As Paul tells it ...
Philippians and Ephesus (4)

Home Search Bibliography About the Author

A Comprehensive Solution

If neither the “beasts in Ephesus” episode nor the “crisis in Asia” episode fits the specifications of the Philippians template, what alternatives do we have for a more precise identification of an Ephesian imprisonment for the composition of Philippians? There are several possibilities.30

On the hypothesis of an Ephesian founding visit before the Jerusalem conference,31 John Knox suggested the possibility of a date before the conference for the imprisonment in Ephesus and the writing of Philippians.32 Whatever advantages one may find in this hypothesis,33 it runs into difficulties, in part because we are uncertain of an Ephesian founding visit before the Jerusalem conference,34 and in part because Philippians anticipates a visit not to Jerusalem but to Philippi.35

What I wish to propose is another kind of solution: an Ephesian imprisonment after the Jerusalem conference, but on an occasion which we would not identify with either the “beasts in Ephesus” episode or the “crisis in Asia” episode; click here for Chart. The conditions required for this imprisonment would include:

bulletA long enough imprisonment, of three months or more, preferably when Aegean shipping is open,36 during which it would be possible for the various exchanges between Paul and Philippi to take place;
bulletA time when Timothy is with Paul in Ephesus (1 Corinthians 16:10-11; Philippians 1:1), and is available to be sent to Philippi (Philippians 2:19);
bulletA time when Paul is intending to visit Philippi, that is, as early as (though not before) the writing of 1 Corinthians; and
bulletA point before the dispatch of Titus with the Harsh Letter to Corinth (H/10–13): with the dispatch of Titus to Corinth, the travel plan to meet him in Troas is put into action; click here for Titus: Travel Plans.

  30We shall not explore the dating of Philippians from the time of the founding visit in Corinth, a proposal put forward by Georg Ludwig Oeder, on the basis of the curious hypothesis that Syzyge (Philippians 4:3) was Paul’s wife, but that by the time he wrote 1 Corinthians he was widowed (reference in W. Michaelis, Einleitung in das Neue Testament3 [Bern: Berchtold Haller Verlag, 1961] 204-5)!
  31Knox, Chapters 61-64; cp. Hyldahl, Chronologie 82-7.
  32Knox, Chapters 61.
  33(a) The Knox chronology does allow sufficient time for an Ephesian founding visit at this point; and (b) “. . . it is plausible to surmise that it was on his way back to Ephesus [from the Jerusalem conference] that his promised visit to the churches of the Lycus valley (Philem. 22), as also his second visit to Galatia, occurred” (Chapters 61).
  34See above, notes 9 and 11 (click on note 9 and note 11).
  35The only way to avoid the latter problem is to assume a return visit by Paul to Macedonia before the conference. 
  36The safe period for navigation was May 27 to September 14; the outside limits were March 10 to November 10 (see L. Casson, Ships and Seamanship in the Ancient World [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971] 270).

As the earlier chart indicates, such an imprisonment is best located between the writing of 1 Corinthians and Paul’s intermediate visit to Corinth. How then are the events of this period to be reconstructed? These events seem to fit without difficulty within a period of several months between spring and autumn of a single year. It is understood, of course, that one is obliged to assume an imprisonment lasting hardly longer than three months. 

In keeping with the methodology underlying As Paul tells it . . . , we offer as an alternative reconstruction an appendix to this article in the form of a long chart, which shows how events may be understood on the assumption of an extended imprisonment of some nine months, instead of three.

We proceed here, with the assumption of a three month imprisonment. At the writing of 1 Corinthians, in perhaps mid-April, Paul is situated in Ephesus, with plans to remain there until Pentecost. His travel plans will take him to Macedonia, Corinth, and possibly Jerusalem, to assist in delivering the collection. Timothy is on his way to Corinth, and from there will be sent on his way back to Paul with the brothers. By perhaps mid-May, word reaches Paul of serious problems in Galatia arising out of the activities of false teachers; Paul writes Galatians.

By Pentecost, Paul, instead of preparing for his journey to Macedonia, finds himself in prison. The Philippians learn of Paul’s troubles, and dispatch a gift to him by Epaphroditus.  Epaphroditus delivers the gift to Paul (by early July) and stays to assist Paul in his imprisonment. To add to the difficulties of the situation, Epaphroditus becomes critically ill, and he is distressed when he learns that the Philippians have heard of his illness.37 From Epaphroditus, Paul has learned of troubles in the Philippian congregation, especially internal dissension, the danger from false teachers, and lax conduct of certain Philippians. With the improvement in Epaphroditus’ health, Paul sends him back to Philippi, with the Philippian letter in hand, a letter addressing these issues, acknowledging the gift, and announcing plans not only to send Timothy to Philippi, but also to come himself, upon his release from prison. 

  37Alternatively, Epaphroditus is distressed when he realizes that the Philippians have heard of his illness.

When toward the end of August Paul is freed, he sends Timothy to Macedonia, one might suppose, to make preliminary preparations for the collection; but before Paul can follow, he has to deal with the deteriorating situation in Corinth. He determines to amend his travel plan by visiting Corinth on the way to Macedonia; he will try to save the day in Corinth, proceed to Macedonia to pursue the collection project, and return to Corinth to complete the collection there and accompany it to Judea. Thus occurs his brief, painful visit to Corinth, which ends in his retreat to Ephesus in disarray (and which results in a further delay of his visit to Macedonia).

It is now perhaps in mid-September that he composes the Harsh Letter (H/10-13), to be delivered by Titus, who will report back to Paul on the Corinthians’ response to this letter when he meets Paul in Troas. With Titus off to Corinth, Paul proceeds to Troas. Whether before his departure from Ephesus, or somewhere else in Asia, Paul experiences that “crisis in Asia” which brings him perilously close to death. Though Paul finds rich opportunities for his work in Troas, he decides not to wait any longer for Titus, but, with the imminent close of navigation, sails for Macedonia, some time in October, to await there the arrival of Titus.

After Titus has been “de-briefed,” and Paul learns with immense relief of reconciliation with Corinth, Paul (with Timothy) writes Letter R/1–9 to Corinth, the Letter of Reconciliation. In this letter he reports on the remarkable generosity of Macedonia in support of the collection, and thus encourages Corinth to complete their part of the project. Doubtless the Philippian people, his long-time partners in apostleship, were now doing more than their part in supporting the collection, along with Thessalonica.

While one might wish for more explicit information from the letters, the foregoing scenario does match the Philippian template in a credible fashion, and does provide a coherent reconstruction of this productive if troubled period of the apostle’s work. Our particular version of the Ephesian imprisonment hypothesis not only enhances the reading of the Philippian letter, but serves also as a useful module in the larger enterprise of reconstructing the framework of Paul’s life and thought from his letters.

Appendix: A Long Imprisonment in Ephesus?

There are various reasons for favoring the “shorter imprisonment” scenario set forth above, not the least being that Paul declares his intention to complete the collection project with all due haste (Galatians 2:10). But we have to allow for the possibility that Paul (if we may state the obvious) had no choice of how long he would be in prison—especially if we are correct in locating the imprisonment not long after he sent Galatians on its way. Therefore, we are providing an alternative, which presupposes an imprisonment not of three months but of some nine months, June to March of the following year. The accompanying long chart provides a suitable reconstruction of this alternative.

  Note: Why, nine months, and why, June to March? In part, because it permits the travels by sea implied in the Philippians template and the Corinthian sequences; and in part, because, on the hypothesis of an Ephesian imprisonment, we would wonder why Paul had not left Ephesus soon after Pentecost, in late May or early June (1 Corinthians 16:8). But one does not need to rule out other possible configurations.

Jerusalem Visit 1
Syria and Cilicia
Galatia (former visit)



Founding Visit; “. . . in the beginning of the gospel” (Phil. 4:15)
  » Persecution
  » Special financial arrangement with Philippi (Phil. 1:5)
Thessalonica (1 Thess. 2:2)     


  » 1 Thessalonians written
  » Aid from Macedonia, probably Philippi, (2 Cor. 11:9)

Jerusalem Visit 2
(latter visit)     
Agreement on the collection (Gal. 2:10)
Beginning of collection in Galatia (1 Cor. 16:1)     
Ephesus: founding visit
  » Letter P to Corinth, Previous Letter
  » Episode of fighting with beasts in Ephesus, 1 Cor. 15:32
  » Timothy is sent to Corinth: from ? via?
  » Letter L to Corinth = 1 Corinthians           mid-April
  » Travel plan: Ephesus/ Macedonia/ Corinth/ Jerusalem, 1 Cor. 16:3-8

  » Composition of Galatians                           mid-May
(thus, unable to depart after Pentecost for Macedonia, etc., as planned)


The situation in Philippi:
  » Dissension
  » Problem of false teachers
                                                                     late June


The Philippians learn of Paul’s trouble, Phil. 4:14
  [Trip #1, Ephesus to Philippi]
 » Timothy’s presumed return to Corinth        early July
(possibly earlier), bringing news from Corinth
  » Delivers gift to Paul                                    mid-July
  » Informs Paul of dissension, and false teachers in Philippi
The Philippians send a gift by Epaphroditus
  [Trip #2, Philippi to Ephesus]


Illness of Epaphroditus                                       August

Appearance of Onesimus

The Philippians learn of his illness
  [Trip #3, Ephesus to Philippi]
Epaphroditus is distressed that the Philippians have heard of his illness, Phil. 2:26


  [Possible additional trip, Philippi to Ephesus, from which Epaphroditus learns that the Philippians have heard of his illness]
Paul writes Philippians                                  September
  » Travel plans: Timothy is to be sent to Philippi, 
Phil. 2:19, to bring word from Philippi; Paul hopes to travel there later, Phil. 2:24
Epaphroditus is sent back to Philippi
  [Trip #4, Ephesus to Philippi]


Paul writes Philemon                                        October
  » Sends Onesimus back (to Colossae?)
  » Plans to visit Philemon
Paul IS RELEASED FROM PRISON           March
» Sends Timothy on to Macedonia (as soon as weather permits)
  » Possible visit to Philemon (in Colossae?)
Paul makes intermediate visit to Corinth            April
» Returns to Ephesus

Paul writes Letter H/10-13 to Corinth                    May
Travel plan: Titus to Corinth to Troas; Paul to Troas
Crisis in Asia (probably Ephesus)                           May
  » Escapes death (2 Cor. 1:8) 
  » Departs for Troas, 2 Cor. 2:12, but does not find Titus there; after a period of some weeks, . . . 
Paul proceeds on to Macedonia/ Philippi               June
  » Finds fighting without, fears within, 2 Cor. 7:5
  » Meets Titus, with good news of reconciliation from Corinth
  » “Voluntary” collection in Macedonia, 2 Cor. 8:1-4
Writes Letter R/1-9 to Corinth, with Timothy         July

Paul proceeds to Corinth                                   August
  » He completes work on the collection
  » He writes Romans
Travel plans: to Jerusalem, to deliver collection; to Rome; to Spain

Jerusalem Visit 3 [projected]



Click Next button below to continue.

Previous Home Next


Copyright © 2000-2005 by J. Peter Bercovitz. All rights reserved.
New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Articles (as noted) used by permission of
Proceedings: Eastern Great Lakes and Midwest Biblical Societies. Materials on this site may be downloaded for personal study and research, but quotations of this material should be appropriately acknowledged.

Send mail about this site to