him to be struck on the mouth was like a feeble wall that was whitewashed to cover up its weaknesses. Still other interpreters have suggested that Paul was speaking sarcastically. He could not believe that any high priest could say such a thing. However it is more likely that Paul, like Jesus, was saying that the one ordering him struck was like a whitewashed tomb that looked good on the outside, but was full of corruption on the inside.
We will never know where Paul would have gone with his defense had he not been interrupted by the high priest. But following the interruption and the acrimonious exchange between them, Paul seems to have taken a different approach than he originally planned. He knew that the Sanhedrin was made up of a mixture of Pharisees and Sadducees. He also knew that the two groups held very different theologies. For example, Pharisees believed that the entire Old Testament was the word of God, whereas Sadducees believed only that the five books of Moses were scripture. Pharisees believed in the resurrection of the dead and in angels and demons. Sadducees rejected all of these.
Although many Sadducees, who were mostly priests, became Christians (Acts 6:7), their theology made it much harder for them to convert than for Pharisees. Sadducees who became Christians had to abandon their liberal Jewish theology. On the other hand, Pharisees did not have to do that, because Christian theology was much like their Jewish theology. For example, they already believed in resurrection, which is at the heart of the Christian faith. That meant that one could be both a Pharisaic Jew and a Christian at the same time. Indeed that was precisely what Paul was.
Now then, we don’t want to forget that this event took place very early in church history. Christianity had not yet separated from Judaism. It still was a sect within Judaism. Certainly the Romans made no distinction between them. And the apostles didn’t either. They believed that Jewish and Gentile Christians could exist together in mutual respect and love, which they did for some time. And we saw how hey worked that out back in chapters 10 through 15. But eventually, when Gentile Christians began to outnumber Jewish Christians by a large number, the church became a Gentile church separate from Judaism; and after that, few Jews were converted. Even today, Christian Jews, called Messianic Jews, are not comfortable worshiping with Gentiles, because they want to maintain Jewish customs, which Gentiles do not do.
So Paul now decided to address the council as a Pharisee. He identified himself as a Pharisee and declared that he was on trial because of his belief in resurrection of the dead. That set off a big debate between the Pharisees and Sadducees on the Council. Then some Pharisees on the Council came to Paul’s defense saying that they found nothing wrong with him. That seems to have led to more arguments that began to turn violent. The tribune, realizing that his hope of getting at the truth through this hearing had failed, once again began to fear for Paul’s life, so he decided to take him back to the barracks. Thus for a third time, the tribune intervened to keep Paul safe (21:30-33; 22:22-24).
Finally, we see in 23:11 that Jesus gave Paul some tender loving care. He appeared to Paul for a third time. The other two were on the Damascus road (22:6-11) and at the temple (22:17-21). This would have been a tremendous lift for Paul. He undoubtedly was discouraged. He was in prison; his ministry in Jerusalem seemed to be a failure; and his future ministry seemed in doubt. But Jesus exhorted Paul to keep up his courage, and he assured Paul that he would bear witness for Jesus in Rome.