Jumping to conclusions: Paul and the tribune

Roman tribune. Claudius Lysias

Modern re-enactor wearing replica equipment of a Roman military tribune of the imperial era.

For some of us, the best exercise we get is jumping to conclusions. That is, we make snap judgments without having all the necessary facts.

A very minor Bible character, Claudius Lysias, jumped to a lot of conclusions. As each proved false, he jumped to another one. He never did find out whom he had in custody.

We don’t learn his name until the very end of his story, but he was the Roman tribune in Jerusalem about 30 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. He saved Paul from lynching and never quite knew what to do next.

A riot in the temple

In Acts 21, Paul visited the temple. Some Jews from areas of Asia where Paul had established churches saw him. They had also seen him elsewhere in the city with Trophimus, a Gentile colleague. They jumped to the conclusion that Paul had brought him into the temple.

So they started shouting accusations. A mob dragged Paul from the temple to kill him. News of the riot soon reached the tribune and he took immediate action.

When looking at this passage, we easily focus our attention on Paul and the mob. So much that we completely lose sight of Lysias. All the more because Luke doesn’t tell us his name until his story is over. We should pay more attention. Most of us are probably more like Lysias than any of the other characters.

At first, it must have seemed like those Jews were rioting again. Probably beating up on one of their own. At this point, Lysias would have no interest in the man on the ground. He just wanted to keep order.

He swooped down on the crowd with troops. He shackled Paul, and asked what the uproar was about. He never got an answer. Instead, the crowd tried to seize Paul from his custody. The story continues through Acts 23.

This guy speaks Greek!

Paul addresses the Jews, Acts 21. Claudius Lysias

Paul addressing the Jewish mob at the temple

Paul asked for permission to speak to the crowd. Lysias was surprised that he could speak Greek.

Nearly everyone at the time spoke Greek. It was the only way to communicate with anyone from another part of the empire.

But these were just Jews beating up on another Jew. What could he know?

So then Lysias asked if Paul was perhaps an Egyptian who started a revolt. Roman troops had recently crushed an attempted armed invasion of Jerusalem. The ringleader had escaped.

But Paul said, no, he was a Jew from Cilicia, a district farther north of Jerusalem than Egypt was south.

Paul addressed the crowd in Aramaic. We have no reason to suppose that Lysias understood Aramaic well enough to know what Paul said. The crowd listened quietly for a while, and then suddenly became violent again. So the troops carried Paul to the barracks.

Lysias figured the best way to find out about this prisoner was through torture. Paul calmly asked the centurion—probably in Latin—if it was lawful to scourge an uncondemned Roman citizen. The centurion told Lysias that Paul claimed to be Roman.

In those corrupt times, it was easy enough to get Roman citizenship through bribery. Lysias had done so. It cost him a lot of money. So what if Paul was Roman? But Paul said he was a Roman citizen by birth.

At that point, it appears Lysias left Paul alone. Luke only says that those who were about to question him withdrew. Probably at Lysias’ orders. He himself was alarmed for his own safety. And probably no more interested in who Paul was than before.

The next day Lysias ordered the Sanhedrin to gather. He still wanted an explanation of the riot. He didn’t get one. Upon hearing a Jewish plot to ambush Paul, he assembled a large contingent of troops and sent Paul to the governor in Caesarea. And, I supposed, sighed with relief that someone else would have to deal with the problem.

Lysias’ exercise routine

scourging. Claudias Lysias

The scourging on the front / James Tissot (between 1886 and 1894)

Let’s count how many conclusions Lysias jumped to:

  1. That Paul was a local person who couldn’t speak Greek.
  2. Finding that assumption wrong, that Paul was a wanted criminal who, for some odd reason, aroused the Jews’ rage instead of support.
  3. That he couldn’t get an answer simply by asking Paul a direct question—that only torture would help him find the truth
  4. That he had a legal right to scourge Paul
  5. That Paul had somehow bribed his way to Roman citizenship
  6. That he had done all he could to find the truth without ever testing any of his false assumptions
  7. That he had done his duty as tribune by passing the buck to his superiors

Lysias had in his custody one of the most fascinating personalities in the world at that time. With just a modicum of curiosity, he could have had a conversation in the language of his choice that would have led to him to hearing the gospel.

But after finding so many of his assumptions wrong, he still thought he knew enough.

What does it matter to us?

Jumping--to a conclusion? Claudius Lysias

Jumping–to a conclusion?

Suppose you meet someone and learn that he voted for Donald Trump. What do you know about his political opinions? Nothing, really. Except that he preferred Trump to Hillary Clinton.

But suppose you find that he supported Trump from the time he first announced his candidacy. You don’t know without an extended conversation if your acquaintance agrees with all Trump’s viewpoints or likes his style.

What do you think when you see a person of a different race? Or if you hear an accent that proclaims foreign birth?

For example, when you see an Arab, do you think “jihadist”? But not all Moslems are jihadists. In fact, not all Arabs are Moslem. You may be looking at a Christian.

You call someone to suggest meeting for lunch, but instead of the person, you get voice mail. You leave a message and never get a response? Why is that?

Maybe she doesn’t check voice mail often. Maybe she tried to call back, got your voice mail, and didn’t leave a message. Maybe she just doesn’t like you. Maybe . . . You can’t know the answer, but you can certainly pick one that comes to mind and assume it’s true.

Jumping to conclusions is an exercise that doesn’t make us stronger. It makes us weaker.

Photo credits:
Roman tribune. . Public domain from Wikimedia Commons
Paul addresses the Jews. Source unknown.
Scourging of Christ. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons
Jumping. Pixabay


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