Saturday, 15 November 2014

Felix by Terry Hampton

From the 1994 edition of “The Pilot” comes this interesting historical piece by Terry Hampton, Rector of Grouville at that time. It was part of an occasional series entitled “There in the Bible but…” looking at the background of more obscure figures whom we come across in the Old or New Testament.

It is interesting also in the considering the recurring cry that religion should be something apart from politics, that was precisely the problem that Felix had with Paul talking about justice. Politicians like Felix see management of the political situation as a priority, and while that may be informed by ideas of justice, the managerial approach usually takes precedence.

By Terry Hampton

"Wasn't there a cartoon cat called Felix?" Possibly, but this particular Felix was a far deadlier and devious individual than any fictitious feline. St Paul met him went he went on that ill-fated visit to Jerusalem at the end of his third missionary journey.

So what do we know about governor Felix? Well, we actually know quite a lot about him, and considerably more than the governor who followed him, Porcius Festus.

Felix "was the first slave in history to become a governor of a Roman province," so said the Roman historian Tacitus. He owed this remarkable state of affairs to his brother Pallas, who was also a freedman, first the favourite of the Emperor Claudius and later the next Emperor Nero. Tacitus also gives the biting comment that Felix "exercised the powers of King with the mind of a slave." Clearly Felix wasn't one of the acerbic Tacitus' favourite characters. Yet he was a man of ability, and particularly good at marrying into powerful circles.

Felix was married three times. His first wife's name isn't known, but he had followed her by marrying a grand-daughter of Mark Antony and Cleopatra. His third wife, who Paul met, was called Drusilla, a daughter of Herod Agrippa I, and a sister of the famous Berenice (who later became the mistress of the future Emperor Titus, the man who reduced Jerusalem to rubble in AD 70).

Felix was stationed in Samaria for two years prior to becoming the Prefect of Judea from AD 52, and he mercilessly crushed any uprisings. One writer says, "He was completely unscrupulous, and was capable of hiring thugs to murder his closest supporters." Some his coins show crossed palm branches, others crossed Roman shields, which clearly is a warning to would-be rioters or revolutionaries!

But he had done his homework about Paul and this new religion, because Acts 24:22 tells us that Felix "had a very good knowledge of the facts about the Way," as the early Christian faith was often called. Is this a link with Jesus' claim to be the Way, and the Truth and the Life?

It is fascinating reading to turn to Act's 24, and look through the opening remarks of the prosecution case made by an orator called Tertullus. "Since through you we enjoy much peace ... and through your provision reforms are introduced ..." (I bet Felix had a cynical smile on his face as he listened to this slimy introduction! 

Clearly Felix did realise that Paul was innocent but that he did not have powerful friends, who would make trouble if Paul was detained without a further trial. (Paul had asked that those who accused him of fomenting riots, and defiling the temple should be in court and so be able to be cross-examined.)

Felix then kept the apostle in prison for two years. But what is fascinating is that during that time Felix quite often talked to Paul. This has echoes of Herod Antipas of Galilee speaking to John the Baptist when he was in prison. Paul spoke to Felix about faith in Jesus, "but when he talked about justice, self-control and future judgment," Felix was alarmed and sent Paul back into prison. 

Oddly enough, the governor did allow Paul some liberty, and friends were allowed to visit him. Was this because Felix was well aware that Paul's Roman citizenship was not something to be messed about with? So Felix and his wife (his third one) Drusilla, listened to Paul, fascinated, and yet frightened, hearing the Gospel and rejecting the cost of the Gospel to them.

After two years, Felix was recalled to Rome and downgraded by Porcius Festus. Felix had blotted his copybook once too often. An outbreak of violence in Caesarea had resulted in the Jews coming out best .and Felix had sent in troops who had killed many Jews. (It was in Caesarea that gone of the earliest civil clashes between Jews and Greeks occurred, and this was one of the main sparks which set off the first Jewish War, culminating in the destraction of the city and Temple in AD 70.)

So that illustrates the dry point that Luke makes in Acts 24:27, that Felix, wishing to please the Jews, left Paul in prison. He had during the two years of Paul's house-arrest, hoped that a hefty bribe would be paid into his private purse, and then Paul would have been released, but neither Paul or his friends had that sort of money or more likely, Paul would have no truck with bribing judges! (There is a lovely quote by Dr Howard Marshall, when commenting on Paul and Felix talking together about justice and self--control, "the very thing that Felix and his wife needed to hear about.")

So what does this sketch of the life of the Roman Prefect of Judea say to us? Isn't one point that we must beware of dabbling about with the claims of Jesus? Clearly Felix was intrigued by Paul and the Gospel which had changed his life, and this Jesus "who Paul claimed to be alive," but Felix still remained, brutal, corrupt, and self-seeking. He is a warning to us!

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