"My dear brothers and fathers, listen carefully to what I have to say before you jump to conclusions about me."
When they heard him speaking Hebrew, they grew even quieter. No one wanted to miss a word of this.
"I am a good Jew, born in Tarsus in the province of Cilicia, but educated here in Jerusalem under the exacting eye of Rabbi Gamaliel, thoroughly instructed in our religious traditions. And I've always been passionately on God's side, just as you are right now.
"I went after anyone connected with this 'Way,' went at them hammer and tongs, ready to kill for God. I rounded up men and women right and left and had them thrown in prison.
You can ask the Chief Priest or anyone in the High Council to verify this; they all knew me well. Then I went off to our brothers in Damascus, armed with official documents authorizing me to hunt down the Christians there, arrest them, and bring them back to Jerusalem for sentencing.
"As I arrived on the outskirts of Damascus about noon, a blinding light blazed out of the skies
and I fell to the ground, dazed. I heard a voice: 'Saul, Saul, why are you out to get me?'
"'Who are you, Master?' I asked.
My companions saw the light, but they didn't hear the conversation.
"Then I said, 'What do I do now, Master?'
And so we entered Damascus, but nothing like the entrance I had planned - I was blind as a bat and my companions had to lead me in by the hand.
"And that's when I met Ananias, a man with a sterling reputation in observing our laws - the Jewish community in Damascus is unanimous on that score.
He came and put his arm on my shoulder. 'Look up,' he said. I looked, and found myself looking right into his eyes - I could see again!
"Then he said, 'The God of our ancestors has handpicked you to be briefed on his plan of action. You've actually seen the Righteous Innocent and heard him speak.
You are to be a key witness to everyone you meet of what you've seen and heard.
So what are you waiting for? Get up and get yourself baptized, scrubbed clean of those sins and personally acquainted with God.'
"Well, it happened just as Ananias said. After I was back in Jerusalem and praying one day in the Temple, lost in the presence of God,
I saw him, saw God's Righteous Innocent, and heard him say to me, 'Hurry up! Get out of here as quickly as you can. None of the Jews here in Jerusalem are going to accept what you say about me.'
"At first I objected: 'Who has better credentials? They all know how obsessed I was with hunting out those who believed in you, beating them up in the meeting places and throwing them in jail.
And when your witness Stephen was murdered, I was right there, holding the coats of the murderers and cheering them on. And now they see me totally converted. What better qualification could I have?'
"But he said, 'Don't argue. Go. I'm sending you on a long journey to outsider Gentiles.'"
The people in the crowd had listened attentively up to this point, but now they broke loose, shouting out, "Kill him! He's an insect! Stomp on him!"
They shook their fists. They filled the air with curses.
That's when the captain intervened and ordered Paul taken into the barracks. By now the captain was thoroughly exasperated. He decided to interrogate Paul under torture in order to get to the bottom of this, to find out what he had done that provoked this outraged violence.
As they spread-eagled him with thongs, getting him ready for the whip, Paul said to the centurion standing there, "Is this legal: torturing a Roman citizen without a fair trial?"
When the centurion heard that, he went directly to the captain. "Do you realize what you've done? This man is a Roman citizen!"
The captain came back and took charge. "Is what I hear right? You're a Roman citizen?" Paul said, "I certainly am."
The captain was impressed. "I paid a huge sum for my citizenship. How much did it cost you?" "Nothing," said Paul. "It cost me nothing. I was free from the day of my birth."
That put a stop to the interrogation. And it put the fear of God into the captain. He had put a Roman citizen in chains and come within a whisker of putting him under torture!
The next day, determined to get to the root of the trouble and know for sure what was behind the Jewish accusation, the captain released Paul and ordered a meeting of the high priests and the High Council to see what they could make of it. Paul was led in and took his place before them.