The Book of Acts is Luke's history of Christianity after Jesus' death. Hugh Schonfield pointed out that the book reflects the efforts of the Church "to convince the Romans of its harmlessness and its distinction from the Jews whose hostility is stressed" (H. J. Schonfield, The Jew of Tarsus, p. 60). Most scholars agree that the discourses in Acts were freely composed by Luke due to his desire to deal with the Roman authorities tactfully and to attribute the trials of Christians to Jews (Alme Puech, "History of Christian Greek Literature, Vol. I, pp. 382-398, quoted by Jules Isaac in Jesus and Israel, p. 363).
Luke repeated all the accusations against Jews which appeared in the Gospels such as killing prophets and crucifying Jesus. He added a new one: the stoning of Stephen, which appears to have been a riot that got out of hand and ended in a lynching. According to Acts, Stephen made a long speech before the Sanhedrin in which he accused its members of murdering Jesus for which he was dragged outside and stoned. We have already learned in a previous article that this is not how the Sanhedrin worked. If Stephen were found guilty of libel, he would have been subject to corporal punishment, but only after due deliberation and a vote. He would not have been executed. Stephen is considered the first Christian martyr. It is significant that no Christian before him who was put to death by the Romans earned that distinction. The title was reserved for a victim of a mob scene which he, himself, had provoked.
In Acts Paul is revered and idealized as the missionary par excellence. All conflicts in which Paul was involved with Jewish Christians is excluded (S.G.F. Brandon, The Fall Of Jerusalem, p. 213). As Paul travelled through the empire, Luke emphasized in case after case the ill-will of the Jews and the benevolence of the Romans. The former organized gangs against him; created tumults wherever he went; and drove Paul and his clique out of town. The Romans, by contrast, were reasonable, helpful, and humane.
Paul's arrival in Jerusalem brought contention between him and virtually every segment of the population: the Nazarenes (Jewish Christians), the other Jews, and the Romans. While at the Temple one day, Paul was recognized by Jewish pilgrims from Asia Minor who alerted the people that Paul had taught everywhere "against our people and our law and this place" (21:28). Members of the Jerusalem Council had already confronted him with the rumors they had heard about his teachings against the Law, precepts with which they disagreed. In spite of his well-known sermons and letters, Paul (in the words of the Lukan playwright) had the effrontery to deny in court that he opposed the Law.
True to the evangelists' tradition of highly imaginative courtroom scenes, Acts' description of the Sanhedrin resembled slapstick comedy at its worst. For starters, Luke reported that Paul was struck on the mouth by order of the High Priest. That incident was followed, we are told, by a speech in which Paul fomented an uproar in what normally would be a decorous chamber of a courtroom. Paul slyly raised the subject of resurrection which led to the eruption of a violent dispute between Pharisees and Sadducees, thus distracting the judges from the issue at hand. It remained for the Romans to save the day. Ever concerned for safety and justice, the Roman soldiers spirited Paul away to protective custody in their barracks. It is not clear why Paul was in danger when Pharisees and Sadducees got into a debate. Nor was it explained how Roman soldiers happened to be present at the Sanhedrin. Gentiles were not allowed within the precincts of the Temple where the Sanhedrin met. In fact, the charge against Paul was that he had brought a Gentile into the Temple area. But since this was Luke's story, he told it his way, oblivious of those details which made his narrative incongruous.
If we are to credit the story of Paul's trial in Acts its description is similar in many ways to Jesus' hearing. It is apparent that it too was allegedly held before the High Priest's court. Paul's actions had so stirred up discord that they came to the attention of the High Priest. It was his responsibility to investigate any disturbance of the peace and nip it in the bud. Tranquility was vital to Roman control of a province.
Meanwhile, to continue the tale--back at the barracks, Paul learned of a plot to kill him. Again the Romans saved the day by rescuing him from the threat of a lynch mob. They transferred him to a military prison in Caesarea where he was held prisoner for two years. Finally, Paul decided to request trial before Caesar's court although the then Roman governor, Festus, advised him to return to Jerusalem to stand trial before the Sanhedrin. Paul believed that he would get a fairer trial with the Romans. The net result of all this was that Paul was held in prison without trial for two years at the Roman headquarters in Caesarea before being sent to Rome. There he was kept under house arrest for another two years before he was executed although Acts never says or implies that Paul was found guilty.
Luke did not express a word of criticism of Roman justice. In fact, although he wrote that Felix wanted a bribe and held Paul prisoner because it was not forthcoming, Luke, forgetting what he had just said, asserted that the Roman governor kept Paul imprisoned to please the Jews! (24:26-27). Luke could not resist the urge to take a potshot at Jews whenever the opportunity arose; and being resourceful, he always found occasions. They also provided him with the added advantage of whitewashing the Romans as the dupes of the Jews. Acts portrayed the latter as possessing a sole and all-consuming interest in trapping the current Christian leader. In the Gospels they had nothing more important or urgent than to conspire against Jesus; in Acts Paul was the object of their plots. Because of such false representations of historical truth Luke is considered by some scholars such as Father John Pawlikowski and Prof. J. Townsend to be the most anti-Jewish of all the evangelists.
If the story of Paul's imprisonments as related by Luke had any historical validity, it would point up the futility of Paul's suffering and the foolishness of his decision to leave Jerusalem. For the irony of his long confinement in jail, his house arrest, and eventual execution is that he would have avoided it all under Jewish justice. King Agrippa of Judea had heard Paul's case and commented to Festus, Felix's successor, "This man could have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar." Mantel concurs. The scholar on the Sanhedrin stated that there was nothing in the charges against Paul which called for trial before the Great Sanhedrin (Hugo Mantel, op. cit., p. 294).
Nevertheless, despite Paul's fate at the hands of the Romans, Luke only wrote about the apostle's earlier troubles with Jews. He accused them of stoning Paul (14:9) although Paul lived to tell about it and it is unusual for a person to survive such an attack. Luke also claimed that Jews incited mobs against Paul (17:5) and tried to bring charges against him in court for undermining the Law. Herford's comments about these complaints goes to the heart of the problem. He wrote, "Is it a wonder that Jews opposed a man who preached as Paul did, against all that to them was sacred? Were they not right to defend it against insult and injury? What ground had they, or could they have, for admitting the superiority of a religion that was commended to them by such methods?" (R.T. Herford, Pharisees, p. 223).
Luke, along with his fellow evangelists and apostles, arrogated to themselves the right to defame Jews. But when they rose in self-defense against their assailants, they were accused of "dirty pool." According to the rules of the evangelists and apostles, the attacks could go only one way. This became a pattern over the centuries. In this model, Jews are supposed to be "a light unto the nations" (Isaiah 42:6) which, to many Christians, acquired the meaning that Jews were not supposed to do anything so pedestrian as to fight back. When Jews did, they ceased to be a beacon because they had abandoned their Biblical destiny. Of course, if Jews submitted to, or were overwhelmed by, persecution, their light was also extinguished. Heads Jews lost; tails their opponents won.
Paul's religious teachings had political significance because he created strife between Jews and their neighbors throughout the Roman Empire. The Roman government was not indifferent to the disruptive consequences of Paul's activities (Hugo Manel, op. cit., p. 300). It was, no doubt, on these grounds that Paul, who was taken to Rome, was executed. According to Christian tradition Paul was martyred there. Identification of the Romans as the power which put Paul to death does not require a stretch of the imagination. "Luke must have known about Paul's death, but he did not record it, because to have ended his book by narrating how Christianity's chief hero had been put to death as an enemy of the state would have alienated Roman readers and defeated his purpose of commending Christianity to the Roman world" (M. and J. L. Miller, op. cit., p. 533). In addition it would have brought the wrath of the Romans on his head. Thus the exact time and manner of Paul's death went unrecorded in the New Testament.