Mis(Understanding) Philippians: Part 1—Where Was Paul Imprisoned?

Mis(Understanding) Philippians: Part 1—Where Was Paul Imprisoned? June 16, 2020

New Blog Series on Philippians

When Mike Bird and I co-wrote our Philippians commentary (New Cambridge Bible Commentary), we didn’t want to just copycat or cannibalize other commentaries. We wanted to offer our own reading based on fresh study. And in the midst of that research, we found ourselves questioning several scholarly assumptions about the interpretation of Philippians. In this series, we offer several of our refutations of specious readings. 

Where Was Paul in Prison?

There is a long-standing tradition that places Paul in a Roman prison. Many modern scholars advocate for Roman imprisonment, partly due to church tradition, but also because of the mention of the “praetorian guard” (ἐν ὅλῳ τῷ πραιτωρίῳ; Phil 1:13) and “the household of Caesar” (οἱ ἐκ τῆς Καίσαρος οἰκίας; 4:22). What do these phrases really mean and how specific are they to Rome? In this first post, Mike Bird advocates for an Ephesian imprisonment.

[NB: this post was first written on Mike’s blog Euangelion in April 2019, all subsequent posts in this series will be written by Nijay]


Philippians was written while Paul was imprisoned, but during which imprisonment and precisely where? It has traditionally been claimed that Paul wrote Philippians during a Roman imprisonment in the early 60s, while others have suggested Caesarea in the late 50s, and others again Ephesus as the place of writing in the mid 50s CE. While certainty is impossible, I prefer a setting in Ephesus with a date in the mid 50s for several reasons:

First, an Ephesian imprisonment is a sound inference drawn from Paul’s reference to the “troubles we experienced in the province of Asia,” his “many adversaries” there, his enigmatic remark about “how I fought wild beasts at Ephesus,” all of which could well be allusive for an imprisonment and a potentially capital trial in Ephesus (2 Cor 1:8-9;  11:23; 1 Cor 15:32; 16:9). A situation largely agreeing with Luke’s report of Paul’s tumultuous time in Ephesus during his journey for the collection (Acts 19:1-40). True, Luke does not explicitly mention an Ephesian imprisonment, but that is most likely because his narration is an episodic and epitomized summary of Paul’s career.

Second, Timothy is named as the co-author of Philippians, yet we have no evidence that Timothy accompanied Paul to Rome and he more likely remained in Ephesus where the pastoral epistles also place him.

Third, the polemical sections in the letter to the Philippians (1:15-18; 3:2-21) suggest an anxiety in Paul that has argumentative affinity and chronological proximity with his mindset, mood, rhetoric, and reaction following  the Antiochene incident (Gal 2:11-21) and the Galatian crisis (Gal 5:12) of the late 40s/early 50s. In other words, Philippians should be dated soon after Paul has energetically engaged with the problem of Jewish Christ-believing proselytizers harassing his Gentile converts in the early to mid 50s, rather than after his more diplomatic and sanguine remarks about Christ, Torah, and gospel which he wrote in his letter to the Romans around 57-58 CE.

Fourth, the movements described in the captivity letters (Philippians, Philemon, Colossians, and Ephesians) are far more plausible if Paul is imprisoned in Ephesus rather than in Rome.

For instance, in Philippians alone we observe: (1) Someone travelled from wherever Paul was to Philippi to inform them of Paul’s imprisonment, (2) Epaphroditus travelled from Philippi to Paul’s location to provide him with material and moral support; (3) Then someone traveled back from Paul’s imprisonment to Philippi to let the church know that Epaphroditus was seriously ill; (4) in response the Philippians despatched a letter to Paul expressing their concern for both Paul and Epaphroditus; (5) Paul says that he intends to send Epaphroditus and Timothy back to Philippi in the near future; and (6) Paul expects to be reunited with the Philippians himself some time soon which means returning to Philippi (see Phil 1:26-27; 2:22-27; 4:18). It is far more likely that these quick back and forth trips are across the Aegean Sea (250 miles) rather than across the Aegean and Adriatic Seas (800 miles).

In addition, and somewhat parallel to the movements between Paul and persons in Philippi, are the journeys to and from Colossae to Paul’s place of detainment. The flight of Onesimus from Colossae to seek out Paul, Onesimus’s return to Colossae with Tychichus, and Paul’s stated intention to visit Philemon in Colossae is again far more plausible if Paul is imprisoned somewhere closer such as Ephesus rather than in Rome (Philm 10, 22; Col 4:7-9).

Furthermore, if Paul really was in Rome when he wrote Philippians, then we know from his letter to the Romans that if he was released from custody that he was intending to head westward to Spain at first opportunity (Rom 15:23-28), which makes a prior eastern sojourn back to Macedonia and central Asia Minor not just circuitous but patently absurd.

Fifth, while many suppose that Paul’s reference to “the praetorium” and the “saints of Caesar’s house” implies a Roman provenance, this is far from certain (Phil 1:13; 4:22).

(1) The praitōrion simply means “general’s tent” or “headquarters.” Even if it refers to the people who make up the “imperial guard” (NRSV) or “palace guard” (NIV) that guard operates in a place known as the praetorium and Paul is merely referring to the people who work there, whether soldiers, slaves, freedman, servants, or administrators. Now, on the one hand, it is hardly beyond comprehension that Ephesus – as the “Light of Asia” and the “First and Greatest Metropolis of Asia,” holding immense strategic and economic importance, and comprising the seat of imperial worship in Asia – would have an imperial residence with administrators and a skeleton garrison of praetorian soldiers and imperial slaves. In fact, that is more than a proposal, there is inscriptional evidence that praetoriani were stationed in Ephesus since members of the elite imperial bodyguard supervised the imperial bank in Asia. On the other hand, and more likely for my mind, the reference to the praitōrion designates the proconsul of Asia’s own residence and the staff working in his headquarters and/or military garrison.

(2) The mention of the saints of Kaisaros oikias (“Caesar’s household”) does not mean members of Nero’s family and inner-circle who have become believers. Far more likely, it is the Christians who worked in the residence and headquarters of the procurator who was the emperor’s official representative in a region to take care of his domains and interests, perhaps imperial slaves. Whereas the proconsul was a senatorial appointee, the procurator was an imperial appointee. Tacitus tells us that at the commencement of Nero’s reign (ca. 54 CE) that Iunius Silanus was the proconsul of Asia, while Publius Celer and Helius were the procurators (who, it turned out poisoned Silanus at the behest of Agrippina, Nero’s mother). Caesar’s household need not be administrators or slaves in the Emperor’s residence in Rome, but can apply just as well to those in Ephesus who worked for the procutators, persons tasked with looking after Caesar’s affairs.

In sum, Paul declares that members of the Ephesian proconsul’s retinue know that he is chains for Christ and the Christians among Caesar’s household managed by the Ephesian procurators share their greetings with the Philippians.

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