Glossary of Terms



Harper’s Bible Dictionary

edited by Paul J. Achtemier (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985)

prison, a building or other facility used for holding individuals in judicial confinement

Types of Imprisonment: Various types of imprisonment were known in biblical times. Accused persons were often imprisoned either while their cases were being investigated or to assure their appearance for trial. The ot contains several examples: Gen. 39:19-41:14; 1 Kings 22:26-27; Num. 15:34 (see also Lev. 24:12, ‘until the will of the Lord should be declared’). In nt times Roman magistrates had the right either to remand accused persons to civil or military prisons or to release them on bail or on personal recognizance. Provincial magistrates often chose to imprison accused persons, and defendants of lower social status were everywhere particularly vulnerable. The nt offers many examples of pretrial imprisonment: Acts 4:3; 12:3-4; 16:23-24; 23:35; Phil. 1:7-26. The binding or chaining of Jesus before bringing him to Pilate may reflect some sort of formal arrest procedures (Matt. 27:2; Mark 15:1).

Some accused, particularly those of higher status, were held under more relaxed custody, sometimes without being chained. They could receive visitors and transact business (e.g., Paul at Rome [Acts 28:16-31]). Another type of imprisonment was for those condemned to death, a penalty common in antiquity. Debtors unable to pay their creditors were also imprisoned, sometimes in special debtors’ prisons, until their debts were paid. Luke 12:58 makes precise reference to the ‘officers’ who in Roman times had charge of such prisons (see also Matt. 5:25; 18:30). The asylum granted under Israel’s law to those who had accidentally killed someone in fact constituted a form of imprisonment since the individual who left the city of refuge could be slain by the victim’s next of kin (Num. 35:9-34; see also Deut. 4:41-43; 19:1-10; Josh. 20:1-9). Solomon’s confinement of Shimei ben Gera to Jerusalem can be compared to this practice (1 Kings 2:8, 36-46).

Although the use of imprisonment as a legal penalty remained uncommon, such practice was known in Greece, in Rome, and also in Israel. While some of the prophet Jeremiah’s various imprisonments (sixth century b.c.) resulted from lawless violence (Jer. 37:15-16; 38:5-7), his retention in ‘the court of the guard’ may reflect somewhat more orderly judicial processes (Jer. 32:2-3; 37:21; 38:13). Ezra 7:26 lists imprisonment as one of several recognized forms of legal punishment. The nt offers no clear examples of imprisonment used in this fashion. Paul’s imprisoning of Christians (Acts 8:3) probably refers to his handing them over to the custody of synagogue authorities who would then administer the penalty provided for in Israel’s law, a flogging of up to forty lashes (Deut. 25:1-3; 2 Cor. 11:24; Acts 22:19). However, the pretrial retention of an individual could easily be abused and become in fact a means of punishment (e.g., John the Baptist [Mark 6:17-20]).

Prison Conditions: Despite various efforts to promote reforms, conditions in ancient prisons were often harsh. Most prisoners wore chains; their feet might be shackled, their hands manacled or even attached to their neck by another chain, and their movements further restricted by a chain fastened to a post. The existence of laws prohibiting chains that were too short or too restrictive indicates that jailers sometimes employed such practices. The very word ‘chains’ became a synonym for imprisonment. Some prisoners were also kept in wooden stocks, devices to restrain the feet, hands, or even the neck of an individual (see Acts 16:24). Prisons often were very dark (see Isa. 42:7); the inner area of the prison mentioned in Acts 16:24 was probably without windows. Although solitary confinement was known, prisoners generally were kept grouped together, accused and condemned, men and women alike. Overcrowding was not infrequent (Isa. 24:22). Prisons often had poor air circulation, a lack of hygienic facilities, rats and vermin, and food of poor quality. Unscrupulous guards might at times use the withholding of food or even outright torture to extort money from prisoners or their relatives. Although various rulers, especially in Roman Imperial times, struggled to prevent such abuses, the quality of prison life largely remained the responsibility of local officials, and conditions undoubtedly varied considerably from place to place.

Numerous early Christians encountered prison at first hand, and nt exhortations such as Matt. 25:36 and Heb. 13:3 to visit those in prison clearly had immediacy. The best known prisoner in the nt is the apostle Paul; he himself refers to the many times he was imprisoned (2 Cor. 6:5; 11:23), and the phrase ‘the prisoner of Christ Jesus’ is almost a Pauline title (Philem. 1, 9; Eph. 3:1; 4:1; 2 Tim. 1:8). This designation is in part ironic—if Paul is Jesus’ prisoner, in reality he is free! The accounts of miraculous deliverances from prison found in Acts 12:6-10 and 16:25-26 also serve to stress that God’s power is greater than all the chains and prisons that humanity can devise.


Topical index of terms
Edited for by Robert Nguyen Cramer
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