July 14, 2006

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

St. Paul: Imprisonment in Ephesus

Paul was in Ephesus in the year 53, along with Timothy, Aquila and Priscilla.

Sometime late that year, he was imprisoned in the city’s praetorium, the official residence of the proconsul.

Apparently someone in the city told the proconsul that this new movement Paul headed was growing. The main thing the pro-consul had to do was to preserve order, so he imprisoned Paul until he could clear up the matter.

It was from this prison that Paul probably wrote letters to the Philippians, Colossians and Philemon, although scholars are divided about that.

The Letter to the Philippians is probably a composite of three letters. The first was a short letter, now Phil 4:10-20, in which he thanked the Church at Philippi for the monetary support brought to him by Epaphroditus, who became ill while in Ephesus.

Paul sent the letter by way of a member of the community at Ephesus, giving Paul an opportunity to learn from this messenger what was going on in Philippi. This observer returned with news that pagans, presumably Roman authorities, were making it difficult for the Christians in Philippi. He also reported that there was a feud between the leaders of two house-churches, the women Euodia and Syntyche.

So Paul wrote a second letter, sending it with Epaphroditus after he recovered from his illness. He told them about his imprisonment and gave instructions about Christian conduct, urging the two women “to come to a mutual understanding in the Lord” (Phil 4:2).

After he sent Epaphroditus off with that letter, Paul apparently realized that he had failed to warn the Philippians about the delegation from Antioch that was visiting Paul’s communities, telling them that they had to be circumcised and follow Jewish law. So he wrote a third letter, now Phil 3:2-21, which repeats much of what he had earlier written to the Galatians.

Also while he was in prison, Paul received a delegation from Colossae. The Church there had been founded by Epaphras, whose first convert was Philemon. Epaphras and others came to consult Paul about a problem. The people in Colossae had been influenced by a mystical-ascetic Jewish approach through which they could achieve a mystical ascent to heaven that involved worship and appeasement of angels and other spirits. This wasn’t what Paul preached, so Epaphras and others went to Ephesus to consult with Paul.

Paul’s letter affirmed that Christ possesses the sum total of redemptive power, and the Christians at Colossae should not be trying to placate spirits through ascetic practices concerning food and drink. True Christian asceticism, Paul wrote, consists in the conquering of personal sins and the practice of love of neighbor.

Paul also received another visitor from Colossae—Onesimus, Philemon’s run-away slave. Paul listened to Onesimus’s story and sent him back to Philemon with a letter pleading for leniency. Onesimus became a Christian, and Paul asked Philemon to welcome Onesimus back as a brother in Christ.

Eventually, Paul was released from prison and, a year or so later, was still living in Ephesus. †


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