The Justice of Festus

Roman Jurisprudence

“The children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light” (Luke 16:8).

by Carl Hagensick

Roman law is considered the foundation for today’s judicial system. The Roman legal system slowly evolved from the law of the “twelve tables” in 449 BC to its final codification in the Justinian Code (circa 530 AD).1

At the time of Jesus and the apostles, it had developed into a full-blown legal system administered by appointed judges, or praetors.

Felix and Festus, prominent figures in the trial of the apostle Paul, were two of these praetors. Felix and Festus were characters in marked contrast. Whereas Felix was corrupt (Acts 24:26), Festus appears to have been a man of integrity. When Felix was deposed in favor of Festus, both of the Roman proconsuls found themselves in awkward positions.

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(1) This article, originally appearing in the May 2008 issue of the Herald, was based on a discourse that is still available online (Google “Festus Hagensick,” it will appear first on the list). “Br. Carl,” as he is still widely known, though he has been gone from us for nearly nine years, had an exceptional ability to extract from scriptural narratives, principles for us to apply in our fellowship and in our lives generally. His lesson on Festus is particularly good for checking our impulses, our motives, and our wisdom of approach, concerning discussions that arise between and among brethren. If the wisdom he exhorted were applied, our fellowship would be more united. Let us, in his memory, and in appreciation of Christian principles, take the lesson to heart, and consider whether and where we might improve in these areas. — Editor

Herod Agrippa II was king of Judea at the time. Descending from the Jewish Hasmonean dynasty through his grandmother Mariamne, he observed the Jewish religion. When in Jerusalem, he lived in the Hasmonean palace, which adjoined the temple complex. He had the walls of the palace built higher so he could see into the temple courts. This greatly offended the priests who built a high wall obstructing his view. They also protested to Rome and secured a favorable response from Caesar. For this reason both Felix and Festus (Acts 24:27, 25:9) felt indebted to the Jews; and possibly for this reason, Felix was removed from office.

Festus wasted no time in seeking to make matters right. Just three days after arriving in Israel, he journeyed from Caesarea to Jerusalem to meet with the Jewish hierarchy. The high priest was quick to press his request, possibly considering that the Romans had offended the Jews and would be therefore willing to grant that which was asked of them.

He asked that Paul be sent to Jerusalem, having allegedly committed crimes under Jewish law. Behind this request was a nefarious plan to assassinate the apostle en route. Rather than accede to their demand, the Roman procurator assured the Jews that he would investigate the matter in Caesarea.

Promptly upon returning to that seaside fortress, Festus summoned the prisoner before him. First he heard the accusations of the Jewish contingent that had come to Caesarea. Paul pleaded “not guilty” to all charges against either Jewish or Roman law.

Festus was willing to grant the Jews a favor and asked Paul if he were willing to go to Jerusalem for trial. Paul, pleading his Roman citizenship, claimed his right to a trial before Caesar’s imperial court.

Right to Confront Accuser

When King Agrippa came to Caesarea, the procurator laid the case before him, citing a basic principle of Roman law: “It is not the manner of the Romans to deliver any man to die, before that he which is accused have the accusers face to face, and have license to answer for himself concerning the crime laid against him” (Acts 25:16).

This was one of three principles of the Roman Code Festus used in Paul’s trial. It remains a legal guarantee in modern law. It insures two basic rights of the accused: the right to rebuttal and cross-examination of the witness, and the exclusion of hearsay testimony.

These two guarantees are not only proper and just in matters of civil litigation, but also in matters of dispute within the church. They are intrinsic in the method Jesus set down for his followers: “Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican” (Matthew 18:15-17).

In this passage, Jesus not only protected these two rights of the accused, but additionally sought to do it in the most private manner, thus protecting a reputation as well.

In the first step, the accuser is to approach privately the one with whom he finds fault. Hopefully, the matter can be resolved with this one-on-one meeting. This should clear up misunderstandings that may shed a different light on the charge. This step is likely to be productive only if both the accuser and the accused have an open mind, and are willing to comprehend the other’s point of view.

Frequently, the one who is disturbed with another’s actions delays such an approach until strong emotions build up. This tends to produce tension in the confrontation and the use of strong and loud language. This, in turn, causes the accused to bridle and become overly defensive. For the accuser, it is wise to recall the words of Proverbs 15:1, “A soft answer turneth away wrath: but grievous words stir up anger.”

The accused might do well to remember the words of King David when he responded to being cursed and pelted with stones by Shimei: “So let him curse, because the LORD hath said unto him, Curse David” (2 Samuel 16:10). Rather than reacting to the sharpness of the criticism, the wise Christian, seeking correction, needs to realize that “faithful are the wounds of a friend” (Proverbs 27:6).

Expert Witnesses

Festus was confused. He had heard the charges of the priests from Jerusalem. Conversant as he was with Roman law, he had little exposure to the nuances of Hebrew customs. He was faced with a Roman citizen who had appealed to Caesar being charged by a subject power with whom he desired to court favor. He made his decision, “Hast thou appealed unto Caesar? unto Caesar shalt thou go” (Acts 25:12). Now, he was faced with specifying the charges against a prisoner without being sure himself what they were.

While Festus pondered this matter, the Judean monarch appointed by Rome, Herod Agrippa, and Bernice, came to Caesarea to welcome the new proconsul to Judea. The timing was fortuitous to Festus. “As Agrippa and his wife professed the Hebrew faith, Festus, who had no knowledge thereof, embraced the opportunity to have their assistance in formulating charges against St. Paul, whose crime, if any, could be understood from the Jewish standpoint” (R4501).

Bernice’s position is somewhat vague. She was Agrippa’s sister, who had been married to her uncle, Herod, king of Chalcis. After his death, she moved in with her brother. Both the Jewish historian Josephus and the Roman poet report that Agrippa and Bernice were living in an incestuous relationship. According to the historian Tacitus, she became also the paramour of Emperor Titus. Agrippa and Bernice would be considered excellent witnesses because each was conversant with Jewish customs, and had great credibility in Rome. The role of Agrippa was not to retry Paul, but to formulate the charges to be forwarded to Rome.

Paul’s defense was eloquent. He began by establishing his credentials, both as a Jew and also as a Pharisee. He continued by showing his ardor for Judaism and his activity in persecuting the Christians. Then, he narrated his conversion and how he had the responsibility to obey a vision from heaven.

When interrupted by Festus that he had been made “mad” by his “much learning,” he appealed directly to Agrippa’s professed Jewishness: “King Agrippa, believest thou the prophets? I know that thou believest.” So powerful was Paul’s witness that Agrippa responded, “Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian” (Acts 26:27,28). The effect is well encapsulated by Pastor Russell: “Having the thought pass before his mind, however, did not make Agrippa a saint. But he had heard the things which led him to appreciate his own fallen condition. He saw that St. Paul was suffering for right-doing and that he [Agrippa] was suffering for wrong-doing. He saw that God is a God of justice” (R4993).

Following the hearing, Festus and Agrippa conferred and concurred that, though they personally found Paul innocent, they had no choice but to accede to Paul’s appeal to Caesar’s court in Rome.

It is regrettably frequent in Christian disputes, when taking the step of seeking consultative counsel with those more knowledgeable on a subject than ourselves, to rebut with, “This is what we have always done or always believed.” It is far more difficult to consult with, and truly hear out, others who may have a different and more studied perspective. But, in taking this step, as is shown in the second step of Matthew 18, it is essential that such consultation be done in the presence of the accused, if for no other reason than that his words or actions may have been misunderstood: “He that answereth a matter before he heareth it, it is folly and shame unto him” (Proverbs 18:13).

Specific Charges

The third aspect of Roman jurisprudence from which the Christian may learn valuable lessons is found in the words of Festus, “For it seemeth to me unreasonable to send a prisoner, and not withal to signify the crimes laid against him” (Acts 25:27). Too often a charge is leveled against a fellow creature that he or she is bad, without any specific misdeed being given. Or, alternatively, an accusation is made that is so vague that one is not quite sure why he is being accused. Roman law, and for that matter, the law of most civilized lands, does not permit a case to be tried without the crimes allegedly committed being specified.

A good example of such a proper procedure is found in the preamble of the young man Elihu, in his rebuke of Job, found in Job 33:3-12. Elihu used no less than eight principles in his issuing of a proper criticism:

(1) Proper motive. “Out of my straightforward heart come my sayings” (verse 3, Leeser).
(2) Clarity. “My lips utter knowledge clearly” (verse 3, Leeser).
(3) Invite rebuttal. “If thou canst answer me, set thy words in order before me, stand up” (verse 5).
(4) Wait for invitation to criticize. “I am according to thy wish in God’s stead” (verse 6).
(5) Admit one’s own weaknesses. “I also am formed out of the clay” (verse 6).
(6) Speak gently. “No fear of me need terrify you, my pressure will not be heavy upon you” (verse 7, RSV).
(7) No hearsay evidence admitted. “Surely thou hast spoken in mine hearing, and I have heard the voice of thy words, saying …” (verses 8-11).
(8) Criticize actions, not persons. “Behold, in this thou art not just” (verse 12).

If such carefulness were used by all of God’s people, there would be much less friction in the giving of necessary rebukes. There are times the faithful Christian must rebuke. Such an instruction was given by the apostle Paul in 2 Timothy 4:2, “Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine.” This advice, however, must be done in the spirit of Ephesians, where we are encouraged to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15).

Being direct as well as kind is one way in which the Roman legal principle of specifying the charges against another can be carried out. If it is important to use such a code of conduct toward ones we feel are doing something wrong, how much more circumspection is cautioned when repeating such charges to others.

Our theme text, which heads this article, is in a different context. Instead of relating to criticism and correction of others, it refers to the proper use of stewardship. It is a sad commentary, in either case, when children of light, who should be in the forefront of setting standards, need to learn from those who do not have such a close relationship with the Creator. Nevertheless, it is good for one’s humility to learn life’s important lessons wherever one sees them exemplified.

“Accept truth wherever you find it, no matter what it contradicts, and rely for ability to afterwards harmonize it with others upon ‘The Spirit of truth, which shall guide you into all “Accept truth wherever you find it” (R8). truth,’ as Jesus promised” (R8,9).

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