Paul’s Time in Prison and the Letter of Philippians

Paul's Prison in Philippi Where was Paul when he wrote the Prison Epistles? The four letters usually called the “prison epistles” are traditionally thought to have been written while Paul was in Rome under house arrest (Acts 28:30-31), approximately A. D. 60-62. However, there are at least two other possibilities for imprisonments during which Paul could have written these four short letters. There is no reason to take all four of the prison letters as a unit. For example, it is possible that Philippians was written from Ephesus, while the other three prison letters came from Rome (this is John Polhill’s position, for example). In fact, Colossians and Philemon fit much better into the context of Ephesus and the Lycus valley than the later Roman imprisonment.

I will summarize the evidence for each of the imprisonments, there is more to be said than this, but this is enough to orient our thinking for now.

Rome, A.D. 60-62. The traditional view assigns the captivity Epistles to Rome.  We know from Acts that Paul was in fact placed under house arrest in Rome for two years (Acts 28:30). “House arrest” means Paul was free to proclaim the gospel (Acts 28:16, 17, 23, 31; Eph 6:18-20; Phil 1:12-18; Col 4:2-4). Paul mentions the “palace guard” and the “emperor’s household” in Phil 1:13 and 4:22, implying he is in Rome. Paul greets Aristarchus in Col 4:10, in Acts 27:2 he accompanied Paul on the journey to Rome.

Ephesus, A.D. 52-55. There is no mention in Acts of any imprisonment in Ephesus, though in 2 Cor 6:5 and 11:23 Paul does say that he has often been in prison. Acts records no imprisonment until Philippi (Acts 16:19-40). Where were the others?  One possibility is that these occur before Acts 13, another is that there was an imprisonment in Ephesus which is not recorded in Acts. In 1 Cor 15:32 the apostle speaks about fighting wild beasts at Ephesus. That may be a proverb or merely a metaphor. But if taken literally, it could mean that Paul was actually thrown to the lions in the arena. In 2 Cor 1:8-10 Paul alludes to some serious trouble that overtook him in the province of Asia, and in Romans 16:3, 4 he tells us that Priscilla and Aquila risked their lives to save him. We know that the pair were with Paul in Ephesus, and this opens up the possibility that it was here that they protected him. Ephesus is a natural location to send letters to the cities in the Lycus Valley. Epaphras would have the shortest route to reach Paul from Colosse (Col 4:12; Philem 23) and Epaphroditus from Philippi (Phil 2:25-30). Ephesus has a large Christian community which would assist Paul writing the letters (Col 4:10, 11). Paul asked Philemon to have a guest room ready for him in Colosse (Philemon 22) when he was released implying that he was nearby. Finally, Onesimus is more likely to have fled to Ephesus than Rome.

Caesarea, A. D. 58-60. While this appears to be the weakest possibility, Paul was in prison in Caesarea under “open arrest” for more than two years.  Like Rome, he likely had enough freedom to produce short letters. He was under house arrest in Herod’s palace (Acts 24:23) and his friends were allowed free access to him. The best arguments for Caesarea require Ephesians, Colossians and Philemon to be written and delivered at the same time.  The runaway slave Onesimus escaped from Colossae to Caesarea (some five hundred miles, rather than to Rome), Paul sent him back to Philemon with that letter along with Tychicus, the bearer of Ephesians and Colossians. If Ephesians was written from Caesarea, Tychicus and Onesimus would have brought the letters of Colossians and Philemon to Colossae first, then he would move on alone to Ephesus. With respect to Philippians, the distance from Caesarea to Philippi is less than to Rome, but not particularly conducive to several trips implied by the letter.

By way of conclusion, a location of Ephesus for Philippians is attractive, although the fact there is no clear reference to imprisonment in Acts or the other letters makes this a tentative suggestion at best.

12 thoughts on “Paul’s Time in Prison and the Letter of Philippians

  1. Personally (and I’m not saying that we’re voting, but you haven’t given us much to go on), I think that I’ll stick with the Rome-imprisonment as the base for the writing of the Philippian letter. It seemed to me that Paul would be a bit reflective at this time and a letter of praise would certainly be appropriate as he remembered the good and the bad times he shared with what may have been his most cherished church plant. The language in Phil. 1.21-30 sounds like Paul has been thinking about death and going home to be with Christ, but is willing to stay and teach if God willed it. He then encouraged the church to persist in living worthy of Christ, both in the good times and the time of suffering.

    • Amazing Grace comes to mind. I want to touch on Pj’s comment about reflection. As Paul sits in prison and finds not only the time to reflect, but the situational convenience if not compulsion to reflect it becomes apparent to the reader that reflection is Godly. I find that this is a truth in my life, the prison being spiritual hunger and wordly oppression.

  2. I would say I agree with DJ. Tenative suggestions at best do not sum up the best foundation of the Bible and if I had to make an assumption (which is the best anyone can do on this point) i would say that the Phillipians letter was written from Rome. I would also say that the point of the letters is not exactly where he wrote his letters specifically, but that he was writing them at all. If I was imprisioned, I would not feel inclined to writing letters telling people to take heart. I think that Paul’s prison letters give Christians a glimpse of the deep implanted Jesus Freak in Paul. That he was writing these while in chains would have given me (if I was one of the Philippians) the courage and hope that would enable me to also stand firm in the faith. When you begin to think of the reason why he was writing the letters and the things that he wrote instead of specifically where he wrote them, it makes the raw essence of Paul’s faith that much more real and desireable.

  3. That the readers of Paul’s letters would see a “deep implanted Jesus Freak in Paul” is not really a question. It seems to me that anyone who knew Paul at all would have known some of the stories around him. P. Long mentions the different times Paul was under house arrest, imprisoned, saved from danger, and even possibly thrown to the lions!

    If I only knew of Paul by his actions I would have thought him crazy! However, having read his letters, I know that he is actually quite sane, and in fact living in a way that deserves merit and praise. The combination of crazy acts and sane letters creates an image of man who has strong convictions that lead him to strong action. The kind of man who can’t be stopped by walls.

    Question: Does anybody think Paul wrote more letters than what we have? If he did, wouldn’t those letters all have the same basic theme? If those two things are true then it doesn’t matter where he wrote his letters because he wrote them from all places on the same teachings all the time.

  4. Ben said, “Question: Does anybody think Paul wrote more letters than what we have?” Strangely, someone asked me that at church this evening. I think that it is almost certain that he did, Corinthians implies at least four letters, we have either two or three. One is lost (Zero Corinthians?)

  5. Paul writing Philippians from Rome seems to be the argument with the fewest holes. The big one being, we are sure an imprisonment in Rome occurred. However, to argue my own statement I think Polhill points out a rather striking argument of simple geography on page 166 when he compares the amount of trips and the distances. “Now Paul was sending Epaphroditus back with this letter. Paul planned to send Timothy to Philippi somewhat later and hoped to come soon himself. All told this implies a minimum of six trips, which is much easier to picture between Ephesus ad Phillipi (one hundred miles) than Rome to Philippi (eight hundred miles).

    As for the comments people have made about the place the writing of the letters occurred mattering or not mattering I am also divided on. I want to say I agree that the location of the writing is not important and the content is what matters. However, another part of me wants to say that the fact the letter was written from prison under stress of possible impending doom makes the joy of the letter all the more impressive. So for that matter I will suffice to say even though we do not know which prison Paul was in…the fact that he wrote a joyous letter from prison is impressive.

  6. Paul was imprisoned at the moment of the writing of Philippians. This is one of the four prison epistles written during this time in Rome (Ephesians, Philippians, and Philemon). It is written in Acts 28, of the story of Paul being imprisoned. It is thought that Philippians was written in A.D. 60’s, because of Acts 28. He writes about the trials he is going through and finds joy even through his circumstances. Paul also makes references in Philippians about his imprisonment. It is written in Philippians 1:13, “13As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard[a] and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ.” Because of these example I would have to side on Paul being imprisoned during this writing.

  7. I agree to say that the four prison epistles were not written at the same time. This is not simply discovered by looking at the locations from with the letters were written but the difference in the content of the letters. Paul takes on very different tones in his letters. The differences in tones not only shows us different struggles among the churches, but it also gives us insight into Paul’s attitude at the time. In some of His letters he rebukes people, but in a letter like Philippians, Paul simply pleads.

  8. Thanks, Phillip. I think there is further evidence for Ephesus.

    In Phil we read the following sequence:
    1. Timothy will travel to Philippi
    2. Timothy will return to Paul
    3. Paul will himself visit Philippi

    This same sequence was in progress when 1 Corinthians was written:
    1. Timothy was traveling to Corinth by the land route (i.e. via Philippi)
    2. Paul expected Timothy to return to him in Ephesus.
    3. Paul plans to visit Macedonia (presumably including Philippi).

    Thus we have the same events in the same order. This suggests that Phil was written from Ephesus before 1 Corinthians. Strangely many commentators place Phil after 1 Corinthians.

    Paul tends to write chronologically, so the deadly peril of 2 Cor 1:8-11 probably occurred before Paul made his travel plan of 2 Cor 1:15-16. The dating of the deadly peril therefore depends on when Paul made that travel plan. I believe it can be shown that this travel plan was made BEFORE 1 Corinthians, so I would place the deadly peril before 1 Corinthians.

    • Richard, you are correct that there is a great deal of travel implied in Philippians, you can include the initial visit from Epaphroditus, as well as his return (assuming he delivered the letter). I think that Ephesus is the only option for these five of six trips back and forth.

      Recall also that Timothy “has just returned” in 1 Thess 3 as well. Since Paul was based in Ephesus for three years, there is plenty of time for Timothy to be sent on several “missions” to deliver letters, read them to the congregations, and to represent Paul to the congregations.

      I would say Titus was also sent, but he’s the same man to you !

  9. Zach said, “Paul takes on very different tones in his letters.” This is a good point, and I think that the fact that Eph is a circular letter accounts for the general tone of that letter, perhaps Phil is not really written to deal with a specific problem (who are the “dogs” of chapter 3?), Col and Philemon have very specific problems. I have no problem with Col and Philemon written at the same time, since there are clear similarities and could be delivered at nearly the same time. Phil and Eph can be separate by two years and still be from Rome, or Ephesus, or either.

    I treat each one separately.

  10. Oddly, since I don’t usually care to speculate on the chronological questions, I find that I really really like the Ephesus imprisonment theory. I found the arguments for that to be pretty convincing, especially from the perspective of travel. There just seems to be a lot of to-ing and fro-ing going on for the other two locations to work well.

    Fond as I am of the theory, we can’t know for sure, which limits the usefulness of the chronology question for interpretive purposes. I would posit that it’s important not to take one of these theories and hold that theory so closely that it becomes part of how we read the text and interpret Paul.

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