Acts 23:5
Then said Paul, I knew not, brothers, that he was the high priest: for it is written, You shall not speak evil of the ruler of your people.
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(5) I wist not, brethren, that he was the high priest.—These words admit of three different explanations:—(1) We may take them as stating that St. Paul, either from defective sight (see Notes on Acts 9:18; Acts 14:9), or because the high priest was not sitting as president of the Sanhedrin, literally did not know who it was that had given the order, and thought it came from one of the subordinate members of the council. (2) That the words were a somewhat ironical protest against the authority of Ananias as having been improperly appointed. (3) That the “I wist not” stands for “I did not consider,” and is an apologetic recantation of what had been uttered with a full knowledge that the words had been spoken by the high priest. Of these the first seems by far the most probable. The solemn sneer pointed by words from Scripture suggested by (2) is at variance with St. Paul’s character; and (3) puts upon the words a greater strain than they will bear. It is obvious that St. Paul might well think that greater reverence was due to the high priest than to one filling an inferior position in the councils.

Thou shalt not speak evil of the ruler of thy people.—The passage (Exodus 22:28) is interesting as one of those in which the Hebrew word Elohim, commonly translated “God,” is used of earthly rulers. St. Paul probably quoted it in Hebrew (see Acts 22:2), while St. Luke reproduces it from the LXX. version. It need hardly be said that to act on that law towards the rulers, not, of “the people” only, but of the heathen; to see below all the corruptions of human society and the vices of princes, the scheme of a divine order; to recognise that “the powers that be are ordained of God,” was throughout the ruling principle of the Apostle’s conduct, and, for the most part, of that of the early Christians (Romans 13:1-6; 1Peter 2:13-17). Christianity was a great revolution, but they were not, politically or socially, revolutionists.

23:1-5 See here the character of an honest man. He sets God before him, and lives as in his sight. He makes conscience of what he says and does, and, according to the best of his knowledge, he keeps from whatever is evil, and cleaves to what is good. He is conscientious in all his words and conduct. Those who thus live before God, may, like Paul, have confidence both toward God and man. Though the answer of Paul contained a just rebuke and prediction, he seems to have been too angry at the treatment he received in uttering them. Great men may be told of their faults, and public complaints may be made in a proper manner; but the law of God requires respect for those in authority.Then said Paul, I wist not - I know not; I was ignorant of the fact that he was high priest. Interpreters have been greatly divided on the meaning of this expression. Some have supposed that Paul said it in irony, as if he had said, "Pardon me, brethren, I did not consider that this was the high priest. It did not occur to me that a man who could conduct thus could be God's highest. Others have thought (as Grotius) that Paul used these words for the purpose of mitigating their wrath, and as an acknowledgment that he had spoken hastily, and that it was contrary to his usual habit, which was not to speak evil of the ruler of the people. As if he had said, "I acknowledge my error and my haste. I did not consider that I was addressing him whom God had commanded me to respect." But this interpretation is not probable, for Paul evidently did not intend to retract what he had said.

Dr. Doddridge renders it, "I was not aware, brethren, that it was the high priest," and regards it as an apology for having spoken in haste. But the obvious reply to this interpretation is, that if Ananias was the high priest, Paul could not but be aware of it. Of so material a point it is hardly possible that he could be ignorant. Others suppose that, as Paul had been long absent from Jerusalem, and had not known the changes which had occurred there, he was a stranger to the person of the high priest. Others suppose that Ananias did not occupy the usual seat which was appropriated to the high priest, and that he was not clothed in the usual robes of office, and that Paul did not recognize him as the high priest. But it is wholly improbable that on such an occasion the high priest, who was the presiding officer in the Sanhedrin, should not be known to the accused. The true interpretation, therefore, I suppose, is what is derived from the fact that Ananias was not then properly the high priest; that there was a vacancy in the office, and that he presided by courtesy, or in virtue of his having been formerly invested with that office.

The meaning then will be: "I do not regard or acknowledge him as the high priest, or address him as such, since that is not his true character. Had he been truly the high priest, even if he had thus been guilty of manifest injustice, I would not have used the language which I did. The office, if not the man, would have claimed respect. But as he is not truly and properly clothed with that office, and as he was guilty of manifest injustice, I did not believe that he was to be shielded in his injustice by the Law which commands me to show respect to the proper ruler of the people." If this be the true interpretation, it shows that Luke, in this account, accords entirely with the truth of history. The character of Ananias as given by Josephus, the facts which he has stated in regard to him, all accord with the account here given, and show that the writer of the "Acts of the Apostles" was acquainted with the history of that time, and has correctly stated it.

For it is written - Exodus 22:28. Paul adduces this to show that it was his purpose to observe the Law; that he would not intentionally violate it; and that, if he had known Ananias to be high priest, he would have been restrained by his regard for the Law from using the language which he did.

Of the ruler of thy people - This passage had not any special reference to the high priest, but it inculcated the general spirit of respect for those in office, whatever that office was. As the office of high priest was one of importance and authority, Paul declares here that he would not be guilty of showing disrespect for it, or of using reproachful language in regard to it.

5. I wist not … that he was the high priest—All sorts of explanations of this have been given. The high priesthood was in a state of great confusion and constant change at this time (as appears from Josephus), and the apostle's long absence from Jerusalem, and perhaps the manner in which he was habited or the seat he occupied, with other circumstances to us unknown, may account for such a speech. But if he was thrown off his guard by an insult which touched him to the quick, "what can surpass the grace with which he recovered his self-possession, and the frankness with which he acknowledged his error? If his conduct in yielding to the momentary impulse was not that of Christ Himself under a similar provocation (Joh 18:22, 23), certainly the manner in which he atoned for his fault was Christ-like" [Hacket]. I wist not, brethren, that he was the high priest; Paul does not here ironically say this, because the high priest had, contrary to his place and office, caused him to be smitten; but either:

1. Because he knew now no high priest on earth, but only Christ in heaven to be our High Priest, Hebrews 8:1. Or rather:

2. Because the high priests being so often changed, (insomuch as in one year sometimes they have had three), and they being in a confusion at this time, and not meeting or sitting in their due place and order, Paul might very well be ignorant who that was, who in such a multitude had commanded that they should smite him.

Thou shalt not speak evil of the ruler of thy people; the scripture here cited by St. Paul, is Exodus 22:28. Then said Paul, I wist not, brethren, that he was the high priest,.... Or I did not know that he was the high priest; and the sense is, that he did not really know him, either because he had been long absent from Jerusalem; and besides there were new high priests made, sometimes every year, and sometimes oftener, that it is no wonder he should not know him; or because he might not sit in his usual place; or chiefly because he was not, in his habit, an high priest; for the priests, both the high priest, and the common priests, only wore their priestly robes, when they ministered in their office, and at other times they wore other clothes, as laymen did, according to Ezekiel 44:19 which the Targum paraphrases thus;

"when they (the priests) shall go out of the holy court into the outer court, to be mixed with the people, they shall put off their garments in which they ministered, and lay them up in the holy chamber, and shall clothe themselves with other garments, that they may not be mingled with the people, "in their garments".''

For as soon as they had performed their office, there were servants that attended them, who stripped them of their robes, and laid them up in chests which were in the temple (r) till they came to service again, and put them on common garments; for they might not appear among the common people in their priestly garments; which when they were off of them, they were, as Maimonides says (s), "as strangers", or as laymen, like the rest of the people; for which reason Paul might not know Ananias to be the high priest: and this points to another sense of these words; for it was a rule with the Jews (t), that

"at the time the priests' garments were upon them, their priesthood was upon them, but when their garments were not on them, , "there was no priesthood upon them"; for lo, they were as strangers.''

And then the sense is, Ananias not being in the discharge of his office, nor in his habit, the apostle did not know, or own him as an high priest, or consider him as in such a station; or rather, since the priesthood was changed, and there was no other high priest of God but Jesus Christ, he did not own him as one; had he, he should not have spoke to him in the manner he did. Moreover, if this was Ananias, the son of Nebedaeus, as is the opinion of many, he had no right to the office of the priesthood when he was first made an high priest; after which he was sent a prisoner to Rome; during which time several succeeded in the priesthood; and at this time not he, though he had got the management of affairs in his hands, was high priest, but Jesus the son of Gamaliel; so that the apostle's sense might be, he did not own or acknowledge him high priest. Some take the apostle's words in an ironical sense; he an high priest, I should not have known him to be an high priest, he looks and acts more like a furioso, a madman, an unjust judge, and a tyrant, than an high priest, who ought to behave in another guise manner. But what follows shows rather that the apostle spoke seriously, unless the words can be thought to be a citation made by Luke,

for it is written, in Exodus 22:28 "thou shalt not speak evil of the ruler of thy people"; which the Jewish writers generally understand of the head of the great sanhedrim, as Ananias might be, or of a king (u).

(r) Misna Tamid c. 5. sect. 3. & Bartenora in ib. (s) Hilchot Cele Hamikdash, c. 10. sect. 4. (t) Maimon. Hilchot Cele Hamikdash, c. 10. sect. 4. (u) Maimon. Hilchot Sanhedrin, c. 26. sect. 1. & Moses Kotsensis Mitzvot Torn, pr. neg. 209.

{4} Then said Paul, I wist not, brethren, that he was the high priest: for it is written, Thou shalt not speak evil of the ruler of thy people.

(4) We must willingly and from the heart give honour to magistrates, although they are tyrants.

Acts 23:5. οὐκ ᾔδειν: the subject of ἐστιν is not expressed as in A. and R.V., in the Greek it is simply “I wist not that it was the high priest (who spoke)”. If it be said that St. Paul could scarcely have been ignorant that Ananias was high priest, we must bear in mind that not even the high priest wore a distinctive dress when not engaged in actual service (Edersheim, Temple and its Services, p. 67, with reference to this same passage), if we are not prepared to accept the view of Chrysostom and Oecumenius amongst others, that the Apostle, owing to his long absence from Jerusalem, did not know the high priest by sight, or to suppose that his weakness of eyesight might have prevented him from seeing clearly (so Lewin, Plumptre). The interpretation that St. Paul spoke ironically, or by way of protest, as if such behaviour as that of Ananias on his nomination to office by Herod of Chalcis was in itself sufficient to prevent his recognition as high priest, is somewhat out of harmony with the Apostle’s quotation of Scripture in his reply, nor are the attempts to translate οὐκ ᾔδειν as = non agnosco or non reputabam successful. See further Zöckler’s summary of the different views, Apostelgeschichte, 2nd edition, in loco.ἀδελφοί: the word indicates St. Paul’s quick recovery from his moment of just anger to a conciliatory tone.—γέγ. γὰρ: in this appeal to the law, St. Paul showed not only his acquaintance with it, but his reverence for it—another proof of his wisdom and tact.—ἄρχοντα τοῦ λαοῦ σου κ.τ.λ.: LXX, Exodus 22:28, the Apostle apparently only quotes the latter part of the verse; in the Hebrew we have “thou shalt not revile God (margin, the judges), nor curse a ruler of thy people”. Cf. the ruling principle of the Apostle’s conduct Romans 13:1-7 (1 Peter 2:13-17).5. I wist not, brethren, that he was the high priest] Several explanations have been given of this statement of St Paul. Some think that it may have been true that St Paul from defect of sight, with which he is supposed to have been afflicted, could not distinguish that the speaker was the high priest; others that the high priest was not in his official position as president of the court; or that owing to the troublous times, and St Paul’s recent arrival in Jerusalem, he was not aware who was high priest; or that he was speaking in irony, and meant to imply that the action of the judge was of such a character that none would have supposed him to be high priest; or that he meant by “I wist not” that for the moment he was not thinking of what he was saying. It is most consonant with St Paul’s character to believe that either his own physical deficiency, or some lack of the usual formalities or insignia, made him unable to distinguish that he who had given the order was really the high priest.

for it is written] The quotation is from Exodus 22:28 and is another illustration of what was said above on Acts 23:4. The whole sentence of the O.T. is “Thou shalt not revile the gods, nor curse the ruler of thy people” and the marginal note on “gods” is “Or, judges” which margin should be in the text. The Rev. Ver. in this verse omits “the” before “high priest” and renders “a ruler” instead of “the ruler.”Acts 23:5. Οὐκ ᾔδειν, I did not know, or reflect) Paul, although he had been absent for several years, ch. Acts 24:17, yet knew the Chief Priest, ch. Acts 22:5, inasmuch as he also knew the others, Acts 23:6; and if he had not known him, he might still have now known him from the very place in which, without doubt, he was sitting, and from the number of the bystanders: nor was the council (Acts 23:1, συνέδριον) of such a tumultuous (hastily-convened) character, that the High Priest did not occupy a distinguished post. Therefore I did not know may be interpreted as a modest form of expression for, it did not come into my mind. So, I know not [= I do not remember], 1 Corinthians 1:16. Comp. in the same Epistle, ch. Acts 12:2, note (Ephesians 2:11), and ch. Acts 15:34, note; Php 4:15; Luke 9:55; 2 Samuel 19:22; Leviticus 5:4. This phrase most appropriately expresses the various ἦθος of the apostle, partly in relation to the bystanders, whom he thus appeased (softened), especially with the addition of the appellation of Brethren, and by quoting the commandment of Moses as to not speaking evil of rulers; partly in relation to Ananias, whose mode of acting and commandment were such as to indicate any one else rather than the High Priest; partly in relation to Paul himself, whom an extraordinary influence (commotio) had elevated in Spirit internally, and after having fulfilled the prompting of that influence, he presently after withdrew himself back again to that ordinary principle which commands not to speak evil of rulers. In a similar way Paul often, under the influence of modesty, judged and spake of those things which he did by Divine direction in such a manner as if they had been done under a mere human impulse. See Romans 15:15; 1 Corinthians 9:17-18; 2 Corinthians 11:8-9, notes. We glance at the cause of this liberty which the apostle takes in the notes upon 1 Corinthians 7:25 (The apostles wrote nothing that was not inspired; but in some cases they had a special command or revelation, in others they drew from their general habit of faith: in all these cases they might vary most freely their modes, according to the particular circumstances, and waive their own rights, and give the preference to others above themselves, or vice versa). Furthermore, from what we have said, it is also clear how Paul could have addressed, in such a way, him whom he knew merely to be sitting as a judge, without violation of the law, which treats universally of rulers.—[γέγραπται, it is written) Exodus 22:28. V. g.]Verse 5. - And Paul said for then said Paul, A.V.; high for the high, A.V.; a ruler for the ruler, A.V. I wist not, etc. These words express, as distinctly as words can express anything, that St. Paul was not aware, when he called Ananias a "whited wall," that he was addressing the high priest. Different reasons for this ignorance have been given. Some think that it arose from the uncertainty that existed whether Ananias really was high priest or not at this time, or whether the office was not in abeyance. Others attribute to Paul's weakness of sight the fact that he did not see that Ananias was sitting in the presidential chair, neither was able to recognize his features. Others, giving to οὐκ ἤδειν α sense which it never bus, render, "I did not reflect," or "bear in mind, that he was high priest." What is certain is that for some reason or other Paul did not know that he was speaking to the high priest. Had he known it, he would not have said what he did say, because the Law is express which says, Ἄρχοντα τοῦ λαοῦ σου οὐ κακῶς ἐρεῖς (Exodus 22:28, LXX.).
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