For readers of Acts there are three imprisonments of Paul, a brief one at Philippi before the earthquake, a two year imprisonment awaiting trial in Caesarea, and another two- year imprisonment in Rome after he appealed his case to Caesar.
But before either Caesarea or Rome, Paul “boasts” in 2 Corinthians 11:23 of “imprisonments”. So he must have spent jail time when Acts does not mention it. The letters to Philippi and Colosse and the personal note to Philemon mention that Paul was in prison when he wrote. Many have tried to fit them into one of the Acts imprisonments, especially the Roman one.
But Jerome Murphy-O’Connor in Paul: a Critical Life was among those who argue that Paul’s two-year-and-some-months ministry at Ephesus included an imprisonment and that from that imprisonment he wrote Colossians and Philemon and part of Philippians.
Specifically, he believed that Paul spent the summer of 53 in prison. This was after he had written Galatians and the note in Philippians 4:10-20 thanking them for personal financial support. This note was Philippians A.
While in prison Paul wrote Philippians B. We find this letter in Phllippians 1:1-3:1 and 4:2-9. Paul wrote this at a time when he was not sure that they wouldn’t condemn him to death (1:20-25).
After his imprisonment the church at Ephesus fell into three factions. One was frightened into silence. The majority tried to take up the slack and proclaim Paul’s message even more actively. But there were others who preached Christ from “envy and rivalry” (1:15). There is no hint of doctrinal differences. It was just that some people in Ephesus did not like Paul. And Paul was kind of bitter about it.
Murphy-O’Connor saw hypocrisy in Paul telling the Philippians to avoid rivalry and be at peace with one another when he harbored this peevishness toward his rivals in Ephesus. All in all, Murphy-O’Connor thought Paul was self absorbed when he wrote this letter.
A similar kind of tension had arisen in the church at Philippi. There was envy and rivalry between two of the women who had helped Paul found the church (4:2).
Nevertheless, this drew out of Paul his adaptation of the liturgical hymn upon which he elaborated in 2:5 ff. Some charismatic in one of Paul’s churches had written this. Now Paul used it and built upon it to develop his view of Christ. Paul used more such material in Colossians. But the hymn in Philippians 2 shows us the beginnings of Paul’s idea of Christ as the second Adam or Adam in reverse. As Adam had sought to exalt himself, Christ humbled himself to undo the curse that had fallen upon humanity.
Paul was released from prison. Then he heard, probably from visitors from Galatia, that the people from Antioch who had preached a Judaizing message in Galatia had targeted the Philippian church. So Paul dashed off Philippians C (3:2-4:1). This was an urgent warning not to be swayed from Paul’s gospel.
Actually, I agree with Murphy-O’Connor about most of this.
The composite nature of Philippians is widely supported, although I still think it could be that the editing deleted material from a single, original letter.
I also still think we should consider the possibility that Paul wrote letters from his Caesarean imprisonment.
However, the author is probably right. I am just not as certain as he was.
As I said, Murphy-O’Connor also thought that Paul composed Colossians and Philemon during his Ephesian imprisonment. That will call for a little more discussion. So I’ll write about that tomorrow.