Acts 21:37-40 (NIV)
As the soldiers were about to take Paul into the barracks, he asked the commander, “May I say something to you?”
“Do you speak Greek?” he replied. “Aren’t you the Egyptian who started a revolt and led four thousand terrorists out into the desert some time ago?”
Paul answered, “I am a Jew, from Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of no ordinary city. Please let me speak to the people.”
Having received the commander’s permission, Paul stood on the steps and motioned to the crowd. When they were all silent, he said to them in Aramaic:
Greek was the “lingua franca” in the Roman empire, a vestige of the Greek conquest of much the same area in the late fourth century BC. Often Romans, especially nobles, were raised by Greek-speaking tutors, which kept the Greek language very active, even though Latin was commonly spoken in official circles as well as in lower-class Roman homes.
Paul, a native of Tarsus in Cilicia, learned Greek as a child, and was therefore quite proficient at both reading, writing and speaking it, a fact that had helped him greatly in his missionary travels throughout the empire. Realizing that the commander was probably more accustomed to speaking Greek than Aramaic, the language of the province of Palestine, Paul spoke to him in that language.
His fluency and cosmopolitan Greek accent made the commander wonder if he was the Egyptian that had started a revolt in Egypt a few years before and had escaped into the wilderness with his followers before the Roman forces could capture him. That would fit the fact that he seemed to be the instigator of a riot here in Jerusalem.
But Paul quickly set the record straight. He was a Jew from Tarsus, a large city in the empire, and a citizen to boot. (Although this last fact slipped past the commander in all the confusion.)
Paul’s request to speak to the people might have seemed a little foolhardy to the commander. But Paul had been so quickly overwhelmed and assaulted that he had had no time to give a reasoned defense to those who seemed so bent on his destruction, and he wanted to do so now, if he had the chance, and while he was relatively safe under the eye of the commander and several of his troops.
Paul would give his defense in Aramaic, the “official” language of the Jewish people living in the Promised Land at that time. He hoped that that would build a bridge between him and his accusers, as well as make his defense crystal clear.
Father, I’m impressed by Paul’s demeanor here. There is no fear, no panic, no desperation. He trusts that You are in complete control of the situation and will see him through it, all the way to heaven’s gate if necessary. Lord, it is easy to see that that is the best way to approach any challenging situation. Help me to face every day with that same calm resolve, no matter what I’m facing. Amen.
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