Prisons and jails of the Bible

The first occasion on which we read of a prison is in the history of Joseph in Egypt. Then Potiphar, “Joseph's master, took him, and put him into the prison, a place where the king's prisoners were bound” (Genesis 39:20-23).

The Hebrew word here used (sohar) means properly a round tower or fortress. It seems to have been a part of Potiphar's house, a place in which state prisoners were kept.

Imprisonment under Mosaic Law

The Mosaic law made no provision for imprisonment as a punishment.

In the wilderness, two persons were “put in ward” (Leviticus 24:12; Numbers 15:34), but it was only till the mind of God concerning them should be ascertained.


Prisons and prisoners are mentioned in the book of Psalms (Psalm 69:33; 79:11; 142:7).

Samson imprisoned

Samson was confined in a Philistine prison (Judges 16:21, 25).

Israelite prisons

In the subsequent history of Israel, frequent references are made to prisons (1 Kings 22:27; 2 Kings 17:4; 25:27; 25:29; 2 Chronicles 16:10; Isaiah 42:7; Jeremiah 32:2).

New Testament prisons

Prisons seem to have been common in New Testament times.

John the Baptist was imprisoned.

Now when John in prison heard of the works of Christ, he sent word by his disciples —Matthew 11:2 LSB

For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.’ —Matthew 25:35-36 LSB

I was a stranger, and you did not invite Me in; naked, and you did not clothe Me; sick, and in prison, and you did not visit Me.’ —Matthew 25:43 LSB

The apostles were put into the “common prison” at the instance of the Jewish council (Acts 5:18; 5:23; 8:3); and at Philippi Paul and Silas were thrust into the “inner prison” (Acts 16:24; compare Acts 4:3; 12:4-5).

Article Version: October 13, 2021