Just the other day in my seminar, I told students one of my favorite episodes of legal process in the New Testament: Paul’s insistence that the magistrates who had illegally ordered him beaten and imprisoned without a trial–for Roman law prohibited treating Roman citizens that way–come to the prison to apologize and publicly exonerate him. And, according to the account in Acts, that’s just what the magistrates did: “The police reported [Paul’s] words to the magistrates, and they were afraid when they heard that they were Romans, so they came and apologized to them. And they took them out and asked them to leave the city.” Which goes to show that the early Christians knew how to use legal process to their advantage, at least occasionally.
I’m sure this episode appears in a new book from Cambridge University Press, Criminalization in Acts of the Apostles: Race, Rhetoric, and the Prosecution of an Early Christian Movement, by New Testament scholar Jeremy Williams (Texas Christian University). Here’s the publisher’s description:
In this study, Jeremy L. Williams interrogates the Book of Acts in an effort to understand how early Christian texts provide glimpses of the legal processes by which Roman officials and militarized police criminalized, prosecuted, and incarcerated people in the first and second centuries CE. Williams investigates how individuals and groups have been, and still are, prosecuted for specious reasons – because of stories and myths written against them, perceptions of alterity that render them subhuman or nonhuman, the collision of officials, and financial incentives that foster injustices, among them. Through analysis of criminalization in Acts, he demonstrates how Critical Race Theory, Black studies, and feminist rhetorical scholarship enables a reconstruction of ancient understandings of crime, judicial institutions, militarized police, punishment, and socio-political processes that criminalize. Williams’ study highlights how the criminalization of Jesus followers as depicted in Acts enables connections with contemporary movements. It also presents the ancient text as a critique against the shortcomings of some contemporary understandings of justice and human rights.