The prophecy that Paul would bear the name of Jesus «before the Gentiles and kings and children of Israel» (9:15) had little effect on the political authorities, while it becomes central in this final part of Acts, where Paul has the opportunity to be face to face with two governors (Felix and Porcius Festus) and with King Agrippa: great opportunities to train in a task to be carried out then even in the capital of the empire.
While in his witness «to the Gentiles» and «to the children of Israel» Paul always reaped some fruit of conversion, in his preaching to the political authorities it seems that it was a failure every time. But God says that His Word always produces the effect for which He sends it (Isa 55:11) and so what was the achieved purpose of Paul? There is no answer directly available from Luke’s story, but it seems to me that it is possible to glimpse a short-term fruit and one in prospect.
The short-term fruit is that these political authorities come to know Christianity through its most suitable person, as Paul was; even if there are no conversions, we can see that Paul is able to make himself heard and even to intimidate them (not an easy target for a prisoner). Since the authorities had much power over the whole population, the fact that Paul had roused esteem for Christianity would have been very useful to all believers.
To reap another fruit we must move on to the historical level. For a politician of that time, conversion was much more problematic than for any citizen, so the seed sown by Paul found it difficult to sprout readily. Even the initial seed that Stephen had sown in the young Saul found difficulty to be immediately accepted, but the Spirit of God did not allow Paul to uproot it and so, after some time, it blossomed on the surface. Those Roman authorities to whom Paul spoke seemed to remain indifferent, but in the meantime something pierced them and their environment. According to historian Domenico Maselli, Christianity was already the majority among the ruling class in Rome in the 200s!
Coming more directly to this chapter, with the new governor Festus roughly the same script repeats itself as with Felix, but to avoid being handed over to the Jews, this time Paul appeals to Caesar, and so, he asks to appear before the emperor in Rome. On the occasion, Paul makes the wonderful declaration of having respected everything and everyone: «Neither against the law of the Jews, nor against the temple, nor against Caesar have I committed any offense» (v. 8).
Paul reiterates that «there is nothing true» in the accusations made against him by the Jews: accusations that however (as we have seen commenting on 21:24) are unfortunately considered true by many Christians!
Festus too, like Felix, in the face of a new situation and its unclear boundaries, adopts the strategy of not deciding: thus «some days [had] passed» (v. 13), which to the prisoner Paul will have seemed very long.
As usual when a new authority arrives, the notables of that area go officially to pay homage to him. So, after some time, Agrippa, king of a small neighbouring territory, accompanied by Berenice, shows up. Festus tells Agrippa the story of the prisoner Paul in order to have some advice, uttering words that make it clear how much the Roman courts were at that time superior to those of Jerusalem: «it was not the custom of the Romans to give up anyone before the accused met the accusers face to face and had opportunity to make his defense concerning the charge laid against him» (v. 16). «But I have nothing definite to write to my lord about him. Therefore, I have brought him before you all, and especially before you, King Agrippa, so that, after we have examined him, I may have something to write. For it seems to me unreasonable, in sending a prisoner, not to indicate the charges against him» (vv. 26-27).
Agrippa had evidently heard of Paul and manifests the desire to listen to him, so it happens that Paul appears before the beautifully dressed royal couple (Agrippa and Berenice), with the intervention of the highest authorities of the city, attracted by this special event: for Paul a significant opportunity to witness was thus being prepared, which is explained in the next chapter.
But before seeing what Paul will say to Agrippa, it is interesting to know a little more about this king and his dynasty, which was the one sadly known as of the Herods (Further Insight n. 14), with another small note to try to understand why Paul and the Baptist behaved in a different way towards their own “Herod” (Further Insight n. 15).
Further Insight n. 14
HEROD AGRIPPA AND THE OTHER “HERODS”
We did a little survey beyond the “Sola Scrittura” (‘Only Scripture’), appreciating for once who writes biblical dictionaries. We obtained some information that could be known to Luke’s readers and that was useful (useful yes, but not essential, otherwise goodbye to “Scripture Only”).
Concerning the governor Felix (Acts 24), Luke writes that he had come «with his wife Drusilla» (24:24), while he gives no qualification to that Berenice who accompanied King Agrippa (25:13,23). A small note on the New Revised (Italian Bible Translation) informs that Drusilla, Agrippa and Berenice were brothers; Felix and Agrippa were therefore brothers-in-law and this is not surprising: those in power tend to marry others of the same rank and this is a reason for the formation of a “caste”, in which the one is linked to the other (this also makes individual conversions more difficult).
It is surprising, instead, that Agrippa took his sister in the capacity of queen, and not his wife; why does Luke then not call her “sister”? The New Biblical Dictionary by R. Pache (Edizioni Centro Biblico, 1981) clarifies why Luke remains vague, since Berenice was actually the “sister-wife” of Agrippa, called by historians Herod Agrippa II.
Due to Herod being a famous name, we went to rebuild (through the Dictionary) some of that family tree, but do not worry, we will only give you the gist of it…though a very disturbing one.
The great-grandfather of our Herod Agrippa II was that Herod the Great who, to try to kill the newborn Jesus, was stained with the notorious massacre of children (Mt 2). Of the grandfather of Herod Agrippa II we did not find the name, but he was one of the brothers of Herod Antipas the Tetrarch and these brothers were “very fond” of the (female) grandchildren. John the Baptist had his own head cut off by Herod Antipas, who took Herodias as his wife, the daughter of one of his brothers and formerly the wife of another of his brothers (Mk 6:14-29; Luke 3:1; 9:7-9; 23:6-12); in short, Herod Antipas was an uncle, the brother-in-law and husband of Herodias, whose daughter Salome will then be married to a fourth brother; therefore, if Herod the Great had made a big mistake, in the next generation the behaviour has not improved much. Herod Agrippa I, the father of our Herod Agrippa II, killed one of the Twelve (i.e., James, Acts 12:2), but this time a heavy judgment of God is reported on him (v. 23). In summary, to speak to the representative of such a lineage of Herods, for Paul it was certainly not easy and there was much to fear.
We have to ask ourselves why Paul speaks with a friendly tone to Herod Agrippa II, while the Baptist harshly rebuked Herod Antipas, giving up his life, but to this we prefer to dedicate a separate Further Insight.
Further Insight n. 15
DIFFERENCE BETWEEN PAUL AND THE BAPTIST
WHEN FACED WITH “THEIR HERODES”
The reason for the difference between how John the Baptist treats Herod Antipas the Tetrarch and how Paul treats Herod Agrippa II is that we believe that it does not reside in a diversity of character or strategy between the Baptist and Paul, but rather in a diversity of circumstances.
What Mark said is very important: «Herod [Antipas] feared John, knowing that he was a just and holy man, and he kept him safe; When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed, and yet he heard him gladly» (Mk 6:20). It is not, therefore, that John went to Herod Antipas to reproach him for taking his sister-in-law as his wife; John had not even started to reproach Herod publicly and in his absence (as one might get the impression). It is likely, on the other hand, that it was Herod Antipas who went to John, with an attitude similar to that of the Pharisees and Sadducees, who wanted in some way to be associated with the movement of John the Baptist (whom all considered a prophet, Mt 21:26) but without translating it into renewed behavior. The Baptist therefore severely rebuked Herod in the same way as he did with the Pharisees (Mt 3:7-9). On the other hand, the curious, fearful, vague and treacherous character of Herod Antipas is also attested elsewhere (Mt 14:1-2; Luke 9:9; 23:8-11).
Paul, instead, is invited to speak not as a prophet, but as a prisoner called to defend himself (26:1) and therefore does not consider it his task to evaluate the personal conduct of Herod Agrippa II, even if he does not renounce to admonish him and to an implicit reproof, for example, when he says that there is a need for «forgiveness of sins» and that «works worthy of repentance» must be done, making a final appeal so that Agrippa and all the others become Christians as he himself was (vv. 18, 20 and 29).