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(Probably) Valentin de Boulogne (ca 1594-1632), Saint Paul Writing His Epistles (c. 1618-20), oil on canvas, 39-1/8 x 52-3/8", Blaffer Foundation Collection, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX.
Most scholars have assumed the Paul wrote the Prison Epistles from Rome during his imprisonment there (Acts 28:16, 30-31), and that may be the case. However, there are some good reasons to consider that at least some of his Prison Epistles were written earlier.
First, let's catalog Paul's imprisonments that we know of. By the time Paul wrote 2 Corinthians in 56 AD, he already had been imprisoned a number of times -- even prior to imprisonments in Jerusalem, Caesarea, and Rome.
"We commend ourselves ... in beatings, imprisonments and riots...." (2 Corinthians 6:5)
"I have ... been in prison more frequently...." (2 Corinthians 11:23a)
Why does he talk about his imprisonments? Because his adversaries haven't suffered at all for the faith. Paul sees persecution as a mark of the authenticity of his apostleship. Clement, bishop of Rome from 88 to 99 AD (who may be the Clement given as Paul's "fellow worker" in Philippians 4:3) wrote from Rome about 99 AD:
"Owing to envy, Paul also obtained the reward of patient endurance, after being seven times thrown into captivity, compelled to flee, and stoned." (1 Clement 5:6)
Imprisonment in the New Testament is referred to in several ways -- bound, in chains, in prison, prisoner. Most of the Greek words derive from the verb deō, "bind, tie, fetter."
From Acts we know that Paul is placed in chains on several occasions:
- Philippi (Acts 16:23-40) with Silas, who experience an earthquake that opens the doors.
- Jerusalem (Acts 21:33-23:10), Paul is chained, but kept at the soldiers barracks temporarily.
- Caesarea (Acts 23:35; 26:29; 28:20), under guard in Herod's palace in Caesarea, awaiting a trial that never came, "in prison" (Acts 24:27).
- Rome (Acts 28:16-30), under guard in his own house.
There is also evidence from Paul's letters of imprisonment. The letters he wrote from prison are termed the Prison Epistles -- Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon. In addition, just before his death, Paul wrote 2 Timothy from prison.
If you've studied these epistles, you can see three groups:
- Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon. The themes and language used in Ephesians and Colossians are quite similar in several passages, so these were probably written about the same time. Both were Asian churches -- Ephesus, the capital of the province of Asia, and Colossae, about 125 miles (205 kilometers) east of Ephesus. Philemon is the leader of a house church in Colossae.
- Philippians seems to stand on its own, clearly written from prison (Philippians 1:7, 13-14), but seems different than Ephesians and Colossians.
- 2 Timothy seems to be written from Rome (2 Timothy 1:17), shortly before Paul's death (2 Timothy 4:6).
Though there's no hint of it in the Acts narrative, some have argued strongly that at least some of the Prison Epistles were written while Paul was a prisoner in Ephesus -- most notably in recent years, N. T. Wright. Arguing for a Roman origin for the Prison Epistles are evangelical scholars of the stature of F. F. Bruce. Here are the main arguments for an Ephesian imprisonment.
New Testament Evidence. Paul hints in 1 Corinthians (written during his Ephesian ministry) of intense conflict.
"A wide door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many adversaries." (1 Corinthians 16:9)
"If I fought wild beasts in Ephesus for merely human reasons, what have I gained?" (1 Corinthians 15:32a)
Some take the reference to fighting the wild beasts hypothetically or figuratively, but Paul may have been speaking literally. However, in 2 Corinthians, which was also written during Paul's Ephesian ministry, he speaks of intense persecution.
"8 We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about the hardships we suffered in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. 9 Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. 10 He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us." (2 Corinthians 1:8-10a)
"8 We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; 9 persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. 10 We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. 11 For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus' sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body. 12 So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you." (2 Corinthians 4:8-12)
Paul is describing some kind of life-and-death struggle. The Acts narrative doesn't suggest circumstances that would fit this description during the Ephesian ministry, but clearly something was going on.
In Paul's Letter to the Romans, also written during the Ephesian ministry, he makes two personal references that might refer to an Ephesian imprisonment:
"Greet Priscilla and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus. They risked their lives for me." (Romans 16:3-4a)
"Greet Andronicus and Junias, my relatives who have been in prison with me." (Romans 16:7a)
Early Church Traditions. In addition to hints in the New Testament, there are some late references in early church documents to Paul fighting a lion in Ephesus. And, in the so-called Monarchian (Marcionite) Prologues to Paul's Epistles, we see:
To Colossians -- "Therefore the apostle already in custody writes to them from Ephesus."
To Philippians -- "... writing to them from Rome out of prison by Epaphroditus."
To Philemon: "writes to him from Rome out of prison."
While I would argue that Colossians and Philemon were written about the same time, this at least establishes a tradition by the third century AD of an Ephesian imprisonment.
Inferences from Geographical Proximity. References in Colossians and Philemon seem more likely if Paul wrote from prison in Ephesus, which as about 125 miles (205 kilometers) to the west, rather than from Rome, which is 1,300 miles (2,110 kilometers) to the west, or from Caesarea, some 900 miles (1,500 kilometers) to the east.
- Paul returns the run-away slave Onesimus to his master Philemon, who lives in Colossae. It is more likely that Philemon's slave ran to nearby Ephesus, than to Rome or Caesarea.
- Paul's request to Philemon for future lodging (Philemon 22), would be more likely if Paul writes from prison in nearby Ephesus, than in Rome or Caesarea.
- Paul's letter to Colossae would have been more likely written from nearby Ephesus, than from Rome, though this is a weaker argument.
- Epaphras, who is from Colossae (Colossians 4:12, Philemon 23), is more likely to be Paul's fellow prisoner in nearby Ephesus, than in Rome or Caesarea.
In addition, some note that Tychicus (mentioned in Colossians 4:7), was with Paul when he left Ephesus (Acts 20:4), making it easy to posit that Colossians was written from Ephesus.
Now let's look at references in Philippians that might suggest a location:
"It has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ." (Philippians 1:13)
"Palace guard" (NIV), "imperial guard" (ESV, NRSV), "palace" (KJV) is praitōrion, which can refer to the "governor's official residence" (Acts 23:35). The word doesn't decisively place this imprisonment in any particular location, only in a city that would have an official governor's residence. If Paul is writing from Rome, then this would be a reference to the Praetorian Guard, the emperor's personal bodyguard.
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Another reference is more specific:
"All the saints send you greetings, especially those who belong to Caesar's household." (Philippians 4:22)
While some argue that the phrase could be used widely, I think it most likely refers to the imperial household in Rome.
Any conclusions about the place in which the Prison Epistles were written is by necessity tentative, not dogmatic. However, after studying the evidence, I conclude that Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon were most likely written during an Ephesian imprisonment. Philippians and 2 Timothy seem likely to have been written from Rome.
 Phylakē, "watch, guard"; desmōtērion, "prison, jail"; tērēsis, "custody, imprisonment, prison"; desmios, "prisoner"; deō, "bind, tie"; syndeō, "bind together"; desmios, "prisoner"; desmōtēs, "prisoner"; synaichmalōtos, "fellow prisoner"; phylakizō, "imprison"; desmophylax, "keeper of the prison."
 N.T. Wright, Paul: A Biography (HarperOne, 2018), pp. 239-240, 260-269.
 F. F. Bruce, Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free (Eerdmans, 1977), pp. 396-399.
 See Benjamin W. Robinson, "The Ephesian Imprisonment of Paul," Journal of Biblical Literature, 29, No. 2 (1910), pp. 181-189. This is available online in PDF format for study. See also, George S. Duncan, St. Paul's Ephesian Ministry (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1929), also available online in PDF format.
 Acts of Titus, Hippolytus, Commentary on Daniel 3. 29; and the Coptic text of the Acts of Paul, which tells of Paul's miraculous escape from the lions in Ephesus, sailing for Macedonia shortly after his release.
 "Palace guard" (NIV), "imperial guard" (ESV, NRSV), "palace" (KJV) is praitōrion, "the praetorium, originally, "the praetor's tent [army commander] in camp, with its surroundings. In the course of its history, the word also came to designate the governor's official residence.... In Caesarea, at any rate, the palace of Herod served as the praetorium" (Acts 23:35).
 Josephus, Antiquities 17.5.8, mentions that Herod's enemy Antipater plotted against his sister and "even corrupted Caesar's own domestics." Philo (In Flaccus 35) wrote of Agrippa, "And even if he had not been a king but only one of the household of Caesar, ought he not to have had some privileges and especial honors?"
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