What does Acts 23:12 mean?When the New Testament uses the phrase "the Jews," it typically means Jewish spiritual leaders, like the scribes. It's unclear who exactly is meant in this passage, although it may be the Jews from around Ephesus who accused Paul in the temple (Acts 21:27–29). Zealous Jews from this same region were responsible for Stephen's death (Acts 6:9). Despite living in modern-day Turkey, they are passionate for Judaism and consider Christianity heresy.
After their accusation and attack on Paul, the Roman tribune intervened (Acts 21:30–34) and eventually took Paul to the Sanhedrin for a formal investigation. The meeting was eventful but unproductive as Paul insulted the high priest and caused a fight (Acts 23:1–11). The forty Jews find the Sanhedrin willing partners in their plot; they even try to implicate the tribune by asking him to bring Paul to the Sanhedrin so they can ambush him along the way (Acts 23:13–15).
Throughout his ministry, Paul develops a relatively good relationship with Roman military members. In large part, this is likely due to his citizenship. The tribune has already rescued Paul from a murderous mob at the temple and the Sanhedrin who tried to tear Paul apart. A centurion prevented Paul from being scourged and another will stop soldiers who want to kill Paul during a storm (Acts 22:25–26; 27:42–43). When Paul finally gets to Rome, he will be chained to a series of soldiers who will bring his message about Jesus to Caesar's personal guard (Philippians 4:22). Now, thanks to Paul's nephew who hears about the conspiracy, the tribune will rescue Paul again by sending him to the governor in Caesarea Maritima. Paul will stay there under house arrest for two years before he can make his way to Rome (Acts 23:23–24; 24:27; 28:16).
Oaths are common in the Old Testament and typically take the form of "May God do to me and more also if I don't…" (Ruth 1:17; 1 Samuel 3:17; 14:44; 1 Kings 19:2). Fulfilling a vow was a matter of honor, but there were circumstances in which a vow could be excused. The Mishnah Nedarim 3 says, "Four types of vows the Sages have invalidated: Vows of incentive, vows of exaggeration, vows in error, and vows [broken] under pressure… Vows [broken] under pressure: if one subjected his neighbor to a vow to eat with him, and then he or his son fell sick, or a river prevented him [from coming] such is a vow [broken] under pressure." So, if the vow is unfillable because of circumstances beyond the vower's control, like the tribune sending Paul away, the vow can be broken.