Considering that within a few years of these scenes the first Jewish Rebellion breaks out, Roman historians might not have seen the humor in this. And it’s quite possible none of my Catholic brethren or fellow Christians will see any humor in it either. But I find the predicament of Porcius Festus quite funny faced as he is with the “truth claims” Saint Paul, recently Saul of Tarsus, is making. It’s the flat tone of the Imperial official reporting to another Imperial, client King Herod Agrippa II, that strikes me as humorous. From what procurator Festus is so wonderfully understating, especially at Acts 25:19, 2000 years of world-changing history will be unleashed, and at the time of his speaking, that history is already shaking pillars.
Festus relates to King Agrippa his initial hearing of one Paul’s case (Acts 25:17-19):
Therefore, when they were come hither, without any delay on the morrow I sat on the judgment seat, and commanded the man to be brought forth. Against whom when the accusers stood up, they brought none accusation of such things as I supposed: But had certain questions against him of their own superstition, and of one Jesus, which was dead, whom Paul affirmed to be alive.”
Can you imagine, my Lord Agrippa, that this is the fuss? An argument between Jews over one carpenter being dead, as these Jews from Jerusalem claim, or not being dead, as our citizen Paul witnesses!
For Festus, though, this is a mess, and he is slyly passing it up the chain of the Roman Imperium. It will soon become King Agrippa’s hassle, as it was previously centurion Claudius Lysias’ predicament, then governor Felix’s headache, and now procurator Festus’s annoyance. As Festus says introducing the case the following day (Acts 25:24-27):
King Agrippa, and all men which are here present with us, ye see this man, about whom all the multitude of the Jews have dealt with me, both at Jerusalem, and also here, crying that he ought not to live any longer. But when I found that he had committed nothing worthy of death, and that he himself hath appealed to Augustus, I have determined to send him. Of whom I have no certain thing to write unto my lord. Wherefore I have brought him forth before you, and specially before thee, O king Agrippa, that, after examination had, I might have somewhat to write. For it seemeth to me unreasonable to send a prisoner, and not withal to signify the crimes laid against him.”
The exasperation is palpable and terrifically funny. “All the multitude of Jews have dealt with me” about this fellow! Things move from very humorous to intriguing by Acts 25:26. Festus says, I have nothing I can write to my Emperor to express the crime this Paul is accused of and certainly no expression for what he claims about this carpenter. King Agrippa invites Paul to speak for himself, and Saint Paul relates his truly amazing narrative from 26:2-22. Oh, to have had C-SPAN and to witness the face of Festus through this remarkable telling. What is all this business, lights and voices and visions, someone named Satan, a Jew who maintains extensive contact with non-Jews and is a Roman citizen?! Then (Acts 26:23) Paul lets loose the one that tops the timbers:
That Christ should suffer, [and] that he should be the first that should rise from the dead, and should shew light unto the people, and to the Gentiles.
24 And as he thus spake for himself, Festus said with a loud voice, Paul, thou art beside thyself; much learning doth make thee mad.
25 But he said, I am not mad, most noble Festus; but speak forth the words of truth and soberness.”
Poor Festus! He is confronted here with a truth so new as to be inexpressible in the prevailing discourse of the empire. Agrippa, Bernice, this one is quite beyond me. Your call!