paul's prison epistles
From where and when were they written?
It has been generally assumed that Paul's Prison Epistles (EPHESIANS, PHILIPPIANS. COLOSSIANS, PHILEMON along with 2 TIMOTHY) were all written during his imprisonment in Rome at the close of or sometime after the book of ACTS. It might prove beneficial for us to consider the possibility that they were instead written years earlier, during his imprisonment in Caesarea, before he was even shipped off to Rome.
Perhaps the most compelling evidence for most students that Paul wrote from Rome is his reference to the palace in PHILIPPIANS.
- PHILIPPIANS 1:12-13 But I would ye should understand, brethren, that the things which happened unto me have fallen out rather unto the furtherance of the gospel; so that my bonds in Christ are manifest in all the palace, and in all other places.
The palace of which Paul referred is commonly thought to be Caesar's court in Rome. Howbeit, a quick and simple study of the word will throw up some serious roadblocks to that assumption. The word palace is translated from the Greek word praitorion, and is used seven times in the Christian Scriptures (the New Testament). The first five occurrences of the word are all found referring to a place in Jerusalem. In the sixth occasion the word refers to the very place in Caesarea where Paul was kept prisoner; and the last occasion of the word is here in PHILIPPIANS. (MATTHEW 27:27 MARK 15:16 JOHN 18:28,33; 19:9 ACTS 23:35 PHILIPPIANS 1:13)
Hence, no where in scripture does praitorion specifically refer to Rome or a place in Rome. Even so, because Church Tradition places Paul in Rome when he wrote these epistles, scholars and theologians are burdened with the chore of inventing somewhere in Rome where this praitorion might have been. Howbeit, if he wrote from Caesarea no such inventions are necessary.
Likewise, Paul's comment in this same letter concerning some of the saints in Caesar's household (PHILIPPIANS 4:22) has been considered as being proof positive that he must have been writing from Rome, yet when closely examined, that statement proves to be no proof at all. Adolf Deissmann in his work entitled Light from the Ancient East writes the following concerning this passage (page 238).
- As already hinted, the question of where it was written stands also in great need of re-examination, for statistics carefully compiled from inscriptions and papyri would show that "praetorium" and "Caesar's household," which have hitherto always been taken to indicate Rome, are by no means necessarily distinctive of the capital.
He then continues in a footnote.
- Phil. iv. 22. This does not refer to the palace (there were imperial palaces elsewhere than in Rome), but to the body of imperial slaves, scattered all over the world. We have evidence of imperial slaves even at Ephesus.
Deissmann goes on to suggest that at least some of these letters might have been written from Ephesus, but affirms that there is no reason to assume that any of them were written from Rome. Of course any of Paul's imprisonments offer a possibility for from where Paul might have written, but as the evidence is assembled and continues to pile up, it seems most logical that Caesarea is probably where Paul wrote these Prison Epistles.
Another passage which is thought to be convincing for many people, that Rome is from where Paul wrote, is a statement in one of his letters to Timothy.
- 2 TIMOTHY 1:16-17 The Lord give mercy unto the house of Onesiphorus; for he oft refreshed me, and was not ashamed of my chain: but, when he was in Rome, he sought me out very diligently, and found me.
Thus they surmise that this Onesiphorus went to Rome and found Paul when he was a prisoner there; and further that Paul from this Roman prison wrote Timothy concerning this incident. But let's consider this a little more thoroughly.
Of course Timothy would have known full well where Paul was being held as a prisoner, so if Paul was indeed in Rome when he wrote Timothy, why would Paul then tell him that Onesiphorus found him when he was in Rome? Rather, Paul would have more likely simply stated that when Onesiphorus was here that he found me, Timothy knowing where here was. But if Paul was not in Rome, then Paul might want Timothy to know where Onesiphorus was when he heard of Paul's imprisonment and thereafter sought him out, in perhaps Caesarea.
It has also been suggested that the end of ACTS seems a more likely time for Paul to have written so many of these letters because Luke states that "Paul dwelt two whole years in his own hired house, and received all that came in unto him, preaching the kingdom of God, and teaching those things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ, with all confidence, no man forbidding him" (ACTS 28:30-31). Howbeit, Paul also enjoyed this same liberty when he was a prisoner in Caesarea.
- ACTS 24:23 And he [the governor] commanded a centurion to keep Paul, and to let him have liberty, and that he should forbid none of his acquaintance to minister or come unto him.
In connection with this, it should be remembered that Felix kept Paul bound because he hoped that a ransom might be given him for Paul's release (ACTS 24:26). This statement fits perfectly well with the fact that while writing the Philippians concerning his imprisonment, Paul acknowledged receiving from them their gift. As governor, this was probably known to Felix and no doubt gave him the idea that he might obtain a ransom from some of Paul's followers so as to obtain his release if he let them have access unto the prisoner.
Another interesting consideration to ponder, is that Paul often stated in these prison epistles that he had many enemies, which he no doubt did have in Jerusalem and Caesarea, but not evidently in Rome. Luke tells us that the reason Paul was moved to Caesarea from Jerusalem was because more than forty men had bound themselves with an oath that they would neither eat or drink till they had killed Paul (ACTS 23:12-15). In league with the Jewish leaders, they all conspired to have Paul slain. Yet in Rome, the top ranking Jews there had not even heard any evil report concerning Paul.
- ACTS 28:21-24 And they said unto him, We neither received letters out of Judaea concerning thee, neither any of the brethren that came shewed or spake any harm of thee. But we desire to hear of thee what thou thinkest: for as concerning this sect, we know that every where it is spoken against.
- And when they had appointed him a day, there came many to him into his lodging; to whom he expounded and testified the kingdom of God, persuading them concerning Jesus, both out of the law of Moses, and out of the prophets, from morning till evening. And some believed the things which were spoken, and some believed not.
Evidently then, some of the leading Jews in Rome believed that which Paul taught. But Paul never intimates this response to his teaching anywhere in his Prison Epistles, for there he is wrestling against the rulers of darkness (EPHESIAN 6:12), the enemies of the cross of Christ (PHILIPPIANS 3:18), being delivered from the power of darkness (COLOSSIANS 1:13) and out of every evil work (2 TIMOTHY 4:18); there evil men and seducers are deceiving and being deceived (2 TIMOTHY 3:13). Thus, the ill treatment which he had received from the Jews in Jerusalem and Caesarea lines up more appropriately with what we read in his prison epistles, rather than that reaction which he received at Rome. He wrote,
- PHILIPPIANS 3:2 Beware of dogs, beware of evil workers, beware of the concision [the Jews].
- PHILIPPIANS 3:18-19 (For many walk, of whom I have told you often, and now tell you even weeping, that they are the enemies of the cross of Christ: whose end is destruction, whose God is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame, who mind earthly things.)
- 2 TIMOTHY 2:9 Wherein I suffer trouble, as an evil doer, even unto bonds; but the word of God is not bound.
Thus Paul writes Timothy that he is in bonds as an evil doer, yet when Paul was sent to Rome it was not as an evil doer, for king Agrippa and the governor Festus both admitted that Paul had done "nothing worthy of death or of bonds" (ACTS 26:31). Howbeit, when he was first taken prisoner in Jerusalem and then transferred to Caesarea it was indeed as an evil doer. The only thing that spared him was the fact that he was a Roman citizen and as such he had the right to a trial.
- 2 TIMOTHY 4:16 At my first answer no man stood with me, but all men forsook me: I pray God that it may not be laid to their charge.
Because of the violent character of the assault upon Paul in the Temple (ACTS 21:28-36) and the unknown extent of the seriousness of his arrest, it is not hard to understand that his co-religionist scattered when he was suddenly taken from them at Jerusalem. But once they had a chance to re-group and further assess the situation, many of them would no doubt have returned to his side. Hence, even though none stood with him at his first answer, as things settled down and his friends and associates gathered their thoughts and courage, then at least some of them would have went to his aid.
Howbeit, this abandonment of Paul would have been much less likely years later when he was brought to Rome with his associates, among whom were Luke and Aristarchus. At that time, at his first defense before Nero, at least a few of his fellow helpers would surely have remained stedfast and not have deserted him. It all makes much more sense and has fewer wrinkles to iron out if he was indeed writing from Caesarea shortly after being imprisoned, rather than if he had been writing from Rome years later.
- 2 TIMOTHY 4:17 Notwithstanding the Lord stood with me, and strengthened me; that by me the preaching might be fully known, and that all the Gentiles might hear: and I was delivered out of the mouth of the lion.
It is a curious point that when Paul made his first defense in Jerusalem, that he was nearly "pulled in pieces" by the Jewish factions, necessitating the soldiers to rush in and save him (ACTS 23:10). It should be noted that this "pulling in pieces" is exactly what a lion does with its prey and Paul may be alluding to this very incident when he refers to being delivered out of the mouth of the lion. The interested reader may want to see NUMBERS 23:24, where the Hebrew word rendered the prey is literally the torn, as by a lion (Bible History- Old Testament by Alfred Edersheim, Volume III, page 27).
If that is indeed the case, then the night following this event in Jerusalem, coincides perfectly with what Paul wrote Timothy concerning the Lord appearing and strengthening him.
- ACTS 23:11 And the night following the Lord stood by him, and said, Be of good cheer, Paul: for as thou hast testified of me in Jerusalem, so must thou bear witness also at Rome.
This assurance that Paul would go to Rome might explain why he mentioned on a couple of occasions in these Prison Epistles that he hoped to see the believers soon (PHILIPPIANS 2:24 PHILEMON 22). The land route to Rome might very well take him directly through many of the places where he had founded fellowships. Of course Paul had no way of knowing that he would be held in Caesarea for two long years; or that when he was finally dispatched to Rome, that he would be taken by ship across the Mediterranean Sea, bypassing all of these Churches.
After Rome, Paul's intention had always been to travel west to Spain (ROMANS 15:24), not to retrace his steps back to the east. Thus, if Paul was writing from Rome, it would be odd for him to write to them of returning east and visiting them. But if he was writing while still in Caesarea then it all fits perfectly into his known agenda. Yeshua had promised him that he would go to Rome, and Paul had every reason to expect his route would take him through the vicinity of Colosse and Philippi.
In his letter to Timothy, Paul also recalls some of his more notable hardships.
- 2 TIMOTHY 3:11 Persecutions, afflictions, which came unto me at Antioch, at Iconium, at Lystra; what persecutions I endured: but out of them all the Lord delivered me.
If Paul was writing this from Rome and recalling some his his more significant persecutions, one wonders why then he doesn't mention his two year stint in Jerusalem and Caesarea? But that omission makes perfect sense if he was indeed writing Timothy while still going through his Caesarean imprisonment.
- 2 TIMOTHY 4:21 Do thy diligence to come before winter. Eubulus greeteth thee, and Pudens, and Linus, and Claudia, and all the brethren.
Quite possibly this was the very winter in which Paul was transported to Rome, perhaps departing before Timothy had arrived with the cloak, the books and the parchments. Luke gives us certain interesting details of their departure in ACTS 27.
- ACTS 27:12 And because the haven was not commodious to winter in, the more part advised to depart thence also, if by any means they might attain to Phenice, and there to winter....
There is no concrete evidence one way or another that proves when and from where Paul wrote these Prison Epistles. Howbeit, when one examines the evidence and then aligns it in a logical sequence, laying down layer upon layer of data from the scriptures, the time and place which fulfills all of the requirements can only be Caesarea.
But throughout the years theologians and scholars have preferred Paul's time in Rome, at the close of the book of ACTS, as the time and place of his writing, because this was the testimony of Church Tradition. From this unsubstantiated and baseless foundation, they then invented wild and far strung theologies about how during his Roman imprisonment, that Paul evolved to some great height in his spirituality, which they believe is reflected in the Prison Epistles.
Others (Dispensationalists) believe further that they see in all of this a new age dawning after the close of the book of ACTS; some secret dispensation which ushered in a mysterious or hidden agenda of GOD which is only revealed in these Prison Epistles. Because they think that they have found contradictions between Paul's Prison Epistles and the rest of the Christian scriptures, by slicing and dicing them this way and that, they invent a solution which satisfies them.
They believe that for the last two thousand years, since the close of the book of ACTS, we have been living in what they entitle the age or dispensation of the great mystery of GOD. They propose that all of Christ's promises, along with all of the expectations of his apostles, were all held in abeyance until after this secret age had run its course. And as such, that the Christian believer is still waiting for Christ's Parousia, when He returns as avenger and judge, coming to rapture them all away into heaven.
How many times they have been assembled upon some mountaintop by their false leaders and prophets, expecting Yeshua's return to be at some promised hour. Yet Yeshua plainly and more than once stated that His return would occur within the lifetime of His own followers.
- MATTHEW 16:28 Verily I say unto you, There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom.
Dispensationalist put forth the theory that because neither Yeshua nor any of his apostles knew of this great mystery, that they therefore expected His return to be during their own lifetime. But the mystery has supposedly nullified all of those claims and promises, and now His return has been put on hold, held in abeyance (so they say), now for over two thousand years.
Howbeit, there is every indication from scripture, as well as from secular history, that Yeshua did in fact return for His church around 70 A.D., and as such has already set up His kingdom in the new heavens and new earth, wherein dwelleth only righteousness. Since that Day, each resurrected person has been and continues to be placed before His throne so as to prove his own worth. Such should be our own hope.