Body and Blood of Christ


Letters from Prison
Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, OP


Paul and some companions spent a good part of the summer of AD 53 in the Praetorium of Ephesus being investigated for potentially subversive activities.

Letters from PrisonThe Roman empire had been won by conquest, and conquered peoples rarely felt kindly towards their occupiers. Rome, in consequence, carefully controlled the occasions when people could gather in anything bigger than family groups. All forms of associations (religious, secular, commercial, social) had to be licensed, and to obey strict rules.

Judaism was a legal religion. That umbrella covered Christianity as long as the two were close. As Christianity progressively acquired a more and more distinctive identity, the risk of illegality increased proportionally. By the end of Paul’s first year in Ephesus he had broken off all contact with the synagogue. The Jesus movement, in consequence, had no legal standing. It was up to Paul to prove that he and his followers were harmless.

Paul’s tactic was simply to carry on as if nothing was the matter. He would conduct himself as he normally did, and let the magistrate make up his own mind on that basis. Paul was not terribly worried. He had been through this process before.

Paul in fact concentrated on the maintenance of his far flung churches. He wrote three letters during this term of imprisonment.

It is rather surprising to find Paul writing to the Colossians. That church had been founded by Epaphras, and it was his responsibility. Epaphras, however, had been clapped into prison when he came to consult Paul, and it was imperative to deal with the matter immediately.

Christians at Colossae were exhibiting an unhealthy curiosity in a Jewish mystical-ascetic movement, because it seemed to offer something at once more elevated and concrete than the unadorned teaching of Epaphras, who had followed Paul in stressing a crucified Christ. It was believed that fasting from food and drink, coupled with strict observance of the Jewish religious festivals, could procure a mystical ascent to heaven, which climaxed in a vision of angels worshipping at the throne of God.

From Paul’s perspective the basic problem at Colossae was that the honour offered to Christ effectively marginalized him. He was given cosmic significance at the price of his terrestrial reality. He was elevated to the point where he could no longer be imitated. Believers, in consequence, were no longer challenged by exposure to the agonizing suffering of a crucified Saviour. Instead they were invited to relax into serene contemplation of the worshipping angels in heaven.ephesus

The letter to Colossae concluded with a series of greetings from those who had accompanied Epaphras. They needed to inform their loved ones that so far all was well, but not to expect them home immediately.

Tychicus, one of Paul’s aides carried the letter from Ephesus to Colossae. He was accompanied by Onesimus, who was the subject of the second letter, which was addressed to the committee that ran the house church of Philemon.

Onesimus was a slave, who had caused damage to his master Philemon. He then fled to Ephesus to ask Paul to intercede for him with Philemon. While there he became a Christian. Paul now wanted Philemon not to treat him as a criminal, but to welcome him as a brother in Christ, and ultimately to release him to Paul’s service.
Paul was fully aware that this would be a considerable financial sacrifice for Philemon, and decided to apply a not so subtle bit of pressure. The letter consistently speaks to Philemon in the second person singular, but it is addressed to the whole house church. Thus it had to be read aloud in public. Paul evidently hoped that Philemon would heed the silent urging of the whole congregation to give Paul what he wanted.

The third letter from prison was addressed to the Philippians. He had to thank them for further financial support and to deal with a dispute that endangered the unity of the community. He knew them all so well, however, that there is a very marked personal dimension, which is lacking in Colossians.

Paul lets them see his feelings about the situation at Ephesus, and discusses the sickness of Epaphroditus, who had brought him the gift from Philippi. The worst side of Paul’s character here comes to the fore. It easy to detect a self-absorbed willfulness. It is difficult to know what the Philippians made of his exhortations to unity when he exhibits nothing but contempt for those at Ephesus who disliked him.


This article first appeared in the Irish Catholic. Picture :Paul’s prison in Philippi



Quill Pen







Resource Centre

Periodic update