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Paul has come under criticism for seeming to insult the high priest in Acts 23. It is time that we understand the situation a little better. Paul made an opening statement, and then “the high priest Ananias” ordered him to be struck on the mouth.
3 Then Paul said to him, “God is going to strike you, you white-washed wall. And do you sit to try me according to the law and in violation of the law order me to be struck?” 4 But the bystanders said, “Do you revile God's high priest?” 5 And Paul said, “I was not aware, brethren, that he was high priest; for it is written, ‘You shall not speak evil of a ruler of your people’.”
The first question is how Paul would fail to recognize the high priest. There is no doubt that Paul recognized many of those gathered at his trial, because he had known them during his training under Gamaliel. Secondly, who is this “high priest,” Ananias? Lightfoot doubts very much that Ananias was actually the high priest, for historically, the high priest by that name had been removed from office seven years earlier in 52 A.D. Rome's governor of Syria had actually sent Ananias as a prisoner to Rome, and Lightfoot says there is no evidence that he ever returned, much less was reinstated as high priest:
“That Ananias, the high priest whom Josephus mentions was sent bound to Rome by Quadratus the governor of Syria, to render an account of his actions to Claudius Caesar, and that before Felix entered upon the procuratorship of Judea; but whether he ever returned to Jerusalem again is uncertain; still more uncertain whether ever restored to his place of high priest; and most uncertain of all whether he filled the chair at the time when Paul pleaded his cause, which was some years after Felix had been settled in the government.” (Lightfoot, Commentary, p. 135)
Lightfoot says that the Ananias of Acts 23 was a sagan, another title of a high official. The Jewish Encyclopedia disagrees, however, saying that Ananias was acquitted in Rome through the influence of Herod Agrippa II, and then returned to Jerusalem to continue his duties until 59 A.D., when Herod turned against him and deposed him. The Jewish Encyclopedia says of him,
“His removal from office did not rob him of influence; for his wealth was daily increased by gifts and by unscrupulous and violent appropriation on the tithes, or provisions, destined for the ordinary priests. . . His relations to the procurator Albinus drew upon him the hatred of the Sicarii; and at the outbreak of the great revolt, when he sided with the party of the king, the revolutionists not only burnt his palace but killed him and his brother.” (Vol. I, p. 558, 1901 ed.)
There was always a question about the legitimacy of the high priests in those days, since many of them were appointed by the political leaders, rather than in the succession of father to son. This question of legitimacy forms the backdrop to Acts 23, where Paul does not seem to “recognize” the high priest. The whole situation is one of irony, for surely Paul knew the man who was sitting as “high priest.”
Yet Paul would have recognized Jesus Christ to be the legitimate High Priest. When he says, “I was not aware, brethren, that he was high priest,” he was not expressing ignorance, but irony, saying, “I did not recognize him.” The word recognize has a double meaning.
Lightfoot comments that Paul did not utter this statement in the heat of passion or anger, but soberly and (as an apostle) by the authority and guidance of the Holy Spirit. Nor, in fact, did Paul retract his words, or make any apology, though he quoted the law applicable to the case. Knowing the law, why would he not immediately apologize? Simply because the Council itself was guilty of speaking evil against the true High Priest—Jesus Christ—and therefore, they were the ones needing to apologize for speaking evil against Him.
Lightfoot offers a paraphrase of Paul's words in this light:
“I know it is not lawful to speak evil of the ruler of the people; nor would I have said these things to him which I have, if I had owned [recognized] such a one; but I did not own him so, for he is not worthy the name of a high priest.” (Commentary, p. 136)
Beyond this controversy over who was the legitimate high priest, there is a second issue that we have already mentioned. It is the prophecy that Paul uttered in verse 3, “God is going to strike you, you white-washed wall.” History proves this to be a prophetic statement, as the Jewish Encyclopedia (above) tells us, for a few years later, Ananias was killed and his palace burned to the ground in the great revolt. We are told that he was a thief, stealing the tithes from the ordinary priests, but ultimately, he lost everything, for God took it from him by the hands of the Sicarii.
After this rather bumpy start, Paul continued his defense before the Council. He knew, of course, that the Pharisees and Sadducees hated each other over some doctrinal issues—in particular, the resurrection of the dead. The Pharisees believed that there would be a physical resurrection of the dead, while the Sadducees denied this. Paul had been a Pharisee, of course, and he never changed his view on the resurrection of the dead.
So he threw the cat among the dogs by claiming he was on trial for believing in the resurrection of the dead. This was no lie, for he had made it perfectly clear in 1 Corinthians 15 that the resurrection was the foundation of his entire belief system. Jesus was raised from the dead, and this fact forms the basis of the great hope of all Christian believers. 1 Cor. 15:12-14 says,
12 Now if Christ is preached that He has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 But if there is no resurrection of the dead, not even Christ has been raised; 14 and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain.
Because there were many Jewish Christians in those days, the controversy between the Sadducees and the Pharisees was transferred to the early Church, and Paul had to deal with it in 1 Corinthians 15. And in his defense before the Council, he stated his position on the resurrection, knowing that this would cause tempers to flare among the Council members. The tactic worked well. Acts 23:9 says,
9 And there arose a great uproar; and some of the scribes of the Pharisaic party began to argue heatedly, saying, “We find nothing wrong with this man; suppose a spirit or an angel has spoken to him?”
The Roman commander then stopped the trial and took Paul back to the barracks. Then verse 11 says,
11 But on the night immediately following, the Lord stood at his side and said, “Take courage; for as you have solemnly witnessed to My cause at Jerusalem, so you must witness at Rome also.”
Had Paul witnessed Christ's cause at Jerusalem? Yes. He had borne witness that Jesus was the legitimate High Priest—not Ananias. He had borne witness of Jesus’ resurrection as well. These are two foundational issues of Christianity itself. Luke gives only a summary of the prime issues, for he would not have witnessed this trial personally, but only heard what Paul told him later.
The next day about 40 Jews took an oath to eat nothing until they had killed Paul (23:12, 13). They intended to kill him (and the Roman soldiers escorting and guarding him) when Paul went to appear before the Council the next day. Paul's nephew somehow learned of the plot and came to tell him (23:16). The commander immediately ordered a military escort for Paul's midnight ride to Caesarea. Thus, God used these 40 fanatics to take Paul out of Jewish jurisdiction.