Monday, December 14, 2009

Fighting Wild Beasts (Philemon and Colossians)

To follow the thread of this writing project back, the previous post is here.
Imprisoned at Ephesus?
Four of the Pauline letters in the New Testament hint that they were written while Paul was in prison: Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon. [1] Traditionally, it has been thought that Paul wrote these from Rome while he was waiting to appear before the emperor Nero (cf. Acts 28:30-31). Of course none of them say where Paul was imprisoned, so various scholars have suggested other places Paul might have been when he wrote them, like Caesarea in Palestine or Ephesus in Asia Minor.

When thinking about these letters, it is important to realize that prison was not a punishment in the ancient world. Rather, a person went to prison as they waited to appear before the appropriate official. Then punishment was dispensed immediately when a verdict was reached, including possibilities like death, exile, or fines. While a person awaited their appearance, they would have to find someone on the outside to provide them with food and other necessities.

The book of Acts only tells of two imprisonments of any length of time: about two years in Caesarea after Paul was arrested in Jerusalem (ca. AD58-60) and then about two years under house arrest in Rome (ca. AD60-62). Acts also mentions a stint overnight in Philippi (16:23-39), and we cannot rule out the possibility that he spent a day or two in Corinth before he appeared before the Roman governor Gallio (Acts 18:12-17). 1 Clement, from the end of the first century, suggests Paul was imprisoned seven times (**). Although we cannot know if this number is correct, it is at least possible that Paul was imprisoned a few more times as well.

In particular, it is often suggested that Paul might have been imprisoned for a period of time during the some three years he was at Ephesus. Some strongly resist this idea because Acts does not tell us of any imprisonment at this time. Acts does tell of a rather serious incident at the end of Paul's stay at Ephesus involving a riot, but it merely says that Paul left Ephesus, "after the uproar had ceased" (20:1). Those who see Acts as an almost documentary style report of events might thus find it hard to think it would have put it this way if in fact Paul had a rather significant run in with the law at the time.

Nevertheless, there are good reasons to think that Acts is not just giving a videotape of the early church but is both presenting the story with creative artistry and emphasizing some things in a way that leads it to omit others. For example, in the incident where Paul was lowered down the side of Damascus in a basket, Acts only tells us that the Jews were plotting to kill him (9:23). It is only from Paul himself that we learn it was more the Arab ethnarch of the city under the Nabatean king Aretas IV who was trying to arrest him (2 Cor. 11:32). This was after a three year period involving some time spent in Arabia--likely in Aretas' kingdom. Acts tells us nothing of this sort. This is only one incident, but it may reflect a tendency on Acts' part to de-emphasize conflicts between the early Christians and Roman authorities and to emphasize "the Jews" as Paul's primary troublemakers.

Paul's own writings give us hints not only of one run in with the Romans at Ephesus, but possibly even two. Even as early during his stay there as 1 Corinthians, he mentions having fought with "wild animals" at Ephesus (15:32). No one takes this statement literally, since then Paul presumably would be dead. But surely the most likely way to take the statement is that Paul had some significant run in with the Roman authorities early in his stay at Ephesus.

But Paul alludes to an even more serious encounter with authorities around the time of the riot. In 2 Corinthians 1:8, just after he left Ephesus, Paul speaks of "the affliction we experienced in Asia." He goes on to say that, "we were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death." This sentiment seems stronger than merely being afraid he will be killed in a riot. It sounds rather more like Philippians 1 where Paul is hard pressed in his imprisonment to know whether he would rather have a verdict of death and go to be with Christ or whether it would be better for him to be acquitted (Phil. 1:21-24).

It may very well be, therefore, that Paul wrote all four of his "prison epistles" from Rome, but it is just as possible that he wrote some or all of them while he was imprisoned at Ephesus. We have decided to treat three of Paul's prison letters in this volume (Philemon, Colossians, and Philippians), then Ephesians in the next. We were torn about dividing them, since Ephesians has so many parallels to Colossians that it is also sometimes placed during the same imprisonment as Colossians. Similarly, while Ephesus seems a more likely place for Paul to write Philemon, Rome perhaps seems more likely for Colossians.

But for practical reasons, we have decided to look at Philemon, Colossians, and Philippians in this volume, picturing them in the context of Ephesus. We may take a moment in the next volume to ask what they might look like in the context of Rome a few years later. In this chapter in particular, we want to explore what it would look like for Philemon and Colossians to be written rather early during Paul's stay at Ephesus, not long after he arrived. The title of this chapter is thus an allusion to 1 Corinthians 15:32 and the possibility that Paul was imprisoned briefly even before he wrote 1 Corinthians. Then we will look at Philippians later in chapter 10. These settings do not change the message too greatly, but having such specific settings in mind might help us read the letters more vividly.

[1] This order has nothing to do with the order in which they were written but with their length. The earliest nearly complete manuscript of Paul's writings has them ordered from longest to shortest, with Hebrews second.

No comments: