When Paul’s nephew learned of an assassination plot on his uncle’s life, he immediately alerted the imprisoned apostle (Acts 23:12-16). In turn, Paul sent the lad to Lysias, the commander responsible for him (Acts 23:17-19, 26). Lysias acted swiftly and went to great lengths to ensure his prisoner’s safety (Acts 23:22-35). At Paul’s trial the prosecutor, Tertullus, lamented:
But Lysias the commander came along, and with much violence took him [Paul] out of our hands, ordering his accusers to come before you. By examining him yourself concerning all these matters you will be able to ascertain the things of which we accuse him.” (Acts 24:7-8 NASB)Lysias ensured that Paul received due process of law.
While Lysias was certainly largely responsible for Paul’s safe arrival to his trial, Tertullus’ implicating of Lysias does not appear in all of the early manuscripts. J. Bradley Chance (b. 1954) explains, “The so-called Western text of Acts adds the following after ‘and we seized him’ (Acts 23:6): ‘and we would have judged him according to our law. But the chief captain Lysias came and with great violence took him out of our hands, commanding his accusers to come before you.’ It is not readily explainable why later copyists would have struck these words had they been a part of the original text of Acts (Chance, Acts (Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary), 445).”
Outside of his intervening on Paul’s behalf, Lysias is unknown in the Bible. The text does inform that he was also referred to as Claudius Lysias (Acts 23:26). I. Howard Marshall (b. 1934) speculates:
Claudius will be the Roman name which he adopted when he became a citizen, and was probably chosen because it was the reigning emperor’s name. Lysias will then be his original Greek name, which became his cognomen on his assumption of Roman citizenship; it may indicate that he came from the Greek-speaking coastal area of Samaria. (Marshall, Acts (The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries), 371)Lysias was a man of authority, a chilarchos, a position translations variously interpret as “commander” (CEV, HCSB, NASB, NIV, NKJV, NLT), “tribune” (ESV, NRSV, RSV), “chief captain” (ASV, KJV) or “captain” (MSG).
Luke Timothy Johnson (b. 1943) describes:
The chiliarchos (“leader of a thousand”) is the head of a “Cohort” (speira) which ideally consisted of a thousand soldiers, though the numbers in reality could vary. Since this unit could muster two centurions and some four hundred and seventy soldiers as an escort for Paul’s journey to Caesarea (Acts 23:23), it must have been at full strength. (Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles (Sacra Pagina), 382)Despite being relatively high on the chain of command, in the Bible, Lysias is a middle man. He intercedes on Paul’s behalf by writing a letter to his superior, governor Felix (Acts 23:26-30).
Has anyone ever written a letter of recommendation on your behalf? Who has interceded for you? Why does Lysias go to such great lengths to aid a prisoner? Lysias could not afford to lose a prisoner, but especially not one of Paul’s social standing. Most commentators concur that Lysias acted as he did in part due to social convention, namely that Paul was born a Roman citizen (Acts 16:37, 38, 22:25, 26, 27, 29, 23:27). Lysias himself admits that the turning point in his attitude toward Paul came when he learned that the prisoner was a citizen (Acts 23:27).
Not only was Paul a Roman citizen, but a lifelong one; an important factor in the relationship between jailer and prisoner. Charles H. Talbert (b. 1934) notes: “Since it was customary to take the name of the emperor in whose reign citizenship was acquired, the tribune’s name, Claudius Lysias (Acts 23:26), may suggest the time of his purchase, namely, during Claudius’s reign (Talbert, Reading Acts: A Literary and Theological Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles, 194).” As Claudius was a contemporary ruler, Lysias’ citizenship was likely a relatively new development.
Ben Witherington III (b. 1951) speculates,
That Paul was a Roman citizen by birth...threatened great damage to Claudius Lysias’ person and career...a severe breach of social convention would have been involved if a more “honorable” Roman citizen had been mistreated by one who had merely bought his citizenship...Probably Lysias had worked his way up through the military ranks but would have been barred from the rank of tribune because he was not already a citizen of equestrian rank. He solved this problem through a bribe. (Witherington, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, 681.)In short, most believe that Lysias aided Paul in deference to his higher social status. If this is the case, not much has changed in two thousand years.
Throughout the plot to ambush him, Paul trusted the government and in fact, worked the system for passage to Rome. When the conspirator’s plot reached him, the apostle trusted his captors to do the right thing. This seems consistent with Paul’s public stance on the Christian’s relationship to the government (Romans 13:1-7).
Paul lived by the system and he would eventually die by the system as well. Tradition asserts that Paul was beheaded in Rome during the reign of Nero at Tre Fontane Abbey.
Have you ever changed your attitude towards someone based upon acquiring a new piece of information about them? Do you trust the system to work for you? Should you? Would Paul have trusted the government as much had he not been a Roman citizen? For Paul, was trusting the government an extension of trust in God?
“The trust of the people in the leaders reflects the confidence of the leaders in the people.” - Paulo Freire (1921-1997), Pedagogy of the Oppressed, p. 169