There is more to excellence than status. The practice of titular conformity that addresses “His Excellency the Titled Being” should not be employed as a mockery of virtue. Excellence is held to signify quality, known to mean “good; extremely meritorious; superior.”1 Things and people who are not shouldn’t be called “excellent.”
Hence our problem with Commander Claudius Lysias’ letter to Judea’s Roman procurator from A.D. 54 to A.D. 60, Marcus Antonius Felix. “Procurator” is the actual title for all those Roman provincial administrators we often refer to as governors, such as Pilate, Felix, and Festus. Claudius Lysias’ document, a thing of disingenuous mastery addressed to the “most excellent governor Felix” (Acts 23:26, KJV), credits its author with military and political integrity unsupported by the facts. Writing with his own history in mind, Claudius Lysias tells how his heroic or at least disciplined action rescued Paul from the murderous intent of a seething mob of Jews when he learned that their prospective victim was a Roman citizen. Luke’s report of the event lacks the equivalent embellishment of calculations on personal ambition. Simply told: “The Bible has little to say in praise of men.”2
But though at times impugned for its less-affirming perspective, sacred history will always prove infinitely more reliable specifically because of that perspective. Sacred history need not be affirming. It needs to be accurate. Luke’s history of the event does show the Roman commander and his cohort delivering Paul from the clutches of the raging mob. But this is as far as events coincide with Lysias’ report.
What the commander actually does, upon seizing Paul, is bind him in chains (Acts 21:33), and later prepare to torture a confession out of him (Acts 22:24). As they stretch him out for the beating, Paul poses his simple query, frightening the Roman centurion carrying out callous orders: “Is it legal for you to flog a Roman citizen who hasn’t even been found guilty?” (verse 25).
In panic he seeks out his commander: “What are you going to do? . . . This man is a Roman citizen” (verse 26).
Claudius Lysias does know what to do, including whom to pay what. He hasn’t simply happened upon commander status. Unlike Paul, free Roman born, he has paid to be called Roman. By the end of the episode he will pay his due respect of lies to his administrator, lies about himself, lies about the story, and lies about the governor himself (see Acts 23:26-30). His freedom to call Felix excellent, whether as titular conformity or not, is part and parcel of his freedom to manipulate data and mock the truth for his own sake. For the Felix that history remembers is hardly excellent. He is brutal, licentious, greedy, and unscrupulous, a person who believed “that he could do any evil act with impunity” because his brother Marcus Antonius Pallas was the emperor’s respected friend,3 and the probable reason for his political climb.4
Paul’s accusers, in a hearing before him, seize their own opportunity to address the scoundrel as “excellent” (Acts 24:3). Paul does not (verses 10-21). And when Nero terminates his governorship and recalls him to Rome, his last villainous act is to leave Paul imprisoned because no one offered him bribes to set him free (verses 24-27).
It is worth noting that while Paul avoids attributing excellence to Felix, title or not, he applies it to his successor Festus (Acts 26:25), of whom no such pathetic administrative and personal record survives. He may be suggesting that rendering to all their dues (Rom. 13:7) should be a function of regard for integrity rather than respect for conformity. There is more to excellence than status.