Paul and Sedition: Defending Paul’s Legacy

Many scholars agree that at least one function of Acts is apologetic, a purpose that many extend to include an apologetic for Paul. Less frequently noted is Luke’s recurring narrative response to a charge stated by Paul’s narrative opponents: Paul as a stirrer of unrest (Acts 24:5). Luke offers repeated examples of riots involving Paul, in each case showing that the unrest was caused not by Paul but by his enemies. Shifting opponents’ charges back onto one’s accusers was a standard tactic in forensic rhetoric.

These observations have consequences for our evaluation not only of Luke’s rhetoric but also of the information available to him about Paul. It is highly improbable that Luke would risk Paul’s reputation by reporting a charge of sedition and many incidents of riots associated with him unless these were in fact charges that needed to be answered. This observation is instructive both regarding the support if offers for preexisting information behind sometimes-disputed action scenes in Acts and also for recognizing one of the key purposes and rhetorical strategies in Luke’s writing.

Paul’s defense speeches dominate the closing chapters of Acts before his voyage to Rome (Acts 22 – 26, passim). These forensic speeches, which appear in the context of the probably eyewitness “we” material, are carefully crafted rhetorically. They probably also reveal information about the actual charges offered. Because these charges include the capital charge of sedition (24:5; 25:8), Luke’s narration of riots surrounding Paul reflects not simply good storytelling (though it is that as well) but an apologetic strategy to absolve Paul from responsibility for these riots. This strategy would be important whether Paul remained alive at the time of writing (as some have argued) or whether (as many think more likely) he had been martyred but his detractors continued to contest his legacy.

This content is by Craig Keener, but edited and posted by Defenders Media.

For more, please check out Dr. Keener’s Between History and Spirit.

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