Paul’s correspondence to the Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon has traditionally been labeled “Prison Epistles” because of the allusions to the apostle being incarcerated at the time (Eph. 3:1, 13; 4:1; 6:20; Phil. 1:7-16; Col. 4:3-18; Philm. 9, 10, 13, 23).1 While he was also a prisoner when 2 Timothy was drafted (2 Tim. 1:8, 12, 16-17; 2:9; 4:6, 16), this letter is not included among the others because it appears to have been written during a later imprisonment and because of its close connection with 1 Timothy and Titus.
The question is, during which confinement(s) were these documents penned? Clement of Rome reports that Paul was in bonds a total of seven times (I Clement 5:6). In the latter part of 56 Paul alludes to having been imprisoned on more than one occasion (2 Cor. 11:23; cf. 6:5), but at this stage in the Pauline chronology the only incarceration on record was at Philippi (Acts 16:23-25). Later the apostle spent two years as a prisoner in Caesarea (Acts 24:27) and then another two years in Rome (Acts 28:30), and after apparent release he was incarcerated a second time at Rome (2 Tim. 1:16-17; 4:16-17). Some have suggested Ephesus as another possibility,2 but there is no definitive record of an Ephesian internment, although Paul did suffer many afflictions there (Acts 19:23-41; 1 Cor. 15:32; 2 Cor. 1:8-10).
The first Roman detention of 60-62 is the more likely setting for the composition of these letters, though technically Paul was not in “prison” at this time but was confined to house arrest (Acts 28:16, 23, 30). Aristarchus, who accompanied Paul to Rome (Acts 27:2), is specifically named (Philm. 24), even as Paul’s “fellow-prisoner” (Col. 4:10). Luke, who accompanied Paul to Rome (Acts 28:16), is also specifically named (Col. 4:14; Philm. 24). Others who are mentioned link these epistles together: Tychicus (Col. 4:7; Eph. 6:21), Epaphras (Col. 4:12; Philm. 23), Mark (Col. 4:10; Philm. 24), Demas (Col. 4:14; Philm. 24), and Timothy (Phil. 1:1; 2:19; Col. 1:1; Philm. 1).
Reference is made to the praetorian guard and to Caesar’s household (Phil. 1:13; 4:22). The question is whether the expression tō praitōriō (‘the praetorium’) in Phil. 1:13 refers to a place or to persons. This is its only occurrence in Paul’s writings, though elsewhere in the New Testament it is used of the Roman procurator’s residence in Jerusalem (Matt. 27:27; Mark 15:16; John 18:28, 33; 19:9) and of the palace-fortress built by Herod the Great in Caesarea (Acts 23:35). If the apostle is using the term in a similar sense, it could be an allusion to the emperor’s palace in Rome, or the praetorian barracks attached to the palace, or the camp of the praetorian guards outside the city, although there is no external confirmation of such usage. There is, however, abundant evidence from Tacitus, Pliny, Suetonius, Josephus, and various inscriptions of the employment of this word for the praetorian guards (cf. ESV, N/ASV, NIV, NKJV, N/RSV). While this is not conclusive proof that the letter’s provenance was Rome (cf. BDAG 859), mention of “the household of Caesar” (Phil. 4:22) strengthens this conclusion.3
Since Paul spent the winter of 59-60 on the island of Malta, his arrival in Rome would have been in early spring 60 (Acts 28:11-16).4 The narrative of Acts closes with the apostle having been incarcerated in Rome for “two whole years” (v. 30), bringing the account to early spring 62. Luke’s record indicates neither what happened to Paul nor what was about to happen to him, presumably because his fate was still uncertain at this time. “Roman imprisonment was usually temporary while the accused awaited a magistrate’s hearing or a formal trial and was rarely used as a long-term punishment. Those found guilty of serious crimes or unable to pay fines were sentenced to exile or death” (L. M. White, From Jesus to Christianity 189).
The close relationship between Colossians and Philemon suggests a comparable timeframe,5 but by the time Philemon was penned, Paul had apparently received some indication of potential release (v. 22) that is expressed even more confidently in Philippians (1:19-26; 2:24). In Colossians, Paul’s appeal for prayers involved a petition for evangelistic opportunities in view of his “chains” (Col. 3:3), whereas in Philemon and Philippians the prayer requests included his anticipated release.
Accompanying the letters to the Colossians and Philemon was Onesimus (Col. 4:9; Philm. 12), and accompanying the letters to the Colossians and the Ephesians was Tychichus (Col. 4:7-8; Eph. 6:21-22), further suggesting a comparable timeframe. Since Ephesians appears to be a further development of Colossians and is the only prison epistle not to name Timothy in the opening address, it was probably written subsequent to the others and after Timothy had been sent away to Philippi (Phil. 2:19-23). The proposed chronological arrangement of the prison epistles is as follows: (1) Colossians written in early 62, immediately followed by (2) Philemon, then (3) Philippians, and finally (4) Ephesians.
It is interesting to note that these prison epistles comprise the most personal writings (Philemon, Philippians) and the most impersonal writings (Colossians, Ephesians) in the Pauline corpus. Nevertheless, collectively they demonstrate that the apostle Paul, despite his circumstances, exemplified the Christlike principle: “Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others” (Phil. 2:4; cf. 1 Cor. 10:33–11:1).
--Kevin L. Moore
1 Although R. Reitzenstein, in his Hellenistic Mystery Religions (1978), argues that Paul’s “imprisonment” allusions should be understood metaphorically rather than literally, this proposal is difficult to harmonize with clear statements such as Phil. 1:25-26; 2:24; and Philm. 22 (see D. G. Reid, “Prison, Prisoner,” in DPL 752-54).
2 See L. E. Keck, Paul and His Letters 5-7; R. P. Martin, Colossians 22-32; R. E. Brown, Introduction to the NT 493-96, 507-508; L. M. White, From Jesus to Christianity 185-88. This is usually suggested for the provenance of Philippians and Philemon, while Ephesians and Colossians are regarded as “disputed” Pauline letters.
3 See J. B. Lightfoot, Philippians 99-104, 171-78; J. H. Michael, Philippians 28-30; P. T. O’Brien, “Caesar’s Household,” in DPL 83-84; B. Reike, “Captivity Epistles,” in Apostolic History 285; contra J. F. Hall, “Caesar’s Household,” in ABD 1:798. Scripture quotations are from the NKJV.
4 For more chronological details, see K. L. Moore, A Critical Introduction to the New Testament 44, 154-74.
5 In both letters Timothy is named as co-sender, while reference is also made to Epaphras, Archippus and Onesimus (Col. 1:7; 4:9, 17; Philm. 2, 10, 23). In both letters Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke are included as the apostle’s immediate companions (Col. 4:10, 14; Philm. 24).
Related Posts: Ephesians: Why So Impersonal?, Philemon, Colossians Part 1, Colossians Part 2, Philippians Part 1
Image credit: http://i.huffpost.com/gen/1168542/thumbs/o-PRISON-CELL-facebook.jpg