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In Acts 23:3-5 (NIV):

2 At this the high priest Ananias ordered those standing near Paul to strike him on the mouth.

3 Then Paul said to him, “God will strike you, you whitewashed wall! You sit there to judge me according to the law, yet you yourself violate the law by commanding that I be struck!”

4 Those who were standing near Paul said, “How dare you insult God’s high priest!”

5 Paul replied, “Brothers, I did not realize that he was the high priest; for it is written: ‘Do not speak evil about the ruler of your people.’”

What tone was Paul intending to convey in verse 5 when he said he didn't know that the person was the high priest? I can see a couple of possibilities:

  • Genuine regret: "I honestly didn't realize he was the high priest. I'm sorry, I should have kept my mouth shut."
  • Sarcasm: "How was I supposed to know he was the high priest? His violation of the law means he sure wasn't acting like one!"
  • Dog-whistling: "Well, if he's the high priest, then I shouldn't speak anything untrue and evil about him." (To those who support the high priest, they agree that Paul spoke evil and see his statement as an apology for his ignorance. To those who oppose the high priest, they disagree that Paul spoke evil, and thus he was highlighting the truth).

My inclination would be towards the second or third interpretation, since I am surprised that Paul would not recognize the person in charge as the high priest, given his position of authority, dress, etc. But I don't know enough about the Jewish customs of the time to fully rule out genuine regret.

What tone was Paul intending to convey in Acts 23:5?

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I cannot believe that it was genuine regret as it is impossible that Paul did not recognise the High Priest immediately either by his face or by his robes.

The answer is probably contained in Paul's initial comment that the command to strike Paul was illegal and a breach of legal process under the Torah. That is, such a command by the High priest effectively ruled him out as High Priest and the last bastion of due (legal) process. This suggests that it was quite sarcastic and a very thinly veiled rebuke to the High Priest which was obviously clearly understood!

However, I would also not completely exclude dog-whistling but the main component was a sarcastic rebuke.

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It appears that the tone could have been sarcasm. The impetus for sarcasm was in that the office of the high priest was vacant at that time and Ananias was the last one to hold the office. It is most probably that Paul would have known this and took the opportunity to let the Sanhedrin know that Ananias was not the "ruler of your people".

Here's Barnes' Commentary:

It was during this interval, while the office of high priest was vacant, that the events which are here recorded took place. Ananias was then at Jerusalem; and as the office of high priest was vacant, and as he was the last person who had borne the office, it was natural that he should discharge, probably by common consent, its duties, so far, at least, as to preside in the Sanhedrin. Of these facts Paul would be doubtless apprised; and hence, what he said Acts 23:5 was strictly true, and is one of the evidences that Luke's history accords precisely with the special circumstances which then existed. When Luke here calls Ananias "the high priest," he evidently intends not to affirm that he was actually such, but to use the word, as the Jews did, as applicable to one who had been in that office, and who, on that occasion, when the office was vacant, performed its duties. To smite him on the mouth - To stop him from speaking; to express their indignation at what he had said. The anger of Ananias was aroused because Paul affirmed that all he had done had been with a good conscience. Their feelings had been excited to the utmost; they regarded him as certainly guilty; they regarded him as an apostate; and they could not bear it that he, with such coolness and firmness, declared that all his conduct had been under the direction of a good conscience. The injustice of the command of Ananias is apparent to all. A similar instance of violence occurred on the trial of the Saviour, John 18:22.

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I had a mind to give the sense for each possible interpretation, but there dawned on me a much more obvious meaning, at least in my view, and which is at the least a possible explanation.

St. Paul is 'reverse engineering' this commandment. By which I mean he takes the fundamental reason for giving the commandment in the first place, rather than the 'symptom,' the end commandment, so as to be better able to understand and apply it, and judge its scope.

This is similar to what Venerable Fulton Sheen (of happy memory) would say, "Do not pay attention to what people say, but to why they say it." Which, like with this example, doesn't mean don't listen, but to listen as to something of higher importance, to what the motive is, and the intent of saying.

If this is true, he is interpreting that law as indicating that leaders ought not to be accused or ill spoken of by laity because leaders, in the first place, they are to judge the correct moral matters, not the people for them; and second, they ought at all times ideally to be moral exemplars. As such, God is giving the leaders the benefit of the doubt, and prohibiting speaking ill of them (as it's more likely that the people, of far greater number, will have many among them who hate that God has placed any priest or leader above them: cf. Numbers 16:3; Jude 1:11—than that one or two men elect of God will spurn their priveleged authority and status, and be corrupt hypocrites; or at least, it's a lesser evil to make this prohibition than anarchy, which I dare say plagues, e.g., non-Catholic, non-traditional 'denominations').

And so the sense would be, 'my very accusation of you, and more importantly the obviousness of your guilt to all the Sanhedrin present, by a certain irony, exempts me from this law, since it was made assuming high priests have more moral integrity than the lay people—something you evidently have not come close to affirming!'

The word "for" in Greek can go two ways, as far as I can see: the sense 'indeed, there is that Scripture.' Or the sense which confirms my theory here, namely, 'I didn't not recognize him as highpriest, since this law implies he is supposed to be morally superior,' "beyond reproach," (1 Timothy 3:2) making him unrecognizable.

Which, if this is the sense meant by St. Paul, means that 'I didn't not recognize' doesn't not mean literally 'Oh, he is God's high priest? Didn't know that,' but rather, 'I recognized in him nothing of the true highpriesthood of God: indeed, doesn't God say—and by saying, imply and assume that priests are to be moral exemplars, and blameless—"You shall not speak evil of your rulers?"'

Then again I could be wrong, and St. Paul could have been blindfolded for all we know (Luke 22:64).

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Given that the Old Covenant with its ceremonies/sacrifices/etc. ended with Christ's death on the Cross, (c.f. Matthew 27:51, Galatians 4:10-12, etc.) it is reasonable to believe that also the office of High Priest as Aaron's successor ceased to exist as well.

According to Paul's Epistle to the Hebrews, Jesus Christ is the new "High Priest."

Hebrews 4

14 Seeing then that we have a great high priest, that is passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our profession.

15 For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin.

This opens up another possible interpretation of the verse in question, to be considered alongside the other excellent interpretations provided by other answers. Perhaps Paul "did not realize that he was the high priest" because Jesus Christ, not Ananias, was really the high priest.

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