PROCURATORS FELIX AND FESTUS (Fr. Varghese Paul, SJ)

Antonius Felix and Porcius Festus are two Roman procurators of Judea during a significant period of the history of Christian Church from AD 50 to 62. We read about them in the Acts in the context of Paul’s arrest and imprisonment.

Felix and his brother Pallas were Greek subjects whom Emperor Claudius made free men. Both the men were first close to Claudius (41-54) and then to his successor Nero (54-68). Felix was appointed procurator of Judea in the year 53 by Claudius.

Felix became part of Christian history as Luke has mentioned him in chapter 23 & 24 of the Acts in connection with Paul’s arrest and his questioning.

When Paul was attacked by the Jewish mob in the Temple, the commander of the Roman troops in Jerusalem rescued Paul and treated him cautiously when he learnt that Paul was a Roman citizen. Then, when he came to know that there was a plot to kill Paul by the Jewish fanatics, he sent Paul to Felix the Procurator with a letter and armed soldiers. The letter says,

“Claudius Lysias to His Excellency, the Governor Felix: Greetings. The Jews seized this man and were about to kill him. I learnt that he was a Roman citizen, so I went with my soldiers and rescued him. I wanted to know what they were accusing him of, so I took him down to their Council. I found out that he had not done anything for which he deserved to die or be put in prison; the accusation against him had to do with questions about their own law. And when I was informed that there was a plot against him, at once I decided to send him to you. I have told his accusers to make their charges against him before you” (Acts 23, 26-30).

Felix read the letter and told Paul, “I will hear you when your accusers arrive” (Acts 23, 35) and he kept Paul under guard in the governor’s headquarters. After 5 days Paul’s accusers – the High Priest Ananias, some elders and a lawyer Tertullus – arrived. Felix heard Paul’s accusers and asked Paul to speak in his defense.

Luke in Acts says that, Felix “was well informed about the Way” about which Paul spoke and so he closed the hearing saying, “When Lysias the commander arrives, I will decide your case” (Acts 24, 22).

Luke says that subsequently Felix often met Paul. The Acts says, “After some days Felix came with his wife Drusilla, who was Jewish. He sent for Paul and listened to him as he talked about faith in Christ Jesus. But as Paul went on discussing about goodness, self-control, and the coming Day of Judgement, Felix was afraid and said, ‘You may leave now. I will call you again when I get the chance.’ At the same time he was hoping that Paul would give him some money; and for this reason he would often send for him and talk with him” (Acts 24, 24-26).

Obviously Paul must have not only pricked the conscience of Felix but he also convinced the governor of his own innocence. So Felix gave some liberty to Paul and allowed Paul’s friends to look after him.

Luke’s eyewitness account shows Felix as an inefficient ruler who did not take decisions but procrastinated time and again. In the first hearing when Paul did some plain speaking Felix could have made a decision. His accusers were no match to Paul who was trained in the famous law school of Tarsus. Felix instead of freeing Paul, left him in prison. So Paul remind in prison for two years when Felix was recalled to Rome to stand on trial for his own miss-government.

Both the Jewish and Roman historians of the time have portrayed a worst picture of Felix than the one given by Luke in the Acts.

* * *

Roman procurator Festus succeeded Felix in Judea as governor. Nothing much is known about Festus before his appointment by the Emperor Nero.

After arriving at Caesarea, Festus went to Jerusalem to consult with the Jewish leaders about Paul. Though the chief priests wanted Paul to be brought to Jerusalem, Festus told them to go with him to Caesarea and accuse Paul there.

Back in Caesarea Festus sat down in the court of Judgement. The Jews made many accusations against Paul, which they were not able to prove. But Paul ably defended himself: “I have done nothing wrong against the Law of the Jews or against the Temple or against the Roman Emperor” (Acts 25, 8).

Festus must have wanted to please the Jewish and so he invited Paul to accompany him to Jerusalem to be tried there.

Paul was aware of the dangers going to Jerusalem and so, as an able lawyer, he was forced to appeal to the Emperor in Rome. Paul’s appeal is remarkable.

“I am standing before the Emperor’s own court of judgement, where I should be tried. I have done no wrong to the Jews, as you yourself know well. If I have broken the law and done something for which I deserve the death penalty, I do not ask to escape it. But if there is no truth in the charges they bring against me, no one can hand me over to them. I appeal to the Emperor” (Acts 25, 10-11).

Felix consulted his advisors at this point and told Paul “You have appealed to the Emperor, so to the Emperor you will go” (Acts 25, 12).

Then, when king Agrippa and his sister Bernice came to pay a curtsy call to Festus, the Governor at Caesarea, Festus brought the case of Paul to the visitors for he wanted king Agrippa’s help him to draw up a report on Paul’s case to send to the Emperor.

Agrippa and Bernice were more than eager to hear Paul’s case. Paul’s presentation of his case is more than a masterpiece of self-defense.

Agrippa is certainly impressed but Festus, unacquainted with much of what Paul said, declared loudly, “You are mad, Paul! Your great learning is driving you mad!” (Acts 26, 24).

But Paul does no loose his cool. With his characteristic mastery of the situation, Paul says, “I am not mad, Your Excellency! I am speaking the sober truth. King Agrippa! I can speak to you with all boldness, because you know about these things” (Acts 26, 25-26).

All who heard Paul were the opinion that, “This man has not done anything for which he should die or be put in prison” (Acts 26, 30).

Agrippa too was impressed by Paul’s self-defense. So he said to Festus, “This man could have been released if he had not appealed to the Emperor” (Acts 26, 32).

Festus could not legally ignore Paul’s appeal to the Emperor and so he made arrangement for Paul as a prisoner to go to Rome with escorts.

Festus in handling the case of Paul proves himself as an efficient ruler capable of prompt decisions unlike Felix’s inefficient procrastination.

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