Lecture 12: Acts Chapter 9
Lecture 12: Acts Chapter 9
1. Chapter 9
a. Saul Receives Letters of Recommendation
Saul has been arresting people, but now Saul gets arrested by the Lord himself. Do you ever think that God couldn’t use you or use you very much? Well, if God can use Saul, God can use any of us. In fact, that very application is made in 1 Timothy 1. God shows his sovereign power here; the persecutor becomes an agent of grace. And sometimes we read this in Maccabean literature that stops a persecutor, but here God makes him a vessel for his own purpose. Saul initiates this level of persecution; that is why you have peace in 9:31, after his conversion and after the apostles make sure he gets out of town. But Saul is the one initiating the level of persecution. He goes to get letters of recommendation form the high priest; these were very common epistolary form back then. It was because people would get ahead by having someone to help them. And so you would go to someone with a higher social station and they would write a letter of recommendation to one of their peers; sometimes to someone who was subordinate. Cicero was a master of this; in fact, book 13 one collection of his letters is just letters of recommendation. You have a lot of other letters of recommendation from antiquity as well, but somehow Cicero was a master of this. He learned how to write different letters of recommendation for different people; once in a while he would say, ‘this guy is the best. I can’t recommend anybody like him.’ It is like Paul says of Timothy in Philippians 2. Cicero said this for more than one person, but he reserved this for just a few. But at other times, he would say things like, show me your loyalty, you are my friend. I know that you will do more than I ask. This was the kind of letters of recommendation that you have in the New Testament such as Philemon. Or it would involve calling off a debt; owing favors was a big issue in the Greco-Roman times. Some of the letters of recommendation in the New Testament some have partial recommendations. In Romans 16:1-2, Phoebe is recommended, a sister who was from the church in Cenchrea.
So, Saul wants letters of recommendation from the high priest which would be very compelling. It would suggest that the high priest supports his mission. And we talked earlier how he could have got access to the high priest. The high priest at this point would have Caiaphas, a young man ordinarily would have more trouble getting access to the high priest; but remember Galatians 1:14 Saul is advancing among his peers. In 22:3 he was a student of Gamaliel which suggests that he is from a wealthy family. The fact that he was a Hellenist wouldn’t count against him much. The chief priests, looking at the tomb inscriptions, were often in Greek. They valued the wider Greek culture of the Eastern Mediterranean world. The high priests were respected by Jewish communities outside of Judea and Galilee, outside of Palestine. The high priest no longer had authority for extradition as in the Maccabean period; he wasn’t ruling everything by himself. The high priest was respected and diaspora synagogues would like be happy to cooperate if they could. Also, in Acts 9:2, we read about the Way. Interestingly Saul was actually on his way to Damascus; it is said in one of the passages using the same Greek word hodos, meaning a road or a means by which to go. The phrase ‘the way’ is like how Jewish wisdom spoke of as in the way of truth and the way of righteousness as opposed to the way of folly, etc. The Essenes claimed that they preached the divine path, the right way in which you should go. Of course, John the Baptist came proclaiming the way of the Lord, making the paths straight for the new exodus. So it isn’t surprising that the movement was called The Way. That was a chosen name that the early Christian movement used for itself. The Essenes would have appreciated using that for themselves also. So, he is on his way to Damascus which is a long journey, a hundred and thirty five miles or two hundred and twenty kilometers, north of Jerusalem. That would take probably six days on foot for the average traveler during this period. There were a number of Essenes in Damascus; we get this from the Damascus document. It speaks of synagogues in Damascus, again, this is according to the information we have. In fact, there were a number of synagogues. According to Josephus, there were over twenty thousand Jews living there. He also tells us that there were more than eighteen thousand Jews killed in Damascus in the year 66 AD. Now, we don’t know whether Paul went on foot or by horseback; if by horseback, of course it would have been a lot quicker.
b. Saul’s Theophany
Acts 9:3, Saul and his companions are astonished by a light from heaven. We have already read about God revealing himself at Mt. Sinai; Stephen talks about that in Acts 7. Well, this light from heaven would be understood as God’s glory, which happens at various times as in a theophany, including a theophany that accompanies a divine calling. This happens in Exodus 3 at the burning bush and in Isaiah 6 where Isaiah sees the glory of the Lord. It happens again in Ezekiel 1. Each of these passages has a divine calling. It is not reported in every case; it wasn’t reported in Jeramiah’s case and not exactly in Gideon’s case, although in Gideon’s and Manoah’s case in Judges 6 and 13 we have and angel doing some interesting things. So 9:3 is associated with a theophany and Luke would expect even for an audience that didn’t know the Old Testament, they would recognize what this was. At Jesus’ birth, the glory of the Lord shines around the shepherds when the annunciation is made of Jesus’ birth. At this point, Saul should know that this was the Lord. This was God, but Saul is going to have a difficult time accepting this. So Saul falls to the ground in Acts 9:4; that was common from divine or angelic revelations both in the Old Testament and in Jewish literature. You will find it in Daniel a number of times with angels; so, he falls to the ground. ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ Why is his name doubled here? This has happened in Scripture a number of times. We see in Genesis 22:11, we read ‘Abraham, Abraham’ as an angel of the Lord calls to him. Chapter 46 and verse 2 of Genesis, ‘Jacob, Jacob’ as the Lord speaks to him in a night vision. In Exodus 3:4, ‘Moses, Moses’, he was calling. 1 Samuel 3:10, ‘Samuel, Samuel’ we read. So, sometimes when God had something very important to say, the name would be doubled. Some of these cases were nice cases, so Saul may have been expected something nice. But, Jesus doesn’t say anything nice, exactly; he says ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ How could Saul be persecuting God? Remember what Jesus said in the Gospel of Luke 10:16, ‘if they reject you, they reject me.’ If they receive you, they receive me.
Saul has been persecuting Jesus’ followers, he is therefore persecuting Jesus. What they do to us as we proclaim the Lord’s name, they do to the Lord. In fact, Paul says something like this later when some of the Corinthians are being moved toward his rivals who are preaching a false Gospel. Paul says as ambassadors for Christ, we should be reconciled to God. In this context, basically he is saying that you need to be reconciled to us because we are God’s agents to you. And that can be very easily abused; people have abused that a lot and you want to be careful never to do that. But, as we speak for Christ, we act as his agents and his representatives. Well, Saul is confused now; he doesn’t want to admit the obvious. ‘Who are you Lord?’ It is an obvious theophany, but how can Saul be persecuting God? The word Lord in the question in Greek is Kurios, a respectful title, but used as a direct address in the provocative. It can mean sir, but it can also mean something stronger such as Lord or divine Lord. So Saul is wondering what is going on; is this God or is it an angel? Jesus answers, ‘I’m Jesus, whom you are persecuting.’ But in verse 6, he tells Saul to go into Damascus to get more instructions; ‘you will be told what you must do.’ In Greek this language echoes what we have in 2:37 where Peter preached to them and then they ask, ‘what shall we do to be saved?’ Peter tells them to repent. There is also Acts 16:30 where the same question is asked, ‘sirs, what must I do to be saved?’ The Philippian jailer asks this of Paul. Paul is about to find out what he must do to acknowledge Jesus as Lord and to embrace the mission that God has for him. We find out that he has been blinded in verse 8. God sometimes blinded people to prevent evil purposes; we see this Genesis 19:11, the men of Sodom are blinded. We also have this in 2 Kings 6, a whole army was struck blind and Elisha leads them somewhere else. They are blinded to what their surrounded really were and Elisha leads them to a place where they were captured. This is also similar to Zechariah being struck mute in chapter 1, except Zechariah was an imperfect but good character and Saul at this point had been a bad character. Saul thought that he was doing God’s will but he was wrong.
He fasts for three days; this wasn’t uncommon for a fast; but without water, this would cause dehydration. Fasting in Judaism was often coupled with mourning or repentance. He finds it hard to believe that he has been on the wrong side; he thought he was serving God and serving the Torah. He really has reason for repentance; usually in the New Testament, it is conjoined with prayer. We also find out that he also had a vision; we are told this later through Ananias. So now we read about Ananias’ mission. Jesus tells Ananias and he answers respectfully and obediently. ‘Here I am, Lord,’ Ananias says. In 1 Samuel 3:10, the Lord is calling to Samuel and Eli the priest tells him to answer and listen to what God says. So, he goes and lies down and the Lord calls him again, a third time and Samuel replies, ‘here I am.’ We have this in Isaiah. Now, for Ananias, he wanted to be obedient to the Lord’s calling but then he gets his instructions to go to Saul of Tarsus, but fearfully he tells the Lord that this Saul was an evil person. The Lord tells Ananias that Saul is a chosen vessel for his honor. This will be repeated three times in the Book of Acts where the Lord speaks his call directly to Saul and get this information from more than one direction. The Lord clearly wants him and thus confirms it in multiple ways. Ananias is obedient; he is given instructions as to where to find Saul. The place was on Straight Street, staying at the home of Judas. Jewish culture emphasized hospitality, like most of the Mediterranean world, but Jewish hospitality even more so. If a traveling Jew came to your area and you were Jewish, you would probably take them in; especially if they had letters of recommendation. We don’t know whether Judas was a believer; more likely he wasn’t at this point. Many scholars think that Straight Street was along East West Street in Damascus. Damascus was a very ancient city; somethings had been updated according to the Greek way of building things in a grid.
c. Saul’s Time in Damascus and Nabataea
Saul was originally from Tarsus and what do we know about Tarsus? It was a very important city; Paul declares himself to be a citizen of no insignificant city. Tarsus was the capital of Cilicia; it was prosperous, representative for it merchants and also a major university center, especially for philosophy. It depends on what age Paul was when he had left Tarsus, probably fairly young. There was also a large Jewish community in Tarsus, which is particularly relevant. We see that Ananias is to go and he hears that Saul also had a vision. Paired visions were uncommon in the ancient world, but when you had anything that was narrated as a paired vision, it confirmed a divine coordination; it was not an accident. Neither is it an accident that we have these two chapters in a row. You have the paired visions with Saul and Ananias both have visions. That can’t be a co-incidence. When two people have it independently, that is multiple collaborations. In Acts 10 Cornelius and Peter have coordinated visions in the same way. So, we see Ananias giving his objection to an absurd command, not unlike Moses who gave his objections to God’s command to go to Egypt and liberate his people. But, verses 15 and 16 resemble Old Testament commissioning narratives. In saying Brother Saul, Ananias had laid hands on Saul; you could use this for fellow Jews and you see this sometimes in Luke and Acts; you could also use it for those members of a trade gill, but here is probably meant fellow believer. This is remarkable because Ananias belonged to the Christian movement that has been scattered to places like Damascus because Saul had been persecuting fellow believers and now Ananias is ready to receive his as a fellow believer. But that is the way the Gospel is. We can love people because we recognize that all of us have been saved by grace. We could account for a lot of people whom we have wronged. Ananias told him that the Lord had sent him to laid hands on him that he might be filled with the Spirit to receive his sight. Obviously, Saul was going to have to be filled with the Spirit for the mission God had for him. When Ananias laid hands on him, something like scales feel from his eyes. This is the language from the Book of Tobias, a non-canonical book for Jews and Protestants however canonical for the Roman Catholic canon accepted via the Septuagint. And Saul was baptized, perhaps in the Barada River that runs through Damascus and was near traditional places like Straight Street.
In Acts 9:19-31 we read about confrontations in Damascus and Jerusalem and we parallel responses to Saul in both places. He starts preaching and people want to kill him and the disciples have to send him away because of being so outspoken about his faith. We need people like that and also people to send them away so that they don’t get killed prematurely. Thank God for people with zeal and truth; in any case the response to Saul in Damascus is similar to the response to Jesus’ opening message in Luke 4. It says in Acts that all this happened after many days. Luke doesn’t tell us how many days that it was; perhaps he just didn’t know. It’s not like Paul told him everything; Paul would not have given him an account of every detail. Luke probably didn’t write all of this down exactly when he was with Paul anyway. That is my guess, but it is also possible that Luke didn’t want to get into it. It was aside from his main point. Luke emphasized the Jewish opposition that Paul faced in Damascus, not specifically the Nabatean opposition. We know from Galatians that Paul spent three years in Arabia in the area where the Nabateans lived. We don’t know who controlled Damascus at this point, but we read in 2 Corinthians 11:32 about Nabatean Ethnarch or governor appointed by Aretas, the Nabatean king. You didn’t have to go too far beyond Damascus to be in the territory of the Nabatean Arabs. Of course Paul has a reason to emphasize this in Galatians because he is going to talk about Mount Sinai in Arabia in chapter 4. Paul doesn’t tell us what he did in Arabia, but he probably made some people very mad by his preaching. Remember, this is Syrian Damascus and probably made the Nabatean Ethnarch angry with him, according to 2 Corinthians 11. There were a lot of Jewish people living in Nabataea and thus a lot of relations between those in Nabataea, Damascus and Jerusalem. Paul mentions especially the Nabatean opposition in 2nd Corinthians 11.
Here, we see that Luke focuses on the Jewish opposition which fits his theme to preaching to the people that were neglected the most. The idea that they would have worked together is not surprising because even later on, Paul goes to the Jewish community first which would have made sense to Jewish people in Nabataea. That is where he would have gone first as well. He is back in Damascus and Galatians also talks about him being converted near Damascus and eventually having to escape from Damascus. Some of this is attested by Paul’s own letters in regards to his own experiences. So, Paul experiences parallel responses in Damascus and Jerusalem. He started preaching from there being the key heart of the place from which the Gospel goes forth. So, in 9:22 Saul is already an expert in the Scriptures; with the letters that he had, you would expect that he would be welcomed in the synagogues. And in regards to his training in the Scriptures, this was probably at tertiary level training. Most people in antiquity, if they had any training, it was usually at elementary level; a few had secondary training and the people with the most resources got tertiary level training. Paul knew the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament backward and forward. We know that God often uses parts of our background; Jesus calls the disciples who fishermen in Luke 5. This is also in Mark 1 and Matthew 4; these disciples became fishers of people. We see the Moses and David were shepherds and this experience helped them to be shepherds of people. God uses the positive aspects of Paul’s background. Eventually that is a plot that becomes known to Saul. This isn’t surprising as these plots were leaked to others. Plots within the Roman Senate got leaked as well as plots from the Sanhedrin were found out. There were a few people in the Sanhedrin with a plot against Josephus and one of his friends that heard about it told Josephus. We see that word often got out about plots that were being planned. People that were watching the gates day and night; they were closed at night so this would limit people leaving in regards to time. Saul doesn’t dare try to escape that way; the Nabatean Ethnarch has people against Saul and according to Luke, the Jewish community there in Damascus had people watching the gates.
This passage in 2nd Corinthians 11:32-33, both mention that he escaped from the wall. Houses were sometimes built in the city walls. The traditional site of Ananias’ house was in the Nabatean quarter built on the wall. So, Saul was let down using a basket from the wall. Normally, windows in homes were very high up so that people wouldn’t break in. This wouldn’t arouse much supposition as there were probably people living outside the city walls as well. Most cities grew beyond the walls and so they wouldn’t be too shocked to see a basket coming down the wall as it was easier than carrying something around and out the gate. Where did Saul and his friends get this idea? There is a biblical precedent for it from Joshua 2:15; remember Rahab let the spies down her house on the wall. And in 1 Samuel 19:12, David knew that technique as well; his wife Michal let him down over the wall in a basket and he escaped from King Saul. When Saul arrived in Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples, but they were afraid of him for they wouldn’t believe that he was a disciple. But Barnabas introduced him to the apostles, telling them how on the road Saul had seen the Lord, who had spoken to him, and how courageously he had spoken in the name of Jesus in Damascus. Barnabas was called the son of encouragement, he accepted Saul. Barnabas also does this in Antioch and still later he does this with John Mark. Saul is so zealous for the mission which places the mission first and foremost. We need people both like Barnabas and like Saul, sometimes we don’t get along very well but God uses our respected gifts. My wife is probably more of a Barnabas and I’m more of a Paul in some ways. The Lord uses both of us and we complement each other. Luke is being very concise here and Paul himself tells us that the only ones he got to know there was Peter and James, the Lord’s brother on this occasion. Saul was debating with Hellenists Jews in Jerusalem now who wanted to put him to death; this is the same thing that happened to Stephen. Saul was also a member of the synagogue and now they wanted to silence him. So, we see in the narrative that Saul comes close to martyrdom, just like Stephen. For a first time readers of the Book of Acts may have heard of Paul but not necessarily the name Saul. It says that the brothers found out about a plot against Saul and then they took him down to Caesarea and sent him away to Tarsus. This fits with what Paul says that he spent time in Syria, Damascus and Cilicia, which certainly included Tarsus.
d. Your Calling
Paul probably had relatives in Tarsus or at least some people that he would know about and that he could be in touch with there. Paul stayed in Tarsus for a long time; it may have been one of the places described in 2 Corinthians 11 where he received beatings in the synagogues. We don’t know where he got all those beatings, but we do know from the Book of Acts that it was a long time before he was actually sent out from the Church in Antioch. It was probably a number of years after his conversion before he was able to enter into the heart of his mission, before he could see the fulfilment of what he had been called to do. Sometimes people are called and are very zealous; I was this way as a young Christian. I wanted to go straight out and preach; I didn’t want to get training. I was reading forty chapters of the Bible a day and after a while, I realized that I needed some cultural background. I really like doing Greek and Hebrew, etc. Initially I just wanted to go out and preach. I didn’t want to go out and do training. Not all of us have equal access to training and not all training is equally useful or good. Know that the call doesn’t always mean right now that you are going to fulfill everything to do in your calling. The call gives you a direction; it doesn’t usually give you all the details of what you are called to do. I’m still discovering some of the things that the Lord spoke to me years ago. So, don’t be discouraged if some of the things that the Lord has called you to do, you haven’t been able to do yet and you know you are doing what the Lord wants you to do now. The Lord often has time when he’s getting us ready in different ways for our calling. You know where you are headed and you keep heading there and at the right time you do it. Until then, keep in mind that this is your calling and you are preparing to do it. Those who need to spend the time in school to fulfill their calling, this is okay.
e. Peter Among the Coastal Cities
The narrative is going to go back and forth between Paul and Peter and it is going to stay on Peter for the remainder of the chapter and then follow all of chapter 10. In chapter 9:32-43 we read about continuing miracles through Peter. He follows in the footsteps of Philip going to the places where Philip has preached and he ends up in Lydda in verse 32 of chapter 9. Now, Lydda was about twenty-five miles or forty kilometers northwest of Jerusalem, so he isn’t staying in Jerusalem all the time now. It was about eleven miles or seventeen and a half kilometers from Joppa as mentioned in verse 36. Joppa and Lydda were the major Jewish coastal cities; Caesarea was even a more major coastal city but it had more gentiles so we wouldn’t call it a distinctively Jewish city. The Jews and gentiles clashed over this issue, but Joppa and Lydda were Jewish controlled cities on the coast. In verse 35 we read that Sharon was the coastal plain and Lydda was on the southern end. Verse 35 tells us that all the people who lived in Lydda and Sharon turned to the Lord after a miracle took place there. Peter heals a man named Iliad that has been bed ridden. This was actually an ancient Greek name and it was common for diaspora Jews to use these Greek names. Now Luke and others sometimes use hyperbole, but the Christian presence was so strong that in the 2nd century observers noted that there was still a strong Christian presence in Lydda. We see in verse 36 that Joppa was a profitable port city; it was about 30 miles or 38 kilometers south of Caesarea and was under Jewish control until it came under direct Roman authorities in the year 6 AD. It had a history of Jewish control and there was still a strong Jewish population there. Tabitha who was also call Dorcas was there; the word Tabitha is Semitic for gazelle and Dorcas was Greek for gazelle. She is also a benefactress; we do know of women patriots in antiquity from inscriptions. Women usually didn’t have as much money as men but sometimes they did. Sometimes they provided money for important causes. Women patriots made up about ten percent of the patriots of the time. She may have even been the benefactress of the widows mentioned in verse 41. She has been providing for them and they are all mourning her. They have a very close relationship. She had become sick and died; the Jewish dead were always washed before burial. Women could wash either the corpses of men or women’s corpses, but only women could prepare women’s bodies for burial. This was partly because of concern by Jewish male teachers for men lusting after women’s bodies.
f. Tabitha is Raised up from the Dead
The disciples sent for Peter, wanting him to come quickly. He really has to hurry because burial was usually done before sunset on the same day. Remember Ananias and Sapphira. They were buried very quickly. There was eleven miles between Joppa and Lydda which could be about four hours travel each direction at a fairly good pace. They have to hurry to get the message to him and for him to come. So he arrives with Tabitha being laid out in the upper room. These were usually small rooms built on flat roof roofs. We have other sources from antiquity that talk about bodies being prepared in these upper rooms. Upper rooms have been mentioned in the Old Testament as well and also in Acts 20 where Eutychus fell out of the window on the second floor everyone thinking that he was dead. But well-to-do Roman matrons had means to take care of some of the things that were mentioned in verse 39. So, the widows were mourning and looked to a response from Peter. Peter went into the room where the body was and sends all the others out, just like in 2 Kings 4:33 where Elisha doesn’t want anyone else there for the raising of the Shunammite’s son. A person that we know in the Congo, John Mubbeally, a deacon of the Evangelical Church of the Congo; he tells the story of Marie who was from one of the outlying areas. Marie was dying of malaria; she had a fever for many days and hadn’t eaten or drunk anything either. They brought the body into Devisee which was the nearest sizeable town, trying to get her to the hospital. But while she was in Devisee, she died; the taxis were on strike that day but they didn’t even have money to take her to the hospital in any case. They heard that there was a prayer meeting going on at Mama John’s home and they took the girl there. Mama John’s assistant Delphine, cried out to take the body away; ‘you can’t bring a body into a place of prayer’, but Mama John told them to prayer instead. She had felt that the Lord had been preparing her for a long time for something dramatic. They brought the body inside and Mama John asked the girl’s name; they said Marie. She felt led to call Marie’s name as she was praying for her and Marie came back to life and is still alive the last I have heard.
So, we have this account where Elisha raising the Shunammite’s son and speaking of widow’s son, you can think of the widow who lived in Nain, her son was raised from the dead. Luke, where he has access to details that match some of the details in the Old Testament; in some of these details, Peter and others would have liked to follow them; Peter had been present when Jesus raised Jairus’ daughter. He had been present when the widow of Nain, her son was raised by Jesus. It is not surprising that Quadropus, an early Christian apologist in the early 2nd century writes, ‘into our own time, some of those who Jesus raised from the dead lived on into our own time.’ This makes sense as some of the ones he raised from the dead were children. Peter sends the others out and then he prays in Acts 9:41-42; Tabitha opens her eyes and sits up and then presents her alive to the widows just like in 1 Kings 17, Elijah presents the child to the widow and in 2 Kings 4, Elisha presents the child to the Shuammite woman and in Luke 7:15 you have it with the window of Nain’s son. After this, we have a verse that is transitional, but it also makes a very important point that I think many of Luke hearers would have caught. I say hearers here as one person would read while others would listen. They didn’t have enough copies for everybody and most people then couldn’t read anyway. They were staying in the house of Simon, a leatherworker. Simon is a common name and one of the most of this period. It was a Greek name but often used for Jewish people; they liked the name because it was also a patriarchal name. Simeon was one of the twelve sons of Jacob and that why it was so popular. As mentioned Simon was a tanner and as such they were associated with strong odors. He was tanning hides from dead animals and lived outside cities. They weren’t allowed to live inside the city limits. Later Rabbis went so far to say wives could divorce tanners if they couldn’t put up with the smell. However, many were more lenient when the tannery was near water as it was here in Joppa with Simon. This was near the sea being a coastal city.
We see Peter not being as particular as some conservative Jews among his contemporaries. This was helpful because what happens next would be somewhat shocking to him. He is going to be sent to a gentile, a gentile who works for the Roman military. He was a centurion stationed in Caesarea and part of the Italian Regiment. The people didn’t get along with the Jews who lived there. Within Acts 10 we will have paired visions of Cornelius and Simon Peter. These are similar to the paired visions we have of Paul and Ananias in Acts 9:12. This is something that is going to be confirmed. This is a very central strategic section in the Book of Acts because we have very few things that are narrated three times in Acts. Saul conversion is one of them; it’s narrated in Acts 9, 22 and 26. Well, Cornelius’ conversion is narrated here, again by Peter briefly telling it to the Jerusalem church in Acts 11 and again by Peter in Acts 15 as he is appealing to it as a precedent in support of what is happening among the gentiles. This occurs in Caesarea Marittima which was the largest Judean city. It was where the Roman governor stayed as Jerusalem was a very uncomfortable place. There were a lot more gentiles in Caesarea Marittima; this city isn’t the same as Caesarea Philippi that you read about in Matthew 16 and Mark 8. Caesarea Marittima was originally called Strato’s Tower being renamed by Herod the Great. Herod constructed the largest artificial harbor ever built in the open sea up to that point. A significant part of this structure remains today is studied by archaeologists. The theatre in Caesarea seated about four thousand people. So by usual estimates, the cities’ population was ten times the size of the theatre which might means that the city had forty thousand or so people. It was the most significant of the cities on the coast. It was the residence of the Roman governor of Judea along with a number of Roman troops.
There were five auxiliary cohorts plus cavalry. A Roman cohort consisted of 480 to 600 troops during this period and there was another cohort in Jerusalem. A legion was made of ten cohorts and altogether had about six thousand troops. But the Syrian soldiers there were mainly local recruits. In fact, even in the legions by this period, a lot of them were from the local region. The Syrian soldiers often sided with the Syrian residents as opposed to the Jewish residents of the city. The Jewish residents would often complain about this. The Syrian residents were very attached to the local area, some of them may have been from the local area and others certainly became attached to it with having concubines as you weren’t really allowed to marry during your twenty years of service. Cornelius was a centurion of which a century consisted about eighty troops; unlike tribunes or legates who were normally from the aristocracy. They were basically political officers and they would work their way up through to the higher ranks. Unlike the aristocrats who got those offices, tribunes commanding legions and cohorts; the Greek term for this was akilli ark, commander of a thousand troops, this was a paper strength. But usually centurions just worked their way up through the ranks. So you would have some Roman aristocrats that might become centurions but most of them started as soldiers and by the end of their twenty years of service, they became centurions. As mentioned this group was called the Italian cohort which doesn’t mean that they were all brought from Italy. The original cohort may have been from Italy but it was probably now made up of mostly Syrians. We do have evidence of this, not particular in the years of this range but we do have evidence from this period. The Italian cohort was known in Judea in the year 69 AD as archeologists discovered. Cornelius was probably retired as they do by the age of sixty, if not before then with twenty years of service, having normally enlisted at the age of eighteen. So he wasn’t involved in the Judean Roman war that may have taken place by the time Luke wrote Luke and Acts.
Military service was a preferred occupation, although roughly half of the enlisted only survived the full twenty years of service. So joining the military was a big risk. From ages 17 to 37 normally; their enlistment eventually changes to twenty-five years. Non-citizens couldn’t join legions but they could join the auxiliary troops and that was useful if you survived. Auxiliary troops received Roman citizenship at their discharge and that was particular privilege and prestigious if you lived in the Eastern Mediterranean world where even civil officials did not have Roman citizenship. But they would also have to swear oaths of allegiance to the divine emperor. That was one reason why you didn’t have Jewish people serving in the Roman military. We read about soldiers elsewhere in Luke and Acts; Luke seems to go out of his way to value them. In Luke 3, we have soldiers who were saying to John the Baptist, ‘what must we do?’ And John told them not to cheat anybody and to use their position to exploit others abusively. Later on we see Julius who is accompanying Paul to Rome gets passage for them on ships and he could have food provided for them being a representative of Rome. Sometimes they exploited this position to get things for themselves. In Luke 7, we have a God-fearing centurion and in Luke 23, the centurion at the cross who confesses Jesus as an innocent man and then in Acts 27 is where you have the centurion Julius and others taking care of Paul in Acts 24. So, Luke may be teaching us about the prince of peace. In fact there’s the announcement that contrasts with the Emperor Augustus in Luke 2 where he declares a census ordering people to go back to the place where they owned property to answer the census. You have this contrast with the mighty emperor who was hailed as lord and savior and as a god and the bringer of peace claiming that he had conquered the known world. But everyone knew that they hadn’t conquered Parthia, their arch enemies, the Nubians, the Germans nor even the Britain yet. And then you have these shepherds who were considered low class, they were normally despised by the elite. These shepherds were told by an angel of the Lord and the host of heaven about the true and greatest king, who was born in an animal feeding trough. This promised king, to you is born this day a Savior; the real Savior who is Christ, the real Lord and with him comes peace and good will toward humanity. When Peter is preaching to Cornelius, he going to speak of Jesus who went about preaching peace; Romans wanted to hear this, but Romans didn’t expand their empire by peaceful means. They would do this by wars as Claudius was doing in Britain soon after this. Jesus was a prince of peace and yet in talking about peace, this didn’t mean that they didn’t care about people in military service. Those people were loved by God; Luke tells us a lot about them and the Good News is about to go to this Roman Officer in the Roman military.