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? What were the rights and privileges that came with citizenship? How did Paul's citizenship help him AVOID a beating and to receive a fair trial?
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.
". . . the commander ordered him (Paul) to be brought into the barracks, and said that he should be examined under scourging, so that he might know why they shouted so against him. And as they bound him with thongs, Paul said to the centurion who stood by, 'Is it lawful for you to scourge a man who is a Roman, and uncondemned?'
"When the centurion heard that, he went and told the commander, saying, 'Take care what you do, for this man is a Roman.' Then the commander came and said to him, 'Tell me, are you a Roman?' He said, 'Yes.' The commander answered, 'With a large sum I obtained this citizenship.' And Paul said, 'But I was born a citizen.' " (Acts 22:24-28, NKJV throughout)
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 privelages
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 exercised his right to a trial before Caesar 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:
"But Festus, wanting to do the Jews a favor, answered Paul and said, 'Are you willing to go up to Jerusalem and there be judged before me concerning these things?' So Paul said, 'I stand at Caesar’s judgment seat, where I ought to be judged. To the Jews I have done no wrong, as you very well know. For if I am an offender, or have committed anything deserving of death, I do not object to dying; but if there is nothing in these things of which these men accuse me, no one can deliver me to them. I APPEAL TO CAESAR.'
"Then Festus, when he had conferred with the council, answered, 'You have appealed to Caesar? To Caesar you shall go!' " (Acts 25:9-12)
Once again, his Roman citizenship meant Paul 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)