Paul's First Imprisonment

What was Paul's First Imprisonment?

The first imprisonment of the Apostle Paul occurred in 57-62/63 AD and is recorded in Acts 21:17-28:31. Paul had hoped to reach Jerusalem by Pentecost (Ac 20:16). He seems to have done so. Luke gives the story of Paul in Jerusalem, Caesarea, and the voyage to Rome in much detail. He was with him and considered this period of his ministry very important. The welcome from the brethren in Jerusalem was surprisingly cordial (Ac 21:17). On the very next day Paul and his party made a formal call on James and all the elders (Ac 21:18 f), who gave a sympathetic hearing to the narrative of God's dealings with Paul and the Gentiles.

He presented the alms (collection) in due form (Ac 24:17), though some critics have actually suggested that Paul used it to defray the expenses of the appeal to Caesar. Ramsay's notion that he may have fallen heir by now to his portion of his father's estate is quite probable. But the brethren wish to help Paul set himself right before the rank and file of the church in Jerusalem, who have been imposed upon by the Judaizers who have misrepresented Paul's real position by saying that he urged the Jewish Christians to give up the Mosaic customs (Ac 21:21).


The elders understand Paul and recall the decision of the conference at which freedom was guaranteed to the Gentiles, and they have no wish to disturb that (Ac 21:25). They only wish Paul to show that he does not object to the Jewish Christians keeping up the Mosaic regulations. They propose that Paul offer sacrifice publicly in the temple and pay the vows of four men, and then all will know the truth (Ac 21:23 f).

Paul does not hesitate to do that (Ac 21:26 ff). He had kept the Jewish feasts (compare Ac 20:6) as Jesus had done, and the early disciples in Jerusalem. He was a Jew. He may have had a vow at Corinth (Ac 18:18). He saw no inconsistency in a Jew doing thus after becoming a Christian, provided he did not make it obligatory on Gentiles. The real efficacy of the sacrifices lay in the death of Jesus for sin. Garvie (Life and Teaching of Paul, 173) calls this act of Paul "scarcely, worthy of his courage as a man or his faith in God." I cannot see it in that light. It is a matter of practical wisdom, not of principle.

To have refused would have been to say that the charge was true, and it was not. So far as the record goes, this act of Paul accomplished its purpose in setting Paul in a right light before the church in Jerusalem. It took away this argument from the Judaizers. The trouble that now comes to Paul does not come from the Judaizers, but from "the Jews from Asia" (Ac 21:27). If it be objected that the Jerusalem Christians seem to have done nothing to help Paul during his years of imprisonment, it can be said that there was little to be done in a legal way, as the matter was before the Roman courts very soon.

The attack on Paul in the temple was while he was doing honor to the temple, engaged in actual worship offering sacrifices. But then Jews from Ephesus hated him so that they imagined that he had Greeks with him in the Jewish court, because they had seen him one day with Trophimus in the city (Ac 21:27 ff). It is a splendid illustration of the blindness of prejudice and hate. It was absolutely untrue, and the men who raised the hue and cry in the temple against Paul as the desecrator of the holy place and the Law and the people disappear, and are never heard of more (Ac 24:18 f).

But it will take Paul five years or more of the prime of his life to get himself out of the tangled web that will be woven about his head. Peril follows peril. He was almost mobbed, as often before, by the crowd that dragged him out of the temple (Ac 21:30 f). It would remind Paul of Stephen's fate. When the Roman captain rescued him and had him bound with two chains as a dangerous bandit, and had him carried by the soldiers to save his life, the mob yelled "Away with him" (Ac 21:36 f), as they had done to Jesus.

After the captain, astonished that "Paul the Egyptian assassin" can speak Greek, grants him permission to stand on the steps of the tower of Antonia to speak to the mob that clamored for his blood, he held their rapt attention by an address in Aramaic (Ac 22:2) in which he gave a defense of his whole career. This they heard eagerly till he spoke the word "Gentiles," at which they raged more violently than ever (Ac 22:21 ff). At this the captain has Paul tied with thongs, not understanding his Aramaic speech, and is about to scourge him when Paul pleads his Roman citizenship, to the amazement of the centurion (Ac 22:24 ff).

Almost in despair, the captain, wishing to know the charge of the Jews against Paul, brings him before the Sanhedrin. It is a familiar scene to Paul, and it is now their chance for settling old scores. Paul makes a sharp retort in anger to the high priest Ananias, for which he apologizes as if he was so angry that he had not noticed, but he soon divides the Sanhedrin hopelessly on the subject of the resurrection (compare the immunity of the disciples on that issue when Gamaliel scored the Sadducees in Ac 5:1-42).

This was turning the tables on his enemies, and was justifiable as war. He claimed to be a Pharisee on this point, as he was still, as opposed to the Sadducees. The result was that Paul had to be rescued from the contending factions, and the captain knew no more than he did before (Ac 23:1-10). That night "the Lord stood by him" and promised that he would go to Rome (Ac 23:11). That was a blessed hope. But the troubles of Paul are by no means over. By the skill of his nephew he escaped the murderous plot of 40 Jews who had taken a vow not to eat till they had killed Paul (Ac 23:12-24).

They almost succeeded, but Claudius Lysias sent Paul in haste with a band of soldiers to Caesarea to Felix, the procurator, with a letter in which he claimed to have rescued Paul from the mob, "having learned that he was a Roman" (Ac 23:26-30). At any rate he was no longer in the clutches of the Jews. Would Roman provincial justice be any better? Felix follows a perfunctory course with Paul and shows some curiosity about Christianity, till Paul makes him tremble with terror, a complete reversal of situations (compare Pilate's meanness before Jesus).

But love of money from Paul or the Jews leads Felix to keep Paul a prisoner for two years, though convinced of his innocence, and to hand him over to Festus, his successor, because the Jews might make things worse for him if he released him (Ac 24:1-27). The case of the Sanhedrin, who have now made it their own (or at least the Sadducean section), though pleaded by the Roman orator Tertullus, had fallen through as Paul calmly riddied their charges. Festus is at first at a loss how to proceed, but he soon follows the steps of Felix by offering to play into the hands of the Jewish leaders by sending Paul back to Jerusalem, whereupon Paul abruptly exercises his right of Roman citizenship by appealing to Caesar (Ac 25:1-12).

This way, though a long one, offered the only ray of hope. The appearance of Paul before Agrippa and Bernice was simply by way of entertainment arranged by Festus to relieve his guests of ennui, but Paul seized the opportunity to make a powerful appeal to Agrippa that put him in a corner logically, though he wriggled out and declined to endorse Christianity, though confirming Paul's innocence, which Festus also had admitted (Ac 25:13 through Ac 26:32). Paul was fortunate in the centurion Julius who took him to Rome, for he was kindly disposed to him at the start, and so it was all the way through the most remarkable voyage on record. Luke has surpassed his own record in Ac 27:1-44, in which he traces the voyage, stage by stage, with change of ship at Myra, delay at Fair Havens, Crete, and shipwreck on the island of Malta. More is learned about ancient seafaring from this chapter than from any other source (see the article PHOENIX, and Smith, Voyage and Shipwreck of Paul, 1866).

In it all Paul is the hero, both on the ships and in Malta. In the early spring of 60 another ship takes Paul and the other prisoners to Puteoli. Thence they go on to Rome, and enter by the Appian Way. News of Paul's coming had gone on before (his epistle had come 3 years ago), and he had a hearty welcome. But he is now an imperial prisoner in the hands of Nero. He has more liberty in his own hired house (Ac 28:16,30), but he is chained always to a Roman soldier, though granted freedom to see his friends and to preach to the soldiers.

Paul is anxious to remove any misapprehensions that the Jews in Rome may have about him, and tries to win them to Christ, and with partial success (Ac 28:17-28). And here Luke leaves him a prisoner for 2 years more, probably because at this point he finishes the Book of Acts. But, as we have seen, during these years in Rome, Paul wrote Philippians, Philemon, Colossians, and Ephesians. He still has the churches on his heart. They send messengers to him, and he writes back to them. The incipient Gnosticism of the East has pressed upon the churches at Colosse and Laodicea, and a new peril confronts Christianity.

The Judaizing controversy has died away with these years (compare Php 3:1 ff for an echo of it), but the dignity and glory of Jesus are challenged. In the presence of the power of Rome Paul rises to a higher conception than even that of the person of Christ and the glory of the church universal. In due time Paul's case was disposed of and he was once more set free. The Romans were proverbially dilatory. It is doubtful if his enemies ever appeared against him with formal charges.


International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, which is in the public domain (with minor edits).