Epiphany of Our Lord

The distinction between a political prisoner and common delinquent

January 6, 2023

Second Reading
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Commentary on Ephesians 3:1-12



Imagine your pastor starting a sermon with this headline: “When I was in jail…” Imagine a teacher, professor, faith leader, or priest starting their teaching with an acknowledgment of their imprisoned status. In the Greco-Roman world, as much as ours, teaching was about content as much as prestige, about the message as much as the messenger. Notwithstanding recent cultural shifts that discredit reason and facts, it continues to be true, particularly in religious settings, that credentials matter: the teaching still relies on a series of protocols about credentials, honor, status, professionalism, and the ethical standing of the conveyor of knowledge. 

This is relevant because, in the passage at hand, Paul acknowledges that he is a prisoner. Scholars have long pointed out how, despite being rooted in an honor-based society, early Christian writings did not paper over the shame-inducing reality of following a leader that was tortured and suffered the most humiliating death. Similarly, Paul does not shy away from sharing with his audience that he has been imprisoned on numerous occasions. On the contrary, he makes the cross an element of pride and his prisoner status a motif of evangelization: “a prisoner of Christ” for the cause of bringing the gentiles into the covenant (Ephesians 3:1). 

It is worth noticing that the letter to the Ephesians might not have been written by Paul. Similarly, it is a writing that most likely is not addressed to a specific community (the letter lacks any specific details about the audience). Some scholars even point out that it could not be, properly speaking, a letter but rather a theological treatise. These historical and literary matters ought not to concern us at this moment except for the fact that they make Paul’s recognition of his own imprisoned status more salient. It is one thing to acknowledge one’s plight and another very different one to use someone else’s imprisonment as a sign of authority. Ephesians might be a generic letter meant to be circulated among different communities, with some parts constituting a homily designed to edify and animate its audience. Ephesians is a letter on the side of optimism. Unlike Paul’s earlier writings, Ephesians seems to transfer the future emphasis on salvation to the present (2:4-10), or former rifts about the Gentile/Jew divide to a sense of communion that seems fresh (2:11-18). The same topics appear in the passage at hand (3:6). 

Once again, this optimism should not lead contemporary readers to think early Christians embraced a vision where political and social differences were eliminated. Ephesians 5:21-6:9 (much like Colossians 3:18-4:1; 1 Timothy 2:8-15; 5:1-2; 6:1-2; Titus 2:1-10; 1 Peter 2:13-3:3:7) mystifies via theological language the plight of the slave: slaves are to obey their masters “with a sincere heart as they would obey Christ.” (6:5). The tension between the divine project (1:20; 2:6; 2:10; 3:20) and the real world forces us to pay attention to how these communities navigated the equality in God and the equality in the real world. The inevitable hardships of being a prisoner even are expressed in ecstatic terms (3:1; 4:1). In 6:20, the author talks about being an “ambassador in chains so he may declare (the gospel) boldly.” The lowering of status is then a condition to carry the good news authoritatively, which always risks glorifying pain and torture. In the passage at hand, Paul’s imprisoned status is further rhetorically reinforced by his  declaration that he is “less than the least of all saints.” (3:8)

Such status denigration is striking in a passage that centers on knowledge and, more specifically, relies on the integrity of the knowledge conveyor: The mystery has been made known to the apostle via revelation (3:3). How does Paul then speak with command about truth, revelation, and authority? Paul centers his authority exclusively on being on the receiving end of a world-changing message. Such authority is, however, at odds with his persona. Many scholars have argued that Paul was protected by his Roman citizenship. Supposedly, this status would have granted him social honor, political purchase, and cultural competence. His imprisonment would be the consequence of proclaiming an anti-imperial religion, of preaching a belief system that challenged the political status quo. 

Although I am sympathetic to this view, it makes Paul digestible to our contemporary notions of honor and personhood. A political prisoner of sorts, in this version the apostle retains his honor by standing against the Roman Empire: a renewed account of David versus Goliath. An apostle who is incarcerated for his uncompromising beliefs is an apostle who is politically palatable. More recently, Schellenberg has argued that Paul’s numerous imprisonments put him more in the category of being a “civic nuisance,”1 someone who would be reported for trying to solicit funds that would be intended for the Temple, or for undoing the kind of allegiances that slaves, women, and other subordinate members of the household would be demanded to have for the paterfamilias. Rather than a political prisoner, Paul would be committing something similar to a misdemeanor and he would have been considered a repeat offender. 

This distinction between a political prisoner and common delinquent has important historical consequences for first century understanding of ecclesiology and discipleship. It is also theologically significant in the present because it sanitizes Paul: it is easier to identify with a political activist than with a working-class outcast. Paul’s repeated incarcerations inevitably damaged his social and cultural status but, apparently, did not rescind his authority. Of course, Paul’s role was contested and had to navigate numerous internecine communal struggles. Such context did not result in Paul being ashamed of being a prisoner or the author’s letter hiding Paul’s status. This is indeed a remarkable feature to keep in mind particularly in a time when we continue to link the gospel’s message to the honor and status of the messenger.


Notes

  1. Schellenberg, Ryan S., The Rest of Paul’s Imprisonments. The Journal of Theological Studies 69.2 (2018): 533-572.