Thursday, September 14, 2006

Imprisonment Now & Then

This week we learned that there are 1,918 religious prisoners being held in detention in Eritrea; 95% of them are Christians. None of them have ever been charged or brought to trial. They simply languish in prison, are tortured, subject to forced labour. This type of treatment is hard for us in the West to understand. We are not used to prisons being used in this fashion.
It is worthwhile for us to pause for a second and understand what imprisonment meant in the ancient world and how it differs from what we understand it and how, in many ways, imprisonment in much of the world still has its roots in ancient times.

The first thing to remember is that imprisonment as a legal punishment is foreign to Ancient Near Eastern conceptions (see A.H. Konkel, ‘sr in New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis. Vol.3. Vangemeren, Willem. ed. (Zondervan, 1997): 502). It is not found in the Old Testament until the time of Ezra and even there is was at the authorization of a foreign king. Imprisonment as not part of the form of retribution or compensation for an offence. However, it was an important part of the penal system. Prisoners of war and political prisoners were held in a type of compound so that they could be employed for forced labour (cf. Samson or Zedekiah under Nebuchadnezzar). Houses of servitude often included debtors and their families who would be temporarily reduced to slavery. Political enemies might be held in prison rather than killed in order to avoid popular uprisings (cf. John the Baptist). However, treatment of such prisoners was so harsh that they could have been considered amoung those doomed to die (Ps. 79:11; 120:20). This was a convenient way of disposing of ones enemies without incurring bloodguilt (Gen. 37:22-24).

The prison, in other words, was a holding place pending the outcome of their case. It could be indefinite and there was no guarantee of a speedy resolution; it was completely as the digression of whoever was in charge of the case.

Prison as a means of dealing with criminal behaviour is rather modern, western phenomenon and so we need to be careful not to read our understanding back into the text, nor into cases of persecution in other parts of the world.

The Romans tended to have three grades of prisons; "prison" (carcer), the less severe "military custody" (custodia militaris) and comparatively mild "free custody" (custodia libera).
Carcer could be most nasty and was typically reserved for the worst of criminals or those whom the authorities wanted to see die in custody. Amoung their tortures, such prisoners would work in stone quarries as slave labour. Custodia militaris was less severe, depending largely on the guards. It is likely that this is the primary method that Paul was imprisoned under, although he shares so little of the actual details of how he was treated in prison, it is hard to say for sure. Such prisoners were chained and guarded, unlike the third form of imprisonment which amounted to house arrest.

Such prisoners were dependent on friends to bring more than just was necessary to sustain life. Imprisonment really constituted a test as to who was really your friend. Seneca, the famous Roman philosopher, spoke of friends who would desert at the "first rattle of the chain."

Escape was difficult, as Roman guards forfeited their lives if the prisoners escaped. Hence, Roman prisons were places of despair; Paul would have little or no idea when or if his case would be heard. Is it any wonder that we are called in Scripture to remember those in chains?


Anonymous said...


You say "This type of treatment is hard for us in the West to understand. We are not used to prisons being used in this fashion."

Are you forgetting Guantanamo? The west is quite adept at such techniques. The West has also been exporting such techniques through the School of the Americas.

It is hard not to conclude that you only care about this when it is Christians suffering and not when it is Christians causing the suffering. I hope I am wrong on that.

Glenn Penner said...

Your comments reflect such sweeping generalities that it is hard to know where to begin. Just a reminder; America does not equal the West, nor is this suffering being inflicted in the name of Christianity. Personally, I find the detentions in Guantanamo most unfortunate, as do many others in Canada and elsewhere in the West. So, perhaps, being a little less sweeping in your comments might be order?

effatha said...

It is a wonder that the Good News gets through when there are easy targets of bad behavior throughout Christian History...but the devil is a liar and Jesus is still on the Throne!