“Set the Prisoners Free”: Different Meaning 2,000 Years Later

As a writer, I often spend more time than I’d like to admit with a dictionary and thesaurus. This is not because I don’t know how to spell, although without spell-check that would be a valid reason. It is because I am adamant about choosing the best word to convey the message I am attempting to communicate.

The purpose of this constant review is to avoid miscommunication or the improper interpretation of the message. I continually discuss the importance of this in every class I teach or lecture that I present. It is a problem for many in our society due to the casual, and often lazy, manner in which we choose the easiest word – usually the first that comes to mind, instead of the more appropriate word. The other reason this happens is that many choose to quit expanding their vocabulary and/or assume that their audience has as well.

In instances when text is translated, the issue is sometimes magnified due to the inability to select the best word in a different language. Another factor is the context of when the words were used.

It is rather apparent to me that this is a substantial problem with some of the interpretations and understanding of Scripture, which, in turn causes confusion for some Catholics.

Rather than tackle a complicated example, I would like to use a common misconception that I have heard discussed by many “social concerns” or “social justice” groups and committees.

If we read and/or listen to readings from the Bible, there are at least 20 references to “prisoners.” These occur primarily in the Old Testament (Genesis, Isaiah, Zechariah, and Acts).

On too many occasions I have listened to people make a direct correlation to prisoners discussed in these passages of the Bible with those in prisons today. Prisoners in biblical times differ greatly from today’s prisoners. I really do not think that we, regardless of which democratically-run country we reside, really want to do what is proposed by some misguided interpretations of scripture or song and actually “set the prisoners free.”

Back in Time

In the time that the Bible passages were written, “prisoners” overwhelmingly referred to those individuals that were incarcerated for political and/or religious purposes. These prisoners were held captive primarily for one reason: to remove them from the general public so that their dissent of the ruling individual and politically powerful, or their practice and preaching of different religious beliefs, would be muted.

In some instances, these prisoners would be released if they denounced their political opposition or religious beliefs. In other cases, the prisoners were tortured, starved, and/or just left to die.

During those historical times, “criminals” were not placed in prisons. If you recall from other biblical passages, criminals were usually subjected to capital punishment such as being stoned or crucified. This is precisely why the circumstances that led to Jesus’ crucifixion had to occur in the manner that they did – as explained in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (Second Edition), §596:

The Pharisees threatened to excommunicate his followers.381 To those who feared that “everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation,” the high priest Caiaphas replied by prophesying: “It is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish.”382 The Sanhedrin, having declared Jesus deserving of death as a blasphemer but having lost the right to put anyone to death, hands him over to the Romans, accusing him of political revolt, a charge that puts him in the same category as Barabbas who had been accused of sedition.383 The high priests also threatened Pilate politically so that he would condemn Jesus to death.384

Reference Note : 381 Cf. Jn 9:22
Reference Note : 382 Jn 11:48-50
Reference Note : 383 Cf. Mt 26:66; Jn 18:31; Lk 23:2, 19
Reference Note : 384 Cf. Jn 19:12, 15, 21

Today’s Prisoners

In the United States and most other democratic countries, current prisoners are criminals – not just dissenters of the government or proponents of an alternate religion. If/when these individuals are imprisoned, it is almost always due to criminal activity that either directly or indirectly is a result of their political or religious beliefs and activities.

However, as we have heard recently, most notably in Syria, Christians are being persecuted for their religious beliefs. This is not isolated to Syria. Multiple countries that are led by dictators still utilize the methods of Jesus’ time to quell political and state-run religious dissent by imprisonment, torture, or death.

In these instances, I think it is essential that we do pray for the release, freedom, strength, and protection of the Christians and Catholics that are prisoners in countries such as North Korea, Syria, and others around the world.

© 2013 Greg Yoko.  All rights reserved.