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Hidden Messages in Paul’s Prison Letters

This is a painting of Paul in prison made by Rembrandt van Rijn in 1627.

Frequently Paul was in prison (2Cor 6:4-5; 2Cor 11:23-27). As most prisoners, Paul was aware that his letters written in jail to the Philippians and Philemon would be read by uninvited readers such as spies, prison guards, and prosecutors. And therefore, like many fellow captives, he tried to hide his messages behind coded language that at best could be deciphered only by supporting friends.

What was prison like for Paul?

The accounts of Paul’s imprisonment in Acts and his letters are somewhat out of alignment. Even though Acts places Paul’s imprisonment at the center of the narrative (Acts 21:33-28:31), the author minimizes its effect on the apostle. For example, he experiences the darkness, filth, and stench of an ordinary jail for a limited amount of time (Acts 16:23-30). By contrast, Paul’s letters reflect the torture, hunger, nakedness, anxiety, and distress of an ordinary prisoner (1Thess 2:2; 1Cor 4:9-13). Paul’s self-description as a “slave” in Phil 1:1 evokes the status of ancient prisoners, many who worked in mines or brothels (Acts Paul 9; Mart. Agape 5-6). Therefore, Paul expresses his gratitude that the Philippians held him in their hearts “in his fetters” (Phil 1:7). Fetters were a physical reality. Prisoners frequently had their feet and arms placed in the stocks. Like all ancient prisoners, Paul depends on helpers from outside to sustain his basic needs (compare Matt 25:36; Heb 13:3). Coprisoners like the runaway slave Onesimus become his confident (Phlm 11). The Philippians’ solidarity in prayer (Phil 1:20), through gifts (Phil 4:14-20) and by sending their apostle Epaphroditus (Phil 2:25-30), was desperately expected.

How did Paul’s location affect his writing?

Writing in prison could be dangerous, since information could be used against the author. Spies, prison guards, or coprisoners carefully monitored the defendant. Therefore, writers tried to conceal their message through opaque content, pseudonyms, allegories, or riddling speech. Arguably, it is not by accident that Paul is vague when discussing things such as Onesimus’s status, and his own relationships to Philemon, Aphia, and Archippus remain debated in modern scholarship. It is not clear what Paul means in Philippians by “progress of the gospel” (Phil 1:12, Phil 1:25). Objectively, his defense had failed in terms of being released from prison (Phil 1:7, Phil 1:13), and manifold fear, suffering, envy, and rivalry were around him (Phil 1:12-18). While he remains mostly silent about his current situation, Paul stresses how eagerly he is willing to visit Philippi again, though that he might not survive to do so (Phil 1:21-27; Phil 2:17-18). Meanwhile, he sends greetings from “those of the house of Caesar” (Phil 4:22), an expression that literally means “Caesar’s relatives” but is used here likely to designate Paul’s coprisoners.

Prayers of the Philippians fill him with hope and, most importantly, joy. Joy is the most prominent code word here. It is a seemingly neutral word that conveys some extra message. Since full understanding requires a shared code and context, our understanding remains limited. Yet, theological traditions might give some clues: Joy is God’s gift (Phil 1:19). It is expressed in worship and festival. It happens “in the Lord” (Phil 3:1; Phil 4:4). The existence of the congregation as a community is thus already a manifestation of divine activity in the world. Paul’s repeated appeal to joy might communicate the following massage: whatever outcome his trial might bring, the “God who is at work” in the Philippians will help ensure that Paul’s labor “will not be in vain” (Phil 2:13, Phil 2:16).

  • Standhartinger-Angela

    Angela Standhartinger is Professor for New Testament Studies at the University of Marburg, Germany. She is author of many books and articles, including “Letter from Prison as Hidden Transcript: What It Tells Us about the People at Philippi,” in The People beside Paul: The Philippian Assembly and History from Below, ed. Joseph A. Marchal (Atlanta: SBL Press, 2015), 107–40; “Apocalyptic Thought in Philippians,” in The Jewish Apocalyptic Tradition and the Shaping of New Testament Thought, ed. Benjamin E. Reynolds and Loren T. Stuckenbruck (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2017), 233–45; and Der Philipperbrief, HNT (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2021).