Click to donate today!
Holman Bible Dictionary
Old Testament Imprisonment as a legal punishment is not a feature of ancient law codes. The Mosaic law allowed for a place of custody until the case was decided (Leviticus 24:12; Numbers 15:34 ), but beginning only in the Persian period does the Bible mention incarceration as a penalty for breaking the religious law (Ezra 7:26 ).
Prisons mentioned in the Old Testament were under the control of the crown. Joseph was put in a royal prison in Egypt (Genesis 39:20 ), apparently attached to the house of the captain of the guard (Genesis 40:3 ). Asa of Judah (2 Chronicles 16:10 ) and Ahab of Israel (1 Kings 22:26-27 ) made use of prisons, probably associated with the palace. The experience of Jeremiah, however, provides the most interesting glimpses of prisons and prison life. The royal prisons were apparently not large, as the one in which Jeremiah was initially placed was a converted private house (Jeremiah 37:15 ). He was confined to an underground dungeon (Jeremiah 37:16 ), perhaps a converted cistern. Jeremiah later was placed under house arrest in the “court of the guard” (Jeremiah 37:20-21 ). There, he was available for consultation with the king (Jeremiah 38:14 ,Jeremiah 38:14,38:28 ), able to conduct business (Jeremiah 32:2-3 ,Jeremiah 32:2-3,32:6-12 ), and able to speak freely (Jeremiah 38:1-4 ). Because the latter enraged the princes, Jeremiah was confined for a time to a muddy cistern in the “court of the guard” (Jeremiah 38:4-13 ).
Persons were confined in royal prisons for offending the king (Genesis 40:1-3 ), perhaps by political intrigue. In Israel, prophets were jailed for denouncing royal policy (2 Chronicles 16:10 ), predicting ill of the king (1 Kings 22:26-27 ), and suspected collaboration with the enemy (Jeremiah 37:11-15 ). Political prisoners in Assyrian and Babylonian prisons included former kings of rebellious nations (2 Kings 17:4; 2 Kings 24:15; 2 Kings 25:27; Jeremiah 52:11 ). Samson became a prisoner in a Philistine prison (Judges 16:21 ). Prisoners of war were usually either killed or enslaved.
The lot of prisoners was pitiable, sometimes consisting of meager rations (1 Kings 22:27 ) and hard labor (Judges 16:21 ). In some cases, prisoners were restrained and tortured by the stocks or collar (2 Chronicles 16:10; Jeremiah 29:26 ). Jehoiachin was clothed in special prison garments in Babylon (2 Kings 25:29 ). Prison life became a symbol of oppression and suffering (Psalm 79:11 ), and release from prison provided a picture of restoration or salvation (Psalm 102:20; Psalm 142:7; Psalm 146:7; Isaiah 61:1; Zechariah 9:11-12 ).
New Testament In New Testament times, persons could be imprisoned for nonpayment of debt (Matthew 5:25-26; Luke 12:58-59 ), political insurrection and criminal acts (Luke 23:19 ,Luke 23:19,23:25 ), as well as for certain religious practices (Luke 21:12; Acts 8:3 ). For some of these offenses, public prisons were also employed (Acts 5:18-19 ). John the Baptist was arrested for criticizing the king (Luke 3:19-20 ) and seems to have been held in a royal prison attached to the palace (Mark 6:17-29 ). Later, Peter was held under heavy security, consisting of chains, multiple guards, and iron doors (Acts 12:5-11 ).
Paul, who imprisoned others (Acts 8:3; Acts 22:4; Acts 26:10 ), was often in prison himself (2 Corinthians 11:23 ). His experiences provides the most detail on prisons in the New Testament world. In Philippi, he and Silas were placed under the charge of a lone jailer, who “put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks” (Acts 16:23-24 NRSV). Excavations at Philippi have uncovered a crypt revered by early Christians as the prison and adorned with frescos depicting Paul and Silas in Philippi. If the identification is correct, the crypt's small size eliminates any doubt that when Paul and Silas sang hymns, “the prisoners were listening to them” ( Acts 16:25 NRSV). Perhaps the crypt, originally a cistern, served only as the “innermost cell” ( Acts 16:24 ) for maximum security or solitary confinement. In Jerusalem, Paul was held in the barracks of the Roman cohort (Acts 23:16-18 ). After his transfer to Caesarea, he was confined with some freedom in the headquarters of Roman procurators and was allowed to receive visitors (Acts 23:35; Acts 24:23 ). As he and other prisoners were transferred to Rome by ship, Paul was again given some freedom (Acts 27:1 ,Acts 27:1,27:3 ); but when shipwreck became imminent, the soldiers resolved to kill them all lest they should escape (Acts 27:42-43 ). While awaiting trial in Rome, Paul remained under constant guard in a kind of house arrest (Acts 28:16-17 ,Acts 28:16-17,28:30 ), met his own expenses, and was free to receive visitors and preach the gospel “openly and unhindered” (Acts 28:30 ). Paul considered his imprisonment as for Christ (Ephesians 3:1; Ephesians 4:1; Philippians 1:13-14; Philippians 1:1 , Philippians 1:9 ).
The situation for prisoners remained dismal in New Testament times, and concern for such persons is a virtue expected by Christ of every disciple (Matthew 25:36 ,Matthew 25:36,25:39 ,Matthew 25:39,25:43-44 ). It is Satan who will be imprisoned during the millennium (Revelation 20:1-3 ,Revelation 20:1-3,20:7 ).
Daniel C. Browning, Jr.
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Prison, Prisoners'. Holman Bible Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hbd/p/prison-prisoners.html. 1991.