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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament


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1. Greek words translated ‘prison.’-The term φυλακή is almost invariably rendered ‘prison’ in AV_ and RV_. It is also used in a more restricted sense to designate a portion of a prison, in one instance ‘the first and the second ward’ (Acts 12:10 AV_ and RV_), traversed by the apostle Peter on his way to freedom; in another, ‘the inner prison’ (Acts 16:24 AV_ and RV_) in which St. Paul and Silas were immured by the Philippian jailer. The word δεσμωτήριον, frequently applied by Attic orators to the prison at Athens, and used in the Acts interchangeably with φυλακή, is translated ‘prison-house’ in the RV_ (Acts 5:21; Acts 5:23, Acts 16:26). The word οἴκημα (‘a room, in a house’), a polite equivalent in Attic Greek for δεσμωτήριον, is used (Acts 12:7) to denote ‘the cell’ in which the apostle Peter was confined by order of Herod. Another word for prison, τήρησις, translated ‘hold’ (RV_ ‘ward’), is employed in Acts 4:3 to designate the place of confinement into which the apostles were thrown by the sacerdotal authorities at Jerusalem; also in Acts 5:18 qualified by the adjective δημοσία (AV_ ‘common prison,’ RV_ ‘public ward’).

2. The prison in apostolic times.-In most of the instances mentioned in the NT, prisons appear to have been a part of buildings mainly devoted to other uses, such as palaces and fortresses, rather than buildings exclusively set apart for the purpose. The system then in vogue differed in this and other respects from the one that largely prevails at the present day. As a rule, prisons were intended not as places of punishment for convicted criminals, but as places of detention for persons awaiting trial, or pending their execution. In support of this view may be cited the imprisonment of the apostles recorded in Acts 4:3; Acts 5:18 ff., that of the apostle Peter in Acts 12:3-10, and that of the apostle Paul at Jerusalem, Caesarea, and Rome. Among the Jews, as well as among the Greeks and Romans, it was usual to inflict other penalties than imprisonment for offences against law and order, e.g., fines, scourging, death.

In Philippi, which was a Roman colony, the prison into which St. Paul and Silas were cast seems to have been a separate establishment devoted to the purpose. But it is rash to assume that prisons in the provinces were planned on the same principle as the Mamertine prison at Rome. There is nothing to indicate that ‘the inner prison’ in which the Apostle and his companion were incarcerated was a subterranean dungeon. The reference to ‘doors’ (Acts 16:26) and to the circumstance that the jailer ‘sprang in’ (Acts 16:29) points to the fact that their portion of the prison was on a level with the other portions. The narrative affords us one of the few glimpses obtainable into the interior of a Roman prison, with its different cells, provided with the inevitable appurtenances of chains and stocks, and its governor’s house above. In Acts 12:3-10 an interesting glimpse is also given into the interior of the prison in which the apostle Peter was confined at Jerusalem. This was probably a guard-room in the fortress Antonia, situated at the north-west corner of the Temple area, escape from which could be effected only by passing through ‘the first and the second wards,’ lying between it and the iron gate leading into the city. The place of custody to which the apostles were committed by the Temple guard (Acts 4:1-3; Acts 5:18 ff.) was probably attached to the Temple or high priest’s palace, as it would appear to have been adjacent to the court in which the Sanhedrin subsequently met for the trial.

Among the evidences which St. Paul adduces of his pre-eminence in suffering is his ‘more frequent’ confinement ‘in prisons’ (2 Corinthians 11:23). Besides his imprisonment at Philippi and other unrecorded instances which preceded the writing of 2 Cor., he became painfully familiar with custody in prison and out of prison at subsequent dates. (1) As the result of the riot in the Temple, set on foot by the fanatical Jews of Asia, he was consigned for a time to the barracks (παρεμβολή, AV_ and RV_ ‘castle’) connected with the fortress Antonia (Acts 21:34), the scene of St. Peter’s imprisonment at an earlier date. (2) The discovery of the plot aiming at his assassination led to his being transferred to Caesarea, where he was detained for upwards of two years in the praetorium of Herod, now the residence of the procurator (Acts 23:35). Here the strictness of his confinement was sufficiently relaxed to admit of his friends having free access to him. (3) On his being transferred to Rome, as the result of his appeal to Caesar, a still larger measure of liberty was granted him. ‘He dwelt two whole years in his own hired house, and received all that came in unto him’ (Acts 28:30). (4) If we are to assume a second imprisonment at Rome-a subject still under discussion-it seems not unlikely, judging from references in 2 Tim., that he was subjected to severer treatment. According to tradition, his place of custody was the Mamertine prison, in the lower dungeon of which, known as the Tullianum, prisoners condemned for crimes against the State were executed.

3. Metaphorical use of ‘prison.’-The word ‘prison’ is applied in a figurative sense (1) to the place of confinement of the spirits ‘which were disobedient … in the days of Noah’ (1 Peter 3:19 f.; cf. Genesis 6:2-4)._ These are probably to be identified with ‘the angels which kept not their first estate,’ declared in Jude (Judges 1:6) to be ‘reserved in everlasting chains under darkness to the judgment of the great day,’ and with ‘the angels that sinned,’ who are ‘consigned to Tartarus’ (2 Peter 2:4, ταρταρώσας), as distinguished from Gehenna, ‘to be reserved unto judgment.’ The allusion in all these passages appears to be to the Book of Enoch, which represents the fallen angels as undergoing temporary punishment (in Tartarus, xix. 1-3; cf. xx. 2) until the day of their final doom. (2) The term ‘prison’ is also applied to ‘the bottomless pit’ (RV_ ‘the abyss’), in which Satan is bound a thousand years (Revelation 20:7; cf. v. 1).

Literature.-artt._ ‘Carcer’ in Smith’s DGRA_2, 1875, ‘Prison’ in McClintock-Strong’s Bibl. Cyclopaedia, viii. [1879], in HDB_ iv. [1902], and DCG_ ii. [1908]. For instances of imprisonment in the life of St. Paul, see Lives by Conybeare-Howson (new ed., 1877), F. W. Farrar (1897), and others.

W. S. Montgomery.

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These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Prison'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. 1906-1918.

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