Was Paul a Roman Citizen?

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How did the Apostle Paul obtain Roman citizenship? How did such a privilege minimize what he suffered as a minister and preacher of the gospel?

The book of Acts records that the apostle Paul was apparently proud of his status as a Roman citizen (Acts 22:28). This, however, begs the question as to how a person obtained such a status. It also leads to yet another question regarding what were the rights and privileges of citizenship that came with such a prized designation?

Becoming a Citizen

Acts 22 alludes to two ways of gaining Roman Empire citizenship. 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 taking him to a nearby barracks for questioning.

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?"

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." And when the chief captain came up, he said to him, "Tell me, are you a Roman?" And he said, 'Yes.' (Acts 22: 25 - 27).

Paul Preaching on Ruins
Paul Preaching on Ruins
Giovanni Paolo Pannini, 1744

A person could become a Roman 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 earn the right.

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

Rights and Privileges

Why was obtaining citizenship from Rome such a coveted prize? Those who possessed such a status enjoyed a wide range of privileges and protections which varied over time and place. Some of the more common d benefits were the right to vote in assemblies and to be eligible to run for civil or public office. It also included the right to make legal contracts or hold property, as well as the privelage of immunity from some taxes and legal obligations.

Roman citizens had the right to sue (and be sued) in the courts and the right to have a legal trial where they could appear before a proper court to defend themselves. They even had the ability to request Caesar himself hear their case.

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

Paul Exploits His Rights

Paul used his right to a trial before Caesar in Rome in order to avoid being tried before religious leaders in Jerusalem who hated him. He felt certain that any travel he undertook to the holy city would not only be risky but also likely cost him his life (Acts 25:1 - 3). Paul's use of his Roman citizenship in order to avoid being murdered is in Acts 25.

But Paul said, "I stand before the judgment seat of Caesar, where I have the right to be judged . . .

"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 25:10 - 11).

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 a greater group available to ALL that was of infinitely greater value than the empire could offer. To the church in Philippi he wrote the following.

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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