by Doug Ward
A television series will often end a season with one or more of the main characters in serious trouble. Then viewers are forced to wait a few months, until the beginning of the following season, to find out how the difficult circumstances will be resolved.
Stories with "cliffhanger" endings are nothing new. The New Testament book of Acts, written in the 60s AD, is a well known example. The book ends with the main character, the apostle Paul, under house arrest in Rome, awaiting a trial before the Emperor Nero.
It is not known why Paul's companion Luke, the author of Acts, chose to end the book without revealing the results of the trial.1 We also do not possess a sequel to the book.2 However, there is strong biblical and historical evidence that Paul was acquitted at his trial and had an additional "season" of adventures before his martyrdom. The purpose of the present article is to consider this evidence.
Evidence from Acts
Several lines of reasoning support the conclusion that Paul was acquitted at his trial in Rome. First of all, the case against Paul, as described in Acts, was not very strong. When Paul was initially tried before the procurator Felix in Caesarea a few years earlier, three charges had been made (Acts 24:5-6):
· Paul had been the cause of riots all over the (Greco-Roman) world.
· Paul was the ringleader of a dangerous Jewish sect.
· Paul had brought Gentiles closer to the Jerusalem Temple than was permitted, thereby desecrating the Temple (Acts 21:28).
Roman courts tended to show little interest in charges like the second one, figuring that the Jews could best sort out their own sectarian arguments. In Corinth, the proconsul Gallio had dismissed similar charges against Paul (see Acts 18:12-16).
The third charge had been made by some Jews from Asia Minor, who did not bother to come to Caesarea to make their case (Acts 24:19). There were also no witnesses in Caesarea to support the first charge. Paul was only kept in custody after this trial because Felix hoped to receive a bribe from him (Acts 24:26). When Paul presented his case before Agrippa II two years later, Agrippa observed, "This man could have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar" (Acts 26:32, NIV).
After Paul arrived in Rome, he found that Jewish leaders there were unfamiliar with this case (Acts 28:17-21). This suggests that no one, as yet, had come from Jerusalem to present the accusations against Paul. If the case was not seriously prosecuted, then chances are it would have been dismissed.
Evidence from Epistles and History
Paul probably wrote his epistles to Ephesus, Philippi, Colossae, and Philemon while awaiting his trial before Nero. Some of these epistles contain hints about the eventual outcome of the trial.
In his letter to Christians in Philippi, Paul indicated that he was prepared for whatever happened and had come to terms with the possibility that he would be put to death (Phil 1:19-24; 2:17). At the same time, he was optimistic that he would be released. In Phil 1:25-26, he wrote, "I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, so that through my being with you again your joy in Christ Jesus will overflow on account of me." In Phil 2:24 he added, "And I am confident in the Lord that I myself will come soon."
In his letter to Philemon, Paul was confident that he would be able to return to Asia Minor to see Philemon. "Prepare a guest room for me, because I hope to be restored to you in answer to your prayers," he wrote in v. 22.
We can contrast Paul's optimism in Philippians and Philemon with his certainty of being near death in his second epistle to Timothy. In 2 Timothy 4:6, he wrote "For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time has come for my departure." These words were probably written during a different, later imprisonment. One indication of this is given in vv. 16-17:
"At my first defense, no one came to my support, but everyone deserted me. May it not be held against them. But the Lord stood at my side and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. And I was delivered from the lion's mouth."
One traditional way to interpret these verses is to see the "first defense" as Paul's 62 AD trial before Nero, and his deliverance from the "lion's mouth" as his release after that trial. (Scholars today believe it is more likely that the “first defense”' was a preliminary hearing before a later second trial. Under either interpretation, Paul was acquitted at his first trial.)
The timing of Paul's trial, in about 62 AD, may have worked in his favor. At that point, the twenty-five year old Nero was still influenced to some extent by his childhood tutor Seneca. Seneca was the brother of Gallio, who as proconsul in Corinth had dismissed charges against Paul (Acts 18). If Seneca saw the case as similar to the one brought before his brother, then he may have advised Nero to make a similar ruling.
Some later Christian sources support the case that Paul was acquitted. Clement of Rome, in his epistle to the Corinthians written in the 90s AD, made the following statement about Paul in the fifth chapter:
"After preaching both in the east and west, he gained the illustrious reputation due to his faith, having taught righteousness to the whole world, and come to the extreme limit of the west, and suffered martyrdom under the prefects."
For a first century Roman, "the extreme limit of the west" was Spain. Paul expressed a desire to travel to Spain (Rom 15:24), but he does not seem to have had the opportunity to do so before 62 AD. Clement's statement supports a scenario in which Paul was released at a first trial in Rome and then made a trip to Spain before a second imprisonment.
This scenario was favored by Eusebius of Caesarea, the fourth century bishop and historian whose Ecclesiastical History is an invaluable compilation of early Christian history. In Book 2, chapter 22 of this work, Eusebius wrote:
"Festus was sent by Nero to be Felix's successor. Under him Paul, having made his defense, was sent bound to Rome. Aristarchus was with him, whom he also somewhere in his epistles quite naturally calls his fellow-prisoner. And Luke, who wrote the Acts of the Apostles, brought his history to a close at this point, after stating that Paul spent two whole years at Rome as a prisoner at large, and preached the word of God without restraint. Thus after he had made his defense it is said that the apostle was sent again upon the ministry of preaching, and that upon coming to the same city a second time he suffered martyrdom."
In support of his conclusions, Eusebius cites some of the same evidence we have been considering, including 2 Tim 4:16-17 and the fact that Paul's trial occurred before the time when Nero became a persecutor of Christians. On this second point, Eusebius commented, "It is probable indeed that as Nero was more disposed to mildness in the beginning, Paul's defense of his doctrine was more easily received; but that when he had advanced to the commission of lawless deeds of daring, he made the apostles as well as others the subjects of his attacks."
The Final Episode
As we have seen, there is strong support for the conclusion that Paul was released after his initial appearance before Nero. In the language of television, we might say that the series Adventures of Paul was picked up for a final season.
Our sources also indicate that some of the episodes from that final season include a trip to Spain as well as visits to Philippi in Macedonia and Ephesus and Colossae in Asia Minor. According to Christian tradition, the final episodes chronicle another arrest in Rome, this one leading to martyrdom. Eusebius (Ecclesiastical History 2.25) states: "It is, therefore, recorded that Paul was beheaded in Rome itself, and that Peter likewise was crucified under Nero. This account of Peter and Paul is substantiated by the fact that their names are preserved in the cemeteries of that place even to the present day."
So ended the Adventures of Paul. However, the message and movement begun by Paul and the other apostles continue today, reaching to "the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8). We can be thankful that God has included us in these adventures, part of the never-ending story of his great plan of salvation.
1According to one interesting theory, Luke wrote Acts to present Paul's case for the trial. See, for example, the book Paul on Trial: The Book of Acts as a Defense of Christianity by John W. Mauck (Thomas Nelson, 2001).
2In the entertaining novel The Constantine Codex by Paul L. Maier (Tyndale House, 2011), a book of Second Acts is found in the archives of the Eastern Orthodox Church in Istanbul, but this of course is fictional.
translated from TEX by TTH,
On 24 May 2012, 19:27.