Tribune Claudius Lysias is a figure mentioned several times in the New Testament book of Acts. He was a Roman tribune or military commander who had an important role in the events surrounding the imprisonment and trials of the apostle Paul in Jerusalem and Caesarea. Though not a major character, Claudius Lysias provides crucial help to Paul while also shedding light on the workings of the Roman military and justice systems in early first-century Judea.
In this blog post, we will explore who exactly Claudius Lysias was, his interactions with Paul and the Jewish authorities, and what we can learn from those events. By better understanding this minor but noteworthy biblical figure, we gain more insight into a pivotal time for the early Christian church.
- Claudius Lysias was a Roman tribune or Chiliarch in command of the Roman cohort in Jerusalem around AD 57-59.
- He protected Paul from a Jewish mob and allowed him to address the Sanhedrin council.
- Lysias later transferred Paul to Caesarea to be judged by Governor Felix.
- His testimony helped establish Paul’s innocence of any capital crimes.
- Lysias’ actions illustrate Roman views on Christianity and interactions between Jewish and Roman leadership.
- Details on Lysias help reconstruct the historical context for Paul’s travels and trials.
Claudius Lysias’ Role and Identity
The first mention of Claudius Lysias comes in Acts 21:31-32. A Jewish mob is attacking Paul at the Temple in Jerusalem when word comes to “the commander of the garrison” that the whole city is in turmoil. This commander arrives with soldiers and centurions and rescues Paul by arresting him.
Acts 21:37 then identifies this commander as Claudius Lysias. He allows Paul to speak to the rioting crowd, thinking he is an infamous rebel. When Paul reveals he is a Jew, Lysias brings him to the Sanhedrin council to address accusations against him.
In Acts 22:24-29, Lysias orders Paul questioned via scourging until Paul invokes his Roman citizenship. Lysias becomes alarmed that he ordered the beating of a Roman citizen without trial. He desists and brings Paul before the Jewish council to get to the bottom of the charges.
The title given to Claudius Lysias in Acts 21:31 refers to a Roman tribune, a military rank also called a Chiliarch, in command of a cohort of 600 men. Lysias held an important position as part of the Roman occupation forces overseeing Jerusalem and its environs.
His status as a Roman citizen also marked him as part of the privileged ruling class. Yet as a Greek, Lysias would have been separate from both the local Jews and Roman governing authorities like Felix and Festus. This left him able to serve as a somewhat neutral arbiter between the Jewish leadership, Paul, and higher Roman officials.
Lysias Protects Paul from the Jewish Mob
Lysias’ first significant action was rescuing Paul from a volatile mob at the Temple in Acts 21:30-36 (NKJV):
And all the city was disturbed; and the people ran together, seized Paul, and dragged him out of the temple; and immediately the doors were shut. Now as they were seeking to kill him, news came to the commander of the garrison that all Jerusalem was in an uproar. He immediately took soldiers and centurions, and ran down to them. And when they saw the commander and the soldiers, they stopped beating Paul. Then the commander came near and took him, and commanded him to be bound with two chains; and he asked who he was and what he had done. And some among the multitude cried one thing and some another. So when he could not ascertain the truth because of the tumult, he commanded him to be taken into the barracks. When he reached the stairs, he had to be carried by the soldiers because of the violence of the mob. For the multitude of the people followed after, crying out, “Away with him!”
This vividly describes the intensity of the hostility against Paul from the Jewish crowds. They sought to violently and summarily execute Paul for allegedly defiling the Temple. Lysias acts decisively to extract Paul using a cohort of soldiers, protecting him from what would have likely been a gruesome death.
Though Luke does not provide details on why the mob so violently turned on Paul, later accounts reveal he had been accused of bringing Gentiles past the dividing wall in the Temple. This was seen as a horrendous violation by the Jews present. Lysias’ quick action prevented the incident from turning into a full riot and loss of control in the city.
The Roman tribune likely wished to avoid unrest so near to the major Jewish festivals. His top priority was maintaining order, whatever the merits of the particular charges against Paul. By getting Paul into the fortress, Lysias restored order but also kept Paul protected for further inquiry into the disturbance.
Lysias Allows Paul to Address the Sanhedrin
In Acts 22, Claudius Lysias shows both skepticism toward Paul but also a sense of due process by allowing him to speak in his own defense. Acts 22:22-29 describes how this unfolds:
And they listened to him until this word, and then they raised their voices and said, “Away with such a fellow from the earth, for he is not fit to live!” Then, as they cried out and tore off their clothes and threw dust into the air, the commander ordered him to be brought into the barracks, and said that he should be examined under scourging, so that he might know why they shouted so against him.
And as they bound him with thongs, Paul said to the centurion who stood by, “Is it lawful for you to scourge a man who is a Roman, and uncondemned?” When the centurion heard that, he went and told the commander, saying, “Take care what you do, for this man is a Roman.” Then the commander came and said to him, “Tell me, are you a Roman?” He said, “Yes.” The commander answered, “With a large sum I obtained this citizenship.” And Paul said, “But I was born a citizen.” Then immediately those who were about to examine him withdrew from him; and the commander was also afraid after he found out that he was a Roman, and because he had bound him.
This shows Lysias trying to follow protocol with Paul, a Roman citizen. He seeks to interrogate Paul to understand the charges against him but cannot scourge him without trial as a citizen. Lysias allows Paul to plead his case before the Sanhedrin, as described in Acts 22:30 – 23:10:
The next day, because he wanted to know for certain why he was accused by the Jews, he released him from his bonds, and commanded the chief priests and all their council to appear, and brought Paul down and set him before them. Then Paul, looking earnestly at the council, said, “Men and brethren, I have lived in all good conscience before God until this day.” And the high priest Ananias commanded those who stood by him to strike him on the mouth. Then Paul said to him, “God will strike you, you whitewashed wall! For you sit to judge me according to the law, and do you command me to be struck contrary to the law?”
And those who stood by said, “Do you revile God’s high priest?” Then Paul said, “I did not know, brethren, that he was the high priest; for it is written, ‘You shall not speak evil of a ruler of your people.’ ” But when Paul perceived that one part were Sadducees and the other Pharisees, he cried out in the council, “Men and brethren, I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee; concerning the hope and resurrection of the dead I am being judged!” And when he had said this, a dissension arose between the Pharisees and the Sadducees; and the assembly was divided. For Sadducees say that there is no resurrection—and no angel or spirit; but the Pharisees confess both. Then there arose a loud outcry. And the scribes of the Pharisees’ party arose and protested, saying, “We find no evil in this man; but if a spirit or an angel has spoken to him, let us not fight against God.”
Now when there arose a great dissension, the commander, fearing lest Paul might be pulled to pieces by them, commanded the soldiers to go down and take him by force from among them, and bring him into the barracks.
This shows Lysias diligently following procedures, allowing Paul to face his accusers in the Sanhedrin council. When dissent arises over the charges, Lysias acts to again protect Paul from violence. Throughout these interactions, Lysias displays an impartial attitude, following the requirements of Roman law. He facilitates the process to uncover the truth rather than act based on prejudice for or against Paul and his faith.
Lysias Transfers Paul to Felix in Caesarea
Claudius Lysias final major role comes in Acts 23, when he transfers Paul into the custody of Felix the governor in Caesarea. Acts 23:12-35 describes how a Jewish conspiracy against Paul obliges Lysias to get him away from Jerusalem:
And when it was day, some of the Jews banded together and bound themselves under an oath, saying that they would neither eat nor drink till they had killed Paul. Now there were more than forty who had formed this conspiracy. They came to the chief priests and elders, and said, “We have bound ourselves under a great oath that we will eat nothing until we have killed Paul. Now you, therefore, together with the council, suggest to the commander that he be brought down to you tomorrow, as though you were going to make further inquiries concerning him; but we are ready to kill him before he comes near.”
So when Paul’s sister’s son heard of their ambush, he went and entered the barracks and told Paul. Then Paul called one of the centurions to him and said, “Take this young man to the commander, for he has something to tell him.” So he took him and brought him to the commander and said, “Paul the prisoner called me to him and asked me to bring this young man to you. He has something to say to you.” Then the commander took him by the hand, went aside, and asked privately, “What is it that you have to tell me?” And he said, “The Jews have agreed to ask that you bring Paul down to the council tomorrow, as though they were going to inquire more fully about him. But do not yield to them, for more than forty of them lie in wait for him, men who have bound themselves by an oath that they will neither eat nor drink till they have killed him; and now they are ready, waiting for the promise from you.”
So the commander let the young man depart, and commanded him, “Tell no one that you have revealed these things to me.” And he called for two centurions, saying, “Prepare two hundred soldiers, seventy horsemen, and two hundred spearmen to go to Caesarea at the third hour of the night; and provide mounts to set Paul on, and bring him safely to Felix the governor.” He wrote a letter in the following manner: Claudius Lysias, To the most excellent governor Felix: Greetings. This man was seized by the Jews and was about to be killed by them. Coming with the troops I rescued him, having learned that he was a Roman. And when I wanted to know the reason they accused him, I brought him before their council. I found out that he was accused concerning questions of their law, but had nothing charged against him deserving of death or chains. And when it was told me that the Jews lay in wait for the man, I sent him immediately to you, and also commanded his accusers to state before you the charges against him. Farewell.
Then the soldiers, as they were commanded, took Paul and brought him by night to Antipatris. The next day they left the horsemen to go on with him, and returned to the barracks. When they came to Caesarea and had delivered the letter to the governor, they also presented Paul to him. And when the governor had read it, he asked what province he was from. And when he understood that he was from Cilicia, he said, “I will hear you when your accusers also have come.” And he commanded him to be kept in Herod’s Praetorium.
This episode shows Lysias exercising prudent judgment in getting Paul away from those conspiring against him. He evidently believed Paul innocent of capital crimes and that he deserved a fair trial. Lysias’ letter to Felix emphasizes charges relating only to religious disputes among the Jews.
By highlighting Paul’s Roman citizenship, Lysias urges Felix to handle Paul justly. This represents Lysias’ final major contribution to Paul’s fate: facilitating his transferal to the governor’s jurisdiction, where his status provided important legal protections not available in the Sanhedrin.
Lysias’ Testimony Supports Paul’s Innocence
A key result of Claudius Lysias’ involvement with Paul is providing official Roman testimony that assisted in establishing Paul’s innocence.
In Acts 24:1-9, the high priest Ananias and elders bring charges against Paul before Felix in Caesarea. In his defense, Paul notes in verse 11 that Felix can ascertain his minimal wrongdoing from examining Lysias:
Because you may ascertain that it is no more than twelve days since I went up to Jerusalem to worship. And they neither found me in the temple disputing with anyone nor inciting the crowd, either in the synagogues or in the city. Nor can they prove the things of which they now accuse me.
Later in Acts 25:14-21, Lysias’ account is again referenced as new governor Festus discusses Paul’s case with King Agrippa:
When they had been there many days, Festus laid Paul’s case before the king, saying: “There is a certain man left a prisoner by Felix, about whom the chief priests and the elders of the Jews informed me, when I was in Jerusalem, asking for a judgment against him. To them I answered, ‘It is not the custom of the Romans to deliver any man to destruction before the accused meets the accusers face to face, and has opportunity to answer for himself concerning the charge against him.’ Therefore when they had come together, without any delay, the next day I sat on the judgment seat and commanded the man to be brought in. When the accusers stood up, they brought no accusation against him of such things as I supposed, but had some questions against him about their own religion and about a certain Jesus, who had died, whom Paul affirmed to be alive. And because I was uncertain of such questions, I asked whether he was willing to go to Jerusalem and there be judged concerning these matters. But when Paul appealed to be reserved for the decision of Augustus, I commanded him to be kept till I could send him to Caesar.”
Then Agrippa said to Festus, “I also would like to hear the man myself.” “Tomorrow,” he said, “you shall hear him.”
In both situations, Lysias’ official account provides external validation that Paul was innocent of any major civil crime deserving imprisonment or death. By highlighting the strictly religious nature of the accusations, Lysias gives Paul legal standing to appeal his case to Caesar rather than be turned over to the Sanhedrin.
Lysias and Roman Views Toward Christianity
The interactions involving Claudius Lysias give glimpses into Roman perspectives on Christianity at the time. Lysias displayed little hostility or prejudice toward Paul based on his faith. In contrast to the Jewish authorities, Lysias focused only on maintaining order and following legal protocols.
Notable is Lysias allowing–even facilitating–Paul making his case before the Jewish Sanhedrin. He exercised care that proper procedures were followed, suggesting Romans had an openness to Christianity being considered a sect of Judaism at the time.
Lysias unquestionably identified Paul as a Roman citizen deserving equal protections. He expressed no concerns over Paul’s faith per se. This reflects an early stage of Roman toleration toward Christianity, prior to later persecution under Nero and others.
Lysias’ general lack of prejudice also hints at the widened influence of the faith by this time. A decade or more after Pentecost, word of Christianity had evidently reached the upper classes of political leadership in some form. Lysias likely knew of this new sect and its Jewish origins without displaying hostility toward it in his governance.
Lysias’ Helpful Role in Paul’s Trials
Overall, Claudius Lysias performed a helpful, even indispensable, role in the trials of Paul in Acts. By protecting Paul’s legal rights as a Roman citizen, Lysias ensured Paul would get a fair hearing from the Roman authorities. This led to Paul having the chance to appeal his case to Caesar’s judgment in Rome.
Lysias refused to let the Jewish leaders dictate Paul’s fate, instead affirming his legal protections. His interventions prevented Paul’s death at the hands of the mob or a conspiracy. Lysias also validated that the legal case against Paul stemmed from religious disputes among Jews, not any civil misconduct on Paul’s part.
Without Lysias’ prudent actions, Paul likely would not have had the opportunity to have his case heard before the highest Roman authorities. This could have severely impeded his missionary travels and letters that were so crucial to the early church’s growth. As a Roman official not involved with either Jewish or Christian leadership directly, Lysias provided a neutral, stabilizing influence during a period of crisis.
Though mentioned only briefly, Claudius Lysias unintentionally helped further God’s providential protection of Paul to allow his essential ministry in spreading the Gospel across the Roman world. Lysias’ minor role ultimately had major historical ramifications.
In summary, Claudius Lysias appears several times in Acts intervening to protect Paul and clarify the accusations against him before Roman authorities. As a Roman tribune in Jerusalem, Lysias sought to keep order but also gave Paul fair legal treatment. This allowed Paul’s appeal to Caesar, aiding the furtherance of early Christianity across the empire.
While easily overlooked, this otherwise obscure biblical figure had an outsized impact on early church history. Details on Lysias provide valuable perspectives on Roman views of Christianity and governance over Judea during New Testament times. For Paul, Claudius Lysias provided timely protection that contributed to Paul’s enduring legacy as one of the most influential Christian missionaries.
Though a small role, Lysias serves as an excellent example of how God uses all types of people – from Roman nobles to Pharisees like Paul to everyday Christians