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[Act 22:5 NLT] (5) The high priest and the whole council of elders can testify that this is so. For I received letters from them to our Jewish brothers in Damascus, authorizing me to bring the Christians from there to Jerusalem, in chains, to be punished.

See also:

[Gal 1:13, 23 NLT] (13) You know what I was like when I followed the Jewish religion--how I violently persecuted God's church. I did my best to destroy it. ... (23) All they knew was that people were saying, "The one who used to persecute us is now preaching the very faith he tried to destroy!"

[1Co 15:9 NLT] (9) For I am the least of all the apostles. In fact, I'm not even worthy to be called an apostle after the way I persecuted God's church.

[Phl 3:6 NLT] (6) I was so zealous that I harshly persecuted the church. And as for righteousness, I obeyed the law without fault.

[1Ti 1:13 NLT] (13) even though I used to blaspheme the name of Christ. In my insolence, I persecuted his people. But God had mercy on me because I did it in ignorance and unbelief.

Was Saul/Paul acting as a vigilante or did he have some kind of authority?

If a vigilante, why was he not checked by Rome?

If under authority from the Jewish high priest, why was he not checked by Rome?

What Roman authority might he have had and why?

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  • Roman laws protect Roman citizens. Were Israeli Jews fleeing to Damascus such ? Do local authorities not have the power to send law enforcers to capture fugitives hiding in other places ?
    – Lucian
    Commented May 13, 2020 at 14:56
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    Rome cared very little about upholding Jewish monotheism. Paul was a Roman citizen (ultimately irrelevant, but doesn't exactly hurt either) enabled by the central Israeli authorities of Jerusalem, the country's capital city, to bring back non-Romans to said region, to face judgement for breaking its local laws. Head hunting and bounty hunting existed throughout human history. Think of white Americans recuperating escaped black slaves before the abolition. They acted as private parties defending the private interests of slave owners in exchange for a fee.
    – Lucian
    Commented May 13, 2020 at 15:31
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    Saul of Tarsus was a Roman citizen, of Tarsus, and he had letters from Jewish hierarchy authorising him to go into Syria in order to sort out religious problems of Christians communicating to Jews. This is a complex matter involving national and religious issues across a border in a situation of third party occupancy by a ruling power.
    – Nigel J
    Commented May 13, 2020 at 16:06
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    I am not sure this question can be answered. If Paul had Roman authority, it is not recorded so that question cannot answered. The only authority Paul had was from the High Priests. End of story.
    – Dottard
    Commented May 13, 2020 at 21:28
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    The Romans forbade execution but imprisonment was not forbidden. The entire thrust of roman law was merely aimed at keeping the Pax Romana by a very loose loyalty to Rome. Personal rights only existed for Roman citizens - most others mattered little.
    – Dottard
    Commented May 13, 2020 at 21:34

3 Answers 3

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Crucifixion of Jesus gave a hint on how the Roman government gave the Jewish rulling council some degree of authority over its on religious and cultural matters.

Paul being a Jew and a Roman could use the influence to support whichever ideology or religion he chooses.

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    – Community Bot
    Commented May 31, 2023 at 2:52
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In 30AD, the Romans authority tried not to get involve in the internal conflict of the Jewish belief. It can be seen that Pontius Pilate wanted to release Jesus, as Jesus did not violate the Romans' law.

Let me first answer to the OP's questions

Was Saul/Paul acting as a vigilante or did he have some kind of authority?

  • The scripture didn't tell what authority Paul had when he suppressed the church in Jerusalem (Acts 8:3). But he did get delegation from the High Priest to go to Damascus (Acts 9:2)

If a vigilante, why was he not checked by Rome?

If under authority from the Jewish high priest, why was he not checked by Rome?

  • Romans authority would likely view his action as an internal conflict of the Jewish belief. Unless they tried to persecute someone, that Jesus was an example, otherwise the Romans authority would not get involved. As Acts 9:3 told, Paul's authority was limited to take the believers as prisoners to Jerusalem, but not killing them. So Romans authority did not get involved.

What Roman authority might he have had and why?

  • Paul didn't have any Romans authority

When Paul reiterated his past experiences of oppressing the church, he said he did it was due to his zealous as a Pharisee, that he thought was righteousness (Phl 3:6). But now he knew it was God mercy to him because God forgave his ignorance and unbelief (1 Timonthy 1:13), and called him as an apostle. But he felt not worthy to be an apostle for the past he did, that he felt very sorry (1 Cor 15:9).

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Without getting into all of the nuances in how Rome ruled the Empire, the underlying principle was driven by the concept of self-governance. Control from Rome limited to assuring allegiance, avoiding war, and paying taxes to Rome. As long as there was peace and taxes were paid, individual "kingdoms" within the Empire were allowed to govern themselves.

With regard to issues at work in Paul's rounding up Christians in Damascus, two other factors are present. First, on a purely personal level, a Roman citizen had higher legal rights than non-citizens, regardless of where they were in the Empire. For example, Paul exercised his rights as a Roman citizen and had his case transferred to Rome. The second factor is Judaism was a legal religion in the Empire. In the case of Paul going to Damascus, he was outside the legal jurisdiction of Judea and in that sense would be infringing on the self-governance in another "kingdom." However, anyone who claimed to be a Jew was subject to the rules of Judaism regardless of where in the Empire they were.

The Jews in Damascus, or in any location in the Empire, were subject to Jewish authority on religious matters. Since diaspora Jews recognized the authority of Jerusalem on religious questions, Paul's letter from the high priest gave him the legal right to arrest Jews who did not invoke their rights as Roman citizens and bring them to Jerusalem to be judged over the internal religious matters of Judaism.

Therefore, Paul's direct authority was from the high priest, whose legal authority emanated from the religion of Judaism. Roman authority was indirect in the sense Rome recognized Judaism as a legal religion and in so doing authorized another type of self governance for any individual who claimed to be a Jew.

Was Paul acting as a vigilante? No, he was acting legally as authorized by the high priest. He may have had a vigilante mindset and begged the high priest to "send me" not someone else. However, regardless of his motivation, he was acting legally under the authority as a Jew understood the Jewish law.

The involvement of Roman officials would be limited to ensuring the rights of Roman citizens were not ignored and perhaps secondarily, resolving issues where Paul attempted to arrest someone who claimed they were not a Jew and not subject to any Jewish authority. Although this second issue would more likely fall under the civil authority in Damascus, unless the individual was a Roman citizen.

Finally, it is important to remember the status of Judaism as a legal religion afforded Jews certain privileges other individuals did not enjoy. The ability to observe the Sabbath as a religious practice prevented military service and the requirement to worship only the God of Israel gave Jews protection from mandatory worship of local gods. On the individual level being subject to Jewish authority in Jerusalem is the other side of the coin of being a legal religion.

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