by Luke Wayne
Acts 21-26 describes the Apostle Paul's arrest in Jerusalem and his eventual transfer to the local capital of Caesarea Maritima where he undergoes a series of hearings and examinations before the Roman leaders there. While this narrative has been doubted and scrutinized by critics for generations, archaeology and other ancient historical sources only corroborate rather than conflicting with the details given in the New Testament account. The physical and documentary evidence matches up well with all that the Book of Acts reports.
The Actions of the Jerusalem Crowds
Acts 21:27-40 describes Paul's arrest in Jerusalem after a riotous lynch mob attempted to kill him for allegedly bringing a Gentile into the temple. The central verses of this account read:
"When the seven days were almost over, the Jews from Asia, upon seeing him in the temple, began to stir up all the crowd and laid hands on him, crying out, 'Men of Israel, come to our aid! This is the man who preaches to all men everywhere against our people and the Law and this place; and besides he has even brought Greeks into the temple and has defiled this holy place.' For they had previously seen Trophimus the Ephesian in the city with him, and they supposed that Paul had brought him into the temple. Then all the city was provoked, and the people rushed together, and taking hold of Paul they dragged him out of the temple, and immediately the doors were shut. While they were seeking to kill him, a report came up to the commander of the Roman cohort that all Jerusalem was in confusion," (Acts 21:27-31).
Some critics have claimed that the New Testament account here is over the top, and that people in Jerusalem at that time would not have wanted to literally kill a man over something like this. This objection greatly underestimates just how sacred the temple was to the Jewish people and just how seriously they took any infringement on its sanctity. Indeed, Josephus explains that, around the sacred grounds of the temple, there was "a stone wall for a partition, with an inscription which forbade any foreigner to go in under pain of death."1 Josephus further explained that this warning was posted at regular intervals around the premises in both Greek and Latin,2 so the threat could be widely seen and understood by all. And lest one think that both Acts and Josephus are exaggerating here, archaeologists have found these inscriptions. In both Greek and Latin, they read:
"No foreigner is to enter within the balustrade and enclosure around the Temple area. Whoever is caught will have himself to blame for his death which is to follow."3
One can view a complete inscription at the Istanbul Archaeology Museums and a large fragment of an identical inscription at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem today, evidence of Josephus' testimony that these signs were posted all around. The account reported in the book of Acts fits exactly with the sentiments we find in the other historical and archaeological data.
After the guards seize him from the mob, Paul is brought to "the barracks," (Acts 21:34) via "the stairs," (Acts 21:35). These barracks are clearly close enough that the soldiers can run down to the commotion "at once," (Acts 21:32) and intervene immediately before the mob can kill Paul right outside the doors to the temple, (Acts 21:30-31). Thus, the Book of Acts would lead us to believe that there were Roman barracks right next to the Temple mount with stairs between the entrance to the barracks and the place outside the door where Paul had been dragged. History reveals to us just such a place: the Antonia fortress. As Josephus describes it:
"At the point where it impinged upon the porticoes of the Temple, there were stairs leading down to both of them, by which the guards descended; for a Roman cohort was permanently quartered there, and at the festivals took up positions in arms around the porticoes to watch the people and repress any insurrectionary movement. For if the Temple lay as a fortress over the city, the Antonia dominated the Temple, and the occupants of that post were the guards of all three."4
When the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in 70 AD, almost nothing was left of the Antonia fortress. Josephus was a participant in the war and thus remembers the structure, but he has to carefully describe it to his readers. That the author of Acts is able to mention it so casually implies an early date for the composition of the work and certainly seems to entail an eyewitness source for the author's narrative here. At any rate, the details in Acts once again match the historical evidence closely.
Once inside the barracks, the commander is prepared to interrogate Paul through torture to get to the bottom of what happened, but is startled to discover that Paul is a citizen of the Roman empire (and therefore cannot legally be treated in such a manner). We then read:
"The commander came and said to him, 'Tell me, are you a Roman?' And he said, 'Yes.' The commander answered, 'I acquired this citizenship with a large sum of money.' And Paul said, 'But I was actually born a citizen,'" (Acts 22:27-28).
Some have critiqued the historicity of this exchange on the basis that one could not just buy Roman citizenship. Even if that were entirely true, the commander could simply have been trying to bait Paul into confessing to illegally obtaining his citizen status. Yet, archaeology affords us a far better explanation. Roman law bestowed citizenship on freed slaves.5 Many slaves had to buy their freedom (and, thus, their citizenship) from their masters. One inscription excavated at Assisi documents a man paying an astounding 50,000 sesterces for his freedom,6 which is a massive amount of money! Granted, this was probably an exceptional case and most slaves who bought their freedom likely paid less than this. Still, this demonstrates that a slave could obtain both their freedom and their citizenship with "a large sum of money." Thus, like many in the Roman empire, the commander interrogating Paul was probably a "freedman," a former slave who was now a citizen. This would fit very well with what historians know about Roman life.
Herod's Palace at Caesaria
Acts 23:12-35 describes a plot to murder Paul which, when it is uncovered, results in Paul being transferred to Caesarea Maritima, the Roman capital of the province where the Governor resides. Paul is then told:
"he said, 'I will give you a hearing after your accusers arrive also,' giving orders for him to be kept in Herod’s Praetorium," (Acts 23:35).
Caesarea Maritima is a beautiful Roman city built by Herod the great just before the New Testament era which served as the local capital. By Paul's day, Roman governors lived in the palace Herod had built there. Thus, Herod's palace served as the "Praetorium" (or, Governor's mansion). Archaeologist have unearthed the structure, and today one can go visit Caesarea and see the ruins. Somewhere in this very building, Paul was held captive, and we have a pretty good idea of the precise location where his hearings took place (pictured at the head of this article).
Governors and Kings
Acts 24-26 then reports a series of legal hearings before the Roman governors Felix and Festus, followed by an audience with the visiting king Agrippa. Each of these men likewise has witnesses in other sources. That Marcus Antonius Felix was a real governor of Judea is verified by multiple ancient historians.7 Porcius Festus was apparently less important, but still finds mention in the writings of Josephus.8 The existence of King Herod Agrippa II is verified not only by historical documents but also through archaeology. Coins inscribed with his name and portrait were found at the Herodian fortress of Masada.9 Each of the rulers mentioned here in Acts was demonstrably a real person reigning at precisely the time and place that the Bible describes.
The New Testament account of Paul's arrest and trial toward the end of the Book of Acts does not shy away from making clear and specific references to people, places, laws, and customs that place the event firmly in history. When we look outside the New Testament for additional evidence, we find plenty to corroborate the details that Acts gratuitously provides. Archaeology and historical records lend us no reason to doubt (indeed, plenty of reasons to trust) the veracity of the New Testament.
- 1. Antiquities of the Jews, Book 15, Chapter 11, Section 5
- 2. Jewish Wars, Book 5, Chapter 5, Section 2
- 3. Randall Price, Zondervan Handbook of Biblical Archaeology (Zondervan, 2017) 307
- 4. Jewish Wars, Book 5, Chapter 5, Section 8
- 5. Brian K. Harvey, Roman Lives (Focus Publishing, 2004) 84
- 6. Jo-Ann Shelton, As the Romans Did, Second Edition (Oxford University Press, 1998) 202
- 7. For example, see Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book 20, Chapter 7; Tacitus, Histories 5:9; Suetonius, Claudius 28
- 8. Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book 20, Chapters 8-9
- 9. Lawrence Mykytiuk, New Testament Political Figures Confirmed (Biblical Archaeology Review 43:5, September/October 2017) https://www.baslibrary.org/biblical-archaeology-review/43/5/6 (Accessed 4/09/2020)