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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Prison (2)

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PRISON.—The fact that no fewer than eight different Heb. roots are used to express ‘prison’ (see Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible i. 525) in the OT, testifies to the number of prisoners in ancient times, and the variety of treatment which they experienced. Not only ordinary prison-houses, but also fortresses, barracks, palaces, and temples had commonly accommodation—more or less extensive—for prisoners, just as our rural police stations have cells attached to them for temporary confinement.

The Latin and Greek terms translated ‘prison’ are expressive and significant. Carcer (cf. Gr. ἵρκος) emphasizes restraint. Ergastulum (lit. workhouse) corresponds to our ‘penitentiary.’ Malefactors and slaves laboured therein, as in the building where Samson had languished. The Tullianum at Rome was a condemned cell. Perhaps the mildest form of imprisonment recorded in the NT was that of St. Paul (Acts 28:30), when he dwelt for two whole years in his own hired house (μίσθωυα,—see illustration in Rome and its Story by Tina Duff Gordon and St. Clair Baddeley, p. 114), guarded by, and probably chained to, a soldier. οἴκημα, in polite Attic usage used for a prison, is found once (Acts 12:7). τήρησις, ‘the place of keeping’ (Acts 4:3; Acts 5:18), translation ‘hold’ (Revised Version NT 1881, OT 1885 ‘ward’) and ‘prison’ (probably that attached to the Temple or the high priest’s palace, Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible iv. 103), also suggests the mildest form of restraint. The φυλακή or place of guarding, in which John the Baptist was confined (Matthew 14:3), is believed to have been in the royal palace of Machaerus (Josephus Ant. xviii. v. 2). Custody in a φυλακή might mean anything, from the comparative comfort of a guard-room to the misery of a dungeon. Another word translated ‘prison’ is δεσμωτήριον, the ‘place of bonds.’ It is used interchangeably with φυλακή in speaking of John the Baptist’s prison (Matthew 11:2), and became painfully familiar to the first preachers of the Cross in the course of their mission, ary journeyings. See also following article.

If those mutilations and other horrid cruelties, familiar to the older pagan world, were less common, still vindictiveness rather than reformation was a note of imprisonment at the dawn of the Christian era. The LXX Septuagint translates the place of Zedekiah’s imprisonment at Babylon οἰκία μύλωνος, ‘the millhouse’ (Jeremiah 52:11). Grinding corn in a millhouse is a somewhat more humane punishment than hard labour on the treadmill, and some of the tasks allotted to inmates of an ergastulum may have been no more disagreeable than picking oakum. But much more severe treatment was often the unhappy prisoner’s lot. In our Lord’s parable of the Unforgiving Servant, that ungrateful wretch fell into the hands of torturers (τοῖς βασανισταῖς, Matthew 18:34)—a staff of officials whose very name is sinister. One means of torture was an instrument (ξύλον, Lat. nervus) in which the bodies of victims were confined. It is described as ‘a wooden block or frame in which the feet and sometimes the hands and neck of prisoners were confined’ (Robinson, Gr. Lex. of NT). In such durance were Paul and Silas placed at Philippi (Acts 16:24). The condemned cell of a Roman prison resembled that dungeon in the court of the prison into which Jeremiah was let down with cords, and where he sank in the mire (Jeremiah 38:6). ‘They were pestilential cells, damp and cold, from which the light was excluded, and where the chains rusted on the limbs of the prisoners’ (Conybeare-Howson, Life and Epistles of St. Paul, i. 358). The Career Mamertinus on the slope of the Capitoline of Rome, and the traditional scene of St. Paul’s last imprisonment, is typical of Roman prisons all over the world during Rome’s supremacy. It consists of two chambers, one above the other—the upper one an ‘irregular quadrilateral.’ The lower, ‘originally accessible only through a hole in the ceiling, is 19 ft. long, 10 ft. wide, and 61/2 ft. high. The vaulting is-formed by the gradual projection of the side walls until they meet.’ This prison is supposed to have been built over a well named Tullianum, and hence traditionally attributed to Servius Tullius (see Varro, v. 151). An inscription records that it was restored in b.c. 22 (Baedeker, Italy, ii. p. 226). See also art. Hell (Descent into).

Literature.—Besides the authorities referred to above, see the Commentaries, ad loc.; Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible , artt. ‘Crimes’ and ‘Prison’; Conybeare-Howson, Life of St. Paul, i. 357 f.; Farrar, Life of St. Paul, i. 497, ii. 390 ff., 547.

D. A. Mackinnon.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Prison (2)'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdn/p/prison-2.html. 1906-1918.

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