In the New Testament, we hear a lot about Christians being imprisoned—especially Paul. In fact, he wrote his letter to the Philippians while in jail! We’ve gathered some information from the ESV Archaeology Study Bible here for you to learn more about Roman jails were like.

PAUL WRITING THE PHILIPPIANS FROM PRISON

In the Roman world, imprisonment was rarely a long-term punishment. Most prisoners were awaiting either trial or execution. Debtors could be imprisoned until their friends or family paid o‘ the debt (Matt. 18:30). The length of imprisonment depended on the swiftness of a trial, which could be drawn out for years, especially in political cases. Conditions of imprisonment were closely linked to the status of the prisoner. Non-Roman citizens, even of high status, were often harshly treated. In contrast, house arrest was typically more comfortable for the prisoner, who was usually physically chained to a guard but could still host visitors.

PRISON CONDITIONS

Paul experienced a wide variety of prison conditions. He was chained in a common holding cell in Philippi (Acts 16:23– 30), imprisoned in probably better conditions in the praetorium at Caesarea (Acts 23:35), and held in relative comfort while in house arrest in Rome (Acts 28:16). In Rome, Paul was responsible for maintaining himself during his imprisonment, including his meals and clothes (Acts 28:30). Paul’s Roman citizenship meant he was eligible for a daily food allowance, but Paul depended on his friends and fellow believers to supply this food. While under house arrest in Rome, Paul was guarded around the clock by soldiers of the elite Praetorian Guard.

AFTER PAUL WROTE PHILIPPIANS

Finally, when he was later rearrested and executed (likely a few years after this letter), Paul was probably placed in an underground cell somewhere in Rome. It is possible that he was then imprisoned in the Mamertine Prison in the Roman Forum. This was where major convicted enemies of the state were strangled or kept before being thrown off the Tarpeian Rock on the Capitoline Hill. However, if Paul was executed by a sword outside the city, as later tradition claimed, he probably would not have been imprisoned at Mamertine.

Roman Prison

MORE INFORMATION ON THE BOOK OF PHILIPPIANS

AUTHOR

Paul is the stated author of Philippians, and while Timothy is listed in 1:1 as a coauthor, the main voice is clearly Paul’s. Timothy may have been Paul’s amanuensis, or secretary. The letter was written to the Christians in the Roman colony of Philippi. Some scholars have suggested that the current epistle combines two authentic letters of Paul, with the first letter concluding at 3:1 (“Finally, my brothers . . .”). However, Paul elsewhere uses “finally” in the middle of an epistle (1 Thess. 4:1; 2 Thess. 3:1; cf. 1 Pet. 3:8).

DATE

Paul wrote this letter while in prison, and the date of the composition of Philippians depends on where Paul was imprisoned. His statements to the Philippians concerning his possibly imminent death (e.g., Phil. 1:20) indicate the letter was most likely written from Rome, perhaps in AD 62. This also fits most naturally with the mention of the praetorium and “Caesar’s household”.

BACKGROUND

The church at Philippi had a special significance for Paul, as it was the first church he founded in Europe (see Acts 16:6–40). The first convert was Lydia, a seller of purple cloth, and women continued to have a prominent role in the Philippian church (e.g., Phil. 4:2). His brief incarceration in Philippi (Acts 16:23–40) would make Paul’s later imprisonment mentioned in this letter all the more poignant for the Philippians, especially for the converted Philippian jailer. Paul visited Philippi a few times after his initial departure, and the church maintained active support for his ministry (Phil. 4:15–16). Imprisonment carried with it a social stigma, and it would have been easy for the Philippians to turn their back on Paul at this point; instead, however, they remained faithful to him. Paul thus writes of his gratitude for the Philippian church and for their loyalty to the gospel.

ESV ARCHAEOLOGY STUDY BIBLE 

This blog is adapted from notes inside the ESV Archaeology Study Bible. This resource roots the biblical text in its historical and cultural context, offering readers a framework for better understanding the people, places, and events recorded in Scripture. With this knowledge, Christians will be better equipped to read, study, understand, and apply the Bible in their daily lives.

Learn more about the ESV Archeology Study Bible here.

11 Comments

  1. Thank you for this piece of information about the treatment and subsequent death of paul and the conditions he faced whilst preaching the glory of Jesus Christ our saviour

  2. Thank you for this information. We visited the site where Paul was imprisoned in Rome earlier this year. I don’t think he could have written while he was imprisoned there, unless he was provided with some source of light. It is a very dark, damp and rather small area carved out of the rock underground. No alter.

  3. I wish that all such evidence and current findings that support the bible reaches hearts of all non-believers, so that we may all be saved; JUST BELIEVE!

  4. Louise Viau Reply

    In some ways we are all prisoners. We are believers imprisoned in a society that seems to have forgotten God. We are surrounded by all manner of evil and occult practices, symbols and idols of all kinds. Our beliefs are being touted as unpopular and backwards, while occult practices and images are flourishing in the media and even in schools. We are being bombarded every day by reminders that we stand outside what is considered normal, forward thinking and mainstream. In this way, Paul’s letters from the depths of his imprisonment should resonate strongly with us today. His faith was not only unshaken, but strengthened by his difficulties. He is a wonderful example to all believers who feel shackled to an evil world in which their faith is tested every day. Paul’s faith thrived despite his incarceration. We can all benefit from following his inspiring example. Thank you for this information.

  5. How can I get a hard copy of this Bible? My husband likes actual books. I would like to get him one for Father’s Day.

    • Cierra Klatt Reply

      Sorry, Sara! We only sell digital copies. But you can search for this resource on the Internet to find a hard copy.

  6. Jerry Krummrich Reply

    The reminder that he Philippians jailer was among recipients is much appreciated. When I can put myself into the Bible setting along with the real people and walk in their sandals and share their personal appreciation for the Gospel and the man who told them about Jesus, I am awed.

  7. Dale DePriest Reply

    There are differences in the way Rome did things that affect our understanding of what happened to Paul. Rome did not have prosecutors for its population. If someone made a complaint against another person, even if it was a criminal complaint, they would need to hire their own lawyer and the defendant would also hire their own lawyer. Rome supplied the Judge. Upon a charge being filed the accuser had about 18 months to develop their case. It was often the case that someone could abuse this right and just accuse someone to get them arrested and then never follow through. I suspect this is what happened to Paul during the time he was under house arrest. He was just finally released a bit after the time expired.

  8. Donald Keiffer Reply

    Great article, very informative but after purchasing “the ESV Archaeology Study Bible” I found out that it was not “the ESV Archaeology Study Bible” but only the notes an as such should be titled “ESV Archaeology Study Bible Notes”

    • Cierra Klatt Reply

      Hey, Donald! The ESV is free to use in our app, so you can use the ESV Archaeology Study Bible with that translation. The reason we don’t put the study notes in line with the Bible text is so that you can use any translation you would like in the main menu.

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