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Prison, Penance or Purgatory: The Interpretation of Matthew 5.25–6 and Parallels

  • Nathan Eubank (a1)

Scholarship on Matt 5.25–6 has focused on the question of whether the saying offers mundane wisdom or threatens divine judgement, with the majority concluding that it refers to eternal punishment in hell. This article examines debt-prison and related phenomena before turning to the illuminating history of ancient interpretation. The article concludes that the ‘eternal damnation’ gloss widely favoured today is an overinterpretation first inspired by the exigencies of fourth- and fifth-century doctrinal controversy. Instead of eternal perdition, Matt 5.25–6 and its parallels suggest a time of straits followed by possible release.

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I am grateful for comments on draft versions of this article offered by members of the Oxford New Testament Seminar, the Cambridge Senior New Testament Seminar, and the Durham University New Testament Seminar. Thanks also to Michal Bar-Asher Siegal and T. J. Lang.

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1 Translations are my own unless noted otherwise.

2 In favour of mundane wisdom, see e.g. Fitzmyer, J., The Gospel according to Luke x–xxiv: Introduction, Translation, and Commentary (AB 28; Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1985) 1001–2; Frey, J., ‘The Character and Background of Matt 5.25–26: On the Value of Qumran Literature in New Testament Interpretation’, The Sermon on the Mount and its Jewish Setting (ed. Becker, H.-J. and Ruzer, S.; Paris: Gabalda, 2005) 339 . Among many arguing for divine judgement, see Davies, W. D. and Allison, D. C., A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel according to Saint Matthew (3 vols.; ICC; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1988–97) i.521; Luz, U., Matthew 1–7 (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2007) 241 ; Reiser, M., Die Gerichtspredigt Jesu: Eine Untersuchung zur eschatologischen Verkündigung Jesu und ihrem frühjüdischen Hintergrund (Münster: Aschendorff, 1990) 271 .

3 The possibility of temporary confinement is briefly discussed in Eubank, N., Wages of Cross-bearing and Debt of Sin (BZNW 196; Berlin/Boston: de Gruyter, 2013) 5763 ; Kinman, B. (‘Debtor's Prison and the Future of Israel (Luke 12:57–59)’, JETS 42 (1999) 411–25) argues that the Lukan parallel hints at the eventual restoration of Israel.

4 It is often assumed that Matt 5.25–6 and Luke 12.58–9 describe unpaid debts, but it is possible that another sort of legal dispute could lead to this end. In any case, the prisoner must pay to go free.

5 Particularly judicious is Krause, J., Gefängnisse im Römischen Reich (Stuttgart: F. Steiner, 1996), esp. 152–69. On Roman philosophies of incarceration, see Hillner, J., Prison, Punishment and Penance in Late Antiquity (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 2015). See also Mitteis, L., Reichsrecht und Volksrecht in den östlichen Provinzen des römischen Kaiserreichs: mit Beiträgen zur Kenntniss des griechischen Rechts und der spätrömischen Rechtsentwicklung (Leipzig: Teubner, 1891) esp. 444–58; de Franch, R. Sugranyes, Études sur le droit palestinien à l’époque évangélique: la contrainte par corps (Fribourg: Librairie de l'Université, 1946); Taubenschlag, R., The Law of Greco-Roman Egypt in the Light of the Papyri 332 bc640 ad (Warszawa: Państwowe Wydawnictwo Naukowe, 1955); Llewelyn, S. R., New Documents Illustrating Early Christianity: A Review of the Greek Inscriptions and Papyri Published in 1982–83, vol. vii (North Ryde, NSW: Ancient History Documentary Research Centre, Macquarie University, 1994) 197224 .

6 Exod 21.2; Lev 25.39–54; Deut 15.12–15. Cf. Jer 34.14.

7 On the former, see Livy, History of Rome 8; Cicero, Rep. 2.59; on the latter, the cessio bonorum, see Woeß, F., ‘Personalexekution und cessio bonorum im römischen Reichsrecht’, ZSS 43 (1922) 485529 . According to Cod. Justin. 7.71.4 cessio bonorum was extended to the provinces.

8 OGIS 669.15–18.

9 Indeed, some argue that debt was the most common cause of incarceration. Bauschatz, J. (‘Ptolemaic Prisons Reconsidered’, The Classical Bulletin 83 (2007) 347) summarises the situation beyond Egypt as follows: ‘For the most part, prisons were temporary holding cells in which offenders, and these mainly debtors, endured brief stays’ (5).

10 So for example, out of many, P.Mich. iii.191; P.Mert. i.14; P.Yadin i.21. See also the praxis-language in the aforementioned edict (OGIS 669.16). Origen (Or. 29.15) and Eusebius (Dem. ev. 9.8) describe the extraction of funds in Matt 5.26/Luke 12.59 as ἔκπραξις.

11 See the discussion in Llewelyn, New Documents Illustrating Early Christianity, 222.

12 E.g. Cicero (Verr. 2.10.24), who describes incarceration as being thrown in vincla atque in tenebras. See the description of prison conditions in Wansink, C. S., Chained in Christ: The Experience and Rhetoric of Paul's Imprisonments (JSNTSup 130; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1996) 4495 .

13 E.g. P.Amh. ii.77; Acts 16.23–24. Wansink (Chained in Christ, 46) notes that chains were so common they functioned as a synecdoche for prison like the modern expression ‘behind bars’.

14 Seneca (De ira 32.2–3) laments those who suffer vinculis, carcere, fame for peccadillos, usually involving money. Cf. Libanius, Or. 45.9; Pliny, HN 7.36.121; Valerius Maximus 5.7 Prison-fare, where it existed, is routinely described as very poor. E.g. Dio Chrysostom, Charid. 13.

15 Krause, Gefängnisse im Römischen Reich, 160.

16 Bauschatz, ‘Ptolemaic Prisons Reconsidered’, 4–5. On the coercive effects of late ancient debt-prison see Hillner, Prison, Punishment and Penance in Late Antiquity, 145–6. Hillner notes that creditors sometimes imprisoned debtors’ dependents to ensure payment (146).

17 Flac. 46–9.

18 P.Hib. i.34, 73.

19 P.Tebt. ii.420.

20 Tim. 49.

21 Fid. 6; see also Plutarch, Cim. 4.3.

22 Plutarch, Flam. 12; Cicero, De or. 2.63 (in reference to a play).

23 Ben. 3.8.

24 P.Oxy. ii.259. Cf. the ὑπηρέτης in Matt 5.25. The dramatis personae of Matt 5.25–6 and Luke 12.57–9 are well attested in documentary sources.

25 For more examples of standing surety from the papyri see Taubenschlag, The Law of Greco-Roman Egypt, 539.

26 Luz, Matthew 1–7, 241. See also Jeremias, J., The Parables of Jesus (London: SCM, 1963) 180 , who traces this meaning back to Jesus.

27 P.Yadin i.21; P.Hever 65; Mekilta de-Rabbi Ishmael on Exod 21.1–3; m. ʿEd. 8.2. See Goodman, M., ‘The First Jewish Revolt: Social Conflict and the Problem of Debt’, JJS 33 (1982) 417–27.

28 B.J. 2.427. Regardless of the accuracy of Josephus’ reporting here, his perception was that fear of the collection of debts was a major concern for the poor of Jerusalem.

29 Irenaeus, Haer. 1.25.4; Tertullian, An. 35.1; Epiphanius, Pan. 27.5.

30 Book iii.113. See also Sent. Sextus 39; Testim. Truth (NHC ix 3.29.30). cf. Plato, Phaed. 107c–108c; Ap. John (NHC ii 1.27); Apoc. Paul (NHC v 2.21.17).

31 An. 35.

32 Ibid. See also An. 58; Res. 42; Or. 7.1.

33 See the discussion in Daley, B. E., The Hope of the Early Church: A Handbook of Patristic Eschatology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991) 37 .

34 Strom. 4.14.

35 Ibid., citing Rom 8.38–9.

36 Test. 3.

37 Test. 3.57. It is sometimes suggested that this work was compiled prior to Cyprian, but see Murphy, E., ‘“As Far as My Poor Memory Suggested”: Cyprian's Compilation of Ad Quirinum ’, VC 68 (2014) 533–50.

38 Ep. 55.20.

39 According to Jay, P. (‘Saint Cyprien et la doctrine du purgatoire’, RTAM 27 (1960) 133–6), Cyprian speaks here of this-worldly penance, not purgatory.

40 Comm. Matt. 14.8.

41 Ibid.

42 Hom. Luc. 35.14 (according to Jerome).

43 Hom. Luc. 35.15 (according to Jerome).

44 Or. 29.15. It would be far worse, Origen avers, to be delivered over to one's passions as in Rom 1.24 (ibid.).

45 Comm. Rom. 5.1.39 (according to Rufinus). Cf. Or. 29.15. Origen also describes this period as Christ cleansing his people with fire before they enter paradise, depending on which biblical text is in view. See Daley, The Hope of the Early Church, 57.

46 Exp. Luc. 7.1626–39.

47 Exp. Luc. 7.1697–1709.

48 Tractatus super psalmos 68.9. On other occasions Hilary speaks of the possibility of sinners paying their own debts (Commentarius in Matthaeum, 4.19; see also Tractatus super psalmos, 118.5).

49 Epist. 4.2. Like Hilary, Jerome also speaks of sinners paying their own debt. See Epist. 130.7, and also the criticism of various interpretations in Comm. Matt. 1.562–96.

50 De anima 15.75–6. Gregory is citing his sister Macrina.

51 Though the treatment of the evidence reflects a clear Tendenz, see the learned study of Ramelli, I. L. E., The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis: A Critical Assessment from the New Testament to Eriugena (Leiden: Brill, 2013), esp. 506–41.

52 Tractatus in Mathaeum 11.103–10. Unlike Gregory, Chromatius stops short of affirming apokatastasis here, as the following comments on Matt 3.11 make clear (11.111–18.).

53 See Clark, E. A., The Origenist Controversy: The Cultural Construction of an Early Christian Debate (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992).

54 See e.g. Civ. 21.17; Enchir. 29.110. On Augustine's development on this issue, see Moreira, Isabel, Heaven's Purge: Purgatory in Late Antiquity (New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010) 33–6. See also Daley, The Hope of the Early Church, 138–41.

55 Serm. Dom. 1.30.

56 Dulc. 1.14. This was in response to the tribune Dulcitius’ question about the ‘diverse opinions’ on the issue of whether suffering in Gehenna is everlasting. Dulcitius’ own opinion was that Matt 5.25 and 1 Cor 3.15 suggest it is not (1.1). Cf. Quaest. ev. 2.38 (ca. 400).

57 Others continued to comment on the passage without weighing in on the controversy directly. John Chrysostom (Hom. Matt. PG 57.252–3) rejected ‘allegorical’ interpretations in favour of an earthly prison. Eusebius (Dem. ev. 9.8) links Matt 5.26 to Isa 3.12 and Matt 4.12–25 to ambiguous effect. After affirming eternal hell for some, Caesarius of Arles (ca. 468–542) says that Matt 5.26 refers to the temporary punishment experienced by some who pass through fire en route to salvation (Sermo 167.5–7).

58 Quaestiones et responsiones ad coenobitas 607.23–6.

59 Quaestiones et responsiones ad coenobitas 607.162–8.

60 E.g Bede, In Lucae evangelium expositio 4.12.

61 Super evangelium S. Matthaei lectura, lectio 5.

62 Included in the Glossa ordinaria on Matthew 5.

63 Cf. other Matthean ‘punchlines’: 13.49–50; 18.14, 35; 20.16; 21.31–2; 21.43; 22.14; 24.44, 47, 51; 25.13, 29–30, 46.

64 Matt 6.2, 5, 16; 10.15, 42; 18.3; 19.23, 28; 21.31; 24.46; 25.12, 40, 45.

65 Church discipline is theoretically possible, but ecclesial prisons and torture are otherwise unattested in this period, and it would be difficult, if not impossible, to determine if alms had been accepted unnecessarily. Cf. Herm. Mand. 2.4–7 (27.4–7).

66 Less clear is whether the moment of judgement for Luke refers to Jesus’ entry in Jerusalem (so Johnson, L. T., The Gospel of Luke (Sacra Pagina; Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1991) 209) or a final judgement.

67 E.g. Keener, C., Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999) 185 ; Gundry, R. H., Matthew: A Commentary on his Handbook for a Mixed Church under Persecution (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994 2) 87 ; Davies and Allison, Matthew, i.521.

68 Matthew, 87.

69 On other-worldly punishment as prison, see e.g. 1 En. 10.13; Josephus, A.J. 18.14; Plato, Gorg. 523b; Seneca, Herc. Ot. 1005; 1 Pet 3.19; Herm. Sim. 9.28 (105).

70 Smyth, H. W., Greek Grammar (rev. Messing, G. M.; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1956) §2429.

71 6.12 and 18.23–35 tie forgiveness to the sinner's forgiveness of others. Cf. 7.1–2.

72 Cf. judgement as account-settling: 16.27; 18.23–35; 20.1–6; 19.27–20.16; 25.14–30.

73 The Didache: A Commentary (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1998) 83 . Cf. Did. 16.5.

74 E.g. Prov 3.11–12; Zech 13.9; Mal. 3.1–3; Jdt 8.27; 1QHa xiii.15–19; Heb 12.6; Rev 3.19; 2 Bar. 78.6; Pss. Sol. 13.6–11.

75 t. Sanh. 13.3. See the following quotation of Zech 13.9 and 1 Sam 2.6. The House of Hillel counters that God inclines to mercy. Cf. b. Roš Haš. 16b.

76 m. ʿEd. 2.10. cf. t. Sanh. 13.4; Pesiq. Rab. Kah. 10.4.

77 E.g. t. Sanh. 13.3–5.

78 Cf. b. ʿErub. 19a.

79 For the intercession of patriarchs or other notables, see e.g. Philo, Praem. 166; T. Isaac 6.9–23; b. ʿErub. 19a; b. Sotah 10b.

80 See also 1 Cor 11.27–31, possibly 5.5. For action taken on behalf of the dead, see 1 Cor 15.29. On 1 Cor 3.10–15, see Frayer-Griggs, D., ‘Neither Proof Text nor Proverb: The Instrumental Sense of διά and the Soteriological Function of Fire in 1 Corinthians 3.15’, NTS 59 (2013) 517–34; Kirk, A. N., ‘Building with the Corinthians: Human Persons as the Building Materials of 1 Corinthians 3.12 and the “Work” of 3.13–15’, NTS 58 (2012) 549–70.

81 LAB 33.3–5. See also 4 Ezra 7.82, 102–115; 9.12; 2 En. 53.1; possibly Heb 9.27.

82 Rom 2.16; 14.10; 1 Cor 3.10–15; 4.5; 2 Cor 5.10.

83 Herms, R., ‘“Being Saved without Honor”: A Conceptual Link between 1 Corinthians 3 and 1 Enoch 50?’, JSNT 29 (2006) 187210 .

84 Cf. C. Hayes on rabbinic descriptions of Gentiles, ‘The Complicated Goy in Classical Rabbinic Sources’, Perceiving the Other: Ancient Interactions with Others in Antiquity and Modern Scholarship (WUNT i; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, forthcoming).

85 Davies and Allison, Matthew, i.317; Meier, J. P., Matthew (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1980) 25 ; Origen, Hom. Luc. 24; 26.3. Cf. Mark 9.49.

86 Augustine, De civ. Dei 21.24. Gregory the Great, Dial. 4.41. Most ancient commentary on the saying focuses on the status of the Spirit relative to God.

87 E.g. Luz, U., Matthew 8–20 (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001) 208 .

88 This could be a matter of the quantity of sin (t. Sanh. 13.1–3) or of particularly egregious sins (m. Sanh. 10; t. Sanh. 13.4–12; b. ʿErub. 19a). Cf. 1 John 5.14–17.

89 An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (London: James Toovey, 1845) 420–1.

I am grateful for comments on draft versions of this article offered by members of the Oxford New Testament Seminar, the Cambridge Senior New Testament Seminar, and the Durham University New Testament Seminar. Thanks also to Michal Bar-Asher Siegal and T. J. Lang.

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