Hidden Messages in Paul's Prison Letters by Angela Standhartinger

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).

Angela Standhartinger, "Hidden Messages in Paul's Prison Letters", n.p. [cited 27 Sep 2022]. Online: https://www.bibleodyssey.org:443/en/passages/related-articles/hidden-messages-in-pauls-prison-letters



Angela Standhartinger
Professor for New Testament Studies, University of Marburg

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).

Title designating an emperor of the Roman Empire.

A group of people attending religious services, worshiping.

Characteristic of a deity (a god or goddess).

A gospel is an account that describes the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

Visible or tangible form of something ethereal, abstract, or invisible.

A written, spoken, or recorded story.

Relating to thought about the nature and behavior of God.

2Cor 6:4-5

4 but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: in great endurance, afflictions, hardships, calamities, 5 beatings, imprisonments, riots, lab ... View more

2Cor 11:23-27

23Are they ministers of Christ? I am talking like a madman—I am a better one: with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless floggings, and oft ... View more

Acts 21:33-28:31

Chapter 22Chapter 23Chapter 24Chapter 25Chapter 26Chapter 27Chapter 28

Acts 16:23-30

23 After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. 24 Following these instructions, he pu ... View more

1Thess 2:2

2but though we had already suffered and been shamefully mistreated at Philippi, as you know, we had courage in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in sp ... View more

1Cor 4:9-13

9 For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, as though sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels and to ... View more

Phil 1:1

1Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus,
To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons:

Phil 1:7

7It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God's grace with me, both in my imprisonment ... View more

Matt 25:36

36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’

Heb 13:3

3Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.

Phlm 11

11 Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful[a] to[b] you and to me.

Phil 1:20

20 It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be put to shame in any way but that by my speaking with all boldness Christ will be exalted now as always ... View more

Phil 4:14-20

14 In any case, it was kind of you to share my distress.
15 You Philippians indeed know that in the early days of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church s ... View more

Phil 2:25-30

25Still, I think it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus—my brother and co-worker and fellow soldier, your messenger and minister to my need;26for he has been ... View more

Phil 1:12

12 I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has actually resulted in the progress of the gospel,

Phil 1:25

25 Since I am convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith,

Phil 1:7

7It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God's grace with me, both in my imprisonment ... View more

Phil 1:13

13so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to everyone else that my imprisonment is for Christ;

Phil 1:12-18

Paul’s Present Circumstances
12 I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has actually resulted in the progress of the gospel, 13 s ... View more

Phil 1:21-27

21 For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. 22 If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me, yet I cannot say which I will choose. 23 I ... View more

Phil 2:17-18

17 But even if I am being poured out as a libation over the sacrifice and the service of your faith, I rejoice, and I rejoice together with all of you; 18 in th ... View more

Phil 4:22

22All the saints greet you, especially those of the emperor's household.

Phil 1:19

19 for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my salvation.

Phil 3:1

3 Finally, my brothers and sisters, rejoice in the Lord.
Breaking with the Past
To write the same things to you is not troublesome to me, and for you it is a so ... View more

Phil 4:4

4Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.

Phil 2:13

13 for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

Phil 2:16

16It is by your holding fast to the word of life that I can boast on the day of Christ that I did not run in vain or labor in vain.

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