The Prison Epistles

The Prison Epistles

Philippi - Traditional Prison of Paul (picture above is the entrance)
          The Prison Epistles, also known as the Captivity Epistles, consist of Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon. These letters derive their name from the common theme of Paul's imprisonment or confinement in house arrest. Throughout these epistles, Paul refers to himself as "the prisoner for Christ," "a prisoner for the Lord," and "an ambassador in chains." In addition to their shared theme of imprisonment, the Prison Epistles also contain a common Christology, which focuses on describing the person and office of Christ. Philippians portrays the humiliation and exaltation of Jesus, while Colossians delves into Christ's relationship with His Father, the church, and the entire universe. It is perhaps one of the most Christ-centered books in the entire Bible.  Ephesians emphasizes Christ's connection with the church as His bride, and Philemon, though brief, exemplifies how a relationship with Christ can profoundly transform a person.
The Praetorian Guard
          There have been speculations about the locations from which Paul wrote these epistles, namely Rome, Ephesus, and Caesarea Maritima. The traditional view, upheld by many scholars until recent decades, maintains that Rome was the most likely location. Several reasons support this perspective. Firstly, Acts concludes with Paul being under house arrest in Rome, awaiting trial, and actively sharing the Gospel there. Secondly, the references in Philippians to the "Praetorian guard" and "Caesar's household" align well with the Roman setting, although they could also be applicable to Caesarea Maritima or Ephesus. Thirdly, Rome's central geographical position and status as a crossroads within the empire make it a plausible hub for sending letters. Fourthly, since Paul was under house arrest in Rome, he had more opportunities to bear witness compared to being in a conventional jail setting. Additionally, Paul mentions his Roman travel companions in these epistles and expresses hope for an early release, which would be less likely in Caesarea Maritima. Lastly, Rome provided greater distance from the Judaizer conflict.
          Caesarea Maritima, a possible location that gained popularity in the late 1970s, presents a contrasting viewpoint. It is known that Paul was imprisoned there for two years, according to Acts. During this time, unbelieving Jews from Asia accused him, leading to his arrest and imprisonment. However, no other known letters originate from Caesarea Maritima, and it remains uncertain if Paul wrote the Prison Epistles during his time there. The mention of the "Praetorian guard" and "Caesar's household" could potentially refer to the Judean governor's residence in Caesarea Maritima. Geographically, Caesarea Maritima is closer to Ephesus and Colossae, two recipient cities of the epistles, than Rome. Nonetheless, the arguments favoring Caesarea Maritima as the location are NOT sufficiently compelling. Firstly, this type of imprisonment would have limited opportunities for witnessing situations. Secondly, Paul had no hope of an early release there, as he eventually appealed to Caesar and was taken to Rome.

          Ephesus, where Paul resided around AD 54-56, is absolutely the least probable among the three proposed locations for the writing of the Prison Epistles.  Nonetheless, here are a few reasons some people suggest Ephesus as the location. Firstly, in 1 Corinthians 15:32, Paul mentions "fighting with wild beasts" at Ephesus, which could potentially allude to his imprisonment. Secondly, the phrases "Praetorian guard" and "Caesar's household" align with the context of this significant Roman capital city. Thirdly, Paul wrote 1 Corinthians while spending at least 27 months in Ephesus, implying that he could have written the Captivity Epistles from there as well. Lastly, Ephesus is geographically closer to Philippi compared to Rome or Caesarea. However, there are arguments against Ephesus being the location. Firstly, there is no clear evidence supporting the notion that Paul was imprisoned in Ephesus. Secondly, it seems unlikely that Paul would have written a letter to the nearby church in Ephesus while imprisoned in the same city. This scenario appears not just unlikely, but mostly implausible.
Prisoners were often chained to the floors and walls and kept in very unsanitary conditions.  Many were placed in underground sewers (see picture above).


* Above content has been adapted from student notes taken during New Testament studies with Dr.  Jim Wicker, Prof. of New Testament, Southwestern Baptist Theol. Seminary, 2018.

* Pictures above used with license for public use, copyright Faithlife, Logos Bible Software.