On May 8 I was privileged to attend a Faculty lecture by Dr. Ryan Schellenberg, Assistant Professor of New Testament at the Methodist Theological School of Ohio, titled “Reading Philippians in the Age of Mass Incarceration.” Schellenberg began his lecture (recorded here) lamenting the difficult task of the historian who seeks to write history from the perspective not of generals and rulers, but of common folk. The historian’s job is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle when most of the pieces are missing. However, there are some fragments that by reason of hap and circumstance survived the immediate context in which they were created, and which subsequently were deemed “too unimportant to be destroyed in fits of fundamentalist zeal.” Schellenberg has carefully read many of these ancient fragments, letters from ancient prisons, or records which refer to life in ancient prisons. Schellenberg read some of these fragments which helped the audience to contextualize the historical circumstances of Paul, writing letters from ancient prisons in the mid 50s CE (Common Era).
Each of the fragments highlighted for us were chosen to help us re-read Paul’s letters in the very real context of ancient prisons. This re-reading then offers new lines of connection for us in our modern age of mass incarceration to Paul and his letters. The first fragment was an ancient letter written in 336 BCE found near the modern Egyptian city of Faiyum from a man who was asking a local official to please contact a higher official so that his case might be adjudicated more quickly because he had been wasting away from hunger in prison “so that I might be saved.” The author uses the word, σωτηρία, which is often translated “salvation.” Paul writes in Philippians 1:19, “For I know that what has happened to me will turn out for my σωτηρία.” Schellenberg suggested that it is not likely that Paul has eschatological salvation in mind here, though Paul does clearly have that in mind elsewhere.
Schellenberg offered evidence about the historical scenarios that might have landed Paul in prison by referencing the first century Jewish historian, Josephus. Josephus gave an example of particular Jewish teachers who were teaching the Mosaic Law to Romans. Apparently, eastern religions were appealing to Romans in an exotic sort of way. When a wealthy man’s wife began following Jewish food laws and eventually gave a significant monetary donation to the Jewish religious infrastructure, this man contacted emperor Tiberias who subsequently had Jewish charlatans expelled from Rome. Schellenberg then read a few side-comments in Paul’s letters like 1 Thessalonians 2:3 where he argues almost out of the blue that “our appeal does not spring from delusion, impure motives, or deceit.” By engaging in a bit of what is called mirror reading, we might conclude that Paul was being accused of using deceit. We know that Paul’s rhetoric was appealing to slaves and women. Perhaps the offering he was collecting to bring to the poor in Jerusalem might have caused some jealous “heads of households” to accuse Paul of preying upon women, proclaiming allegiance to foreign gods, and using deceit to line his own pockets. This is a plausible way he would have gotten thrown into prison on repeated occasions.
What was Paul’s social situation like such that he ended up in prison several times? How was it that Paul’s body was beaten so many times? (2 Corinthians 11:23-24) In a quote from a letter written by the Roman rhetorician Cicero, Cicero was arguing respectable dignified people did not get thrown in prison. The implication seems to be that less dignified people do get thrown in prison! It may be that Paul was of a lower social class than is often assumed. Schellenberg quoted another New Testament scholar, Jennifer A. Glancy, who observed that Paul had a “whippable body.” Schellenberg showed a picture of a 19th century slave with horrible scars on his back from the whippings he had received. Not everyone had or has a whippable body. Paul’s comments in Philippians 3:21 take on a more concrete meaning on his lips: “the Lord Jesus Christ who will transform our bodies of humiliation into a similar form as his body of glory.”
Schellenberg indicated that the experience of prisons was common for early Christians and the material deprivation they experienced caused many to reflect on how they could be “free” even while they were “in chains.” As evidence Schellenberg highlighted a quote from the second century North African church leader, Tertullian. Some ancients argued that the prison for the Christian was equivalent to the wilderness for the Hebrew prophets. Schellenberg suggested that the Western notion of the self as interiority springs from these embodied experiences in prison. This notion of the interior self has at least contributed to what later became a separation of mind and body. The prison experience was eventually extended to the monastery, where the quiet interior life was cultivated. Modern prisons were created by well-meaning Christians using the model of the monastery in the mid-19th century. The word “penitentiary” is evidence of this lingering historical link. Schellenberg observed that that forcing the discipline of the isolated monastic life does not have the same result for incarcerated people as it did for religious folk, but rather has had devastating effects on human beings. Charles Dickens made a comment to this effect having visited Eastern State Penitentiary in the 1840s.
Throughout the lecture Schellenberg offered a number of comments from contemporary ethnographies of prisoners in the United States who reflect a certain theological orientation that is not so different from Paul. While the statistics and data on mass incarceration in the United States are shocking, Schellenberg commented that it might be easy for those of us who believe that mass incarceration is an evil that needs to be ended to look upon the theological comments of prisoners to be naïve forms of “false consciousness.” However, Schellenberg cautioned if “we” well-meaning socially conscious people of the 21st century presume to know better than prisoners do what is good for them, we risk repeating the same logic which created modern prisons in the first place. Prison reform based upon that logic is dangerous.
Instead, Schellenberg urged us to have a broader view of “salvation” than the exclusively eschatological view, a view of salvation which includes concrete material deliverance. However, in our commitment to material deliverance, those of us in privileged positions need to be very cautious to listen to prisoners themselves, to the narratives that help them survive. Prisoners themselves must have something to say about the kind of holistic and perhaps even heterogeneous deliverances they long for and eagerly desire.
For those who want to know more details, Schellenberg is working on a book from Oxford Press titled, Abject Joy: Paul, Prison, and the Art of Making Do.