What did it mean to be a “fellow-prisoner” with Paul?

A few times, for example in Romans, Colossians, and Philemon, Paul mentions certain individuals as sharers in his imprisonment. I always assumed this to be rather benign, as in they were regional companions, visiting Paul (daily?) to offer company, provisions, and to learn from him. Another possible view, which I have tended to reject, is that some were actually in prison at the same time as Paul and in his vicinity. Actually, this seems more true of Andronicus and Junia (Rom 16:7).

What about Epaphras and Aristarchus? I just came across the proposal (and some contextual evidence) that these men may have voluntarily entered into Paul’s prison chamber to keep him company. This is apparently the view that James Dunn takes (Colossians, NIGTC, 275-6) and the potential is confirmed by Brian Rapske (see Lucian, Peregr. 12). Richard Bauckham writes this:

The suggestion I endorse is not that Epaphras and Aristarchus were condemned prisoners, but that they voluntarily spent time with Paul in his prison cell.” (Gospel Women, 171)

Wow! Talk about sharing in the sufferings of others! This suggestion appeals to me on a number of levels, but what kind of confidence can we have? What do you think? How can we know what Paul was intending to say?

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2 thoughts on “What did it mean to be a “fellow-prisoner” with Paul?

  1. Interesting post, Nijay. I looked up the Lucian reference. It says that people bribed the jailers to let them sleep inside the jail with Peregrinus. Since bribes were needed, it was surely NOT an accepted practice for a prisoner’s friends to take it in turns to live with him in prison. It is unlikely that Paul would cast Epaphras and Aristarchus in the role of bribers. Doesn’t this make the theory of voluntary imprisonment rather unlikely? Also, how were the readers expected to know that Paul was referring to voluntary imprisonment?

    It seems to me that this theory has been contrived to explain away the contradiction between Colossians, which places Aristarchus in prison with Paul, and Philemon, which gives Epaphras the role. But shouldn’t we put all the bad apples in the same basket by recognizing that the author of Colossians has made numerous mistakes when plagiarizing from the letter to Philemon? He misread “Jesus” in Philemon 23 to be the name of a greeter. He assumed, anachronistically, that Mark was John-Mark. He did not know that Luke/Lucius was a Jew. He copied the informal name-forms found in Philemon 23-24 (Epaphras, Mark, Demas and Luke) without realizing that Paul ordinarily called them by their full names (Epaphroditus and Lucius).

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