Paul - Lesson 11

The Apostle Paul

Lesson 11 – Fellowship – Letters from Captivity

By Professor Luke Timothy Johnson, Emory University

 Scope:  At least four of Paul’s letters (Philemon, Colossians, Ephesians, Philippians) were written while Paul was in prison.  Determining which of Paul’s several imprisonments might have generated the letters is one problem attached to them; another is deciding which ones are authentic and which might have been written by a follower after Paul’s death.  Taken as a group, however, the letters are connected thematically by a concern for fellowship in communities, especially when disparities in social standing or human competitiveness threaten to destroy an ideal of equality and unity in Christ.  The Letter to the Ephesians stands as the best expression of these concerns and the most mature reflection in the Pauline tradition on the meaning of the church.

I.               From the fact that a substantial part of Paul’s correspondence was written from prison, we learn something important about him.

a.     We learn that being a first-generation Christian was dangerous and that Paul was sufficiently an irritant to come to the attention of those in a position to imprison him.

b.     We learn that Paul’s fidelity to his call and his devotion to his churches were capable of surviving the hardships of frequent captivity.

II.             Any consideration of the captivity letters must take account of two critical issues, neither of which has been resolved to universal satisfaction.

a.     The lesser issue is the question of where Paul was imprisoned when he wrote the letters.  It is lesser because it affects the chronology of the correspondence but not its meaning.

                                      i.     Acts and the letters indicate a number of Pauline imprisonments.

                                    ii.     The two most likely candidates for the location of the correspondence are Maritime Caesarea (in Palestine) and Rome.  In each place, Paul spent two years in captivity (Acts 24:27; 28:30).

                                   iii.     A popular alternative option is Ephesus, although its main appeal is convenience (see 1 Corinthians 15:32; 2 Corinthians 1:8)- it is much closer to the people he is writing to.

                                   iv.     Sources indicate that Paul was under house arrest but able to receive visitors and write correspondence.

b.     The greater issue is that of authenticity.  Several of these letters are considered by a majority of scholars to have been written by members of a Pauline school after his death.

                                      i.      Philippians and Philemon are universally regarded as authentic.

                                    ii.     Some scholars consider Colossians authentic, but the majority do not.

                                   iii.     A greater majority think Ephesians to be pseudonymous (written in Paul’s name after his death).

                                   iv.     Technically, 2 Timothy is also a captivity letter, although it is generally treated with the other two Pastoral letters and is considered by the substantial majority of scholars to be inauthentic.

c.     An alternative construal takes Philemon. Colossians, and Ephesians as a three-letter packet, authored, if not actually written, by Paul to the Christians of the Lycus Valley and other points in Asia Minor during his lifetime.

                                      i.     This hypothesis emphasizes the connecting links between the three letters: their language, themes, and the network of names found in each.  It attributes the differences among them to three different functions.

                                    ii.     This hypothesis views Philemon as a letter of commendation for the runaway slave Onesimus, who is being returned to his owner, Philemon, by Paul’s delegate, Tychichus.  Colossians is one of several letters to local churches delivered by Tychichus, who also circulates Ephesians, a general epistle to the Pauline churches of Asia Minor.

III.           Taken as a group, the captivity letters share some broad characteristics.

a.     In tone, they are calmer and more detached, and Paul seems much less concerned about his authority.  The “Paul” of these letters has a gentleness even in the face of difficulties.

b.     He shows himself to be more concerned with overall moral attitudes than with specific practical concerns.

c.     He constructs his arguments more on the basis of shared traditions (especially connected to baptism) than on the interpretation of Torah.

d.     In some fashion, each letter defends a vision of the church as a community of reconciliation and equality of status, in the face of social disparities (Jew/gentile, slave/free, male/female) and attitudes of competition and rivalry.

e.     Each emphasizes the ultimate nature of Christ as the power and pattern of life together in fellowship.

IV.           Whether it is written by Paul or a follower, Ephesians is recognized by all scholars as a magisterial statement on the church that is thoroughly Pauline in character.

a.     Ephesians announces God’s plan as one of reconciling all things in Christ (1:3-23).

b.     It portrays the cosmic alienation of humans from God in terms of the sociopolitical and religious alienation between Jews and gentiles (2:1-12).

c.     The reconciliation of humans and God is, therefore, represented in the church by the reconciliation of Jew and gentile (2:13-22).

d.     The mission of the church, in this vision, is to be a symbol of the world’s possibility (3:10-11).  The church is to be the place where God’s plan for the reconciliation of all things is first realized and, thereby, revealed to the world (4:1-5:20).

Essential Reading:

Philemon, Philippians, Colossians, Ephesians

Supplementary Reading:

L.T. Johnson, Writings, pp. 369-421.

Questions to Consider:

  1.  Why does Paul consider individualism (expressed through rivalry and competition) to be so destructive of the church?
  2. How does contemporary Christianity match Paul’s vision of the church as a community where profound human differences are reconciled?

 Next Lesson:

History and Theology.  Read I and II Timothy and Titus.