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Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature


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(בּוֹר, bor, Genesis 40:15; Genesis 41:14, etc., a pit, as often rendered; fully בֵּית הִבּוֹר, house of the pit, Exodus 12:29; Jeremiah 37:16), is properly distinguished from the ordinary prison ( כֶּלֶא or בֵּית כֶּלֶא, also מִטָּרָה or מַשְׁמָר ) as being more severe, and usually consisting of a deep cell or cistern (Jeremiah 38:6; hence the propriety of the Hebrews word which indicates a hole), like the Roman inner prison ( ἐσωτέρα φυλακή, Acts 16:24). Incarceration, a punishment so common in Egypt (Genesis 39:20 sq.; Genesis 40:3 sq.; Genesis 41:10; Genesis 42:19), was also in use among the later Israelites (comp. Ezra 7:26). But it is nowhere mentioned in the law, perhaps because among a people, every man of whom was a landed proprietor, it was easily dispensed with, a fine being always easy to inflict; partly, too, because it seemed improper to take cultivators of the earth from their land for any length of time. (Other reasons are suggested by Michaelis, Mos. Recht, 5:45 so.) Arrest is mentioned, indeed (Leviticus 24:12), but not as a punishment. The guilty was simply kept in ward to await sentence (comp. 2 Chronicles 18:26; Wachsmuth, Hellen. Alterth. II, 1:186). So it was a legal principle in Rome that a prison was to be used only to keep men, not to punish them. Under the later kings imprisonment was used as a penalty, yet, as it seems, not by judicial sentence, but at the will of the sovereign, especially in the case of too plain spoken prophets (2 Chronicles 16:10; Jeremiah 20:2; Jeremiah 32:2 sq.; Jeremiah 33:1 sq.; Jeremiah 37:15). After the exile it became very customary (Matthew 11:2; Luke 3:20; John 3:24), and was sometimes used to punish religious offenses (Acts 4:18; Acts 4:21; Acts 8:3; Acts 12:4; Acts 22:4; Acts 26:10), and in cases of debt (Matthew 18:30; comp. Arvieux, 1:411).

The most ancient prisons were simply water cisterns, out of which, since the sides came together above, one could not easily escape without aid (Genesis 37:20; Genesis 37:22). Imprisonment in these was often made the more unpleasant by deep mud (Jeremiah 38:6). There were at the gates, or in the watch houses at the palaces of kings, or the houses of the commanders of the body guard, who were the executors of criminal sentences, especial state prisons (Jeremiah 20:2; Jeremiah 32:2; Genesis 39:20 sq.; Genesis 40:4; comp. Jeremiah 37:15; Jeremiah 37:20; Harmer, Obs. 3:250 sq.). A prison of the kind last named is called prison house (בֵּית הִמִּהְפֶּכֶת, 2 Chronicles 16:10). The prisoners were kept in chains (Judges 16:21; 2 Samuel 3:34; Jeremiah 40:1). Under the Roman empire they were chained, by one or both hands, to the soldiers who watched them (Acts 12:4; Acts 21:33; Pliny, Ep. 10:65; Seneca, Ephesians 5, and De tranquil. An. 10; Athen. 5. 213; Joseph. Ant. 18:6, 7), as is still the custom in Abyssinia (Rippell, Abys. 1:218). Sometimes the Israelites chained them by the feet to a wooden block (Job 13:27; Job 33:11; Acts 16:24; comp. Wetstein in loc.; Jacob, ad Lucian. Toxar. page 104), or by the neck (comp. Aristophanes, Clouds, 592), or by the hands and feet at once. Such severe imprisonment is to be understood in Jeremiah 20:2; Jeremiah 29:26, where our version has "in the stocks" (comp. Symmach. βασανιστήριον, στρεβλωτήριον; and the Greek κύφων, Schol. in Aristoph. Plut. page 476). Poor and meagre fare seems to have added to the severity of the penalty (2 Chronicles 18:26). An example of lax state imprisonment appears in 1 Kings 2:37. Visits to prisoners are allowed with comparative freedom in the East (Matthew 25:36; Jeremiah 32:8; see Rosenmuller, Morgenland, 5:101). Roman prison discipline appears especially in the Acts of the Apostles. The keeper of the prison is called in Greek δεσμοφύλαξ (Acts 16:23; Acts 27:36), but once πράκτωρ (Luke 12:58), and was armed (Acts 16:27). (See PRAETORIUM). See in general A. Bombardini. De carcere et antiquo ejus usu (Padua, 1713). (See PRISON).

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Bibliography Information
McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Dungeon'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.

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