Readers of Acts may be surprised to to find Paul relying on his Roman citizenship in order to secure a just trial and avoid immediate execution. Wasn’t Paul a Jew? Wasn’t he a Pharisee? The answer is yes; the Bible makes clear that Paul was both a Roman citizen and a Jew by birth. How is this possible?
Truth is we aren’t completely sure. Roman citizenship was a coveted possession in the first century A.D. There were multiple advantages of Roman citizenship, including the right of the accused to choose either a local or Roman trial. The case for Paul’s Roman citizenship is primarily made on three texts in Acts. First, in Acts 16:37-39 Paul and Silas are released from jail in Philippi after his mentioning his status as a Roman citizen. Second, Paul is protected from an angry crowd by the Roman guard in Acts 22:25-29 toward the end of his speech in Jerusalem. Third, Paul invokes his right as a Roman citizen in Acts 25:7-12 to appeal for a trial in Rome.
As far as Paul being a Jew, there is plenty of evidence to support that claim. One example is in Philippians when Paul is discussing how he of all people could boast in the flesh since he was “circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee…” (Philippians 3:5). When the circumstance calls for it, Paul uses both his Jewish and Roman identity to his advantage for the advancement of the gospel.
Although there are multiple theories concerning the way Paul became a Roman citizen, the most probable is that his father, although a Jew by birth, was granted Roman citizenship in some way. It is possible that Paul’s parents were enslaved to a Roman but were granted citizenship after their release and freedom. It is clear, however, that Paul’s father wanted him trained and educated as a devout Jew. Paul relates in Acts 22:3 how his father had him sent to be trained under Gamaliel “according to the strict manner of the law…”
So, the most probable explanation is that Paul was born a Jew because he was the son of a Pharisee and a Jewish mother, but also enjoyed the benefits of Roman citizenship because his father was a Roman citizen. One last curve ball to throw in the mix – a discussion for another day – is the way Paul would have thought of his “heavenly citizenship.” But alas, there is no time now to discuss.