“Imprisonment” or “bondage” in the Bible understood as a metaphor signifying the inability to clearly communicate one’s meaning

(The following is modified version of a section found in Chapter 4 of Part I of my “Against the Lie” essay.  In order to appreciate its full significance, I recommend that all of the material—including the notes and the Bible passages that I link to—be read carefully.)

In his epistles, the apostle Paul repeatedly makes reference to “bonds,” or “chains,” or “fetters,” or “imprisonment.”  I believe he likely intended words such as these to be understood by the reader as metaphors, used for the purpose of reminding the reader that what he was writing should not be taken completely at face value.  Furthermore, there are striking similarities between the way of thinking that I believe is being expressed by Paul through the use of these metaphors in his writings (and that I believe is also expressed by other authors of the Bible when they use these same kinds of metaphors), and certain ways of thinking that have sometimes been observed in schizophrenic persons.

In Ephesians 6:18-20, Paul writes,

Keep vigilant with all perseverance, and (make) supplication for all of the saints, and also for me, that utterance [or meaning, or (the) word, or (the) message: logos] may be given to me in (the) opening [anoixis] of my mouth [stoma] with forthrightness [or plainness, or candor, or openness, or frankness, or boldness, or freedom, or confidence, or courage: parrésia], to make known [gnōrizō] the mystery [or secret doctrine, or secret teaching, or hidden meaning, or inner meaning: mystérion] of the gospel [or good message, or good news: eu-aggelion], for the sake of [hyper] which [hou, referring to “the mystery of the gospel”] I am an ambassador [or “I am an elder”: presbeuō] in chains [or “in bonds,” or “in bondage”; more literally, “in a chain”: en halysei]; so that in it [that is, “in making known the mystery”] I might speak freely [or speak forthrightly, or speak plainly, or speak frankly, or speak candidly, or speak openly, or speak boldly, or speak confidently, or speak courageously: parrésiazomai, related to the noun parrésia], as I ought [dei] to speak [or communicate: laleō].

Notice the juxtaposition of the symbol of “chains” or “bondage,” on the one hand, and the idea of speaking “freely” or “without restriction,” on the other.

There are close parallels between this passage and Colossians 4:3-4, in which Paul writes,

[P]ray for us also, so that God might open [anoigō] to us a door [thyra] for the utterance [or the meaning, or the message, or the word: logos], to speak [or communicate: laleō] the mystery [or secret doctrine, or secret teaching, or hidden meaning, or inner meaning: mystérion] of Christ—also on account of [or because of: dia] which [ho, referring to the word mystérion, meaning “mystery”] I have been bound [or imprisoned, or hindered, or restricted, or compelled, or obligated, or constrained: deō]—so that I might make it [that is, “the mystery”] clear [or expose it to view, or reveal it, or make it public, or make it plain, or make it apparent, or make it understood: phaneroō], as I ought [dei] to speak [or communicate: laleō].

The Greek word anoixis, meaning “opening,” is the noun form of the verb anoigō, meaning “to open.”[1]  So a comparison of the two passages suggests that the “opening” of Paul’s “mouth” spoken of in Ephesians 6:18-20 should be regarded as equivalent to the “opening of a door” spoken of in Colossians 4:3-4; and so the latter passage seems to indicate that whether or not Paul would be able to “open his mouth” or “speak openly” would (since the matter was “in God’s hands,” so to speak, while Paul’s “hands were tied”) depend partly upon whether or not the opportunity was available to him to do so—that is to say, whether or not a particular person happened to be receptive to the “mystery” (or “secret teaching,” or “hidden meaning,” or “inner meaning”: mystérion) that Paul would have wanted to share with him.[2]

Also, a close look at the language used in Colossians 4:3-4 reveals that Paul is saying that it was because of the “mystery” or “inner meaning” (mystérion) contained in the gospel of Christ—and not necessarily because of the actual, literal, verbal utterance of that “mystery” or “inner meaning”—or of any meaning, for that matter—that he had been “bound” (deō).  And that in turn suggests that the “imprisonment” or “restriction” of which he speaks was not due to external forces or factors (for example, the Roman authorities)—at least, it was not due directly to external forces or factors.  In other words, it would have been Paul who was restricting himself in response to the existence of those external forces or factors.  According to this interpretation, Paul would have preferred not to have to restrain himself from speaking freely and openly; but, so long as those external forces or factors existed, he felt that he had no real choice.  (Or, perhaps, the “restriction” was internal but involuntary.)

If the interpretation that I am offering is correct, then it would cast doubt upon the correctness of the way in which Christians have traditionally read passages from the New Testament such as these in which Paul speaks of his having been “imprisoned” or “bound” or “fettered”—namely, in such a way that Paul is understood to be referring to his literal imprisonment by Roman authorities.[3]

And that in turn raises the possibility that Christians over the centuries have misunderstood the meaning of their own scriptures at a very basic level.

The interpretation that I offer is supported by Paul’s use in Colossians 4:3-4 of the Greek word deō, which, according to Thayer’s Greek Lexicon, generally means “to bind, to fetter, to tie, to shackle, to imprison, to fasten”; but it also corresponds to “a Chaldean and rabbinical idiom” that has the meaning “to forbid, to prohibit, to declare to be illicit.”  The Greek word deō is the word that the translators of the ancient Greek Septuagint translation of the Old Testament would usually use to translate the Hebrew word asar, which has a similar range of meanings of “to bind, to tie, to imprison, to hold, to fasten”; and, according to the Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew Lexicon, this Hebrew word asar can be “figurative of obligation of oath or vow.”  Similarly, according to Gesenius’ Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon, asar can mean “to bind a bond, or prohibition upon oneself, i.e. to bind oneself with a vow of abstinence, promising to abstain from certain things otherwise permitted.”  These “things” may have been understood by Paul and certain other Christian Jews to include the free and open communication of certain types of knowledge, or of certain beliefs, or ideas, or thoughts.[4]

These lexical definitions increase the likelihood that it was self-restraint, or self-censorship, or else some difficulty in successfully conveying the meaning that Paul wished to convey (causing him to be “tongue-tied,” so to speak), and not direct, external, forcible restraint, that was the cause of Paul’s figurative “imprisonment” or “bondage.”  Thus, when in the final verse of his epistle to the Colossians (Colossians 4:18), Paul concludes the epistle by writing, “Remember my fetters [or bonds, or bindings, or shackles: singular desmos, derived from deō, meaning ‘to bind’],” I think it would be reasonable to surmise that he meant for this to be read as something like, “Do not forget that I am still unable to speak completely freely and openly and clearly”—for whatever reason—“so that my true meaning, or full meaning, must continue to be partially veiled for the time being.”[5]

An interpretation of the “bondage” symbolism such as the one that I am offering is also supported by Bible passages such as the Greek Septuagint (“LXX”) translation of Ezekiel 3:24-27—which contains imagery that is highly reminiscent of the two passages from Paul’s epistles that I quoted above:

And (the) Spirit [pneuma] (of the Lord) came [erchomai] upon me and set [histémi] me on my feet, and spoke [laleō] to me, and said [or uttered, or meant, or signified: legō, from which is derived the word logos, meaning “utterance, meaning, message, word”] to me, “Go in [eis-erchomai], and be shut up [or shut in, or confined within, or locked up, or closed in: eg-kleiō, derived from kleiō, meaning ‘to shut, to close, to lock’][6] in the inner parts [or center, or midst, or middle: mesos] of your house [oikos].  And you, son of man, behold [or perceive; or, more figuratively, ‘understand’: idou], bonds [or fetters, or bindings: desmos, derived from deō] have been put [didōmi] upon you, and they will bind [deō; Hebrew: asar] you in them, and by no means shall you go out [ex-erchomai] from within [or ‘the midst of,’ or ‘the center of’: mesos] them.  And I will tie together [syn-deō, derived from deō] your tongue [glōssa] with your throat [larygx; the Hebrew Masoretic text instead has ‘mouth,’ chek], and you will become mute [or “become deaf-mute”: apo-kōphoomai, derived from kōphos, meaning “mute” or “deaf”], and you will not be to them as a man who rebukes [or convicts, or exposes, or condemns, or reprimands, or accuses: elegchō], for it is a rebellious [or contumacious, or provoking, or embittering, or exasperating: para-pikrainō] house [oikos].  And in my speaking [laleō] to you, I will open [anoigō] your mouth [stoma], and you will say [ereō] to them, ‘Thus says [or utters, or means: legō, from which is derived the word logos, meaning “utterance, meaning, message, word”] (the) Lord, (the) Lord.’  The one who hears [akouō], let him hear [akouō], and the one who disobeys [apeitheō], let him disobey [apeitheō]—for it is a rebellious house.”

First, notice that the “bonds” (or “fetters,” or “bindings”: desmos) spoken of in this passage pertain either to the content of the prophet’s speech, or to the way in which others interpret that speech—and not to any physical “bonds.”  This increases the likelihood that when he was speaking of his “bondage,” Paul—as someone who was steeped in the Old Testament writings, and whose thinking and manner of expression would have been strongly influenced by them—also did not intend to refer to physical “bonds.”

Second, notice that the “bonds” (or “fetters,” or “bindings”: desmos) are being identified with the “house” in which the prophet has been “confined” or “locked up” (eg-kleiō), and from which he is not allowed to “go out” (ex-erchomai).  The primary conceptual distinction seems to be one between the “inner parts” of that “house,” and the “outer parts” of that same “house.”  The prophet is in a position in which he must try to find some way to get his message out while still being trapped inside (or “in the center of,” or “in the middle of”: mesos) the “house” (oikos).  It is quite possible that this was the same “existential position” that Paul felt himself to be in.[7]

It is also the same “existential position” that schizophrenic persons are sometimes described as being in.[8]

Third, consider how Ezekiel 3:24-27 seems to encapsulate the entire rationale for esoteric communication, which is that the failure to understand the intended meaning of an esotericist’s deliberately cryptic, ambiguous, heavily metaphorical, and obscurely allusive discourse is the moral fault of the person who fails to understand; the esotericist does not consider himself to be morally culpable for being misleading or confusing (at least, not wholly so).  The conception seems to be that for persons who do not want to understand what the esotericist is “really” saying, his speech will be “bound” or “closed” or “shut” or “locked”; but for persons who are open to the possibility of self-rebuke or self-condemnation, his speech will be “opened up” or “loosened” or “released” or “unlocked.”  And when the esotericist finally encounters someone who is receptive to what he is “really” saying, or what he is “really” getting at, it is as if he were escaping from his “imprisonment” or “house arrest”—even if only briefly.[9]

This way of understanding Ezekiel 3:24-27 is very similar to the way in which the communication patterns of schizophrenics are characterized by Gregory Bateson, Don D. Jackson, Jay Haley, and John Weakland, in their paper, “Toward a Theory of Schizophrenia.”  Consider in particular the following excerpts from that paper:

The peculiarity of the schizophrenic is not that he uses metaphors, but that he uses unlabeled metaphors. … The convenient thing about a metaphor is that it leaves it up to the therapist (or mother) to see an accusation in the statement if he chooses, or to ignore it if he chooses.[10]

With this passage in mind, again consider Ezekiel 3:26-27 (LXX), in which the Spirit of the Lord says to the prophet,

[Y]ou will become mute, and you will not be to them as a man who rebukes [or convicts, or exposes, or condemns, or reprimands, or accuses: elegchō],[11] for it is a rebellious [or contumacious, or provoking, or embittering, or exasperating (or, perhaps, in more modern lingo, ‘crazy-making’?): para-pikrainō] house.  And in my speaking to you, I will open [anoigō] your mouth [stoma], and you will say to them, ‘Thus says (the) Lord, (the) Lord.’  The one who hears, let him hear, and the one who disobeys, let him disobey—for it is a rebellious house.

It may be that a similar sentiment is also being expressed in Revelation 22:10-11:

And (the angel) said to me, “Do not seal [sphragizō] the words [or meaning: logos] of the prophecy [prophéteia] of this book, for the time is near [or at hand: eggys (or engys)].  The one who is unrighteous, let him still be unrighteous, and the one who is filthy, let him still be filthy; and the one who (is) righteous, let him still practice righteousness, and the one who is holy, let him still be holy.”

It follows from what I wrote above that with regard to both the “opening of the prophet’s mouth” of Ezekiel 3:24-27 (LXX), and the “not sealing of the words of prophecy” of Revelation 22:10-11, the idea of “openness” in either case should be understood as being only relative in nature.  The metaphorical “opening of mouths” or “opening of words” still does not constitute any kind of full “opening”; it apparently just signifies that a listener has learned how to “hear” in the “language” of esoteric communication, which uses the supposedly “weighty words”—i.e., “meaningful words” or “portentous words”—of cryptic “prophecy” (prophéteia), as opposed to the (relatively) “meaningless words” of (relatively) incomprehensible “tongues” (glōssa).[12]  We still have not yet arrived at what people would ordinarily regard as completely plain and forthright speech.

I think it would be reasonable to suppose that Paul may have been thinking along lines similar to those of these other esotericist authors when, in Ephesians 6:18-20 and Colossians 4:3-4 (the passages quoted at the beginning of the post), he speaks of “the opening of his mouth.”  It may at first seem difficult to reconcile such a suggestion with the ideas that Paul expresses in those passages, namely, that of “speaking forthrightly” (or “speaking frankly,” or “speaking openly,” or “speaking plainly”: parrésiazomai), and that of “making something clear” (or “making something plain,” or “making something understood”: phaneroō).  I think the best way to reconcile the apparent discrepancy would be to suppose that Paul—like the other authors—probably expected the recipient of his allegedly “open” or “plain” or “clear” communication to “meet him halfway,” so to speak, so that even when Paul thought of himself as “speaking openly” or “speaking plainly” or “speaking clearly,” the speech would still not have been “open” or “plain” or “clear” to all (or even to most) recipients of that communication—and, moreover, Paul, just like the other esotericist authors, would have been well aware of that fact.[13]



[1] Actually, it means “I open,” but whenever I give the definitions of Greek verbs, I give the Greek word in the first-person singular present active indicative form, but its English equivalent in the infinitive form.

[2] I think one might legitimately think of this “mystery” or “hidden meaning” or “inner meaning” as essentially a psychological understanding of some kind, one that the authors of the New Testament were assuming could be perceived only by those who had already had certain requisite experiences and insights on their own.

[3] Incidentally, the traditional Christian claim that Paul was imprisoned by Roman authorities at the time he was writing some of his epistles (and even, according to some, that he was eventually executed by them) is actually quite ludicrous on its face.  If Paul was being literally imprisoned by the Romans, it would have been because he was organizing an illegal conspiracy deemed to be subversive of the Roman Empire—which makes it extremely difficult to believe that his alleged Roman jailers would have permitted him to continue organizing that very conspiracy from his prison by receiving visitors and by writing epistles to the various Christian churches (such as his epistle to the Philippian church).

Also, in Philemon 1:1 and 1:9 Paul describes himself as “a prisoner [desmios, derived from deō, meaning ‘to bind’] of Jesus Christ“—not “a prisoner of the Romans.”  And in Philemon 1:13 Paul speaks of the “bonds [or fetters, or bindings: desmos, derived from deō] of the gospel [eu-aggelion].”

By the way, I should note that I view the Book of the Acts of the Apostles as a highly uncertain mixture of historical fact and allegorical fantasy, so I am unwilling to regard its various references to Paul’s “imprisonment” as at all trustworthy or reliable.  And in any event, even if Paul had been imprisoned by the Romans at some point, I strongly doubt that this is what he was referring to in the writings of his that I have quoted in this note and in the main text.

[4] Incidentally, consider that to the extent Paul considered himself to be a “prisoner,” he may have considered himself to be—at least to some extent—still a metaphorical “child of Hagar,” according to the analogy that Paul sets forth in Galatians 4:22-31 (especially verse 25), in which being a “child of Hagar” is compared to “being in bondage” or “being enslaved” (Greek douleuō, which is probably derived from deō, which again means “to bind, to fetter, to tie”).

Moreover, it is possible that all of the apostles saw themselves in this same way, since in Matthew 25:35-36 Jesus speaks of six conditions of “hunger,” “thirst,” “estrangement,” “nakedness,” “weakness” (or “sickness,” or “infirmity”: astheneō), and “imprisonment” as accompanying one another, while in 1 Corinthians 4:10-11 Paul speaks of the apostles as suffering five conditions of “hunger,” “thirst,” “homelessness,” “nakedness,” and “weakness” (or “sickness,” or “infirmity”: asthenés).  So the suffering of figurative “imprisonment” (or “enslavement,” or “bondage”) by the apostles may have been understood to accompany the five other hardships.

[5] Also consider the use in Acts 26:24-29, more specifically verse 29, of the Greek word desmos, which again means “bond, binding, fetter, shackle.”

[6] Compare the use of the Greek word kleiō, meaning “to shut, to close, to lock,” in the description of the “new Jerusalem” given in Revelation 21:22-27, more specifically, verse 25.  Note the use in that same verse of the Greek word pylōn, meaning “gate.”  Then compare that passage to Matthew 16:15-20, focusing in particular on the use in verse 18 of the closely related Greek word pylé (which also means “gate”).

[7] Perhaps the “door” (thyra) which Paul mentions in Colossians 4:3-4 was meant to refer to the “door” of the “inner room” (or “inner chamber,” or “secret room”: Greek tameion) of that “rebellious house.”  Compare Matthew 6:6, Luke 12:3, and Matthew 24:26.

[8] For example, in Assessing Schizophrenic Thinking (Jossey-Bass, 1979), psychologists Mary Hollis Johnston and Philip S. Holzman write,

For the most part, people do make themselves understood.  But schizophrenic persons seem to have a harder time in that effort.  Their language is sometimes loose or tight, sometimes figurative or literal, sometimes full of logical shifts or almost devoid of logic.  In short, their speech makes it difficult for the listener to interpret the thought processes without considerable effort and interpretive leaps.  Interruptions, looseness, new words, shifts in direction—all of these modes and more are characteristic of thought disorder.  They impart to the speech of the schizophrenic speaker a quality of bizarreness.  Yet a careful listener can decipher and interpret the meaning of such speech, and skilled therapists have demonstrated that ability many times….  [p. 175; the emphases are mine.]

As another example, in The Divided Self (Pantheon Books, 1969), psychiatrist R. D. Laing provides the following account written by one of his schizophrenic patients:

Meeting you made me feel like a traveller who’s been lost in a land where no one speaks his language.  Worst of all, the traveller doesn’t even know where he should be going.  He feels completely lost and helpless and alone.  Then, suddenly, he meets a stranger who can speak English.  Even if the stranger doesn’t know the way to go, it feels so much better to be able to share the problem with someone, to have him understand how badly you feel.  If you’re not alone, you don’t feel hopeless any more.  Somehow it gives you life and a willingness to fight again.

Being crazy is like one of those nightmares where you try to call for help and no sound comes out.  Or if you call, no one hears or understands.  You can’t wake up from the nightmare unless someone does hear you and helps you to wake up.  [p. 178; the emphasis is mine.]

The patient also writes, “I felt as though I were in a bottle.  I could feel that everything was outside and couldn’t touch me.”  Laing then comments,

But this turns into a nightmare.  The walls of the bottle become a prison excluding the self from everything while, contrariwise, the self is persecuted as never before even within the confines of its own prison.  The end result is thus at least as terrible as the state against which it was originally a defense.  [p. 182.]

The same patient also gives the following description of her schizophrenia:

There is no gentleness, no softness, no warmth in this deep cave.  My hands have felt along the cave’s stony sides, and, in every crevice, there is only black depth.  Sometimes, there is almost no air.  Then I gasp for new air, though, all the time, I am breathing the very air that is in this cave.  There is no opening, no outlet, I am imprisoned.  But not alone.  So many people crowd against me.  A narrow shaft of light streams into this cave, from a minute space between two rocks.  It is dark in here.  [pp. 182-83.]

She also writes,

The problem with schizophrenics is that they can’t trust anyone.  They can’t put their eggs in one basket.  The doctor will usually have to fight to get in no matter how much the patient objects.  It is wonderful to be beaten up or killed because no one ever does that to you unless they really care and can be made very upset.  A person kills because he really wants the other to be resurrected, not just lie dead.

Loving is impossible at first because it turns you into a helpless little baby.  The patient can’t feel safe to do this until he is absolutely sure the doctor understands what is needed and will provide it.  [pp. 180-81.]

Laing also gives the following description of another one of his schizophrenic patients:

Julie and her mother were at this time both desperate people.  Julie in her psychosis called herself Mrs. Taylor.  What does this mean?  It means “I’m tailor-made.”  “I’m a tailored maid; I was made, fed, clothed, and tailored.”  Such statements are psychotic, not because they may not be “true” but because they are cryptic; they are often quite impossible to fathom without the patient decoding them for us.  Yet even as a psychotic statement this seems a very cogent point of view and it gives in a nutshell the gist of the reproaches she was making against her mother when she was fifteen and sixteen [that is, before Julie was deemed to be psychotic].  [p. 209; the emphases are mine.]

By the way, it should also be noted that the German psychiatrist and philosopher Karl Jaspers wrote a paper in which he diagnosed the prophet Ezekiel as schizophrenic.

[9] See Luke 4:16-21, focusing especially on the words “prisoners” (or “captives”: aichmalōtos) in verse 18, and “in your hearing” (more literally, “in your ears”: en tois ōsin hymōn) in verse 21.  Also see Luke 12:3 and Isaiah 42:7 (LXX).  Passages such as these give rise to the suggestion that in gaining the ability to “hear” the scriptures—as well as “prophetical communications” (by which I mean, “schizophrenic communications”) in general—people would thereby make it possible for the “prisoners” to be “liberated.”  In other words, if the schizophrenic patient in the previous note was “a traveller who’s been lost in a land where no one speaks (her) language,” then the scriptures would be “fulfilled” (or “completed”: pléroō) when everyone else finally took the time and trouble to learn how to speak the “language” of persons like her so that they could understand what those persons were trying to tell them.

But I think there is also a more general implication to be derived from this.  Because the “language” of schizophrenics (and of esotericists with schizophrenic tendencies) is the most difficult to make sense of, if people were willing to take the time and trouble to make even schizophrenic persons feel that what they were trying to say was indeed understood, then the “fulfillment of scripture” would necessarily coincide with a more universal interest in and concern with ascertaining the meanings that other people intend to convey when they communicate.  It would, in other words, coincide with more successful communication among human beings in general; and it would also coincide with a universal human commitment to honesty, since a generally shared “communion of meaning” cannot exist in the absence of such a commitment.  Dishonesty in its very essence involves a refusal to share one’s truly intended meanings with others, resulting in the constriction and distortion of meaning as a whole.

Thinking of the matter in this way helps us to understand that we are actually all “prisoners” trapped within ourselves, to some extent, because of the current lack of a full “communion” or “circulation” of meaning in human society.  And the Lie is ultimately what keeps us all imprisoned.

[10] The emphases are mine.

Note, by the way, that the fact that the schizophrenic speaker uses “unlabeled metaphors” effectively means that, from the perspective of other people, he is speaking in a kind of “encoded language.”

Also note that, as I explain in this post, “an unlabeled metaphor” is actually just a more polite way of saying “a lie” (or, at least, “an untruth”).

[11] Compare the use in 1 Corinthians 14:23-25, more specifically verse 24, of the Greek words elegchō, meaning “to convict, to rebuke, to condemn, to accuse,” and eis-erchomai, meaning “to come in, to go in, to enter,” with the way those same words are used in Ezekiel 3:24-27 (LXX), which I quote above in the main text.  That comparison gives rise to a suggestion that “(self-)rebuke” or “(self-)condemnation” may have been deemed to occur as the result of someone from outside the church “entering into” (eis-erchomai) the “prophetical utterances” spoken by the members of the church.  (And I believe those “prophetical utterances” ought to be regarded as essentially schizophrenic communications.)

[12] Cf. 1 Corinthians 14:4.  Also, 1 Corinthians 14:21-25 suggests that it would perhaps be legitimate to think of “tongues” (glōssa) as being something like the “external part” or the “husk” of “prophecy” (prophéteia), such that “prophecy” would have been considered to sound like “tongues” to those who had not yet “entered into” (eis-erchomai) the prophetical communications by discerning their “inner meaning” (mystérion); and, whether or not a person was able to “enter into” the prophetical communications may have determined whether or not that person was deemed to “believe” (or “trust”: pisteuō) the prophets.  (Again, consider Acts 26:24-29, this time focusing on verse 27.)

[13] Cf. 2 Corinthians 4:3.


(Persons who are interested in reading more about the connections between religious esotericism and schizophrenia may wish to read Chapter 5 of my essay Against the Lie.)