Apostle Paul's Roman citizenship
Submit YOUR questions, through our easy to use form,
to our team of mature Christians known as the Email Evangelists!
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.
23 And while they were shouting, throwing off their cloaks, and tossing dust into the air, 24 the tribune directed that he was to be brought into the barracks, and ordered him to be examined by flogging, to find out the reason for this outcry against him.
25 But when they had tied him up with thongs, Paul said to the centurion who was standing by, "Is it legal for you to flog a Roman citizen who is uncondemned?" 26 When the centurion heard that, he went to the tribune and said to him, "What are you about to do? This man is a Roman citizen."
27 The tribune came and asked Paul, "Tell me, are you a Roman citizen?" And he said, "Yes." 28 The tribune answered, "It cost me a large sum of money to get my citizenship." Paul said, "But I was born a citizen." (Acts 22:23-28, NRSV)
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.
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 pick up the story as he is brought before governor Festus:
9 But Festus, wishing to do the Jews a favor, asked Paul, "Do you wish to go up to Jerusalem and be tried there before me on these charges?"
10 Paul said, "I am appealing to the emperor's tribunal; this is where I should be tried. I have done no wrong to the Jews, as you very well know. 11 Now if I am in the wrong and have committed something for which I deserve to die, I am not trying to escape death; but if there is nothing to their charges against me, no one can turn me over to them. I appeal to the emperor." 12 Then Festus, after he had conferred with his council, replied, "You have appealed to the emperor; to the emperor you will go." (Acts 25:9-12, NRSV)
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)