Apostle Paul's Roman citizenship

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For the first few centuries A.D., Roman citizenship was a highly coveted prize. The book of Acts records that the apostle Paul was apparently proud of his status as a Roman citizen (Acts 22:28). However, how did one become a citizen of Rome? How did Paul's citizenship help him AVOID a beating and to receive a fair trial? What were the rights and privileges that came with citizenship?

Acts 22 alludes to two ways of becoming a citizen of Rome. We pick up the story with Paul's visit to Jerusalem's temple with four Jewish converts. Jews see him enter the temple and begin a riot. Roman soldiers save Paul from an almost certain death by beating and take him to a nearby barracks for questioning.

25. But as he was being tied with the thongs, Paul said to the centurion who stood by, "Is it lawful for you to scourge a man who is a Roman and uncondemned?"

26. Now when the centurion heard this, he went and reported it to the chief captain, saying, "Do you realize what you are about to do? For this man is a Roman." 27. And when the chief captain came up, he said to him, "Tell me, are you a Roman?" And he said, "Yes." 28. And the chief captain answered, "With a great sum of money I bought this citizenship." And Paul said, "But indeed, I was born free." (Acts 22)

One can become a citizen by either birth or buying the privilege. Paul's birth in a Jewish family occurred in the city of Tarsus within the province of Cilicia (Acts 22:3). Although a Jew, his birth in the city grants him citizenship. This is due to Tarsus' designation as a "free city" by Rome. The commander, however, had to pay a large sum of money to be a citizen.

A third avenue to gain citizenship was through an extended period of military service. In order to attract more soldiers, Rome offered citizenship to those serving in the military for at least twenty-five years and who received an honorable discharge.

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A citizen's rights and privileges

Why was obtaining citizenship such a coveted prize?  Citizens enjoyed a wide range of privileges and protections which varied over time and place. Some of the more common rights and benefits were:

  • The right to vote in assemblies and stand for civil or public office

  • The right to make legal contracts and hold property

  • The right of immunity from some taxes and legal obligations

  • The right to sue (and be sued) in the courts

  • Citizenship also came with the right to have a legal trial where a person appears before a proper court in which to defend themselves. This right also includes the ability to request Caesar here a case.

Additionally, citizens could not be tortured or whipped (scourged), nor could they receive the death penalty, unless they were guilty of treason. It is this right that kept the apostle from a severe flogging, in order to gain information, at the hands of soldiers (Acts 22:23-29).

Paul's right to a trial before Caesar was used to avoid be tried in Jerusalem. If he went to the city from Caesarea, his murder would almost certainly occur along the way (Acts 25:1-3). Jerusalem also had many people who hated him. We find Paul making use of his Roman citizenship in Acts 25.

10. But Paul said, "I stand before the judgment seat of Caesar, where I have the right to be judged . . . 11. For on the one hand, if I am a wrongdoer and have done anything worthy of death, I do not object to dying; but if there is no truth in their accusations against me, no one can deliver me over to them. I appeal to Caesar." (Acts 25)

Once again, Apostle Paul's Roman citizenship meant he could receive treatment the common person did not have the right to request. He did know, however, there was another citizenship available to ALL that was of infinitely greater value than the empire could offer. To the church in Philippi he wrote:

"For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body, according to the working by which He is able even to subdue all things to Himself." (Philippians 3:20-21)

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