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.

Polhill on the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15)

I realize I have wrestled with this question quite a bit lately, but I ought to address the Jerusalem Conference and Galatians one more time since I ran across something interesting on the issue.

In Polhill’s chapter on Galatians in Paul and his Letters (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1999) it is less than clear if he believes that Galatians comes before or after the Jerusalem council. He gives both sides of the argument and deals with Galatians after the council. I was under the impression that he was opting for the later view, which he states clearly as his view on page 111 of P&HL. In his excellent commentary on Acts, he says “Although the two accounts contain significant differences, the similarities seem to outweigh these, and it is probable that they relate to the same event” and a bit later “it will be assumed in the commentary that follows that Paul and Luke were referring to the same conference” (Acts, NAC 26; Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2001) page 321.

However, John Pollhill also wrote the notes on Acts for the ESV Study Bible. In this shorter commentary on Acts, he states “Though some scholars think that Paul is referring to this meeting in Gal 2:1-10, it is better to see that passage as referring to private contacts made during his famine relief visit to Jerusalem” (ESVSB, 2114). I suppose this indicates some change of thought for Polhill on the chronology of Acts and Galatians.

It is good to know that scholars develop their ideas over time.

Dating Galatians – Before or After Acts 15?

For many students of the New Testament, the dating of Galatians is tedious work which does not seem to have much pay-off in reading the book itself.  Whether the book is addressed to Northern or Southern Galatia or before or after Acts 15 seems like a pointless question, but it is in fact important since it will influence how we read the conflict between Paul and Peter in Gal 2.

On the one hand, Gal 2:1-10 could refer to the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15).  This is in fact a  traditional view found in most commentaries. The issue is gentile circumcision and the consensus reached according to Gal 2 is that Gentiles are not required to submit.  As I read Polhill (138-139), he seems to lean toward this view, and the fact that he treats Acts 16:1-5 in a section preceding Galatians implies that he is taking the more traditional / majority view.  If it this is the case, then Paul writes Galatians in response to a report he has heard from the Galatian churches while he is in Ephesus or Corinth, perhaps in 53, but possibly as late as 57.  Assuming the Jerusalem meeting was in 48, this would mean that the Judiazers were still causing problems in Galatia five to ten years after the agreement found in Acts 15.

There are a few problems with the description in Galatians 2.  Paul states in Gal 2:1-2 that he took Titus with him to Jerusalem and that the went to Jerusalem in response to a “revelation.”  Neither item is mentioned in Acts 15, although Galatians 2:1-2 is not incompatible with Acts 15.  In 2:3 we are told Titus was not forced to undergo circumcision, which is more or less the conclusion of the Jerusalem conference.  One other minor point, Paul mentions John as a pillar of the community, but Acts does not include John in the discussion.  Again, these can still be complimentary descriptions of the same event.  Luke is free to describe the events any way he wants to.

On the other hand, Gal 2:1-10 could refer to another incident prior to the Acts 15 conference., perhaps even contributing to the need for the parties involved to meet face to face.  In this view, Paul was in Antioch for some time when he went to Jerusalem with Titus to deliver famine relief sent by the church in Antioch (Acts 11:29-30).  Paul then does ministry in Galatia and establishes churches in Gentile communities.  He then returned to Antioch where he learned that there were people teaching his Gentile converts that they needed to fully convert to Judaism before they were right with God.  Paul writes Galatians then goes up to Jerusalem to discuss the matter formally with James.

This view has the advantage of placing the “Antioch incident” of 2:11ff between the first meeting with James and Peter and the Jerusalem council, and chapter two of Galatians is telling the stories chronologically. In fact, the Antioch Incident might be the point of Acts 15:1-2 – Paul and Barnabas encounter people allegedly from James and have “no little dispute with them,” ultimately resulting in the conference of Acts 15.  Luke chooses not to record the confrontation with Peter since one of his main theological points is unity in the church.

For me, the fact that Paul never mentions the decision of the in the letter to the Galatians is a persuasive argument against a later date for Galatians. One would imagine that if the Judaizers claimed to be from James, Paul simply had to hold up the letter from the council and say, “Look here, the man you claim as your authority disagrees with you, go back to Jerusalem as get a bit more education on the issue of Gentiles!”  That he does not is powerful evidence the council has not yet occurred.  It seems best to me, at any rate, to see Galatians as Paul’s response to the Judaizers prior to meeting with James and Peter in Jerusalem.

As many of you know, I am currently infatuated with the ESV Study Bible, and I was please to find that the Galatians notes (written by Simon Gathercole) has the letter written in 48, just prior to the Jerusalem conference.

Factionalism in Rome, Part 1

Factionalism was a problem for the Roman congregations before Paul.  Romans 14:1-15:7 indicates that there are some in Rome who considered food laws important enough to be a matter of contention, while others are not taking the food laws as applicable in Christ.

Romans 14:5-7 One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. He who regards one day as special, does so to the Lord. He who eats meat, eats to the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who abstains, does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God.

This may indicate divisions between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians we have seen already by Acts 15 and Galatians.  Given the small size of congregations and immense population in Rome, it is likely that the churches functioned as islands of believers (to use Lampe’s word), perhaps initially ethnic enclaves.

Assuming that Philippians was written while Paul was in prison in Rome, it is possible to learn several things about the state of Christianity in Rome in the early 60’s.

Philippians 1:12-14 Now I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel. 13As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. 14Because of my chains, most of the brothers in the Lord have been encouraged to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly.

Philippians 4:22 All the saints send you greetings, especially those who belong to Caesar’s household.

We know that Paul was influential in the household of Caesar.  He states that the whole palace guard has heard the gospel, presumably from solders converted while they were guarding him.  These guards would have been gentiles converted from paganism, as opposed to Jews converted within the synagogue. This indicates that Paul is continuing his two-part mission, to the Jew first and then to the Gentile.

That Paul had success among the Gentiles encouraged the local Roman church to also engage in a similar ministry. As we observed earlier, there was good reason for the Jews to avoid contact with the gentiles based on their expulsion under Claudius in A.D. 49.  Romans seems into indicate that the church in Rome was made up of a series of small house churches (Dunn calls them apartment churches, which is more accurate since the poor did not live in houses!)

There is some evidence in Philippians of factionalism.  Phil. 1:15 says that some people preach the gospel out of “envy and rivalry” and “false motives.” These opponents of Paul try to stir up trouble for Paul while he is in prison, possibly indicating that there are at least some who “preach the gospel,” meaning that Jesus is the Christ, the crucifixion and the resurrection, etc., but they are doing so in a way that is “against Paul.”  This may be personal, but it may also be theological. (Or some combination of the two, of course!)

This may indicate that they disagree with the more radical elements of Paul’s theology, that Gentiles come to Christ apart from the Law, without converting to Judaism.  It may be that these rivals opposed Paul and perhaps even disagreed with the Jerusalem council (or, were ignorant of it; or, did not feel that they ought to be bound by it). That there are Jews who would still oppose Paul in Gentile inclusion may indicate an earlier date for Philippians, or that the issue of Gentile inclusion remained a major sticking point for the early church.

It may be something of a surprise to find that there were some congregations in Rome that were openly hostile to Paul, that seems to be the evidence of the book of Philippians.

There is a bit more evidence of factionalism in 1 Clement.  This letter was written A. D. 95-97 by Clement, a bishop in Rome.  The church of Rome was undergoing persecution when the letter was written (1:1, 7:1) but still felt it important to contact the Corinthian church.  According to tradition, Clement was the third bishop of Rome, although it is not at all clear that there was a single unbroken line of bishops who exerted any kind of authority over all of Roman Christianity before the year A. D. 200.

Clement wrote this letter on behalf of the church of Rome to the church of Corinth for the purpose of advising them on certain church matters.  The letter was considered to have had some level of authority, although we do not know how it was received by the Corinthians.  (In some early canons of scripture, 1 Clement was cited as scripture, Clement of Alexandria, for example.  See Holmes, 24.)  For our purposes here, 1 Clement 5 is the key text, although Clement returns to Paul in chapter 47.

1 Clement 5:5-7 Because of jealousy and strife Paul by his example pointed out the way to the prize for patient endurance. (6) After he had been seven times in chains, had been driven into exile, had been stoned, and had preached in the East and in the West, he won the genuine glory for his faith, (7) having taught righteousness to the whole world and having reached the farthest limits of the West.  Finally, when he had given his testimony before the rulers, he thus departed from the world and went to the holy place, having become an outstanding example of patient endurance. (Translation by Holmes, page 33.)

While Clement’s evidence is a bit later than Paul’s time, there is at least some evidence of the fact that Paul face opposition in those two years he was in Rome under house arrest.

The Church in Rome Before Paul

The audio for this evening’s sermon is available here, as is a PDF handout.  Remember that you can leave comments and questions at the bottom of the page, or by clicking on the comments link just above this paragraph.

Chronologically, Romans provides the earliest glimpse at the character of the churches in the city of Rome.   Christianity came to Rome through these synagogues, likely from Jews who heard the gospel while in Jerusalem as early as Pentecost.  Paul wrote Romans in the second half of the 50’s to already existing congregations which have separated from the synagogues or were formed outside of the synagogues of Rome.

Evidence for the church developing out of the synagogue is found in Romans 16.  Aquila and Priscilla are Jewish, as well as Andronicus, Junian and Herodion who are identified as Jewish (7, 11), the names Mary and Aristobolus may also indicate a Jewish origin.  According to Acts 18:2 and Seutonius, Claudius 25.4, Jews were expelled from Rome in A.D. 49 (although Dio Cassius dates the edict of Claudius to A.D. 41, Acts and Seutonius both agree with the early date).  Just who was expelled is debated, it is hardly possible to have the whole population expelled given a Jewish population of 30,000 at the time.  It is possible just the ringleaders were expelled, people such as Aquila and Priscilla.  Perhaps only a single synagogue engaged in the rioting over Chrestus and was completely expelled.  The bottom line is that by 49 there were lively debates among Jews over who Jesus was and these debates were violent enough to attract the attention of the authorities.

Romans indicates that some Jews returned by the mid-50’s, specifically Aquila and Priscilla.  By the time Paul writes Romans, there are Jewish Christian congregations, perhaps mixed Jew and Gentile congregations, and maybe a purely Gentile Christian congregation.

How many congregations of Christians existed in the mid-50’s can be determined from Romans 16, Peter Lampe argues for at least five different Christian “islands,” but probably as many as eight, based on the following data:

  • The phrase “those with them” plus proper names is used five times in Romans 16 (5, 10, 11, 14, 15). This may indicate Paul knows of five separate house churches in Rome.
  • There are other Christian names listed who probably did not belong to the same congregation (or they would be listed with the others), so at least two more could be implied.
  • Paul lived in Rome in a rented house, likely constituting an eighth congregation.

There is no central meeting place for these congregations.  Paul hosts at least one in his house, perhaps others met with him at other times for instruction and debate.  It is not too much of a stretch to imagine Paul engaged in the sort of ministry he had in Ephesus, teaching and debating the scriptures in an informal “school” at times when people could visit – afternoons and evenings.  In addition, there is nothing which requires a “church” to meet only on Saturday or Sunday, in ten different locations at general the same time.  It is possible that ten congregations meet at various times and in various places during the week, and even some individuals attending multiple churches.

The congregation size of a house church would vary depending on the home in which the church met.  I would suggest that the churches initially met on the analogy of a Synagogue, where ten men coming together to study the scripture constituted a synagogue.  If this is the case, by the time Paul arrives in Rome in the early 60’s, there were no more than a few hundred Christian in a city of millions.

Acts 27 – The Shipwreck

There are eleven or twelve accounts of Paul traveling by sea in the book of Acts (9:30, through this chapter), about 3000 miles in all.  Yet this chapter gives bay far the most detail of a journey by sea in the Bible, and even in the rest of ancient literature.  Given the fact that Luke has carefully designed the rest of this two volume history, we should probably pause to wonder why he includes such a great amount of detail to the journey to Rome.  It is not just that it is an exciting story (his readers were getting bored?) or that he was trying to fill out a scroll.  There is a literary and theological reason for Luke’s inclusion of this lengthy story.

That Luke is traveling with Paul may account for the detail.  Often ancient historians would write up to the time in which they are living and include themselves in the story in order to build credibility.  Consider Josephus, who summarized all of Jewish history up to the time of the Jewish revolt.  So too Thucydidies, who wrote his history of the Peloponesian War and included his own participation at various points.  This shipwreck functions to give Luke credibility – he witnessed the events himself and was a participant in the history he tells.  A Greco-Roman reader would expect this sort of thing if the book of Acts was to be seen as credible.

But there is more going on here than Luke’s interest in travel.  If someone (say, Theophilus) has been reading through Luke and Acts, he would notice some similarities between Paul and Jesus.  Both are arrested by the Jews and handed over to the Romans, both are tried by a secular authority (Pilate and Herod; Felix/Festus and Agrippa) and both are the victims of a miscarriage of justice motivated by the religious establishment in Jerusalem.  Will Paul suffer the same fate as Jesus?  Will he be executed by the Romans as a political undesirable, or will he receive justice from Rome?

Beyond these parallels, we need to remember Luke’s theme for the whole book: “beginning in Jerusalem, then Judea and Samaria, then to the ends of the earth.”  Luke knows that Paul will go to Rome to testify before the Emperor, but the reader may think that Paul will be killed along the way.  As James Dunn has observed, Luke is trying to show that “come what may, God will fulfill his purpose by having Paul preach the good news in the very heart of the empire.”

Some have questioned the historicity of this story based on parallels with other ancient literature, including Homer’s Odyssey.  Often a guilty man will try to escape justice (or fate), head out to the seas to avoid capture, but ultimately he will suffer and die anyway.  Paul is escaping from the Jews, yet is shipwrecked and eventually nearly killed by a snake, it is thought that Luke is patterning this story after the archetypal Greco-Roman novel plot-line. There is something to the parallels, and it may be that Luke tells this story in such detail because shipwrecks were popular in literature at the time, but this does not necessarily negate the historicity of the story.  Paul went to Rome, the best way to do that is by ship, it is entirely plausible that Festus would send him off in this way.  Shipwrecks were in fact common, so much so that Paul has already suffered shipwrecks twice in his travels (2 Cor 11:25)!

Acts 26 – Paul as the Light to the Gentiles

In this version of the story Paul emphasizes the fact that God called him to be the “light to the gentiles” (Acts 26:16-18).   This commission is based on Isaiah 49:6.  Paul seems to have always conceived of his mission through the lens of this text, which is somewhat unique in first century Judaism.  The text appears as a part of the “servant texts” in Isaiah.  This series of four prophecies describes the “Servant of the Lord” whose suffering brings about some kind of salvation for Israel.

There seems to have been some discussion of who the servant was; recall that the Ethiopian Eunuch was reading this text in Acts 8 and the idea of a suffering, dying and rising messiah appears at several points in the book of Acts.  This is anticipated as early as Luke 2:32, Simeon’s blessing on Jesus cites Isaiah and proclaims that this salvation has come to Israel.

Paul offers a somewhat different view – the Servant who suffered is Jesus (Luke 4:18, Is 61:1), but the “Light to the Gentiles” is applied to Paul and his ministry.  Turning to God and “opening eyes” is likely a reference back to the paradigmatic miracle on Cypress, the blinding of Bar-Jesus.  Like Isaiah, both Jesus and Paul ministered to blind people, people who were in need of healing in their understanding, so that they might believe that Jesus is in fact the Messiah.  Paul is sent to preach repentance to both the Jews and the Gentiles (recalling Romans 1:16-17, to the Jew first).

Festus interrupts Paul’s speech: “You are out of your mind!”  It is possible that this means that Paul’s knowledge of esoteric doctrines find things that are not necessarily true. This may reflect the common-sense “down to earth” Roman worldview. Festus is saying that the conclusions to which Paul comes is “beyond common sense,” not that these are strange and outlandish things.

Paul states that he is speaking “true and rational words.”  This description is good Greek rhetoric, sobriety is a chief virtue in Greek philosophy. Agrippa, on the other hand, understands that Paul’s speech has a persuasive value, that he is trying to convince them both of the truth of the Gospel.  What Paul has done has “not been done in a corner,” but rather out in the open for all to hear and evaluate.  This too is a feature of good philosophy and rhetoric, those who engage in secrets and mysteries are questionable (and probably not sober and self-controlled).

Acts 26-Paul Before Festus

I had a major hard drive failure and have been more or less offline for the better part of two weeks.  I did have everything backed up, fortunately.  I highly recommend SyncToy 2.0 and an external hard drive.  The following several posts are attempts at “catch up,”  I’ll be finishing up the text of Acts this Sunday night.  I plan on spending a week on the early church in Rome, them exploring James and Peter as alternatives to Pauline Christianity in the mid-first century the following weeks.

And now to Festus….

As soon as Paul arrives in Caesarea, prominent Jews from Jerusalem approach Festus for a “favor,” to release Paul to their custody.  What we know about Festus is generally good, especially when compared to Felix.  He dealt quickly with two separate messianic movements (Antiq. 20.8.10).  Unfortunately, Festus died after less than two years in office (A. D. 61-62) and his replacement Albinius was not an able administrator at all.

Festus finds himself it a difficult situation politically.  He needs the help of the “ruling Jews” to manage the province of Judea. The elite of Jerusalem included the former high priests and other Herodians.  They were, by and large, interested in power and wealth (as most politicians are). There is a certain irony here, since these men do not represent a very large segment of the population on Judea in the mid first century! They are but one small splinter group of many at the time; Festus buys very little influence if he does do them this “favor.”

The language of their request points to a formal alliance, if Festus expects to have the support of the local elite, then he needs to hand Paul over to them for justice rather than release him.  Festus sees that there is nothing about Paul that requires punishment; in fact, there are not real accusations being made against Paul!   Paul’s accusers are not present, therefore the very basis of a case against him in Roman law is missing.  This was Paul’s point in his defense before Felix (his accusers are the Asian Jews, who disappear when the action moves to Caesarea).

Luke only briefly comments on Paul’s defense, adding for the first time that he has neither offended the Temple or Caesar.  This is the first time that Paul has emphasized that he is not guilty of anything under Roman law.  Paul clearly realizes that his only chance at justice is to rely upon his citizenship.