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Paul and Roman Citizenship

Was Paul a Roman citizen?

Apostle Paul
Andrei Rublev

Q. What are the arguments in support of the view that Paul was not a Roman citizen?

A. Scholars agree about Paul’s Jewish background and identity, but some dispute his Roman citizenship. None of the Pauline letters mention that Paul is a Roman citizen, but the book of Acts claims twice that he is (Acts 16:37-38, Acts 22:25-28). In the latter passage, Paul states that he was born a Roman citizen. His citizenship status is the reason he can successfully appeal to the emperor (Acts 25).

Many scholars would contend that the book of Acts (authored by Luke) is not a reliable historical source, and that its claims about Paul’s citizenship are out of place. Furthermore, the author tends to heighten characters’ social standing in the narrative—particularly in the case of Paul, who is portrayed in socially and culturally ideal terms. Roman citizenship may be read as another layer in that portrayal: being a Roman citizen represented a high level of political and legal privilege, which most people did not possess.

Scholars who insist that Paul was a Roman citizen tend to work with general notions of Roman citizenship drawn from ancient sources. But these sources use idealized rhetoric for specific purposes and do not provide an accurate view of lived reality.

While it is not impossible that Paul, a Jew from Tarsus, could have had Roman citizenship bestowed on him, it is unlikely that citizenship would have had the influence described in the book of Acts. While Roman citizenship did indeed confer legal status on the bearer, citizenship’s largest impact was social. Whom you knew, whose patron you were, and any other overt markers of social status were more common emblems of citizenship than any legal or political status.

While the claims of Acts cannot be disproved, they do raise doubts. In Acts 16 and Acts 22, it is unlikely that an appeal to Roman citizenship would have made any functional difference for Paul. It is also unlikely that an appeal to the emperor in Acts 25 would have worked as it does in the narrative. A more likely scenario would have been for Paul to appeal to powerful local benefactors in his social networks as a means of demonstrating his “citizenship.”

As with arguments in favor of Paul’s claim to citizenship in Acts, any argument against it similarly rests on best guesses, historical presuppositions and hypotheses, and extensions of discrete historical details—many of them not always clearly relevant. One potentially useful example can be found in Josephus (Jewish War 2.117). Here it is clear that a prefect or procurator of a Roman province like Judea had the power of life and death over everyone, including Roman citizens.

This suggests that there could have been no citizenship-based appeal to the emperor, but that the decision would have fallen to the prefect. Does this mean that Paul was not a Roman citizen? No. But it does suggest that Luke’s account, the sole reference to Paul’s citizenship, is not historically realistic. Perhaps Luke simply invented it as one more way to portray Paul positively—as someone who possessed the rights and privileges of citizenship. Like all arguments regarding historical exaggerations and fictions in Acts, this one requires reading between the lines of what the text explicitly states. Many scholars believe that Acts should be read as a highly fictionalized and tendentious account—one element of which may be reference to Paul’s Roman citizenship.

Given the improbability of the descriptions in Acts of Paul’s claims to citizenship, it is more likely that they were meant to help idealize Paul, rather than to reflect actual historical reality. This is not to say that Paul could not have been a Roman citizen. It simply means we will never know.

  • Todd Penner

    Todd Penner is the author of numerous essays on the Acts of the Apostles, including the book In Praise of Christian Origins: Stephen and the Hellenists in Lukan Apologetic Historiography (Bloomsbury, 2004). With Caroline Vander Stichele, he co-wrote Contextualizing Gender in Early Christian Discourse: Thinking beyond Thecla, and, most recently, he has co-authored, with Davina Lopez, De-Introducing the New Testament: Texts, Worlds, Methods, Stories (Wiley-Blackwell, 2015).