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Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible


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PRISON . Imprisonment, in the modern sense of strict confinement under guard, had no recognized place as a punishment for criminals under the older Hebrew legislation (see Crimes and Punishments, § 9 ). The first mention of such, with apparently legal sanction, is in the post-exilic passage Ezra 7:26 . A prison, however, figures at an early period in the story of Joseph’s fortunes in Egypt, and is denoted by an obscure expression, found only in this connexion, which means ‘the Round House’ ( Genesis 39:20 ; Genesis 39:23 ; Genesis 40:3 ; Genesis 40:5 ). Some take the expression to signify a round tower used as a prison, others consider it ‘the Hebraized form of an Egyptian word’ (see Driver, Com. in loc. ). Joseph had already found that a disused cistern was a convenient place of detention ( Genesis 37:24 ; see Pit). The same word ( bôr ) is found in Exodus 12:29 and Jeremiah 37:16 in the expression rendered by AV [Note: Authorized Version.] ‘dungeon’ and ‘dungeon house’ respectively; also alone in Jeremiah 38:8 , Zechariah 9:11 .

The story of Jeremiah introduces us to a variety of other places of detention, no fewer than four being named in Jeremiah 37:15-16 , although one, and perhaps two, of these are later glosses. Rigorous imprisonment is implied by all the four. The first ‘prison’ of Jeremiah 37:15 EV [Note: English Version.] denotes literally ‘the house of bonds,’ almost identical with the Philistine ‘prison house,’ in which Samson was bound ‘with fetters of brass’ ( Judges 16:21 ; Judges 16:25 ). The second word rendered ‘prison’ in Jeremiah 37:15 (also Jeremiah 37:4 ; Jeremiah 37:18 , Jeremiah 52:31 and elsewhere) is a synonym meaning ‘house of restraint.’ The third is the ‘dungeon house’ above mentioned, while the fourth is a difficult term, rendered ‘cabins’ by AV [Note: Authorized Version.] , ‘cells’ by RV [Note: Revised Version.] . It is regarded by textual students, however, as a gloss on the third term, as the first is on the second.

Jeremiah had already had experience of an irksome form of detention, when placed in the stocks (Jeremiah 20:2 ; cf. Acts 16:24 ), an instrument which, as the etymology shows, compelled the prisoner to sit in a crooked posture. 2 Chronicles 16:10 mentions a ‘house of the stocks’ (RVm [Note: Revised Version margin.] ; EV [Note: English Version.] ‘prison house’), while Jeremiah 29:26 associates with the stocks (so RV [Note: Revised Version.] for AV [Note: Authorized Version.] ‘prison’) an obscure instrument of punishment, variously rendered ‘shackles’ (RV [Note: Revised Version.] ), ‘pillory’ ( Oxf. Heb. Lex .), and ‘collar’ (Driver). The last of these is a favourite Chinese form of punishment.

In NT times Jewish prisons doubtless followed the Greek and Roman models. The prison into which John the Baptist was thrown (Matthew 14:3 ; Matthew 14:10 ) is said by Josephus to have been in the castle of Machærus. The prison in which Peter and John were put by the Jewish authorities ( Acts 4:3 AV [Note: Authorized Version.] ‘hold,’ RV [Note: Revised Version.] ‘ward’) was doubtless the same as ‘the public ward’ of Acts 5:18 RV [Note: Revised Version.] (AV [Note: Authorized Version.] ‘common prison’). St. Paul’s experience of prisons was even more extensive than Jeremiah’s ( 2 Corinthians 6:5 ), varying from the mild form of restraint implied in Acts 28:30 , at Rome, to the severity of ‘the inner prison’ at Philippi ( Acts 16:24 ), and the final horrors of the Mamertine dungeon.

For the crux interpretum , 1 Peter 3:19 , see art. Descent into Hades.

A. R. S. Kennedy.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Prison'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. 1909.

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