Claudius Lysias’ complete description as found in the New Testament book of the Acts of the Apostles is “the tribune of the cohort” in Jerusalem, which resided in nearby “barracks” (Acts 21.34, 37; 22.24, 23.10, 16, 32).
It takes six cohorts to make up a legion, and each legion had six tribunes with a thousand men (“soldiers and centurions” Acts 21:32) under his command if the cohort was full; consequently, Claudius Lysias was a part of a larger military force.
The exact numbers in his cohort may never be known, however he had sufficient men to spare two centurions, two hundred soldiers, seventy horsemen, and two hundred spearmen to accompany Paul to Caesarea (Acts 23:23-24).
Furthermore, when the security detail arrives before Antipatris (Acts 23:31), Claudius Lysias allows for the seventy horsemen to go on with him and Paul to Caesarea, the headquarters of the Procurator Felix (Acts 23:32-35).
The “barracks” referenced in the book of Acts (21.34, 37; 22.24; 23.10, 16, 32), in connection to Claudius Lysias and his cohort are references to the Tower of Antonia, which Herod the Great rebuilt from a previous structure and named it after Marc Antony.
The Antonia was added on to the NW side of the Temple facilities, “from which stairs descend into the outer court of the temple” (Acts 21.32, 35, 22.30). For this reason, the Roman Tribune could hear the commotion caused by the confusing riot over Paul’s presence in the Temple, and respond with speed (Acts 21.27-32).
Claudius and Paul
The military tribune Claudius Lysias enters the New Testament narrative when he protects Paul of Tarsus from a hostile Jewish mob on the outside of the Temple grounds in Jerusalem (Acts 21.30-32). The Acts text does not explicitly state why the tribune arrests Paul aside from asking “who he was and what he had done” (Acts 21.33); consequently, it appears Paul is detained for investigation as reflected later in Paul’s interrogation in the Antonian barracks because he was a cause of instigation among the Jews (Acts 22.23-24).
Claudius Lysias is aware of Jewish anarchistic movements, for when Paul speaking in Greek asks permission to speak to the shouting Jewish mob, the tribune appears shocked that he speaks Greek (Acts 21.37).
Paul, as a controversial Greek speaking Hebrew, evidently met some of the criterion for Lysias to conclude he was a Jewish revolutionist. Consequently, it appears that Lysias suspects him of being “the Egyptian” who “stirred up a revolt and led the four thousand men of the Assassins [Grk. sikarion] out into the wilderness” (Acts 21.38).
This individual operated around A.D. 53, and this revolution amounted to amassing these four thousand men, positioning themselves upon the Mount of Olives outside Jerusalem and anticipated the walls of Jerusalem to collapse at his command. The Romans attacked this band of men, the Egyptian lost six hundred men, fled into the wilderness where he disappears awaiting “further revelation”.
Evidently, “the Egyptian” was still on the run, wanted by the Roman military and the tribune was going to see if Paul was this anarchist.
Paul was able to persuade Lysias that he was not an agitator, and provides him with his provincial citizenship as being from Tarsus, in the province of Cilicia (Acts 21.39). This was not an “obscure city” and either this suggests his citizenship could be authenticaed, or Paul distinquished himself from the obscure Egyptian.
In either case, Paul’s point is clear, he is not the Egyptian; the tribune accepts Paul’s case, and grants Paul an opportunity to speak the Jews on the steps of the Temple facilities adjoined to the Antonian fortress (Acts 22.39-40). The Jews did not respond peaceably to Paul’s speech, and Claudius Lysias decides to take Paul into the “barracks” of Antonia and “examine” him through the process of binding him to flog him (Acts 22.22-24).
On receiving a report that Paul was a Roman citizen and then making personal inquiry, Claudius is afraid of having violated the rights of a Roman by having him bound (see “Roman Citizenship” below). Claudius desires to arrive at the truth concerning the Jewish case against Paul, and commands the Sanhedrin to assemble.
Dissension among the Sanhedrin towards Paul arises again, and causes Claudius Lysias to order his men to take Paul to the safety of the Antonian barracks (Acts 22.30-23.10). Upon learning of a plot to kill Paul, Claudius Lysias summoned a military convoy to leave for Caesarea Maritima.
In compliance with Roman law, he also sent a statement of the case to the procurator Antonius Felix. The letter reads:
Claudius Lysias, to his Excellency the governor Felix, greetings.
This man was seized by the Jews and was about to be killed by them when I came upon them with the soldiers and rescued him, having learned that he was a Roman citizen. And desiring to know the charge for which they were accusing him, I brought him down to their council. I found that he was being accused about questions of their law, but charged with nothing deserving death or imprisonment.
And when it was disclosed to me that there would be a plot against the man, I sent him to you at once, ordering his accusers also to state before you what they have against him. (Acts 23.26-30 English Standard Version)
The letter format is consistent with the general format in the Graeco-Roman world, of “author” to “recipient” with a “greeting” with the subsequent content of the reason for the letter. This letter, however, was not altogether factual.
It is an interesting “specimen” of Roman military correspondence (Acts 23:26-30). Although acknowledging Paul’s innocence, Claudius Lysias gave the impression that he had rescued Paul because of having learned that the apostle was a Roman, whereas in reality he had violated Paul’s citizenship rights by having him bound and even ordering that he be examined under scourgings.
Luke’s knowledge of the letter’s contents demonstrates eye witness evidence for the history of the ministry of Paul. It may be that the letter itself was read at the time Paul’s case was heard. It amounts to the same conclusion: Acts is represented as a series of factual evens – as history, not a theological play.
Unlike the Apostle Paul, Claudius Lysias obtained his Roman citizenship by purchasing it (Acts 22.28). According to John B. Polhill, citizenship was must sought after:
A Roman citizen was subject to Roman law and thus was protected from such things as being beaten without a trial, from cruel punishments like crucifixion, and from unlawful imprisonment, rights which did not belong to an ordinary provincial (peregrinus). Citizens had the right of appeal. Only a Roman citizen could legally marry another Roman citizen. Citizens were exempted from certain taxes. Beyond this, there was the considerable factor of honor and deference such a status afforded.
It was such a valued honor, that some people risked the death penalty given for falsely claiming citizenship.
For a fuller version of this article see: Jovan Payes, 2011, “Who is Claudius Lysias”, BiblicalFaith.wordpress.com.