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Ephesian Imprisonment

Why was Paul always in prison? One is reminded of Thoreau’s reply to Emerson, when Emerson went to see Thoreau and inquired, “What are you doing in jail?” and Thoreau replied, “. . . [fill in the blank!].”

2 Corinthians 11:23   Are [the competing teachers in Corinth] ministers of Christ? . . . I am a better one: with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless floggings, and often near death.

To be sure, Paul was not always in prison, though certainly more frequently than the opponents in his churches; and he was in prison for Christ and the gospel.

Philippians and Philemon are the two letters we have that were written from prison. These letters imply an imprisonment of half a year to a year or more. But in what city was he imprisoned? He knew; his readers knew; but nowhere in his letters does he say where. Rome (preferred in the older literature); Caesarea (preferred by some in the 1930’s and 1940’s); and Ephesus (more recent scholarship) are the leading candidates. There are well-considered reasons for preferring Ephesus, especially: 
   • The distance between prison and  the letters’ destinations;
   • The frequency of travel between prison and the letters’ destinations;
   • The likelihood of a Praetorian contingent in Ephesus, as well as in Rome; and 
   • The requirements of the travel plans which are stated in the letters.

Distances of Travel

Both Rome and Caesarea are twice as far from Philippi than is Ephesus. As for Philemon, if his presumed residence was Colossae, the journey for his escaped slave to reach Paul would have been some seven times greater to Rome than to Ephesus.

Frequency of Travel

For the situation presupposed in Philippians
   • A trip would be required from prison to Philippi, for the Philippians to learn of Paul’s imprisonment; 
   • A trip, from Philippi to prison, to send Epaphroditus to assist Paul; 
   • A trip, from prison to Philippi, with word of Epaphroditus’ illness; 
   • A trip, from Philippi to prison, for Epaphroditus to learn of the Philippians’ concern; and 
   • A trip, for the delivery of the letter, from prison to Philippi.  
Such frequency of travel probably eliminates both Rome and Caesarea.


Philippians 1:13, 16.


For the situation presupposed in the letter to Philemon
   • Onesimus, the escaped slave, must find his way to the city and prison where Paul is located; 
   • Then Onesimus is sent back with the letter. 
Rome or Caesarea is not out of the question, but one must assume more resources than a slave might have had; whereas a slave could easily travel on foot from the provincial town of Colossae to Ephesus, the metropolitan center.



Philemon 12.

A Praetorian Contingent

Those who know about these matters assure us of the likelihood that a contingent of the Praetorian Guard would be located in a major metropolitan center of the Roman empire like Ephesus. 

The Praetorian Guard, or praetorium, is mentioned in Philippians 1:13.

Travel Plans

Paul’s travel plan when writing Philippians was to visit Philippi. His travel plan when writing to Philemon was to visit him in Colossae. But in Romans, the last letter Paul wrote before embarking for Jerusalem and then Rome, his travel plan was to visit Spain, in quite the opposite direction from Asia or Macedonia. So if we were to assume the composition of these prison letters from Rome, the round trip from Rome to Colossae and back to Rome, and/or from Rome to Philippi and back to Rome, before departing for his eagerly anticipated trip to Spain, would have sent him many hundreds of miles out of the way and delayed him six months to a year. Even the detour from Caesarea to Colossae and/or to Philippi would have been some hundred of miles out of his way, and a delay of some months.


Philippians 1:26; 2:24.
Philemon 22.

Romans 15:28-29.


The truth is that at the time he wrote Romans, as he was about to depart for Rome via Jerusalem, he had a sense of having completed his work in the east and was now ready and anxious to begin his mission to the west. For all these reasons, one may conclude that the lengthy imprisonment during which Philippians and Philemon were written was in Ephesus, and that it likely was closer to the end than to the beginning of his several years’ stay there. Romans 15:19, 23, 24   19. . .From Jerusalem and as far around as Illyricum I have fully proclaimed the good news of Christ. . . . 23But now, with no further place for me in these regions, I desire, as I have for many years, to come to you 24when I go to Spain. . . .

Assistance from Philippi; News

Word may soon have reached Philippi, perhaps from some Christian traveling across the Aegean Sea to Philippi, that Paul was in prison; that he was in need, and that there were serious charges against him, which if sustained would cost him his life.


Since the prison warden did not supply the necessities of life, even food, and since Paul was prevented from working at his trade, he was dependent on friends to supply his needs.      

For the Philippians, it was not a question of whether but of how soon they could get aid to the apostle. Given the number of trips being made back and forth between prison and Philippi during this period, we may reasonably assume that most of this coming and going was happening between late spring and early autumn, when the shipping lanes would be open. Epaphroditus, of the Philippian congregation, probably arrived within weeks, and soon made himself indispensable to Paul. The unfortunate illness of Epaphroditus certainly cast a further shadow over Paul's imprisonment. When he had recovered sufficiently to travel, Paul sent him back to Philippi; he was in all likelihood bearing a letter for the Philippian church.


Do not plan a Greek island cruise in winter, when severe storms can make sea travel unpleasant, if not dangerous!

Paul to the Philippians

When Epaphroditus had first arrived in Ephesus, he brought not only provisions and a helping hand but also news of the Philippian congregation. Though we have earlier described the Philippian congregation as one of Paul’s great success stories, the report of Epaphroditus brought to light certain problems which Paul believed it was necessary to address:

   • Opposition from a source not identified, but likely containing the threat of persecution (1:28-29); 
   • The presence of dissolute types that threatened the moral fabric of the congregation (3:18-19); 

   • Incursions of false teachers, rather unflatteringly referred to as dogs (3:2); and
   • Hints of dissension within the community (1:27; 2:2-4; 4:2).

Nowhere else do we find so much about Paul and his developing ideas in such a brief, and joyful, letter. We have biographical material, precipitated in part by the work by the work of rigorists (3:2-6); and we have sly hints about his having infiltrated the praetorian guard and the imperial establishment (1:13; 4:22)! But the following themes deserve special discussion.


Have the rigorists from Antioch and  Galatia arrived?

End-of-Time Views Updated

As Paul faces the end-of-time delay, and now also the prospect of death, he realizes that he will not likely be among those who are still alive when the end comes, and that therefore his entrance into eternity (if we may put it this way) is by the way of death. In typical Pauline fashion, he is drawn one way and the other by the tension between death and life, seeing advantages in both.

Though he takes a different route than in the earlier 1 Thessalonians (4:13-18), he reaches the same destination and shares the same reality: being with Christ.

Philippians 1:20-25   20. . . [It is my eager expectation that] Christ will be exalted now as always in my body, whether by life or by death. 21For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. 22If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. 23I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; 24but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you. 25Since I am convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith.








1 Thessalonians 4:18 “And so we will be with the Lord forever.”  

But Paul has not abandoned entirely the traditional end-of-time language. He now associates the bodily transformation concept of 1 Corinthians 15:51 with the end-of-time events. He builds upon and extends his earlier thinking about resurrection in a  spiritual body by explicitly comparing it to Christ’s own body of glory, that is, a body appropriate to the glorious age to come.

Philippians 3:20-21   20. . . [From heaven] we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. 21He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.




Compare the similar and almost contemporaneous teaching in 2 Corinthians 4–5


Justification by Faith

Given the rigorist incursion implied in Philippians 3:2-3, it is not surprising that Paul offers, as he did in Galatians, a statement of his doctrine of justification by faith, joining with it as in Galatians the theme of sharing in Christ’s death and resurrection.

Philippians 3:9-11   9[For his sake, I have suffered the loss of all things, that I may gain Christ] and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. 10I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, 11if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.   


Grace and Works

Over the millenia, no one has improved upon the apostle’s typically graceful comment on the mysterious interworking of divine grace and human virtue.

Philippians 2:12-13   12Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; 13for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.





Grace: God's unmerited favor.

Theologizing about Christ (Philippians 2:5-11)

Is it great theology or great poetry? Is it borrowed or original? Is it intended for the Philippian situation or is it for the ages? Is it accessible to the unlearned, or is it perhaps the most challenging New Testament text that interpreters face? The answer is “Yes,” to all.  Divine pre-existence, the mystery of incarnation, servanthood and suffering, the glory of exaltation, and universal end-of-time acknowledgement, the raw materials of trinitarian inquiry—they are all here. How fitting that this crowning tribute to Jesus Christ should happen in a letter to Paul’s favorite (are apostles supposed to have favorites among their children?) congregation. He picks up where he left off in 1 Corinthians 8:4-6.  Others would take up the task of offering fitting verbal tribute to Christ (Hebrews 1:1-4; John 1:1-18), but none would surpass this text.

Philippians 2:5-11   5Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 6who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, 7but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, 8he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. 9Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, 10so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.   


The Philippians as Partners

Curiously, Paul thanks God for the Philippians (1:3-5), and acknowledges their sacrificial help (4:18), but never thanks them in so many words. This is not ingratitude, but a quite natural way of recognizing that they are indeed partners in his apostleship (4:15).

Philippians 1:3-5   3I thank my God every time I remember you, 4constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, 5because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now.
Philippians 4:15-18   15You Philippians indeed know that in the early days of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you alone. 16For even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me help for my needs more than once. 17Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the profit that accumulates to your account. 18I have been paid in full and have more than enough; I am fully satisfied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God.


An Escaped Slave Arrives in Ephesus

Another person appeared at Paul’s cell to assist him in his imprisonment, Onesimus, a slave belonging to Philemon. Philemon, a resident of Colossae (compare Colossians 4:9), was one of Paul’s converts (Philemon 19), perhaps having heard Paul preach in Ephesus. When Onesimus escaped, we may suppose that he made his way to Ephesus and sought out Paul, who befriended him, made a convert of him, too, and benefited from his help.  But Paul, unwilling to betray the trust of Philemon, persuaded Onesimus to return to his master, and wrote this brief letter to plead with Philemon for humane treatment of his escaped slave (with perhaps an implied plea for his release).







It is perhaps after the departure of Epaphroditus that Onesimus arrives in Ephesus.


Paul to Philemon

In this letter Paul employs a variety of devices in the art of persuasion to make his case, ranging from flattery (v. 7) and pathos (“I, Paul, . . . an old man, and now also . . . a prisoner of Christ Jesus” v. 9) to a business-like approach (vv. 18-20) and an implied threat (“prepare a guest room for me,” i.e. “I’m coming to check up on you,” v. 22).

Paul’s efforts must have been successful, since we cannot imagine Philemon’s keeping and treasuring a letter whose appeal he had refused.


Paul’s Release from Prison

As a corollary of the Ephesian imprisonment theory, we may reasonably assume that Paul was released from prison and was now free to make his intermediate visit to Corinth.


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Revised February 7, 2003
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