The Apostle Paul: Prisoner for Christ

Of the one hundred or so references to prisons, imprisonment, or prisoners in the New Testament, nowhere is the prisoner denigrated and the imprisonment or the prison system positively affirmed. This is astonishing and already tells us very much: the New Testament comes from the underside of structures of power and control. Indeed, in repeated instances, the reader is advised to take special concern for the plight of prisoners or captives (Matthew 25:36-44; Luke 4:18; Colossians 4:18; Hebrews 11:36).

Paul the political prisoner for Christ
Perhaps the most well-known prisoner within the Jesus movement, after Jesus himself, was the bi-cultural Saul-Paul. He claimed that his “chains” were “in Messiah,” which means both “for his cause” and “in his pathway” (Philippians 1:13; Philemon 1:1). While some of his fellow Christ-followers claimed that Paul’s imprisonment raised doubts about his legitimacy (Philippians 1:15-18), he himself asserted that his multiple imprisonments were among the credentials of “weakness” that demonstrated his legitimacy as an envoy (“apostle”) of the Messiah (2 Corinthians 6:5; 11:23), and he wore his torture marks as a badge of honour (Galatians 5:17). It appears that his rivals who sought to gain through his imprisonment preached a kind of upwardly mobile wealth and health gospel, and were not inclined to think of Christ’s way of suffering love for others—all the way to imprisonment and martyrdom—as a model to follow in their own lives.

Paul is best understood as a “political prisoner,” and his letters are best contemplated alongside the letters from prison by the many dissenting figures of recent history, such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King Jr., and Nelson Mandela. Just as these others, Paul was imprisoned and accused of crimes—whether treason, sacrilege, unlawful assembly, or illegal propagation of non-Roman values—because he was regarded as a threat to those in positions of power and control. His preaching was considered to go counter to the established social and religious norms of Roman society. The ancient world did not separate “religion” and “politics” in the way we do in Western democracies, and Paul cannot be understood simply as someone undergoing “religious persecution.”

The Roman imperial security system
To fully understand Paul’s imprisonment, one needs to know something about the security system of the Roman imperial world. Prisons were not major institutional complexes as we know them today, but simply secure places where captives or undesirables were detained as they awaited either trial or their punishment after trial. Imprisonment itself was not considered a form of punishment, nor a means of correction and rehabilitation. Actual punishments included death (by various methods), exile, hard labour (in chain gangs in mines or quarries), corporal punishment (flogging), fines, confiscation of property, public humiliation, and/or enslavement. In general, one’s social position (citizenship, wealth-status, class-rank, etc.) was crucial for determining the mode of confinement and interrogation, and eventually guilt and punishment. Torture was a common method of interrogation, especially for those at the lower ranks: slaves, foreign migrants, or conquered populations. Outside of Italy in the “provinces” (regions under a military “charge,” under imperial occupation), the security and law-and-order systems could look quite varied, depending on whether the area was formally a Roman “colony” (like Philippi or Corinth), had been “pacified” over a period of time (like Ephesus or Antioch), or was more troublesome, with persistent unrest among conquered peoples (such as Judea or greater Syria).

Prisoners were referred to by various metaphorical terms, such as those who were “fettered/chained,” “captive/captured,” or “under watch/guarding.” Of the many types of prisoners, the following broad categories can be distinguished in the Roman world: (1) local petty lawbreakers; (2) economic detainees, those subjected to debt-bondage (e.g., Matthew 5:25=Luke 12:58-59; Matthew 18:23-34); (3) war captives and foreigners on their way to slave markets; and (4) political prisoners. (5) In addition, some of those we would today regard as suffering from mental illness were also secured “by chains” (Mark 5:3-4); even today a large segment of the prison population in Canada consists of those with mental illnesses.

Paul’s experience of prison
Five of the thirteen letters attributed to Paul in the New Testament are written from the context of detention by Roman imperial authorities. In these letters he is awaiting trial on capital charges. While imprisoned in Ephesus in the summer of the year 55, Paul writes three extant letters (Philippians, Philemon, Colossians). His ordeal was so traumatic that he admits a few months after his release that he was “utterly, unbearably crushed” such that he “despaired even of life” (2 Corinthians 1:8-11). But as he writes his letters while “in chains” he shows a resiliency and hope, even if completely uncertain about the outcome as he looks at death squarely in the face, and he comforts others while he himself is the one needing consolation (Philippians). During this time, he was detained along with some co-workers (Colossians 4:10; Philemon 1:23; Romans 16: 7). And assisting him throughout from the outside was his reliable colleague Timothy (Philemon 1:1; Philippians 2:19-24), along with others who were sent by committed “partners” to support him (Onesimus by Philemon; Epaphroditus by the congregation in Philippi, 2:25-30). Some of these assisting from the outside risked their own lives, he says, and so should be given special recognition (Epaphroditus, Philemon 2:25-30; 4:10-20; Prisca and Aquila, Romans 16:3-4).

Only a few months after his release, Paul reflects retrospectively on his imprisonment and trial when he writes 2 Corinthians and Romans. While still in trouble as he writes 2 Corinthians (“tension on the outside, and fears within,” 7:5) and then convalescing as he writes Romans, awaiting the re-opening of the ports for travel by sea, he pens some of his most profound and poignant comments on the meaning of suffering on behalf of Christ and his mission, indeed on the meaning of the suffering experienced by the whole world as it longs for healing and renewal (2 Corinthians 1:8-11; 2:14-17; 4:7-12; 6:4-10; 11:1-12:10; Romans 5:1-5; 8:17-39). Paul is thoroughly convinced that God’s justice will one day prevail. 

Gordon Zerbe is a New Testament scholar at Canadian Mennonite University in WinnipegZerbe is the author of Philippians (2016) and Citizenship: Paul on Peace and Politics (2012). 


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