But the bystanders said, “Do you revile God’s high priest?” And Paul said, “I was not aware, brethren, that he was high priest; for it is written, ‘You shall not speak evil of a ruler of your people.’ ” Acts 23:4-5
Paul, having been taught by the renowned Jewish Rabbi of the apostolic period Gamaliel prior to his conversion to Christ, would be keenly aware of the Old Testament law.
Here in response to circumstances he quoted from the law of Moses as reordered in Exodus chapter 22 verse twenty-eight: “You shall not curse God, nor curse a ruler of your people.” (NAS) We can be confident that he was assisted by the Holy Spirit to quote these words in accordance with Jesus’ promise to the apostles that when brought before governors and kings the Spirit of the Father would speak through them. (Matt 10:16-20 NAS) Paul was before an angry mob on trumped up charges having just made his defense and claiming he lived his “life with a perfectly good conscience before God up to this day” when Ananais commanded Paul be struck. This led to Paul’s charge that God would strike Ananais, the whitewashed wall, who was supposedly trying him by the law yet violating it at the same time by striking him before he was determined to be guilty. (See Ex. 23:1-2; Lev. 19:15-17; Deut. 19:15-19) The question that arises in one’s mind because of these events is, “Did Paul not know that Ananais was the high priest?” Paul was a well informed individual with contacts in both the Jewish and Gentile worlds so it seems unlikely. So how could Paul say of Ananais that he “was not aware… he was high priest”? Was he being sarcastic? Here’s some information that might be helpful in our understanding. Josephus, the Jewish historian, provides the background we need. Ananais was first recognized by the Romans as high priest in 47 AD. Sometime after that, but before 54 AD, fighting erupted between the Jews and Samaritans. When all the parties were called to account by then governor Quadratus (who preceded Felix) the principals were ordered to appear before Claudius Caesar. The Samaritans revealed to Quadratus that a certain Jewish leader named Dortus along with four others persuaded the multitudes (Jews) in revolt against Rome. Because of these charges, Ananais, being the high priest, was held accountable for this act and sent packing to Rome in bonds. He was removed from his position and no longer recognized as high priest. The charges were ultimately dismissed through the patronage of one Agrippa the younger who petitioned Claudius’s wife Agrippina to convince Caesar to hear the case, which he ultimately did. After hearing the case, Claudius determined the Samaritans were the real cause of all the mischief, freed Ananais to return to Jerusalem, although not reinstating him as high priest. Felix appointed Jonathan high priest and ultimately had him murdered due to his political ambitions. From that time until King Agrippa gave the high priesthood to Ismael the son of Fabi (about 60AD), there was no “official” high priest. It was during this time, approximately 57-58 AD that the events recorded in Acts chapters 22 and 23 took place. Since Ananais was in Jerusalem and had previously held the position of high priest, on those occasions when the Council (San Hedrin) would meet, he discharged the duties of the high priest probably by agreement among the members. Many commentators believe what Paul was implying in his statement was that he did not acknowledge Ananais as high priest since he was not officially recognized as high priest. Luke in faithfully recording these events with the help of the Holy Spirit, also buttresses Josephus’ record of the character of Ananais who was known to be cruel and violent. One last tidbit concerning Ananais. When Paul called Ananais a white washed wall that God would strike, many believe Paul was prophesying Ananais’ death which occurred in the rebellion against Rome (66AD) when he was murdered by his own countrymen. Concerning our high priest Jesus Christ who rules for the sake of His people, the church, we needn’t worry about His authority to hold the position of high priest since He has been “designated by God…” because of “the power of an indestructible life.” Because he abides forever, He holds it permanently. No more worries about a messy transition from high priest to high priest any more. And finally, how could one speak evil of this Ruler who has led a perfect life and then laid it down in love to save us?