Pay to Play: Discussing Paul's Roman Citizenship
by Lynn Cohick
"Pay to Play" has become a catch-phrase in the Chicago-land area where I live. Our governor has been impeached by the State House after charges were leveled that he offered to ‘sell’ the Senate seat vacated by President-elect Barack Obama to the most lucrative bid. It reminded me of another story, this one in Acts 22:24-9, where a Roman commander reveals to Paul that he paid to play – in the high stakes world of Roman citizenship. Paul rejoins that he did not have to pay, for he was born a Roman citizen. Though a minority of scholars argue that Paul’s Roman citizenship is not historical, most conclude for solid reasons that Luke accurately reflects Paul’s situation. Conversations generally revolve around how Paul’s father might have come to be a Roman citizen, thus making his son a citizen as well.
But the situation is more complex. In the Roman Empire at this time, licit marriage was granted only to a couple in which each held Roman citizenship. All other combinations of marriage partners, where neither or only one held Roman citizenship, were deemed illicit. It must be stressed that this label bore no moral stigma, it merely reflected social status. In a licit marriage, the father’s status was given to his children. In all other marriages, such as between those who were foreigners or between those who were born free but not citizens, the child took the mother’s social status. This would include, then, all Jews and other ethnic minorities who lived around the Roman Empire. They married and had children, but those children, according to the legal system of the Romans, took their mother’s social status of either free or slave, and citizen or non-citizen. Obviously, if the mother was a slave, there could not have been a marriage in any legal sense; her children would be the property of her owner. Even if she was granted freedom, the children remained with the owner. Thus to accommodate Paul’s claims that he was born a Roman citizen, his mother, if she was enslaved, would have been granted freedom before Paul was born.
Numerous possibilities affecting the social status of the child existed. For example, if the woman was a Roman citizen, but her husband was not, then the marriage was considered illicit (but not immoral) and the child was a Roman citizen because the mother’s social status was conferred upon the child. If the father, a Roman citizen, married a foreigner, for example a Jew or Egyptian, the marriage was illicit and the child was not a Roman citizen unless the father chose to legally adopt the child. Often freed slaves were granted Roman citizenship when they were manumitted, thus making their marriage (if done after both were freed) licit and their children Roman citizens.
Returning to Paul’s situation, it is possible that both his parents had been slaves, taken from the Jewish Homeland during one of its altercations with the Roman military machine. They were granted freedom and Roman citizenship, married, and could then bestow Roman citizenship on their son, Paul. If, however, Paul’s father was a citizen, but his mother was not, then their marriage was not licit, and Paul would have taken his mother’s status. As he was a Roman citizen, it is clear that his mother was a Roman citizen – we can only guess as to whether his father was as well.
Lynn H. Cohick (PhD in New Testament/Christian Origins, University of Pennsylvania) is associate professor of New Testament in the Department of Biblical and Theological Studies at Wheaton College and Graduate School, Wheaton, IL. Lynn has written on early Jewish/Christian relations in her book, Melito of Sardis: Setting, Purpose, and Sources (Brown Judaic Studies, 2000), several articles on women in Early Judaism and earliest Christianity, and she is co-author with Gene Green and Gary Burge of the long-awaited text, The New Testament in Antiquity. She and her husband reside in Wheaton, IL.
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