Speaking like this to defend himself, Paul was loudly interrupted by Festus: "Paul, you are mad; your great learning has turned you nuts." But Paul replied, "No, I am not nuts, most excellent Festus, but speaking the sober truth. For the king indeed is aware of these matters, and that's why I can speak to him so freely. I know full well that none of this has escaped his notice. After all, it did not happen in a corner. King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know that you believe them." And that was when Agrippa said to Paul, "You think you can make me into a Christian someday soon do you?" Paul said, "Whether it is short time or a long one, I only pray that not only you but also all who hear me today might become as I am - except, of course, for these chains." Then the King got up, along with the Governor and Bernice and others sitting there. When they had withdrawn, they said to one another, "This man is not doing anything to deserve death or imprisonment." Agrippa said to Festus, "He could have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar."  - Acts 26: 24-32/transliteration by Bruce C Wearne

 St Paul statue

ST PAUL: As depicted in a statue by Pierre-√Čtienne Monnot located in the nave of the Basilica of St. John Lateran. PICTURE: Jastrow/CC BY 2.5

 

IN A NUTSHELL
Festus sensed Paul's desire that all people hear the Gospel. Paul's appeal to Agrippa confirmed the public nature of his message. Later they agree Paul is innocent. 

The interruption by Festus was not nit-picking. He, like Felix before him, seems to have become alarmed. He jokingly interrupted Paul in full flight - "You're nuts, Paul!" It gives a hint of his nervousness.

After this, Luke tells us, Paul was quick enough to turn his attack to King Agrippa and Bernice, telling them what he thought were the significant consequences of his teaching, not only for the religion they all knew so well, but for the manner by which the entire Roman administration conducted itself.

Often in formal occasions, when those with authority are gathered, a sensitive appeal to one of their number (in this case, Agrippa), can provoke another person present to interject. The appeal is getting too close to the bone. Paul was publicly demonstrating a closeness to Agrippa (had he perhaps gained some knowledge about the King's views from Maanen in Antioch - see 13:3?), that seems to have made Festus uneasy. This interjection then served to get Agrippa "off the hook". And so, Agrippa replied in a friendly, if uncertain, way, "So you think you can make me into a Christian do you?"

Paul followed that up by emphasising that in his view it could never be just a matter of Paul versus Festus, Agrippa and Bernice. It was not even a matter of Paul versus Caesar, let alone Paul versus the Sanhedrin. Paul couldn't make Agrippa into anything. Paul's reply reminds us of Joseph interpreting Pharaoh's dream and what he had said long, long ago: "It is not in me; God will give Pharaoh a favourable answer!" (Genesis 41:16).

Paul was still under arrest and his condition somewhat extraordinary. He addressed the great-grand son of the murderer of the innocents after Jesus was born. Agrippa's great uncle had murdered John the Baptist. It must have been a highly charged atmosphere. But incredibly, Luke tells us, these participants remained on extremely cordial terms. So, how did that come about?

My answer can only be a partial one, but has to do with the way in which Paul held Agrippa's attention by an interpretation of Israel's history. Paul was proclaiming the Gospel as the basis for a peaceful transformation of relations between Jews and Gentiles, between Israel and the Roman administration. This basis is implicit in the belief that Jesus has been crucified and that God raised Him. The message of God's forgiveness is the world-enriching news that means that what is good in traditional customs, including those formed by Hebraic religiosity and Roman Imperial civility, can, in time, become part of ongoing life of service in God's Kingdom.

Throughout his book, Luke presents Paul's conversion three times. It is a central event and when we look closely at what they say we sense that it has something to do with Paul's view of how the Gospel fulfils the prophetic line from Moses to Daniel. The Gospel restores and maintains God's covenant. Those following Jesus are involved in something of world-historical importance.

Speaking to the crowd on the temple steps Paul said "those with me saw the light but did not hear the voice of anyone speaking to me" but in this speech his words are, "Having all fallen to the ground I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language..." Luke gives his initial account in Acts 9:7 where it reads: "Now those travelling with him stood speechless, hearing the sound but seeing no man."

There is a complex interpretive issue being worked out in Paul's description of his encounter with Jesus. I wonder whether he is comparing himself with Moses where Moses gave parting encouragement to the children of Israel in these words: "Then the Lord spoke to you out of the midst of the fire; you heard the sound of words, but saw no form; there was only a voice." (Deuteronomy 4:12).

They were to revere YHWH who had revealed Himself in the burning bush on Mount Horeb.

Daniel described his encounter with God's angel in terms that also use some of the terms Paul used: "And I, Daniel, alone saw the vision; the men with me did not see the vision, but a great trembling did fall upon them, and they went into hiding; I was completely alone when I saw this great vision. My strength deserted me; my radiance was awfully changed, I had no strength. Then I heard the sound of his words. And upon hearing his words, I fell into a deep sleep with my face to the ground." (Daniel 10:7).

Paul was pulled up short by God Almighty just like Moses, the Hebrew reared in the courts of Pharaoh, had been. In the Midian wilderness, and with Jethro's help, Moses continued to reconnect with his spiritual heritage in God's covenant with Abraham. Daniel, a Hebrew of the royal line, raised in Nebuchadnezzar's courts in Babylon, became CEO to successive administrations. Paul, a citizen of Rome from the university-town of Tarsus, one of Gamaliel's top students, gained help from a Jew named Ananias in Damascus and a Levite from Cyprus named Barnabas to understand his vision. This Paul found himself standing before Festus, King Agrippa and Bernice having appealed to Caesar.

But here Paul's message of "justice, self-control and future judgment" (Acts 24:25) was based on the conviction that all of Israel's hopes had been fulfilled. Paul was confiding in them. Their willingness to grant him an audience could be compared with Moses before Pharaoh and Daniel before Nebuchadnezzar. Such a view helps us to appreciate the interruption of Festus. No wonder he was nervous. And Paul would reply to the nervous interruption of Festus - "No, most excellent Festus, I am not nuts but speaking the sober truth!"

His concern for these rulers was obvious. It was utterly genuine and they could not deny it. Afterwards, Agrippa and Festus agreed that Paul would have had to be freed had he not already appealed to Caesar. Paul, however, knew the Lord had stood by him: "Take courage. Just as you have testified about me at Jerusalem, so you must bear witness at Rome."

Is it notable that Jesus said "Rome" and not "Caesar"? Paul didn't know then and neither do we know now whether he gained a personal audience with the Emperor. That was in God's hands, as all of our life always is.

How is Luke viewing this situation? What he tells us indicates enough of his interpretation of what was going on to suggest to his reader (Theophilus and also ourselves) that it would not have been too extravagant to imagine the Roman administration in those parts (Festus and Agrippa) to have actually said, "Paul we want to appoint religious affairs consultant for our respective administrations." They did not and it does even seem to have been a possibility for them. But Luke's account indicates to his readers that Paul was so well in command of the situation that it should have been an option for them. For the time being Paul remained incarcerated "at the Governor's pleasure" and thereby served in that way, just as Joseph and Daniel had done.