(Acts 23:2-5) Was it wrong for Paul to revile the high priest? Also how did he not know who he was?

CLAIM: Paul refers to Ananias—the high priest—as a “whitewashed wall.” It was illegal to revile rulers in Israel (Ex. 22:28), and Paul later retracts this comment. Was this a sin for Paul to react like this? Also, how could Paul—a former Pharisee—not know who the high priest was?

RESPONSE: A number of observations can be made:

Was this sinful? It’s possible that this is a sin, and the Bible records it like all the other apostles’ sins in Scripture (Gal. 2:11ff). But this is less likely in our opinion. This can’t be a sin, because Jesus used a similar insult in Matthew 23:27 (“whitewashed tomb”) to refer to the Pharisees of his day. Moreover, the Jews couldn’t enact punishment until guilt was found (Lev. 19:15), so Ananias was the law-breaker here—not Paul.

How could Paul not know who the high priest was? There are a number of possibilities here:

(1) This could be sarcasm. Paul could be saying, “Oh, I didn’t recognize you, because high priests don’t act that way.”

(2) Paul could’ve had an eye condition. It’s likely that Paul had poor eyesight based on a number of passages. Paul writes, “Where then is that sense of blessing you had? For I bear you witness that, if possible, you would have plucked out your eyes and given them to me” (Gal. 4:15). He finished his letter with large letters—perhaps because he couldn’t see well (Gal. 6:11).

(3) This was a different high priest than before. While Paul worked with Caiaphas before his conversion (Acts 9:1-3), this would be a different high priest, Ananias. Josephus tells us that Ananias served from about AD 47 to AD 58 or 59 (Josephus, Antiquities 20.5.2 §103). Remember, Paul has not been localized in Jerusalem for two decades at this point, travelling all across the Greco-Roman world, instead. So it shouldn’t surprise us that Paul doesn’t know the high priest.