Roman citizenship (Philippians 3)

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Paul was acutely aware of his dual citizenship. In Philippians 3:20 he stated clearly that “our citizenship is in heaven“, and he made it clear to the Philippian Christians that this, and not a Jewish pedigree, is what really matters before God. But Paul also knew himself to be a Roman citizen, and in Acts 22:25-29 he claimed the rights of a citizen. (Paul further considered himself a citizen of Tarsus – Acts 21:39 – as well as, of course, a loyal Jew.) But what precisely did it mean to be a Roman citizen?

Roman citizenship carried with it several important privileges, including the right to vote, exemption from certain taxes and certain legal protection (although Rome did at times extend citizenship without voting rights to the residents of certain cities). Ancient legal codes did not strive, even in theory, to achieve equality before the law. For example, Roman citizens were not to be tortured and generally were not executed without a judicial process, while noncitizens (and especially slaves) were summarily tortured by the authorities.

Over the course of its history, Rome gradually extended citizenship more and more broadly. During the early expansion of Roman power, from the third through the first centuries B.C., Italian cities under Roman rule agitated for and eventually won Roman citizenship for their people. By the standards of the times, Rome became quite generous in granting citizenship. Freed slaves of Romans, for example, automatically became citizens. Paul claimed to be a citizen by birthright (Acts 22:28), although we do not know how his parents had acquired citizenship. In A.D. 212 emperor Caracalla extended citizenship to all freeborn provincials in the “Antonine constitution”, but by this time the distinctive rights of Roman citizenship had so eroded that the act had little significance.

In Paul’s day, however, possession of Roman citizenship was still vitally important. Even so, Paul’s notion of citizenship in heaven was not derived primarily from Roman analogies. Psalm 87 celebrates the fact that, by divine decree, people from Egypt, Babylon and elsewhere are said to have been “born” in Zion (Psalm 87:4). Although the term “citizen” is not used there, it could hardly have escaped Paul’s notice that this ancient psalm already treated Gentiles as natural-born members of the heavenly kingdom.


 

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