Whenever I take my shoes off at the security entrance of the Muskegon Correctional Facility, I feel like I am stepping onto holy ground. In the Michigan prison and its classroom, a true gift exchange happens that seems filled with the presence of God.
Christians involved in prison ministries, advocacy organizations, and prison educational programs—such as the Hope-Western Prison Education Program, which I am part of—trace their work back to Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 25.
Today, it’s not the least bit shocking that someone like me, a professor of ethics and theology, would visit prisoners. I won’t lose my friends or my job over it. I won’t be arrested or assaulted. Instead, it is one of the richest classroom experiences I have ever had.
But for Jesus’ listeners, the risks of visiting incarcerated people were enormous. Anyone who brought a prisoner much-needed food, clothing, medical care, comfort, or hope risked being seen as guilty by association, imprisoned, or even killed.
And yet, early Christians did not focus on their own danger but rather saw what they did as a fitting way to follow in the steps of Jesus, who cared for, suffered for, and liberated others.
The extensive way early Christians visited and cared for those in prison was countercultural. There were not any sort of prison ministries in the Jewish or Roman cultures of that time. “Visiting the prisoner” wasn’t mentioned in Old Testament lists of righteous actions.
And yet, visiting prisoners quickly became a practice the early church was known for. They came to see prison ministry as the fitting response to Jesus’ statement about the blessed ones who would inherit “the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For … I was in prison and you came to visit me” (Matt. 25:34–36).
Jesus’ words tell us that in visiting the prisoner, one is visiting him, Christ.
But there is a big cultural distance between contemporary US prisons and incarceration in New Testament times. Is what we’re doing now really what Jesus meant?
In many ways, it’s strange that the Bible has so many references to prison, since Israel’s covenant with God never specifies imprisonment as a type of punishment.
Still, kings of Israel and Judah over time began to use incarceration practices common in the region, such as when Asa put Hanani in prison (2 Chron. 16:10). Such practices continued into the time of Christ, as shown by Saul and other Jewish religious authorities arresting and imprisoning Jesus’ disciples (Acts 4:3; 8:3; 9:2).
Neither Roman nor Jewish rulers sought to bring about personal change or rehabilitation in prisoners by keeping them in prison. Nor were the places most people were incarcerated specially designed to be prisons. And so, for those of us living in Western Europe and North America, the many practices and places referred to by Greek and Hebrew words translated as “prison” can be lost to our imaginations.
The Greek root word in Matthew 25:36 is phylake, which more broadly means “in custody” or “in the place of guarding.” The Greek word desmoterion, the typical word for a physical prison structure, is only used four times in the New Testament, describing where John the Baptist (Matt. 11:2), the apostles (Acts 5:21–23), and Paul and Silas (16:26) were held. Greek words referring to being “in chains,” “restrained,” “guarded,” or “in custody” are more common.
So, when we read of someone being “in prison,” it would often be more accurate to think of them simply being in custody, realizing that the passage could be referring to a variety of places.
Letters and other sources make it clear that during the Roman period from the sixth century B.C. until the fifth century A.D., a prisoner might have been kept in a well, cave, converted part of a dwelling, or building made for a prison. Forced labor in mines and quarries was also a common form of incarceration.
While Roman law stated that an authority should not use imprisonment as punishment (prisons were officially for people awaiting trial, sentencing, or punishment), it is clear punishing people by imprisoning them was common.
Diodorus Siculus, a first-century B.C. historian, described a dining-room-sized prison in Alba Fucens, Italy, as dark, deep underground, and very crowded. The men imprisoned there had come to look like animals, he said, and the stench was almost too bad for anyone to approach the door.
An accused person might languish in such a place. Some bribed officials to finally hear their case, or the whim of an official finally brought resolution. There were darker resolutions, too: Jailers threw a rope and a sword to a royal prisoner in the Alba Fucens prison, encouraging him to commit suicide.
Authorities often chained and tortured prisoners. The chains themselves were horrible to bear. The historian Plutarch describes “the inflammations surrounding wounds, the savage gnawing of ulcers in the flesh, and tormenting pains” caused by chains and fetters.
As for the mines, people of many kinds—those condemned for crimes, prisoners of war, slaves, and free persons—worked in and around them. The worst jobs involved living in cramped quarters, wearing heavy chains, breathing toxic fumes from heavy metals and torch smoke, and not seeing daylight for months at a time—if prisoners survived for months.
Food in both prisons and in the mines was often barely enough to live on. There are tales of prisoners dying from starvation, eating stuffing from their mattresses, and fasting so that others might eat.
Other punishments were sometimes meted out to convicts too, such as being branded or having their criminal status tattooed on their foreheads.
Such degrading and violent prison conditions weren’t for every person in custody, though. In the early Roman Republic, the population was divided between citizens, who had rights during the judicial process, and noncitizens, who could be badly treated with near impunity.
In Acts 22:22–29, we see the great impact that Paul’s Roman citizenship had on his captors and the way they treated him.
By the end of the second century A.D., the population was further divided between those of high classes, called honestiores, who received tender treatment when arrested, and those of lower classes, called humiliores, who received—as you might expect—humiliating and cruel treatment. A humiliore’s sentence might be horrific, including crucifixion, torture, or hard labor in the mines. Early Christians who were killed in the arena were humiliores.
For the same crime, an honestiore would be sentenced to deportation, or for a capital crime, to a quick death—often by decapitation. Higher-class people might live quite comfortably if their sentence was house arrest at, for example, an island villa.
But as we can see from Paul’s experience, even a relatively well-treated citizen often suffered while in custody (2 Cor. 11:23–27).
Survival in prisons and in the mines often depended on gifts of food, clothing, and money from nonprisoners. Even a simple visit could give a prisoner hope to go on.
Besides the physical dangers and torments, being incarcerated in the Roman world had tremendous social ramifications.
Of these, perhaps it was shame that caused the greatest suffering. The shame of imprisonment went beyond feeling guilty. As New Testament professor Matthew Skinner wrote in the journal Interpretation, Greco-Roman values taught Romans to hold in contempt those who had lost their freedom, since they believed autonomy and mastery were primary virtues.
Imprisonment was so powerfully degrading that some people committed suicide rather than suffer such indignity. Demosthenes said those whose crimes were punished with imprisonment (rather than some other form of amends) could expect to “live in disgrace for the rest of their lives.”
Incarceration also took away some people’s sense of purpose and responsibility, which often led to despair.
Understanding the great shame associated with incarceration and punishment helps us to better understand the extent of what Jesus suffered as he “endured the cross, scorning its shame” (Heb. 12:2).
But many others did not scorn the stigma of the Roman penal system. Family and friends often deserted those in prison because of the shame, as well as of a fear of being associated with the prisoner’s crimes.
This fear was well founded, since many Christians who attended the trials of fellow prisoners or visited them in prison were incarcerated or even killed.
For example, two men, Agapius and Dionysius, helped six fellow Christians who were imprisoned. In the process, they drew attention to themselves and were eventually imprisoned and beheaded because of it.
Incarceration was socially isolating both during and after the time in prison, exile, or the mines. One can see this reflected in the immense gratitude Paul expresses in his letters in the New Testament for those who visited him in prison and broke that isolation, such as Onesiphorus, who “often refreshed me and was not ashamed of my chains” (2 Tim. 1:16).
So how did early Christians respond to prisoners? They responded with dramatic and organized care. In doing so, they gained the attention of many within the Roman world. Certainly people visited prisoners, but Christians’ sustained attention, regularity, and generosity to prisoners was something new and distinctly Christian in the Roman world.
Despite the bumpy start of Jesus’ disciples abandoning him at his arrest, Christians visited and helped Paul in many ways during his stints in prisons, starting with the gift of the Philippian church delivered by Epaphroditus (Phil. 2:25; 4:18).
Christians became known by authorities for the extraordinary effort they put into visiting and caring for prisoners.
Not all of this attention was admiration. In The Passing of Peregrinus, the second-century Roman writer Lucian portrayed Christians as gullible and even immoral because they cared for people like Peregrinus Proteus. Lucian believed Peregrinus had committed patricide, adultery, and pederasty, among other sins, and was appalled that the Christians accepted him. (Peregrinus was later estranged from the Christians in Palestine and became a Cynic philosopher.) In Lucian’s satirical account of Peregrinus’s history:
Proteus was apprehended for [his leadership in the church] and thrown into prison, which itself gave him no little reputation as an asset for his future career and the charlatanism and notoriety-seeking that he was enamoured of.
The Christians first tried to get him released; early Christians often cared for prisoners by raising money to try to free them. When that didn’t work for Peregrinus,
every other form of attention was shown him, not in any casual way but with assiduity, and from the very break of day aged widows and orphan children could be seen waiting near the prison, while their [church] officials even slept inside with him after bribing the guards. Then elaborate meals were brought in, and sacred books of theirs were read aloud. …
Lay Christians had such zeal in these practices of care that some Christian leaders instructed their people to tone down their visitation and help. Tertullian, a Christian leader in North Africa, chided Christians for “furnishing cookshops” and feeding Christian prisoners without any regard for the prisoners’ discipline of fasting. In some places, so many were visiting prisons that they aroused suspicion.
As Lucian mentioned, Christians often found it necessary to bribe guards in order to help prisoners. Christians bribed guards so that people might be moved into better conditions, treated better within the prison, or allowed to spend a few hours in a nicer area. They also bribed them so that they could come into the prison to deliver food or money or sleep next to the prisoners for their safety.
Acts of care for prisoners were often costly and risky. The journey between the bishop Cyprian’s Christian church and the mines at Sigus in North Africa would have taken roughly two weeks on foot, yet Cyprian’s church delivered money and letters in person to incarcerated Christians there.
In these many acts of care, early Christians imagined and talked about those in prison in a way that subverted the shame and isolation of imprisonment.
In the Book of Hebrews, the writer outlines what mutual love might look like, saying, “Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured as though you yourselves were being tortured” (Heb. 13:3, NRSV). In other words, don’t turn your back on them, but remember them, identify with them, and imagine yourself as one of them.
The writers of the early church often reimagined the chains of persecuted Christians as jewelry or medals.
Cyprian, in a letter to those incarcerated in the mines, writes that, “To men who are dedicated to God, and attesting their faith with religious courage, such things are ornaments, not chains.”
While applied here to those persecuted as Christians, the early Christians’ way of subverting the system of degradation and shame around chains and incarceration extended beyond Christian martyrs.
For example, Pachomius, an Egyptian, first met Christians while incarcerated in A.D. 312. He became a Christian after local Christians fed and cared for him and other non-Christian prisoners. (Pachomius went on to become a desert father.)
There were great risks and high costs in visiting prisoners—costs many in a similar social situation found unmanageable. But Jesus had taught and preached about visiting prisoners with clarity and force. Christians also knew, as Kavin Rowe writes in Christianity’s Surprise, that “the suffering, naked, and vulnerable human” was “the place to see Christ himself and to serve him.”
In other words, Christians can learn to see those in prison in a different and surprising way because of Jesus. He revealed to us the heart of God—and this had involved himself being a prisoner, being shamed, tortured, and put through the worst category of punishment.
As Christians in the early church were imprisoned or killed for their faith, their suffering became understood as part of their identification with Christ. The apostles in Acts 5:41 set an example of “rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name.”
The early church, in response to Jesus’ call to visit the prisoner, looked to those in prison primarily as people: people in need, people loved by God. Therefore, they reached out with compassion, seeking to supply what was needed and what was lacking.
They did so despite risk and great cost. They offered money, food, presence, compassion, letters, and encouragement, and they worked to either free them or better their conditions in whatever way they could.
The early Christians’ care for the prisoner was of a piece with their other practical and organized responses of care to those in need.
Churches went on to develop orphanages, hospitals, and shelters for the poor—systems now often adopted by governments. In doing so, they modeled a lifestyle in stark contrast to the pagan society that surrounded them.
As Alan Kreider argues in his studies of the early church, it was this behavior, “more than their ideas that appealed to the majority of the non-Christians who came to join them.” While mocked and satirized by some, their practices of service and compassion carried “a fragrance that brings life” to others (2 Cor. 2:16, GNT).
The witness of the early church calls us to similar forms of compassionate action within our increasingly post-Christian society.
The first Christians questioned and overturned their society’s ideas of what was shameful and worthy as a result of Christ’s life and work.
The prison system in the US, for example, reveals our culture’s assumptions that a convicted person is not capable or worthy of being in public, that justice is being done via imprisonment, and that innocent people need prisoners to be in prison.
The early church, in following Jesus, who was incarcerated and put to death by the so-called justice systems of that time, learned to question such logic. They gained eyes, hearts, and habits that made distinctions between God’s justice and the justice system of the empire.
While our system doesn’t imprison people for their Christian faith (or any faith), there are Christians in prison for us to visit. But we don’t need that qualification—and I don’t believe Jesus meant for us to only visit Christians or the innocent. I believe he always meant for us to give hope to everyone in prison.
Although we can’t guard prisoners all night so that they aren’t assaulted or starved, we can use our policymaking power to protect them. Although we won’t have to walk for two weeks to visit prisoners, we can drive to remote prisons (and offer to bring loved ones) so that prisoners have company. We can bring the gift of education to prisoners, helping them to gain purpose, responsibility, and the skills needed to serve their communities and stop cycles of poverty.
Visiting the prisoner has always meant more than engaging in compassion. It was a practice that went hand in hand with reevaluating and even subverting the systems of honor, shame, and stigma within a society.
In our situation of mass incarceration, racial injustice associated with our justice system, and the growth of what many call the “prison-industrial complex,” the example of the early church warns us against contentment with the status quo of prisons.
We can see that it results in the loss of meaning and purpose for too many people. It also consumes an immense amount of money and extracts a social cost from our communities.
Such problems are urgent, not only to incarcerated people and their families but also to the church, whose concerns ought to be intertwined with the concerns of those in need.
Jesus was explicit that he, as the Messiah, was the fulfillment of Isaiah’s vision “to free captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness” (Isa. 42:7).
Those aren’t only metaphors. We, like those in the early church, must remember those in prison as if we were also imprisoned.
I believe our current justice system, like the Roman one, is out of line with the values and ways of the Crucified One. The witness of the early church propels us to both practices of compassion and advocacy for improvement.
David L. Stubbs is professor of ethics and theology at Western Theological Seminary.
This essay is part of an ongoing CT series exploring how Christians engage the criminal justice system.
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