Acts 28
Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
And when they were escaped, then they knew that the island was called Melita.

(1) Then they knew that the island was called Melita.—There is no ground for questioning the current belief that this was the modern Malta, It was the only island known as Melita by the Greeks and Romans. The gale, which had been blowing for fourteen days since the ship left Crete, would drive her in that direction. The local features of St. Paul’s Bay agree closely, as has been seen, with the narrative in the Acts. There has from a very early date been a local tradition in favour of the belief. The Bay bears St. Paul’s name. A cave is pointed out as having given him shelter. There has, however, been a rival claimant. In the Gulf of Venice, off the coast of Illyria, there is a small “island, Meleta (now Meleda), which has been identified by some writers with the scene of St. Paul’s shipwreck. The view is first mentioned by Constantino Porphyrogenitus, a Greek writer of the tenth century, and was revived in the last century by Padre Georgi, an ecclesiastic of the island. There is, however, not a shadow of evidence in its favour, beyond the similarity (riot identity) of name, and the mention of Adria in Acts 27:27. It has been shown, however, that that term was used with far too wide a range to be decisive on such a question; and against the view there are the facts (1) that it would almost have required a miracle to get the ship, with a north-east gale blowing strongly, up to the Illyrian coast of the Gulf of Venice; (2) that a ship would not naturally have wintered on that coast on its way from Alexandria to Puteoli (Acts 28:11); (3) that there has been no local tradition in its favour, as at Malta. The island of Malta was originally a Phoenician colony. It came under the power of Carthage in B.C. 402, and was ceded to Rome in B.C. 242. Its temple, dedicated to Juno, was rich enough to be an object of plunder to Verres, the Prætor of Sicily (Cic. In Verr. vv. 46).

And the barbarous people shewed us no little kindness: for they kindled a fire, and received us every one, because of the present rain, and because of the cold.
(2) The barbarous people . . .—It has been urged in favour of Meleda that this description is more applicable to the people of that island than to those of Malta, whom Diodorus Siculus (v. 12) describes as “very rich, practising many trades, manufacturing fine clothes, and dwelling in large and splendid houses.” It is obvious, however, that St. Luke uses the term, as St. Paul does (Romans 1:14; 1Corinthians 14:11), and as was then common, as applicable to all races that did not speak Greek, and that such a term as “Scythian” (Colossians 3:11) was used to describe what we should call “barbarians” or “savages.” For him “barbarian” was like the term “native,” which our travellers apply indiscriminately to Fiji Islanders and Cingalese. The language of Malta at the time, if not absolutely Punic, was probably a very bastard Greek. The inscriptions which have been found in the island are, as was natural, in the Greek and Latin, which were used as official languages by their rulers.

No little kindness.—Literally, no common (or average) philanthropy. The idiom is the same as that of the “special miracles” of Acts 19:11.

And received us . . .—The word implies both shelter and hospitality. Warmth, above all things, was needful for those who had been chilled and drenched; and for this purpose, probably in some open space, or atrium, a large fire was lighted.

Because of the present rain . . .—The rain followed naturally on the cessation of the gale. The “cold” shows that the wind was not the Sirocco, which is always accompanied by heat.

And when Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks, and laid them on the fire, there came a viper out of the heat, and fastened on his hand.
(3) And when Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks . . .—The act was characteristic of the cheerful energy which had been shown throughout the previous night. The fact thus mentioned has been dwelt on as militating against the identity of Melita and Malta, no wood being now found in the island except at one spot (Bosquetta), not near St. Paul’s Bay. The Greek word, however, is applied to the dry stalks of herbaceous plants rather than to the branches of trees, and, as such, exactly describes the stout, thorny heather that still grows near the bay. It is clear, however, apart from this, that the people of Malta did not live without fire, and, not having coal, must therefore have had wood of some kind as fuel.

There came a viper out of the heat.—There are said to be no venomous serpents now in Malta, and this again has been pressed into the question of the identity of the island. Mr. Lewin, however (St. Paul, ii. 208), states that he saw a serpent, near St. Paul’s Bay, that looked very like a viper; and even if he were mistaken in this, it would be natural enough that venomous snakes should disappear under the influence of culture, as they have done elsewhere, in the course of 1800 years.

And when the barbarians saw the venomous beast hang on his hand, they said among themselves, No doubt this man is a murderer, whom, though he hath escaped the sea, yet vengeance suffereth not to live.
(4) The venomous beast.—The adjective, as the italics show, is not in the Greek, and can scarcely be said to be necessary.

No doubt this man is a murderer.—They knew, we may believe, that St. Paul was a prisoner. It is hardly conceivable, indeed, that he could have come on shore bound by two chains, or even one, to his keeper, but, looking to the jealous care which the soldiers had shown in the custody of the prisoners (Acts 27:42), it would be natural that they should resume their vigilance over him as soon as they were all safe on shore. And so the natives of Melita, seeing what they did, and ignorant of the prisoner’s crime, and with their rough notions of the divine government of the world, rushed to the conclusion that they were looking on an example of God’s vengeance against murder. It was in vain that such a criminal had escaped the waves; a more terrible death was waiting for him.

Howbeit they looked when he should have swollen, or fallen down dead suddenly: but after they had looked a great while, and saw no harm come to him, they changed their minds, and said that he was a god.
(6) They looked when he should have swollen . . .—Better, and they were expecting that . . . The verb for “swollen” implies literally “inflammation,” and one of the enormous serpents of Africa took its name. Prestes (“the inflamer”), from it. Lucan (ix. 790) describes the effect of its bite—

“Percussit Prestes, illi ruber igneus ora

Succendit, tenditque cutem, pereunte figurâ.”

[“ The Prestes bit him, and a fiery flush

Lit up his face, and set the skin a-stretch,

And all its comely grace had passed away.”]

They changed their minds, and said that he was a god.—The miraculous escape naturally made an even stronger impression on the minds of the Melitese than what had seemed a supernatural judgment. Their thoughts may have travelled quickly to the attributes of the deities who, like Apollo or Æsculapius, were depicted as subduing serpents. The sudden change of belief may be noted as presenting a kind of inverted parallelism with that which had come over the people of Lystra. (See Notes on Acts 14:11; Acts 14:19.)

In the same quarters were possessions of the chief man of the island, whose name was Publius; who received us, and lodged us three days courteously.
(7) The chief man of the island.—Literally, the first man. The term is found both in Greek and Latin inscriptions, at Malta, of the time of Augustus, as an official title. It probably designated the prefect or governor of the island, as distinct from the procurator. In the time of Cicero (In Verr. iv. 18) Melita was included in the “province” of Sicily, and if that arrangement continued, Publius would be the “legate” of the Sicilian proconsul. The Latin name falls in with the supposition of his holding some office of this kind.

Lodged us three days courteously.—We can hardly think of the hospitality of Publius as extended to the whole two hundred and seventy-six who had been on board, and the omission of the word “all,” which meets us in Acts 28:2, probably indicates a limitation to a chosen few, among whom St. Paul and St. Luke, and, most likely, the centurion Julius, were included. It is implied that after the three days they found a lodging for themselves. The word for “courteously” expresses kindliness of feeling rather than of manner.

And it came to pass, that the father of Publius lay sick of a fever and of a bloody flux: to whom Paul entered in, and prayed, and laid his hands on him, and healed him.
(8) Lay sick of a fever and a bloody flux.—Literally, with fevers and dysentery, both words being used by St. Luke with professional precision. The plural, “fevers,” probably indicates the attacks of a recurrent fever, and its combination with dysentery would, according to Hippocrates, who also uses the plural form (Aph. vi. 3), make the case more than usually critical. The disease is said to be far from uncommon in Malta.

Prayed, and laid his hands on him.—The union of the two acts reminds us of the rule given in James 5:14-15; and the close sequence of the work of the healing upon the escape from the serpent’s bite, of the juxtaposition of the two promises of Mark 16:18.

So when this was done, others also, which had diseases in the island, came, and were healed:
(9) Others also, which had diseases.—More accurately, the others who had infirmities. The Greek gives the article, and states the fact that there was something like a rush, continuing for some length of time, of all the sick people in the island to profit by the Apostle’s power of healing. On the difference between the terms used for diseases, see Note on Matthew 4:23.

Who also honoured us with many honours; and when we departed, they laded us with such things as were necessary.
(10) Who also honoured us with many honours.—It lies in the nature of the case that the honours took the form of gifts. The very word was, indeed, specially applied, both in Greek and Latin, to the honorarium, or fee, paid to the physician, and its use here is accordingly characteristic of St. Luke’s calling. (Comp. Ecclesiasticus 38:1.) In addition to these gifts of courtesy, the things that were wanted for their voyage—clothing, provisions, and the like—were freely supplied at their departure.

When we departed.—Better, as we were setting sail.

And after three months we departed in a ship of Alexandria, which had wintered in the isle, whose sign was Castor and Pollux.
(11) After three months.—The date may be approximately fixed. The Fast, falling on the 10th of Tisri, which has been calculated as falling in that year on September 24th, was passed, we are not told how long, when the ship left the Fair Havens (Acts 27:9). Then came the “fourteen days” of Acts 27:27, bringing us to the end of October or beginning of November. Three months from this carries us to the beginning of February. This was earlier than that usually fixed for the general navigation of the Mediterranean (see Note on Acts 27:9), but the officers and the crew of the Alexandrian ship were naturally anxious to take the earliest opportunity for pressing on to their destination. The fact that the latter had wintered in the island is obviously in favour of the identification of Melita with Malta, which lay on the usual line of the voyage from Alexandria to Italy, while Meleda was altogether out of the way.

Whose sign was Castor and Pollux.—Literally, the Dioscuri, the two sons of Zeus and Leda, who were regarded as the guardian deities of sailors. So Horace (Od. i. 3, 2) speaks of the “fratres Helenœ, lucida sidera” (“brothers of Helen, beaming stars”), and (Od. i. 12, 25) of the “puerosque Ledce” (“the children of Leda”), whose bright star shines propitiously on sailors. In Greek mythology, Zeus had rewarded their brotherly devotion by placing them among the stars as the Gemini, which were connected with the month of May in the signs of the Zodiac, and Poseidon (= Neptune) had given them power over the winds and waves that they might assist the shipwrecked. So in the Helena of Euripides they appear, in 1550–60, as promising a fair wind and a safe voyage. The figure-heads of the Greek and Roman ships were commonly placed both at the prow and the stern.

And landing at Syracuse, we tarried there three days.
(12) And landing at Syracuse . . .—The city, famous for the memorable siege during the Peloponnesian war, and at all times taking its place among the most flourishing towns of Sicily, was about eighty or a hundred miles from Malta, and might be reached accordingly in from twenty-four to thirty-six hours. Ships bound from Alexandria to Italy commonly put in there. The stay of three days was probably caused by their waiting for a favourable wind. The fact stated in the next verse implies that it was more or less against them.

And from thence we fetched a compass, and came to Rhegium: and after one day the south wind blew, and we came the next day to Puteoli:
(13) From thence we fetched a compass.—The phrase, now somewhat obsolete, was formerly in common use for a circuitous route by land or sea from one point to another. (Comp. 2Samuel 5:23; 2Kings 3:9, and—

“For ‘tis his custom, like a creeping fool,

To fetch a compass of a mile about, “

in Heywood’s Fair Maid of the Exchange, ii. 3.) It is found in most of the English versions, but Wiclif gives “we sailed about,” and the Rhemish, “compassing by the shore.” The latter, however, hardly expresses the fact, which was that the wind being probably from the west, they were compelled to tack so as to stand out from the shore to catch the breeze, instead of coasting.

Came to Rhegium.—This town, now Reggio, was in Italy, on the southern opening of the Straits of Messina. Ships from Alexandria to Italy commonly touched there, and Suetonius relates that the Emperor Titus, taking the same course as St. Paul, put in there on his way from Judæa to Puteoli, and thence to Rome. Caligula began the construction of a harbour at Rhegium for the corn-ships of Egypt; but this work, which the Jewish historian notes as the one “great and kingly undertaking” of his reign, was left unfinished (Ant. xix. 2, § 5).

The south wind blew.—More accurately, when a breeze from, the south had sprung, the form of the Greek verb implying a change of wind. The south wind was, of course, directly in their favour, and they sailed without danger between the famous rocks of Scylla and the whirlpool of Charybdis.

We came the next day to Puteoli.—As the distance was about one hundred and eighty miles, the ship was clearly making good way before the wind. Puteoli (more anciently Dikæarchia, now Pozzuoli) lies in a sheltered recess, forming the northern part of the Bay of Naples. It was at this time the chief port of Rome, and was, in particular, the great emporium for the corn ships of Alexandria, upon which the people of Rome largely depended for their food, and the arrival of which was accordingly eagerly welcomed. A pier on twenty-five arches was thrown out into the sea for the protection of the harbour. It may be noted further that but a few months prior to St. Paul’s arrival it had been raised to the dignity of a colonia (Tac. Ann. xiv. 27). It is hardly necessary to describe the well-known beauties of the bay, but the reader may be reminded that as the ship entered it the eye of St. Paul must have rested on the point of Misenum, to the north, behind which was stationed the imperial fleet; on Vesuvius, to the south; on the town of Neapolis (= New-town), now Naples, which had taken the place of the old Parthenope; on the islands of Capreæ, Ischia, and Procida.

Where we found brethren, and were desired to tarry with them seven days: and so we went toward Rome.
(14) Where we found brethren.—The fact is significant as showing, in the absence of any distinct record, the extent to which the new society had been silently spreading. Who had been the agents in preaching the gospel there we can only conjecture, but a city which was en rapport, like Puteoli, with both Alexandria and Rome, may have received it from either. One or two coincidences, however, tend to the former rather than the latter conclusion. We find in Hebrews 10:24 a salutation sent from “those of (or, better, from) Italy.” This would not be a natural way of speaking of Christians of Rome, and we are led, therefore, to think of some other Italian Church. The only such Church, however, of which we read in the New Testament is this of Puteoli, and we naturally infer that the writer of that Epistle refers to it. But the writer was, in the judgment of many critics (see Introduction to the Epistle to the Hebrews), none other than Apollos, the eloquent Alexandrian Jew of Acts 18:24, and some have been led to think that it was addressed to the Hebrew disciples of the Therapeutæ, or ascetic, class, in the Delta of the Nile. All these facts tend to the conclusion that there was a connection of some kind between Alexandria and some Italian Church, and the theory that that Church was at Puteoli, though not proven, at least combines and explains all the phenomena. We find from Josephus (Ant. xvii. 12, § 1) that there was a considerable Jewish element in the population of Puteoli. They had, indeed, spread themselves through the greater part of Italy, and the remains of a Jewish cemetery have been found even near Perugia.

Were desired to tarry with them seven days.—As before at Troas (Acts 20:6) and Tyre (Acts 21:4), so here, we can scarcely fail to connect the duration of St. Paul’s stay at Puteoli with the wish of the Church there, that he should be with them on one, or, it may be, two Sundays, that so he might break bread with them, and that they might profit by his teaching. The kindness of the centurion is seen once more in the permission which made compliance with the request possible.

And so we went toward Rome.—The journey would lead them through Cumæ and Liternum to Sinuessa, a distance of thirty-three miles from Puteoli. Here they would come upon the great Appian Road, which ran from Rome to Brundusium, the modern Brindisi. The stages from Sinuessa would probably be Minturnæ, Formiæ, Fundi, and Terracina, making altogether a distance of fifty-seven miles. At this point they would have to choose between two modes of travel, taking the circuitous road round the Pontine Marshes, or going by the more direct line of the canal. Both routes met at Appii Forum, eighteen miles from Terracina. For us well-nigh every stage of the journey is connected with some historical or legendary fact in classical antiquity. We think of the great Appius Claudius, the censor from whom the Via and the Forum took their names; of the passage in the over-crowded canal track-boat, with its brawling sailors, and of the scoundrel inn-keepers, whom Horace has immortalised in the narrative of his journey to Brundusium (Sat. i. 5). All this was, we may believe, for the Apostle as though it had not been. Past associations and the incidents of travel, all were for him swallowed up in the thought that he was now on the point of reaching, after long delays, the goal after which he had been striving for so many years (Acts 19:21; Romans 15:23).

And from thence, when the brethren heard of us, they came to meet us as far as Appii forum, and The three taverns: whom when Paul saw, he thanked God, and took courage.
(15) And from thence, when the brethren heard of us . . .—Better, the brethren having heard about us. The seven days at Puteoli had given ample time for the news of the Apostle’s arrival to reach the disciples at Rome. Among these “brethren” were many, we may believe, of those whom he had known at Corinth, and to whom he had sent messages of greeting in Romans 16 : Aquila and Epænetus, Andronicus and Junias, Herodion, and those of the household of Narcissus. Most of these were Jews by birth, of the libertini or freed-man class. All had probably read or heard the Epistle to the Romans. They were yearning, some for the presence of the friend whom they had known seven years before at Corinth, some for a glimpse of one whom, though they had not known him, they had learnt to love. It is clear, from the salutations sent to Aquila and Priscilla and the rest in Romans 16, that the decree of Claudius banishing the Jews from Rome had been rescinded or allowed to lapse. The influence of Poppæa, now dominant at Rome, was probably in their favour, and secured their protection. Herself a proselyte to Judaism, after the fashion of her class she would extend her protection to the Jews of Rome, as she did, about the same time, to those of Jerusalem. (See Note on Acts 26:32.)

They came to meet us.—The practice of going some miles from the city to meet one whom men delighted to honour was a common one. So the Jews of Rome had gone out to meet the Pseudo-Alexander who claimed to be a son of Herod (Jos. Ant. xvii. 12, § 1). So the Romans had poured forth to meet Germanicus (Sueton. Calig. c. 4) when he lived, and to do honour to his remains after his death (Tacit. Ann. iii. 5). So in earlier days, Cicero had been welcomed on his return from exile, journeying from Brundusium on the self-same Appian Way on which St. Paul was now travelling, senate and people alike going forth to meet him (Cic. pro Sext. 63, in Pison. 22).

Appii forum.—There was an obvious reason for their not going further than this, as they could not tell whether the Apostle and his companions would come by the canal or the road. The town took its name probably from the Appius under whom the road had been made, and was so called as being a centre of local jurisdiction—an assize-town, as it were. So we have Forum Julium (now Friuli), Forum Flaminium, &c. Horace (Sat. i. 5, i. 4), had condemned the town to a perpetual infamy, as

“Inde Forum Appî,

Differtum nautis, cauponibus atque malignis.”

[“With sailors filled, and scoundrel publicans.”]

Now, we must believe, on the evening when the two parties met, the wretched little town, notorious for its general vileness, was the scene of a prayer-meeting, thanksgivings and praises pouring forth from rejoicing hearts.

The three taverns.—Better, the Three Tabernœ. The Latin word has a wider range than the English, and is applied to a booth or shop of any kind, requiring the addition of an adjective such as “diversoria” or “cauponaria” before it becomes a “tavern” in the modern sense. The Roman itineraries place this town at a distance of ten miles from Appii Forum, and therefore thirty-three from Rome, Aricia forming a kind of half-way stage between the Three Tabernæ and the capital. It is mentioned more than once by Cicero in his letters, and appears to have been on the Via Appia, at a point where a road from Antium fell into it (Ad Att. ii. 10). It was accordingly a town of considerable importance. No traces of the name are found now near that position, but it could not have been far from the modern Cisterna. The transfer of traffic from the old Via Appia to the new road of the same name (the Via Appia Nuova), which takes a more circuitous route from Castella to Terracina, probably deprived it of its importance and led to its decay. A local tradition, indeed, but probably of very late date, finds the name of Tre Taberne at a distance of about twelve miles from Rome, on the old Via Appia. Here, it is clear, a second detachment of friends met him, who had either started later than the others or had felt unequal to the additional ten miles.

He thanked God, and took courage.—The words imply a previous tendency to anxiety and fear. There had been no possibility of any communication with Rome since he had left Caesarea, and questions more or less anxious would naturally present themselves. Would he find friends there who would welcome him, or would he have to enter Rome as a criminal, with no escort but that of the soldiers who kept him? Were those Roman disciples to whom he had written so warmly still safe and well, and sound in the faith? Had persecution driven them from their homes, or had the Judaisers perverted their belief? The language of Romans 1:10-12, shows how prominent they were in his thoughts and prayers. To these questions the arrival of the disciples was a full and satisfying answer, and the Apostle resumed his journey with an eager and buoyant hope.

And when we came to Rome, the centurion delivered the prisoners to the captain of the guard: but Paul was suffered to dwell by himself with a soldier that kept him.
(16) And when we came to Rome.—This journey led them through Aricia (now La Riccia), where they would probably either stop for the night or for their noon-tide meal. From that point, as they neared the city, the Appian Road would present more of its characteristic features—the tall milestones, the stately tombs, of which that to Cæcilia Metella, the wife of Crassus, is the most representative example, and which, lining either side, gave to the road the appearance of one long cemetery, and bore their record of the fame or the vanity, the wealth or the virtues, of the dead. As they drew nearer still, St. Paul’s companions would point out to him the Grove and the sacred spring in the valley of Egeria, now let to a. colony of squatters of his own race.

“Hic ubi nocturnæ Numa constituebat amicæ,

Nunc sacri fontis nemus et delubra locantur

Judæis, quorum cophinus fœnumque supellex.”

[“Here, by the sacred scenes of Numa’s love,

We let on lease the shrines, the stream, the grove,

To pauper Jews, who bring their scanty store

Of hay and hamper, and who ask no more.”]

—Juvenal, Sat. iii. 12.

He would pass the cemetery of the Jews of Rome, lying on the east of the Appian Way, which within the last few years has been discovered and explored, in the Vigna Randanini, and the Columbaria (now in the Vigna Codini) of the imperial household, with which, as themselves of the libertini class, many of his friends and disciples were even then so closely connected. He would see, perhaps, even then, the beginning of the Catacombs, where the Christians, who would not burn their dead like the heathen, and who were excluded from the cemetery of the Jews, laid their dead to sleep in peace, in what was afterwards the Catacomb of St. Callistus. It may be noted here that the earliest inscription on any Jewish burial-place in Italy is one found at Naples, of the time of Claudius (A.D. 44) (Garucci, Cimitero degli antichi Ebrei, p. 24; Mommsen, Inscriptt. Neap. Lat. 6467), and the earliest Christian inscription with any note of time, of that of Vespasian (De Rossi, Inscriptt. Christ. No. 1). It lies in the nature of the case, however, that at first both Jews and Christians were likely to bury their dead without any formal record, and had to wait for quieter times before they could indulge in the luxury of tombstones and epitaphs. Continuing his journey, the Apostle and his companions would come within view of the pyramid of Caius Cestius, would pass under the Arch of Drusus, which still stands outside the Porta di S. Sebastiano, and enter the city by the Porta Capena, or Capuan Gate, proceeding thence to the Palace of the Cæsars, which stood on the Palatine Hill, and looked down, on one side upon the Forum, on the other upon the Circus Maximus.

Paul was suffered to dwell by himself.—The centurion, on arriving at the Palace of the Cæsars, would naturally deliver his prisoners to the captain of the division of the Prætorian Guard stationed there as the emperor’s body-guard. The favour shown to St. Paul may fairly be considered as due to the influence of the centurion Julius, from whom he had, from the first, received so many marks of courtesy. The Prefect of the Prætorium was the natural custodian of prisoners sent from the provinces, and about this time that office was filled by Burrus, the friend and colleague of Seneca. Before and after his time there were two prefects, and the way in which St. Luke speaks of “the captain of the guard” may fairly be accepted as a note of time fixing the date of the Apostle’s arrival. The Praetorian camp lay to the north-east of the city, outside the Porta Viminalis. The manner in which St. Luke speaks of his “dwelling by himself” implies that he went at once, instead of accepting the hospitality of any friends, into a hired apartment. Tradition points to the vestibule of, the Church of Santa Maria, at the junction of the Via Lata and the Corso, as the site of his dwelling; but it has been urged by Dr. Philip, at present working as a missionary in the Ghetto at Rome, in a pamphlet, On the Ghetto (Rome, 1874), that this site, forming part of the old Flaminian Way, was then occupied by arches and public buildings, and that it was far more probable that he would fix his quarters near those of own countrymen. He adds that a local tradition points to No. 2 in the Via Stringhari, just outside the modern Ghetto, as having been St. Paul’s dwelling-place, but does not give any documentary evidence as to its nature or the date to which it can be traced back.

With a soldier that kept him.—Better, with the soldier. The arrangement was technically known as a custodia libera. The prisoner, however, was fastened by a chain to the soldier who kept guard over him, and so the Apostle speaks of his “chain” (Acts 28:20), of his being a “prisoner” (Ephesians 3:1; Ephesians 4:1), an ambassador in chains (Ephesians 6:20), of his “bonds” (Philippians 1:7; Philippians 1:13; Philippians 1:17; Colossians 4:18). It was almost a matter of course that the guard would from time to time be relieved, and so the Apostle’s bonds, and the story of his sufferings, and what had brought them on him, would be known throughout the whole Prætorian camp from which the soldiers came. (See Note on Philippians 1:13.)

And it came to pass, that after three days Paul called the chief of the Jews together: and when they were come together, he said unto them, Men and brethren, though I have committed nothing against the people, or customs of our fathers, yet was I delivered prisoner from Jerusalem into the hands of the Romans.
(17) After three days Paul called the chief of the Jews together.—The decree of Claudius had, as has been already stated (see Note on Acts 28:15), been allowed to lapse, and the Jews had settled in their old quarters in the trans-Tiberine region, and in part, perhaps, on the island of the Tiber, and the region on the right bank of the river, now known as the Ghetto, which has been for many centuries the “Jewry” of Rome. Those who are described as the “chief” would naturally include the ruler of the synagogue (the title Archisynagogus is found in a Jewish inscription from Capua, now in the Lateran Museum); the Archontes, or rulers of the people—perhaps another way of describing the Archisynagogi—(this title is found in the Jewish cemetery at Rome already mentioned; Garucci, ut supra, p. 35); the Scribes (the title Grammateus is also found, pp. 42, 47, 55, 59); the Gerousiarchai, or heads of the Jewish senate, which was allowed, as at Alexandria, a certain measure of independent jurisdiction (pp. 51, 62); the “fathers of the synagogue,” perhaps identical with the “rulers” or “elders,” perhaps of a slightly higher grade (p. 52); perhaps, also (for this title also is found), the “mothers of the synagogue,” occupying, possibly, a position more or less analogous to the widows and deaconesses of the Christian Church (pp. 52, 53);[4] those who were known as Nomomatheis, or students of the Law (p. 57); the wealthier traders; those who, as freed-men, held office of some kind in the imperial court, or, like the Aliturius mentioned by Josephus (Life, c. 3), courted the favour of Poppæa, and gained the praise of Nero by acting in his spectacles. To such a mingled crowd, summoned by a special messenger—or, it may be, by a notice read on the Sabbath in the synagogue, or posted on some wall or pillar in the Jewish quarter—after three days spent, partly in settling in his lodging, partly in the delivery of the summons, St. Paul now addressed himself. These he was seeking to win, if possible, for Christ.

[4] Since I wrote the above, I have heard from Dr. A. Edersheim, than whom there is no higher living authority on matters connected with Jewish archæology, that in his judgment the title of “father” or “mother” of the synagogue did not imply any functions, but was assigned as a mark of honour to its oldest members. He rests this belief on the fact that they are found chiefly, or exclusively, in inscriptions which record a very advanced as 80 or 110.

(17) Though I have committed nothing against the people . . .—We note St. Paul’s characteristic tact. He addresses his hearers by the title which they loved, as “the people.” (See Note on Acts 4:28.) He speaks with respect of their “customs.” (See Notes on Acts 6:14; Acts 21:21.) He disclaims the thought of treating either with disrespect.

Who, when they had examined me, would have let me go, because there was no cause of death in me.
(18) Who, when they had examined me . . .—It is possible that we have here only the summary of a fuller narrative, and that he gave an outline of the proceedings that had taken place between his first seizure and his appeal to the emperor. What he states, however, was fully warranted by the facts. No Roman magistrate had ever condemned him. Agrippa and Festus had decided that he might have been released (Acts 26:32). He had been constrained to appeal to Cæsar in self-defence, to avoid the danger of being handed over to a prejudiced tribunal or to plots of assassination (Acts 25:8-10). But, as it was, he came not, as other appellants so often came, with counter-accusations. On all such matters his lips were sealed, and his motive now was to remove any unfavourable impressions which reports from Judæa might have left on the minds of his hearers.

For this cause therefore have I called for you, to see you, and to speak with you: because that for the hope of Israel I am bound with this chain.
(20) For the hope of Israel I am bound with this chain.—The mention of “chain” in the singular agrees with the fact stated in Acts 28:30, that he was entrusted to the keeping of a single soldier. There is a certain touch of pathos in this appeal to his sufferings as a prisoner. (Comp. Ephesians 3:1; Ephesians 4:1; Ephesians 6:20.) The hope for which he suffered was two-fold: (1) the expectation of the Messiah as bringing in a kingdom of heaven, which was cherished by every Israelite; (2) the hope of a resurrection from the dead, which he proclaimed as attested by the resurrection which proved (Romans 1:3-4) that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God. (See Notes on Acts 26:6-7.)

And they said unto him, We neither received letters out of Judaea concerning thee, neither any of the brethren that came shewed or spake any harm of thee.
(21) We neither received letters out of Judsea concerning thee . . .—It seems strange at first that no tidings should have come from Jerusalem of what had passed there in connection with St. Paul’s imprisonment. There was, however, hardly likely to have been time for any letters since his appeal. He had sailed somewhat late in the autumn, immediately after he had made it (Acts 25:13; Acts 27:1), and all communication by sea was suspended during the winter months. And it may be noted further that the Jews do not say that they had heard absolutely nothing about him, but that those who had come had spoken nothing evil of him. What they had heard by casual rumour may well have been consistent with St. James’s statement that “he walked orderly, and observed the Law” (Acts 21:20). It has been urged that the decree of Claudius had suspended the intercourse between the Jews of Rome and those of Jerusalem; but as the former had returned before he wrote the Epistle to the Romans, this is hardly a tenable explanation. It may, however, be taken into account that among the Jews who had returned to Rome would be not a few of those who had known St. Paul at Corinth, and were willing to bear their testimony to his character.

But we desire to hear of thee what thou thinkest: for as concerning this sect, we know that every where it is spoken against.
(22) We desire . . . as concerning this sect . . .—Better, we request of thee. The term is that which had been used by Tertullus when he spoke of the “sect of the Nazarenes” (Acts 24:5). The speakers had clearly heard enough of the prisoner to identify him with that sect, but they treat him personally with respect, probably due in part to the favour which the authorities had shown him, and wish for an authoritative exposition of his views. The Christians of Rome had obviously, even if they were Jews, withdrawn from the Jewish quarter, and the residents in that quarter knew of them only by reports. What was the nature of those reports we can only conjecture. They were, as the speakers say, “everywhere spoken against.” The darker calumnies which were propagated afterwards—stories of Thyestean (i.e., cannibal) banquets and licentious orgies—may possibly have been even then whispered from ear to ear. In any case the Christians of the empire would be known as abandoning circumcision and other Jewish ordinances, leading a separate life, holding meetings which were more or less secret, worshipping One who had been crucified as a malefactor. They were already, as Tacitus describes them, speaking of their sufferings under Nero, known as holding an exitiabilis superstitio (“a detestable superstition”), guilty of atrocia et pudenda, odio humani generis convicti (“atrocious and shameful crimes, convicted by the hatred of mankind”) (Ann. xv. 44), or as Suetonius writes (Nero, c. 16), as a genus hominum superstitionis novœ et maleficœ (“a race of men holding a new and criminal superstition”). It is conceivable, looking to the early date at which such rumours were current, that even then there may have been caricatures like that which was found among the graffiti of the Palace of the Cæsars (now in the Collegio Romano), representing Alexamenos, a Christian convert, worshipping his god, in the form of a crucified human figure with an ass’s head. Tertullian (A.D. 160-240) mentions such caricatures as current in his time (Apol. c. 16), and the story that the Jews worshipped an ass’s head, which we know to have been accepted at this very time (Jos. cont. Apion. ii. 7; Tacit Hist. v. 4), would naturally be transferred to the Christians, who were regarded as a sect of Jews. In Tertullian’s time Asinarii (“ass-worshippers”) was a common term of abuse for them.

And when they had appointed him a day, there came many to him into his lodging; to whom he expounded and testified the kingdom of God, persuading them concerning Jesus, both out of the law of Moses, and out of the prophets, from morning till evening.
(23) There came many to him into his lodging.—The Greek for “many” is a comparative form, implying a larger attendance than might have been looked for. The “lodging” was probably the “hired house,” or apartment, of Acts 28:30. (Comp. Philemon 1:22.) The discourse, or, more properly, the discussion, which followed could obviously only be given in outline. The address at Antioch in Pisidia (Acts 13:16-42), and the arguments of the Epistles to the Galatians and the Romans enable us to form a general estimate of its probable contents.

And some believed the things which were spoken, and some believed not.
(24) And some believed the things which were spoken.—Better, as expressing the fact that the verb is the passive form of that translated “persuade,” in the previous verse, some were being persuaded of the things that were spoken.

And when they agreed not among themselves, they departed, after that Paul had spoken one word, Well spake the Holy Ghost by Esaias the prophet unto our fathers,
(25) After that Paul had spoken one word.—The tone of vehement indignation implies a patience almost exhausted by the long contest with prejudice and unbelief. He cannot refrain from reproducing the conviction which he had already expressed in the Epistle to the Romans, that “blindness in part had happened unto Israel,” that a remnant only were faithful, and that “the rest were hardened” (Romans 11:7-25).

Saying, Go unto this people, and say, Hearing ye shall hear, and shall not understand; and seeing ye shall see, and not perceive:
(26) Go unto this people, and say . . .—On the passage thus quoted see Notes on Matthew 13:14-15. Here we are chiefly concerned with the fact that the words had been cited by our Lord as describing the spiritual state of the Jews of Palestine, and that the record of their citation is found in the first three Gospels (Matthew 13:13; Mark 4:12; Luke 8:10), while St. John (John 12:40) reproduces them as embodying the solution of the apparent failure of our Lord’s personal ministry. Looking to the fact that this implies a wide currency given to the prophecy in all reports, oral or written, of our Lord’s teaching, and that St. Paul was clearly well acquainted with one collection of our Lord’s discourses (Acts 20:35), we can hardly resist the inference that he now applied them as following in the track of his Master’s teaching. What was true of the Jews of Jerusalem was true also of those of Rome. In both there was a wilful blindness and deafness to that which ought to have produced conviction and conversion. (Comp. the language which the Apostle had previously used in Romans 11:25.)

Be it known therefore unto you, that the salvation of God is sent unto the Gentiles, and that they will hear it.
(28) Be it known therefore unto you, that the salvation of God . . .—The better MSS. give “this salvation,” the demonstrative adjective having the same force as in “the words of this life,” in Acts 5:20. The Apostle points, as it were, to that definite method of deliverance (the Greek gives the concrete neuter form, as in Luke 2:30; Luke 3:6, and not the feminine abstract) which he had proclaimed to them. The words remind us of those which had been spoken under like circumstances at Antioch in Pisidia (Acts 13:46). We can, in some measure, enter into the feelings which filled the Apostle’s mind, through what we read in Romans 9-11,—the bitter pain at the rejection of Israel, relieved by a far-off hope of their restoration, the acceptance of God’s ways as unsearchable and past finding out.

And when he had said these words, the Jews departed, and had great reasoning among themselves.
(29) And when he had said these words . . .—The whole verse is wanting in many of the earliest MSS. and versions. It may have been inserted, either by a transcriber, or by the historian himself in a revised copy in order to avoid the apparent abruptness of the transition from Acts 28:28-30. As far as it goes it confirms the statement of Acts 28:24-25, that some of those who had listened were converted.

And Paul dwelt two whole years in his own hired house, and received all that came in unto him,
(30) And Paul dwelt two whole years . . .—On the probable incidents of this period, see Excursus on the Later Years of St. Paul’s Life. The word translated “hired house” (the exact equivalent for the Latin meritorium, or conductum) means rather a lodging (as in Acts 28:23) or apartment, and does not imply that he occupied a whole house. The words that follow exactly describe his position. He was a prisoner, and therefore was not allowed to go out to preach in the synagogues, or the “churches” in the houses of this or that disciple, or the open places of the city, but his friends were allowed free access to him, and in this way there was probably a wider and more effectual opening for his personal influence than if he had spoken publicly, and so exposed himself to the risk of an organised antagonism. What seemed at first a hindrance to his work was so ordered, as he afterwards acknowledged, that it fell out “rather unto the furtherance of the gospel” (Philippians 1:12).

Preaching the kingdom of God, and teaching those things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ, with all confidence, no man forbidding him.
(31) No man forbidding him.—The fact is interesting as showing the attitude of the Roman empire to the new faith. So far, even under Nero, it was tolerant, and even though the “sect” of the Christians was “everywhere spoken against,” a leading teacher of that sect was allowed free room to propagate his views. The rulers of the empire were not as yet alarmed at the thought of the wide-spread secret organisation of the Christian Society, and the influence of Seneca and Burrus may not have been without its share in this policy of toleration. The history closes somewhat abruptly. It may have been the intention of the writer to continue his narrative. It is a natural inference that when he closed it the two years had expired, or were on the point of expiring; that he, who had remained with the Apostle during his imprisonment, started with him on his eastward journey afterwards; and that some incidents to us unknown, hindered him from completing the work which he had begun. It is possible, on the other hand, that Theophilus, as an Italian convert (see Introduction), may have known what had passed in Rome during the Apostle’s first sojourn there, or subsequently, and that St. Luke did not aim at more than setting before his friend the stages by which St. Paul had been brought to the imperial city.

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

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