Mark Keown, who has published the new EEC commentary on Philippians, has interestingly proposed that Paul in Philippians believes he will live because he planned to escape from his Roman prison. He expressed this view in an article in JSPL 5, no. 1 (2015): 89-108 and has now integrated it into the exegesis of his Philippians commentary.

Keown believes that after two years of house arrest, his situation had deteriorated so that he was now in chains (Phil 1:7, 13-17), being able to  preach directly to Nero’s elite guards who were watching him, and he was possibly about to die (Phil 1:19-23).

In 1:19-26, Paul speaks of living or dying and expresses a sort of certainty that he will live for the sake of other believers. In 1:22 he seems to say he has the choice of life or death, and in 1:25 he says he is “convinced” and knows “that I will remain and continue with you all.” Keown (vol. 1, p. 11-12), as he does throughout the commentary, helpfully lists all the theories of how Paul could have been so confident:

  • that Paul was released due to not coming to trial in the statutory period of eighteen months
  • simple discharge
  • thought of suicide like that of Seneca, or voluntary death like Christ
  • that Paul is referring to his conviction of the better of the options, not what he will choose (the majority view, e.g., Hansen, 85; Fee 1995, 144; Bockmuehl, 90; Lightfoot, 108)
  • that he assumes he will be released (Hawthorne and Martin, 57)
  • that he has just received a favorable verdict (Michaelis; cf. Bruce, 52)
  • that αἱρέω, “choose,” here means “prefer” (O’Brien, 126)
  • that he is about to reveal his Roman citizenship (Collange, 62)
  • that he is speaking rhetorically (Cousar, 141)
  • that he has had a word from God

Keown believes the only real possibilities, given the evidence available, are the last two, or the third option that he proposes, that Paul’s friends have planned an escape for him so he could visit his churches again, especially the Philippian church. When Paul says in 1:22 οὐ γνωρίζω regarding whether he will live or not, he means “I do not make known,” meaning he will not reveal his plans, for he must keep his escape plan secret for it to succeed.

Keown also believes the existence of the Pastorals, which are traditionally taken to have been written after Paul’s release from Rome, supports the idea of his escape. I do not think the writing of the Pastorals after imprisonment must mean Paul had an escape plan, and many scholars have also recently made an appealing case for the writing of the Pastorals before the Roman imprisonment, so this evidence probably isn’t very relevant.

Since Paul had contacts within Caesar’s inner circle of guards, some of whom had accepted the gospel, Keown supposes that Paul likely had an offer for help from among them. If his trial went south and he was sentenced for further imprisonment or death, Paul would take up the offer to escape and then visit his churches to strengthen them.

To read the full argumentation for Keown’s escape hypothesis, check out volume 1 of his Philippians commentary, pp. 221-275. I think Keown makes a plausible case, and one that fits with what we know of Paul, since he had escaped from trouble before (I’m not sure I’m completely convinced, though). What about you? Would you be able to read Phil 1 in this way?

Buy NowVol. 1 (1:1-2:18) Buy NowVol. 2 (2:19-4:23)


For a great companion resource to Keown’s commentaries, check out out our Philippians Greek Reading Videos. Between our visual explanations of the Greek of Philippians and Keown’s coverage of the primary and secondary sources, you’d be well situated to teach effectively on the epistle.