Sometimes those things just write themselves! Ha!
Alright, let’s get down to business. Is Paul an insane person? That’s not actually my ‘question’ this week, but as I was reading and gathering the information for this blog, that’s all I could ask myself. “Has Paul just gone mad?”
Let’s explore Paul’s imprisonment, just so we can get a better idea of what life was like in the pen back then. (I promise I’m not trying to do this; these rhymes and puns just keep happening!)
Prison: Now vs. Then
Prison is not a glamorous place, but prison in 21st Century ‘Murica is by far much more comfortable than prison in 1st Century Rome. Today, there are so many steps that have to take place before a person can even be thrown into jail (or prison; the two will be used interchangeably here, but please note that I do know there is a difference. I’m in college, after all!).
First, there has to be probable cause for you to even be arrested. During the arrest process and at any time after, you can be interrogated and anything you say “can and will be used against you in a court of law.” After arrest (and the occasional interrogation), you will either be cited or booked. Being cited means you are given a court date and let go. Being booked entails fingerprinting, bad photography, and possible detention not unlike that of middle-school troublemakers. You may legally be held for 36 hours before being charged with anything, and after this it will be decided whether or not you receive the option of bail. Bail is basically just paying to get out of jail until your trial, although there is a lot more detail behind it that I don’t care to get into. You can choose not to bail out, but this means an extended stay in jail until your trial. (How horrifying!) Jail processing information found here.
My sarcasm comes from this video I found of a reporter who spent a day as an inmate in her county jail in Tennessee in 2008. In the video, she shows the process from arrest all the way to her release (within hours, I might add), documenting the environment and the people she encounters. It’s not the best video, to be honest, but the setting is what I really want to discuss.
The first thing I noticed was her constant complaint about all the things she had to give up- her shoes, her jewelry, and her clothes. Then she complains about having to shower in front of someone else, and the jumpsuit she is given not fitting. She looks “like a penguin,” apparently. Then we see her enter the cell. Hold up. Is that a mattress she’s carrying?
Upon entering her cell, she gives us a tour of it, which consists of gray brick walls, a stone bench (that has space for her cup and toothbrush! Hooray!) where her mattress sits, and a sink/toilet combination. Oh, let’s not forget the “mirror” that she can’t see her adorable self in. Poor girl. After the tour, we get a 20 second rant about how bored she is. (Excuse me, ma’am. I’m not sure if you realize this: YOU’RE IN JAIL. It’s not an amusement park…) Then she gets lunch, which actually looks pretty good compared to some of the food I eat everyday. After she eats, we hear her complain some more about how gross the toilet is and how she can hear other people through the walls. Then someone “pays her bond” and she is free to go. At the end, we hear her lamenting on whether or not anyone would commit a crime if they knew what it was like in there.
***As an aside, please note that I am not so ignorant to think that all jails are like this, and that horrible things don’t happen in them. Stories of neglect and abuse are rampant in the news, and these things need to be taken seriously. This is only used as a reference point to compare Paul’s jail experience with what we know today.***
The Imperial Guard was not so kind to Paul.
Meet the Mamertine Prison of Rome, Italy. Doesn’t look so bad, right?
Obviously, that line of thinking is wrong. Here’s why:
- Romans were among the first to use prisons as punishment.
- Prisoners were only held here to die, or wait to be publicly killed.
- The original purpose of this jail was a cistern (read: tank) for water storage. This made the conversion into jail complicated- there was no “cell block” to place prisoners in. This made the construction crew (cause they had those, right?) basically just dig a hole underneath the main room and leave a hole in the roof to drop prisoners into. Literally.
- Because Rome was one of the first places to implement an underground sewer system, digging approximately 12 feet underground for a cell basically put the cell in the middle of the sewage line. Feel like taking a bath, anyone?
- The Imperial Guard (AKA the Praetorian Guard) was not just a regular old police force. These were trained soldiers specifically chosen to be the Emperor’s body guards. Toward the end of the Roman Empire, they pretty much became their own political power and caused such a nightmare for the leaders of Rome that the higher-ups just started listening to them rather than being killed. Think Navy SEALS taking over America. These guys were no joke.
- On top of all this, the room that prisoners were held in was 6.5 feet high, 30 feet long, and 22 feet wide. A comparable room would be if you took 2 dorm rooms side-by-side and made them one room. (Translation: It ain’t big, y’all.)
Here I have found some photos (on Google) of the prison today.
That cell in Tennessee is looking pretty good now, huh? (All info on Mamertine Prison found here [I used some of the sources that this article used; however, I did not list them all here.])
If the environmental situation wasn’t enough, Roman prison practices weren’t exactly humane. In the church, we don’t like to talk about the gruesome things that happened to the writers of the story. We like to make jokes about how John (the apostle, not the Baptist) couldn’t be killed no matter how many times they tried, so they just ended up exiling him to Patmos to get him out of their hair. He is actually the only one of the 12 disciples that died a natural death. It is believed that John was dropped into a vat of boiling oil as a murder method. HE DIDN’T DIE, YOU GUYS. They just sent him away instead. We’ve all seen pictures of burn victims. I’ll leave that to your imagination.
Other torture methods of the day included:
- Having a rope tied around your neck, being attached to a horse, and dragged until you died.
- Being cooked to death. Has anyone seen Sweeney Todd?
- Being skinned alive. (Side note: to keep prisoners from passing out- who wants that?- they were hung upside down so that the blood rushed to their brain and they were conscious the whole time. Yikes.)
- Nero specifically had people crucified and then placed in his garden and lit on fire at night so he could have light for his nightly stroll.
- He also had them sewn into an animal hide and devoured by ravenous dogs.
Alright. So I’ve said a lot, and I still haven’t answered the question:
Why was Paul so freaking happy?
This was a challenge to answer purely based on the text and not pre-conceived notions from my [insert f-word here], but I think I have a good one. We’ve been talking all semester about the writers of these books having an agenda. Just like the Gospel accounts beg the question, “Does something have to be true to perpetuate truth?” I think Paul’s letters show what the true purpose of his life was. At the beginning of the NT, the authors were trying to get the story out there; they wanted people to know. Now, in the years later, people have heard and believed and established a religion based on this story. So what was Paul doing?
Consistently in his epistles, we see Paul doing 3 things:
- Encouraging others. Paul is being a good friend and leader by telling them, “Hey, you’re doing a good job! I’m hearing about it all the way over here and I’m so proud!” We all need that from time to time, even if we aren’t religious. That’s just a human thing.
- He gives us a reason for his imprisonment. Paul actually didn’t do anything to get arrested. He didn’t break any laws; he just talked to people about who Jesus was. It made people angry, though, and that was enough for him to be arrested over and over again. Ultimately, they didn’t have probable cause to keep him, so he had to be let go. Through all of this, Paul always addresses why he is in jail- to spread the story even further. Even in prison, Paul was in the right place at the right time. As discussed earlier, the Imperial Guard that arrested him and threw him in jail (literally) became very powerful in Roman politics. In Philippians 1:13, he tells the readers
“…so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ.”
Read: I was put in jail for telling the story. Everyone knew it, and everyone wanted to know why on earth a story- a man- was worth being imprisoned and tortured for. Paul got to reach a group that may not have otherwise been reached.
- He gives instructions for his absence. Like any good leader, Paul wanted to work as a team with his group, not be a dictator. He was trying to prepare them for the future, a future that could be without him at any moment. He was the founder of numerous churches in this area, and many of the people there were converts, meaning that they did not grow up learning the “essentials,” so to speak, of the religion. While trying to quickly educate his Gentile readers, Paul also addresses the other part of the congregation- the Jews. These are the people that did know what he was talking about- they were in on it; they got the references. We’ve already discussed in class how many of the points he makes are simply to dissolve tensions in the two groups. Philippians is no different.
I hope this sheds some light on the seriousness of Paul being in prison, and why he would take the time to write all of these letters instead of fighting for his freedom. We can obviously see that the furthering of the story and the encouragement of his fellow believers meant more to him than his own life. If you find something you’re passionate about, wouldn’t you do anything- even suffer- if it meant advancement in that subject? Paul would. He did.