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H - 38 : What was Saint Paul's Crime?

This year, we start our next three-years’ sailing cycle by following Saint Paul’s journey from Caesarea to Rome. 2’000 years ago, Saint Paul was a Roman prisoner. After two years of captivity in Caesarea, he was sent for trial to Rome. Always wondered what crimes he was charged with. Also, why was one of Christianity’s most influential figures (Paul’s writings contribute 40% to the new Testament), a Roman citizen? The war in Gaza and on Israel’s northern border prevents us from sailing from Alexandria or Caesarea. We have to start in Cyprus instead. Otherwise our itinerary follows his journey as closely as possible.

Saint Paul, the Apostle, by Peter Paul Rubens in 1611

Am not a regular reader of the bible. But have to admit that many answers to above two questions can be found in the Acts of the Apostles, probably written by Saint Luke between 80 and 90 AD. The book was certainly written after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD since it refers to its people as “the Jews”. Christianity had split from Judaism by then. The Acts devote the entire last quarter to Saint Paul’s imprisonment and his transfer to Rome – quite an extensive cover with many interesting details.

The Conversion of Saul on the Road to Damascus, 4 - 7 years

after Jesus' crucifixion. Michelangelo, 1542. The Fresco in the

Pauline Chapel in the Vatican

After his third missionary trip, Saint Paul went to Jerusalem in 58 AD to celebrate Pentecost, one of the great Jewish events in late spring. The celebrations were attended by many Jewish pilgrims from abroad. It was probably Saint Paul’s intention to bridge the divide between Jewish and Christians and broker a compromise. But on the seventh day of celebration, the Jews from Asia (not from Jerusalem) accused him of “teaching against the people, the law and bringing Greeks into the temple”. The mob dragged him out and started beating him when Roman soldiers intervened.

The Second Temple in Jerusalem was completed by King Herod in 18 AD

The legionnaires mistakenly believed that he was an Egyptian spy who incited people to rebel and arrested him. The arrest certainly saved Paul’s life but now he was charged with treason. The relationship between Jewish and Rome were frought in the years prior to the Great Revolt of 66 - 73 AD. To make sure that he was not tried in Jerusalem, where he could not expect a fair trial, Saint Paul revealed his Roman citizenship. He had the right to be tried under Roman law.

The Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD by Scottish Painter David Roberts 1850

The atmosphere in Jerusalem must have been tense. Saint Paul was brought to Caesarea under the protection of 200 soldiers and 70 horsemen. Quite an escort for a single person! The Jews were in open defiance over the decision to remove Paul from Jerusalem. Once arrived in Caesarea, the port that King Herod built a few decades earlier, his trial started. It became quickly clear that Saint Paul was innocent. The Roman Procurator Felix did not release him though, nor did his successor Festus. Paul remained under house arrest for more than two years. Both Roman officials feared that his release would trigger a Jewish rebellion. Paul had to use his privilege as Roman citizen to appeal to Caesar – the then Emperor Nero. In summer 60 AD, Saint Paul was sent as prisoner to Rome guarded by Julius, a Roman centurion.

The Feast of Saint Paul's Shipwreck is still one of Malta's biggest religious Festivals

This leads me to my second question. Why was Saint Paul a Roman citizen? His parents were members of the old Jewish community in Tarsus, the capital of Cilicia. Tarsus was a rich and important city that prospered under Persian rule and Alexander the Great. After the Persian King of Kings Cyrus ended Jewish captivity in 540 BC, he allowed them to return home or settle anywhere in his empire. A thriving Jewish community developed in Saint Paul’s home town. The Jews were merchants, manufacturers and held important official positions. In 66 BC, after his victory over the Cilician pirates, the Roman leader Pompey made Tarsus the province's capital. It became a Roman town.

Tarsus was Cilicia's main Port and benefitted from the Plains

rich Agriculture. It also guarded the entrance to the Cilician Gates

Paul enjoyed a privileged upbringing here. His wealthy Jewish parents could afford private tutors – there were no public schools in Rome - to train the young men. He did not only get a traditional Jewish education; he was also schooled in Greek philosophy. Tarsus was a center of Greek learning and rivalled Athens and Alexandria. It was such an important town that Marc Anthony chose it as the place for his first meeting with Cleopatra, the Egyptian Queen and future wife. The moment is immortalized in Shakespeare’s play Cleopatra. At the age of ten, Paul was sent to Jerusalem to the chief rabbi for further training.

Meeting of Marc Anthony and Cleopatra in 41 BC in Tarsus, Lawrence Alma-Tadema 1885

Paul was born in 5 BC as a Roman citizen. His parents or his grandparents had obtained citizenship after Taurus became a Roman town. Roman citizenship was originally an exclusive privilege for people from Rome. In 92 BC though it was extended to all Italians living south of the Po River. With Rome’s further expansion, citizenship was also granted to colonies of veterans and associated towns, to individuals who served in Rome’s auxiliary forces (cavalry), to people who held public offices and others of vital interest to Rome. Citizenship could also be purchased – the Roman Treasury was always a hungry beast.

Roman Citizens in their Classical Togas attending a Wedding, 3rd Century Relief

Citizenship was an important tool to “Romanize” newly conquered territories. Local leaders were even made Roman Senators to given them a stake in their new state. In 212 AD, Emperor Caracalla granted citizenship to all free men and women living in the empire. Roman citizenship came with considerable economic benefits. Roman Law and Courts were well established for civil and commercial affairs. A merchant wishing to trade or lending money had a much easier life if he could transact under Roman law. It was universal and guaranteed legal and transactional certainty.

Nothing sure is known about the Beheading of Saint Paul. Painting by Enrique Simonet 1887

How Paul’s parents or grand parents acquired Roman citizenship is unknown. But for the purpose of this blog it is not relevant. Apostle Paul finally arrived in Rome in 60 AD – the shipwreck in Malta delayed his arrival by one year. He lived in Rome loosely guarded – some sources say he was even allowed to do a missionary trip to Gaul. Saint Paul was never tried – he was caught up in Roman politics after the Great Fire in 64 AD. Emperor Nero needed scape goats and found them in Christians. Some texts say - 100 years after the event - that Paul was beheaded. His death is the source of many legends. “His” bones are buried on the Via Ostiensis where Emperor Constantine the Great built a church 250 years later. With Christianity becoming Rome’s state religion, Rome claimed Saint Paul as one of their own.  


Basilica of Saint Paul outside the Wall where the Apostles

Remains are buried, 7 km south of Vatican City. The Basilica

was rebuilt several times - this one is from the 19th Century


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