St. Paul in Prison

(This is Neil.)

Several days ago, Todd asked for suggestions regarding an upcoming parish presentation on St Paul. In response, the Concord Pastor mentioned that, when he remembers that Paul occasionally wrote from prison, it “never fails to add depth to his words as I read them.” Dale Price wrote that Paul “far from being some grim caricature, was a man of joy,” and then recommended that Todd encourage his congregation to “read the Epistle to the Philippians first.”

As it happens, the Lutheran exegete James L. Bailey, Professor Emeritus at Wartburg Theological Seminary, wrote a very interesting article on Paul, imprisonment, joy, and the Epistle to the Philippians published in the Trinity Seminary Review last year (the entire issue can be found in PDF form here). In gratitude to our commenters, then, I’d like to quickly summarize the article.

Bailey tells us that two letters definitely written by Paul were composed in prison – besides Philippians, Philemon. Three (at least conceivably) deutero-Paulineletters, though – Ephesians, Colossians, and 2 Timothy, also speak of Paul as a “prisoner for the Gospel.” These three, combined with the descriptions of Paul’s imprisonment in Acts, “demonstrate that by the last third of the first century CE ‘Paul’s chains’ were symbolically and inextricably linked to his apostleship that involved extensive hardship and suffering.”

Before we explore what all of this means for Christians today, we should first say something about Roman imprisonment. It was awful. State prisons were often underground and overcrowded. Guards practiced torture in Roman prisons to obtain confessions or merely to humiliate and break the abused prisoners. Imprisonment for life was actually considered worse than death – Suetonius writes that, “when Tiberius was inspecting the prisons and a man begged for a speedy death, [the emperor] replied: ‘I have not yet become your friend.’”

Paul seems to have been held in military custody. In Philippians, he speaks of his imprisonment being well known “throughout the whole praetorium” (Phil 1:13) and communicates the greetings of the “holy ones … of Caesar’s household” (Phil 4:22). This, mercifully, was less severe than custody in a state or even a city jail. But, still, Paul would most probably have been shackled to a guard (which might explain a reticence to speak about his condition). And imprisonment brought a great deal of shame. Bailey tells us that a prisoner might be abandoned by family members, friends, and close associates.

Where was Paul imprisoned? Bailey follows Richard Cassidy’s Paul in Chains: Roman Imprisonment and the Letters of Paul, which argues that Philippians 1:13 and 4:22 point to a relatively late custody under the emperor’s own personal guards in Rome. This suggestion – as opposed to the hypothesis of an earlier imprisonment in Ephesus – dates Philippians as Paul’s last extant letter, written in custody in the late 50s or early 60s, considerably after the composition of the Epistle to the Romans. The “late” Epistle to the Philippians would then be written under the reign of Nero, which would explain its pessimistic account of imperial power, in obvious contrast to Romans 13. For what it is worth, Bailey and Cassidy’s suggestion is also compatible with the ending of Acts.

But are these details of Paul’s imprisonment merely of antiquarian interest? Actually, they allow us to reread the Epistle to the Philippians with a deeper attentiveness. The awareness that Paul is in a humiliating condition that might lead to the even greater debasement of a trial and execution directs us to pay closer attention to his fear that “I will be put to shame” and his hope that “Christ will be magnified in my body, whether in life or in death” (Phil 1:20). Writing to the Corinthians, Paul had already claimed that the Gospel was not rendered incredible because of his own weaknesses. That concern is now intensified, given “the stigmatizing effect of Roman imprisonment” and the disgrace of capital punishment. Paul here assures the Philippians – and perhaps himself – that his imprisonment has “happened for the advancement of the Gospel” (Phil 1:12) which is now better known. As he had written to the Corinthians, “when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:10).

If we remember that Paul is imprisoned, we also sense his fear of abandonment. Some, we are told, are preaching Christ out of “good will,” perhaps redoubling their efforts in the absence of Paul. Others, however, “preach Christ from envy and rivalry … thinking that they will cause me trouble in my imprisonment” (Phil 1:15-7). Who are these people actively seeking to distress Paul? They are presumably those who believe that Paul’s connection of “my imprisonment” and “the defense and confirmation of the gospel” (Phil 1:7) is completely misguided; imprisonment, to them, brings the Gospel into contempt. Robin Scroggs has suggested that these “envious” preachers consequently proclaimed a truncated, but safely apolitical, Gospel to avoid any conflict with the political authorities.

We also become aware of the importance of Epaphroditus, “brother and co-worker and fellow-soldier” (Phil 2:25) to the imprisoned and dangerously marginalized Paul. Epaphroditus has been healed of illness through the mercy of God, but he has been lonely, and Paul sends back the “minister to my need” to the Philippians. Obviously, the relationship of Paul and Epaphroditus is not businesslike. Epaphroditus is an embodiment of the Philippians’ solidarity with Paul. Besides bringing material aid – “it was kind of you to share in my distress” (Phil 4:10), Epaphroditus, Bailey tells us, was the Philippians’ “direct envoy and public minister (the Greek word leitourgos suggests a public and perhaps priestly function) to Paul’s need when others were abandoning the imprisoned apostle.” His sending was not without risk, and the thanksgiving with which Paul begins his letter is surely heartfelt.

If we remember that Paul is in prison, we will also be struck to notice that Paul (as Dale Price reminded us) actually experiences joy, even in his custody. In this epistle, Paul uses the noun chara five times, and the verbs charein and sygchairein eight times. How can this be? Bailey quotes the prominent Evangelical exegete Gordon Fee:

Paul the theologian of grace is equally the theologian of joy. Christian joy is not the temporal kind, which comes and goes with one’s circumstances; rather it is predicated altogether on one’s relationship with the Lord, and is thus an abiding, deeply spiritual quality of life.

Paul does tell us to “Rejoice in the Lord always” (my emphasis; Phil 4:4). But is this escapism? In chapter 4, Paul tells us that he is content, echoing the Stoic-Cynic notion of “self-sufficiency” (autarkes). Paul, however, revises “self-sufficiency” into a “Christ-sufficiency”: “I have the strength for everything through him who empowers me” (Phil 4:14). Paul experiences joy because its source is something fundamental, something that remains, despite his circumstances. Jesus is still somehow there, with and for Paul in chains.

Paul also does not despair because his situation is not anomalous, some grotesque aberration from what was supposed to happen. His imprisonment is a graphic reminder that Christian life in the present necessarily involves suffering (and martyrdom itself, as the Pope just reminded us, is “not an exception reserved only to some individuals, but a realistic possibility for all Christian people”). Paul uses the words of athletic competition to describe the Christian life that every member of the Body of Christ shares: “Yours is the same struggle (agona) as you saw in me and now hear about me” (Phil 1:30). Professor Bailey writes, “In chains, the apostle sees with amazing clarity the nature and scope of the believers’ clash with the ardent supporters of the Roman imperial world.” We might add here some of the exegesis of NT Wright, who claims that Paul’s proclamation in 3:20 that “our citizenship is in heaven” means that “Jesus is Lord, and Caesar isn’t,” so that life in Caesar’s parody-empire involves considerable tension, and, inevitably, suffering.

But what might this mean for Christians today?

Professor Bailey has written about more recently imprisoned Christians (you can read an article in America here). There are clear parallels between their experiences and Paul’s. Prison served as a crucible for them; they were tested, yet still came away convinced that their imprisonment was “a defense and confirmation of the Gospel.” They too depended upon solidarity with the larger Christian community. Their imprisonment gave them a new perspective on their society and “its idolatrous tendencies” – its continued allegiance to Caesar’s parody-empire. They were able to say, with Paul, “I have the strength for everything through him who empowers me.”

And, finally, to return to Dale Price’s point, contemporary imprisoned Christians have, like St Paul, experienced joy even while in chains. Bailey’s fellow Lutheran Gerhard Fischer was imprisoned for six months for opposing the activity of the former School of the Americas. His pastor, Amy Reumann, stated:

I think joy is full awareness of God’s presence, which is why joy can take place either amidst happiness or amidst sorrow … it’s separate from the external conditions that surround you. And [this joy] is going to grow despite what happens.

Dietrich B0nhoeffer made the very same point (my emphasis):

Where will the call to discipleship lead those who follow it? What decisions and painful separations will it entail? We must take this question to him who alone knows the answer. Only Jesus Christ, who bids us follow him, knows where the path will lead. But we know that it will be a path full of mercy beyond measure. Discipleship is joy.

So, even in prison, we can rejoice.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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4 Responses to St. Paul in Prison

  1. Get it right. It’s A.D. not C.E. There is nothing common about the Year of Our Lord. Anno Domini. And before He was born, we say or write B.C. (Before Christ). Stop bastardizing Christendom in fealty to Talmudic Judaism. And swallowing what the Bolsheviks are trying to shove down everybody’s throat. Since when are they God? They are allergic to the spelling and write, “G_d.” What might that signify? Father Coughlin sure is missed. I bet he could tell us.

  2. Todd says:

    Technically speaking, if we’re dating from Christ’s birth, it’s about the 2014th year. I don’t have a problem with an English designation of CE for Christian Era. At least we’ve weaned ourselves off the Roman dating system–even is Jesus and his disciples used it.

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