Paul and the high priest

Luke 6:28 (also Romans 12:14)

Bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.

Acts 23:1-5

Paul looked straight at the Sanhedrin and said, "My brothers, I have fulfilled my duty to God in all good conscience to this day." At this the high priest Ananias ordered those standing near Paul to strike him on the mouth. Then Paul said to him, "God will strike you, you whitewashed wall! You sit there to judge me according to the law, yet you yourself violate the law by commanding that I be struck!"

Those who were standing near Paul said, "You dare to insult God's high priest?"

Paul replied, "Brothers, I did not realize that he was the high priest; for it is written: 'Do not speak evil about the ruler of your people.'"

Was Paul contradicting Jesus' teaching - not to mention his own in the book of Romans - when he cursed Ananias? There are two possible resolutions. The first is that Paul was acting erroneously. This in itself is not a flaw or contradiction in the Bible, for wrong acts of God-fearing people are recorded in both the Old and New Testaments as historical events.[1] While Paul was an apostle, he was not divine and therefore not expected to behave perfectly in every situation. In fact, he referred to his own sinfulness[2] and quarreled with another Christian.[3] His subsequent statement that he didn't recognize the high priest and was wrong to have cursed him could well have been sincere.

The second possible answer is that Paul was correct to speak as he did, and may even have been inspired by the Holy Spirit to prophesy Ananias' future judgment. While the general rule for Christians is to not curse others or avenge ourselves, there are times when it is correct for someone to speak in judgment. An example of this is the account of Ananias and Sapphira, who were struck dead when Peter judged them;[4] since it was God who struck them dead, Peter was speaking as God wanted him to. Similarly, Paul was correct in that Ananias was violating the law in ordering Paul to be struck, and what he said may have been what God instructed him to say. His claim to have not recognized the high priest could then have been sarcasm ("Oh, you mean this fellow who just violated the Law is the high priest? Sorry, I somehow didn't recognize him").

If Paul wasn't being sarcastic and truly didn't recognize the high priest, why not, given Paul's former activism and status among the Jewish religious leaders?[5] Many explanations have been proposed:

  1. The high priesthood had changed since Paul's conversion
  2. Paul had poor eyesight and therefore had difficulty seeing the high priest
  3. Paul was placed so that he couldn't see the high priest when he spoke

Of these solutions, the first seems the most likely to me, as the high priest had changed since the time of Jesus.[6] The NIV Study Bible notes that Ananias didn't become high priest until 47 AD. The second solution may seem like it's grasping at straws, but there is a theory that Paul couldn't see well, based on passages like Galatians 4:13-15 and Galatians 6:11.

Other responses (offsite)

Related articles


1. For instance, Peter's act of hypocrisy is recorded in Galatians 2:11-13. (Back to article)
2. 1 Tim 1:15 (Back to article)
3. Acts 15:37-40 (Back to article)
4. Acts 5:1-10 (Back to article)
5. Gal 1:13-14 (Back to article)
6. Jn 11:49 (Back to article)

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