In our last essay we studied Paul’s appearance before Felix found in Acts 24. In this essay we are studying 25:1-22. These verses give an account of Paul’s trial before Festus.
According to Josephus, Felix was recalled to Rome and replaced by Porcius Festus, because he had suppressed a dispute between the Jewish and the Syrian communities in Caesarea in a savage way. It was a kind of “straw that broke the camel’s back” situation. Felix just wasn’t up to the job. Not much is known about his replacement, Festus.
As you can see in verses 1-5, when Festus arrived at Caesarea, his first order of business was to acquaint himself with the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem. So he went up to Jerusalem to meet with them. And he immediately learned that their first order of business was to get their hands on Paul. They asked Festus to transfer Paul to Jerusalem, presumably so that they could try him there. Their actual intent was to assassinate Paul on the way. It is likely that most of the forty men who had pledged to kill Paul two years earlier still were in Jerusalem and still were willing to do it. But Festus refused that request. Instead, since he was planning to go back to Caesarea soon, he offered that they could send a delegation to return with him and make their accusations there.
Verse six tells us that Festus stayed in Jerusalem a little more than a week. Then he went back to Caesarea. A delegation from the Sanhedrin accompanied him; and the day after arriving back in the capital, Festus convened a new trial of Paul.
He took his seat on the tribunal and ordered Paul to be brought in. The Jewish leaders from Jerusalem made what Luke calls “many serious charges.” However, he does not list what the charges were. Based on Paul’s defense in verse eight, the charges appear to have been basically the same as in the earlier trials, and he denied that he had committed any offense against the Jewish law, the temple, or the emperor.
The Jewish leaders would have considered the charges that Paul offended the law and the temple as the most serious, but for Festus, they were unimportant. Religious charges were something that the Romans expected the Jews to settle among themselves. However, the charge that Paul had committed an offense against the emperor would have been very serious in the eyes of Festus, if there were any proof that he had done such a thing. The mention of the emperor placed a political spin on the matter, and the Jews hoped that would help carry their case. But it didn’t seem to help matters from their point of view.
At this point, Festus, wishing to do the Jews a favor, asked Paul if he was willing to be tried in Jerusalem. It is understandable that Festus would want to do something for the people over whom he was to rule in order to build some good will with them. The trial still would be presided over by Festus, but it would be held in Jerusalem. From Festus’ point of view that location would provide better access to witnesses and the like. From the Jews point of view, it would give them another opportunity to kill Paul. But Paul, apparently knowing that there still were people in Jerusalem who wanted to kill him, refused. Apparently he had that right as a Roman citizen.
Paul expressed his willingness to suffer the consequences, if he did anything worthy of death, but he knew he was innocent. By this time Paul was feeling boxed in. He already had been in jail for two years. He had received no justice from the Sanhedrin. Felix had given him no justice, and now Festus seemed willing to cave in to the Jerusalem Jews. Paul apparently did not trust Festus to give him justice, so he felt that he had only one option left. Any Roman citizen, who was not getting justice in a Roman province, had the right to appeal to the imperial court in Rome. And Paul chose to exercise that right. He appealed to Caesar, which meant he had to be sent to Rome to be tried there.
It seems that Paul’s appeal took Festus completely by surprise, even though it got him out of a rather sticky situation. The whole matter had been taken out of his hands, and he did not have to make any tough decisions. He consulted with his council of advisors and then announced, “You have appealed to the emperor; to the emperor you will go.”
King Agrippa was Agrippa II, son of Agrippa I (ruler of Judea AD 41-44), and grandson of Herod the Great. He ruled as a vassal king over the area northeast of Judea, including Galilee. Bernice was his sister. Verse 13 tells us that they came to Caesarea to welcome, that is, to pay their respects to, Festus the new procurator.
F. F. Bruce suggests that Festus may have sought Agrippa’s opinion on Paul’s case, because he, Festus, would have to supply a detailed written report to Rome on Paul’s case, and there were some aspects of the case that he didn’t understand. Since Agrippa was an expert on the Jews, he could help Festus to better understand what was going on.
At any rate, Festus laid out the whole case before Agrippa. He began with the fact that Felix had left Paul’s case for him to deal with. Then he told how, when he went to Jerusalem, the chief priests and elders pressed him for a sentence of condemnation against Paul. The NIV translation of verse 15 is much better than the NRSV translation. The word translated “sentence” by the NRSV originally meant “condemnation.” Therefore, as the NIV says, the Jews wanted Paul condemned. But Festus told them that Roman law required that the accused meet his accusers face to face and be given an opportunity to defend himself.
Next Festus explained to Agrippa that he convened Paul’s trial the day after returning to Caesarea. And he was surprised to learn that the charges the Jews brought against Paul had nothing to do with crimes against the state, but only with their religion, and especially about a man named Jesus who had died, but Paul believed to be alive.
Finally, Festus told Agrippa that because he was somewhat at a loss to understand all that was going on, he asked Paul if he wanted to be tried in Jerusalem, but Paul appealed to Caesar instead. And Festus was holding him until he could arrange to send him to Rome. Agrippa was fascinated by the case, and asked to hear Paul himself. Festus agreed and told Agrippa that he would have the opportunity the next day.