The Letter of Philippians – Which Imprisonment?

Paul in PrisonThe four letters in which Paul appears to be writing from prison are traditionally assigned to the Roman imprisonment in A. D. 60-62, referred to at the end of the book of Acts. According to Acts Paul was under house arrest for about 2 years and had considerable freedom while awaiting trial. During this time, according to the traditional view, Paul wrote Philippians, Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon.

However, there are at least two other possibilities for imprisonments during which Paul could have written these 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. 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 that he 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.
  • Phil 1:19-26; 2:17, 23 imply that he is under the threat of death, which could very well be the outcome in Acts 28.
  • Paul greets Aristarchus in Col 4:10, in Acts 27:2 he accompanied Paul on the journey to Rome.
  • Col 4:14 states that Luke is with Paul, favoring a Roman imprisonment (Acts 28:14, 16).

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. As Moises Silva says, no one disputes the possibility that Paul was imprisoned during his three years at Ephesus, but that he wrote the letter of Philippians from there is another matter (Silva, Philippians (BECNT, Second Edition; 2005, pg. 7)
  • 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.
  • 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 Colossae (Philemon 22) when he was released implying that he was nearby.
  • 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 that there is no clear reference to imprisonment in Acts or the other letters makes this a tentative suggestion at best. There are are some exegetical reasons for accepting Ephesus as the geographical and chronological origin of the letter to Philippi. For example, Philippians 3 seems to be an attack on a group of Judaizers, with interests not unlike Galatians. An earlier date for Philippians helps to explain how the Judaizers can still be active after Acts 15.

What other elements of the letter to the Philippians would be effected by an earlier or later date?


11 thoughts on “The Letter of Philippians – Which Imprisonment?

  1. The so-called “traditional” for me! Note, Hort’s classic defense of Ephesians, etc. As to the older Conybeare and Howson..(Eph. 6:21 / Col. 4:7). ‘It was not written in Caesarea –
    (A) Because while writing St. Paul was labouring for the Gospel (iv. 3,4), which he did not at Caesarea (Acts XXViii. 31)
    (B) Because he could not have expected at Caesarea to be soon coming to Phrygia (Acts XXiii. 11, xix. 21; Rom. i. 13; Acts xx.25, whereas while writing this he expected soon to visit Phrygia (Philem. 22).

    (3) The indications above mentioned all correspond with Rome. Moreover Timotheus was with him, as we know he was at Rome, from Phil. 1:1.’

    (Page 692, The Life And Epistles of St. Paul, W.J. Conybeare and J.S. Howson, Wm. B. Eerdmans)

  2. On Ch.3: are the Philippian Judaizers “a group” or are they “the Judaizers”? Without specific reasons to identify those troublemakers with the ones from Galatia, I’d suggest it’s just as likely the same types of trouble just naturally came about.

    On Ephesus: it seems less likely Paul would be recommending Epaphroditus so highly if Luke was still present, and if Paul himself planned to get back there. Same for the lack of any reference to Luke.

    Just a couple of points. Looking forward to more posts…

  3. Very glad to see you back, Bill. I have a post today on the Judaizers in Philippians, so I will just say here that I think that what we call “Judaizers” probably were a factor at least as late as the first revolt. A strong Jewish (even nationalist) form of Jesus-Followers probably is the reason why Paul is estranged from Ephesus later (taking 1 Tim as Pauline).

    I am not sure if Luke would have anything to do with the recommendation of Epaphroditus, assuming the standard reconstruction. That Luke is not referred to is a possible problem, but Paul does not have to list all his companions when he writes a greeting. (Although there is a hint that Luke was from Philippi, so if he was with Paul this is the one letter you would think he would get a mention!)

  4. And of course the promise to send Timothy to Philippi matches the journey of Timothy from Ephesus to Macedonia in Acts 19:22 (and implied in 1 Cor 4:17; 16:10).

  5. While the Judaizers would seem the likely choice to be the ones that Paul speaks of in Philippians chapter three. This would lend itself to Paul writing from Ephesus. However, there are a couple of items that would seem to indicate a different location. In Philippians 1:13 Paul makes a reference to the “whole palace guard.” In Philippians 4:22 he refers to the saints of “Caesar’s household.” Finally, in 4:16 Paul states that the Philippians sent aid to Paul while he was in Thessalonica. This would seem to indicate a later date for the writing of the letter. Paul’s reference to Thessalonica is s big support for this. He didn’t found the Thessalonian church until his second missionary journey after the Jerusalem Council. This would suggest one of two things, either a) the Judaizers were causing trouble long after the council had made its ruling or b) Paul is not referring to the Judaizers in Philippians.

  6. It could also be an option Cody that Paul wrote about events that had already taken place in the scriptures you have posted, I think it is very plausible that Paul wrote all the letters at the same time under house arrest in Rome. To me that is the most logical (except for the direct letters he wrote to the Churches when it states when and from where he is writing), simply because while under house arrest I am sure he had plenty of time on his plate, considering how he was there for a long time.
    I like although all the references you brought up P.Long, it makes sense from both ways, from Rome or Thessalonica or even Phillipi (sp?). I feel this is an issue many people can argue about over and over again; but it will not be salved by anyone simply because we were not there, we do not have direct evidence (other than the Bible in which we argue over from dates and facts given) and it is not something we will be able to solve unless God decides to have any true real touchable evidence from back in the early 60’s and 50’s AD. God can reveal anything he wants too, but this might not be something we truly need to know or understand in order to understand Paul’s messages.

  7. Kimmy perhaps in Philippians 1:13 you could say that those events had already taken place, however I find that unlikely. However in 4:22 Paul seems to be talking about a quite recent event. I think that Cody is quite right when he says that this indicates a later date for the letter.

  8. The argument that Paul wrote Philippians from Caesarea are:
    1. He was staying in the Praetorium. (Philippians 1:13)
    2. Herod’s Palace was the Roman governor’s residence, which is called a Praetorium. (Acts 23:35)
    3. Since the governor was the representative of Caesar, the Palace would thus be Caesar’s household.
    4. The reason Paul mentions these facts is that Phllippi was a Roman colony, full of Romans.
    5. Paul did not reside in the Praetorium in Rome, but in a private house with a guard. (Acts 28:16)
    6. It is also likely that the author of Luke/Acts was Epaphroditus, whom Paul calls the Apostle of Phlippi.
    7. The “we” sections of Acts begins with Paul’s vision of the Man from Macedonia, which was a dramatic way to introduce the author, meaning he was a Macedonian.
    8. The first “we” section ends in Philippi and begins again when Paul returns to Phlippi for the Collection to the Poor.
    9. This is also why the author omits any mention of Titus, even though Titus was the test case in the Jerusalem Council. After Paul died Titus would have been his main rival in Greece, which also explains why he also omits any mention of Paul’s mission in Crete.

    Woodrow Nichols

  9. When dealing with the discussion surrounding the location of Paul’s imprisonment, one needs to consider all of the aspects of said imprisonment. One of the key aspects is that the timing of his imprisonment also needs to be discussed.
    Although Caesarea is a possible location for Paul’s imprisonment at the time of writing Philippians, it seems unlikely, not just for the reasons of distance, but it also seems to have several issues regarding the timing an delivery of other letters as well.
    With the other possible locations being Rome and Ephesus, one needs to consider the information provided in Acts as well as in Paul’s other letters regarding the details of his imprisonment. Because of the times Paul mentions the household of the emperor in Philippians, it is highly likely that he is being imprisoned in Rome. However, the discussion surrounding the several trips to and from Philippi are problematic in regards to this due to the great distance between the cities.
    Although Ephesus is significantly closer to Philippi, there are some problems in regards to the timing of Paul’s imprisonment if this is the case. This would make the writings of the book of Philippians significantly earlier than if he had been imprisoned in Rome.
    Since Paul has also written letters to the churches in Thessalonica and Corinth as well, there exists the possibility he could be imprisoned in either of these locations. I would consider Corinth, due to its location relative to Philippi, as well as the immense Roman influence which existed in the city.

  10. It is interesting to think about the idea that Paul was in prison so many times we have to clarify when he was in prison and where he was when looking at the letters he wrote. Rome is the traditional view and tends to make sense with some of the references Paul makes. In class notes, it was explained that the biggest problem with this view is the distance between Rome and Philippi. The letter implies there are several trips being made back and forth between Philippi and wherever Paul is being held under house arrest. Rome was not close by, it was 800 miles from Philippi, making frequent trips difficult. Other locations have been suggested such as Ephesus. Paul was imprisoned several times and not all of them are recorded, so though there is not a direct record of Paul being imprisoned in Ephesus, that is not an issue in placing the writing of Philippians in Ephesus. It is highly likely that Paul could have been imprisoned there. This suggestion would also lead to clarity about the opponents Paul references in chapter three. Though this is a hypothetical imprisonment, there are still many logical aspects from it and many ways in which it would explain the situation well. It is a good location for sending letters out, Paul would have assistance, and the location would be closer to some of the places Paul references or mentions wanting to visit after his imprisonment. Another suggested location is Caesarea. Here he was under arrest in Herod’s palace, which would be called a praetorium, and Roman soldiers could be called the household of Caesar, which would explain some of the things Paul references. Once more, the biggest problem with this location is the distance. It is roughly 600 miles between Caesarea and Philippi, which is too far of a distance for the many trips implied by the letter. The different suggested locations for where the letter was written impact the date associated with the letter. If it was written from Rome it was likely between 60-62 AD. Ephesus would put the letter in 54-57 AD, and Caesarea between 57-59 AD.

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