One topic I mentioned previously is Paul being seen as pro slavery, and in fact he has been historically proof-texted in that way by anti-abolitionists, citing he sent a runaway slave back to his master. I’d like to think about that here. Philemon is very short and can be read in a minute or two. It’s about Paul sending the runaway (and possibly thief) slave Onesimus back to his master Philemon. This might seem horrible to us today, as masters could horribly punish and even kill slaves for such things. The reader does not know the outcome, but there is more here than meets the eye. Here is a good recent translation. Here is a short video introducing the letter:
There is more here than just a slave being returned, as Paul is meditating here on the human condition. We are all slaves to varying degrees at various points in our lives, prisoners or captives to terrible circumstances we can do nothing about, like a terminal cancer diagnosis or a financial catastrophe. But what is amazing is that different people can deal with the same problem in polar opposite ways. Triplets can grow up in an abusive household and all deal with it in very different ways and it have very different outcomes. Nietzsche said that which does not kill me makes me stronger. The causality of the human unconscious is not like the causality of natural science (where water always boils at a certain temperature and pressure) because like causes need not produce like results in humans. Kant called this the difference between natural causality and causality of freedom. Deleuze and Guattari called this the difference between the Freudian Causal Unconscious and the Machinic Unconscious.
Circumstances only determine your joy or sorrow if you have an approach like the Greek hero Achilles who had desire as lack and was always searching for honor and glory. His biggest problem was fear of death because the Greek view of the afterlife was tedious wandering. Jesus, on the other hand, had desire as productive, not lack, and so even the undesirable enemy is loved as Saul was. Jesus transfigured Saul into Paul through the recollection of loving and forgiving Stephen.
Nietzsche called this amor fati, love of fate or dancing in one’s chains, or in Nietzsche’s words saying yes and amen to all existence and that it should repeat itself forever. Consider this final scene clip from the Oscar winning movie “Life is Beautiful:”
Philemon on a literal level is about a runaway slave Onesimus being returned to his master Philemon by Paul, but figuratively it is about the slave/prisoner/servant in all of us and how to love being a servant, be it a servant to God, or to the whims of the Muse, or whatever. Paul calls himself a prisoner of Christ in Philemon.
Paul claims that
- “28 There is no longer Jew or Greek; there is no longer slave or free; there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise (Galatians 3:28-20).
This was the exemplary standard, but since Paul thought the apocalypse and the Kingdom of agape selfless love was imminent, there were more immediate concerns than dealing with the societal institution of slavery and getting all slaves to runaway and be hunted down by their masters and living in terror of the consequences of being caught. Roman law allowed the owner of a runaway slave nearly unlimited privileges of punishment, even execution. Paul thought Christ would return soon to set up his Kingdom of selfless love so in the meantime it was better for all concerned that slaves stay in their position and learn to be godly and find joy in it. Similarly, Jesus thought marriage was unnecessary because there would be no marriage in the coming Kingdom (Mark 12:25), though he still gave views about “proper” marriage. One of the best attested to directives of Jesus in all sources is “No Divorce!” although again this might be Jesus exaggerating for effect. Generally speaking, Jesus makes the law stricter to make sin conspicuous, encouraging repentance and good living. He just meant it’s usually a good idea to work on a marriage and earn your way out if that’s the destination, at least that’s what Dr. Phil says.
Paul does not assert his authority but offers suggestions or arguments as to why Philemon should accept Onesimus back in love. Goicoechea summarizes:
- Philemon should welcome home Onesimus with agapeic affection: (1) because Jesus has taught us to love everyone as brother and sister (2) because Onesimus can be trusted now given his conversion (3) because Philemon in welcoming him will pay a debt to Paul. (4) Also Paul would like to keep him but he thinks he should send him back because he belongs to Philemon (309)
Goicoechea argues what has transformed Onesimus the most and made him want to return to Philemon is that the highest ideal Paul exemplifies is the servant/prisoner/slave:
- Onesimus must have felt totally fathered and mothered by Paul. Paul had completely dedicated himself to [serve/be a slave to] Jesus and all the members of his body, the church, with his celibacy, poverty and obedience. Paul was free from any concerns for himself and his own family and free for serving all others, even lowly slaves as if they were his own children (308)…As Paul prayed daily for his brothers and sisters in the Lord he prayed for them with the same joy that he saw on Stephen’s face. Paul learned what a dear brother in the Lord is first from Stephen who died with the prayer of his brother Jesus on his lips: Father, forgive them for they know not what they do. And now Onesimus knew of Paul’s love and forgiveness and he knew that God had forgiven him too for being a resentful runaway slave…Because Paul’s love of the Lord brought him to serve others in his poverty, celibacy and obedience which freed him from self-interest to be free for totally working for others such as Onesimus God was able to work through Paul to convert Onesimus to agape. His love for Jesus and the God who is love let him rejoice, even in being a prisoner himself where he could minister to prisoners. (304)
Paul doesn’t assert his authority, but offers Philemon a choice. Wright summarizes:
- “The threefold request to Philemon then looks like this. First, accept Onesimus back, in principle, as a humble but reconciled brother in Christ (though still as a slave); do not punish him. Second, please send him back to me as an assistant. Third, perhaps, in doing so, you will also give him his freedom. The double-effect biblical allusion says, on the one hand, ‘perhaps you will have him back for ever’ (the first of the requests), but on the other, ‘perhaps you will do more than I say’ (the third). … Paul is teaching Philemon, and indeed Onesimus … to think within the biblical narrative, to see themselves as actors within the ongoing scriptural drama: to allow their erstwhile pagan thought-forms to be transformed by a biblically based renewal of the mind.” N. T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, 2 vols., (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2013), 15
As I said, Paul like Jesus exaggerated for effect, and just as Philemon is about more than Paul trying to get a slave to go back to his master, Jesus was just making a point with his figurative claim that faith can move mountains. He wasn’t expecting the Beloved Disciple to throw a mountain into the sea! With Jesus we always need to be on guard about being too literal (Mark 4:11). Jesus’ prohibition against divorce mentioned above seems to be authentically his because it is attested to across the sources and breaks Jewish custom and Jewish law. It has also been the bane of countless horrible marriages in history because it has been taken literally. But, as I said this seems to be another case of exaggerating for effect, which is a good teaching tool because even if you give an impossible standard (adultery is not just the sex act, but even a lustful eye), as the saying goes: “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.” Giving a law/directive provides a standard to meet. Giving an impossible law/standard discloses how far you fall short of the ideal and simultaneously provides something exemplary to strive for. Christians thus looked at Jesus as a test: Not just the question of how the world turned on a man, but how the world turned on the holiest man, God’s highest favored and chosen Jesus. This dis-closed (a-letheia) the hidden satanic core of the world and made repentance possible. Trystan Owain Hughes points out regarding Jesus and exaggeration:
- In the Bible, Jesus uses exaggeration and hyperbole on numerous occasions, as he connected with his listeners by expressing deep truths in a nonliteral manner. He came from a Jewish tradition that was steeped in this technique of writing and speaking. “You are all together beautiful, my love; there is no flaw in you”, asserts the Song of Songs in the Old Testament (Song 4:7). I’m sure Solomon’s beloved was stunningly beautiful, but even the very best of us have a couple of flaws! By Jesus’ time, hyperbole was a technique used by some rabbis, the teachers of the day. Jesus, though, particularly employed this technique, often as a way of grabbing his audience’s attention or to shock them into recognising the deep truth he was asserting. As G.K. Chesterton put it, “Christ had even a literary style of his own; the diction used by Christ is quite curiously gigantesque – it is full of camels leaping through needles and mountains hurled into the sea”. The Sermon on the Mount has many such examples. When Jesus refers to lust, for example, he says “if your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away… and if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell”. This passage clearly shouldn’t be taken literally, not least because its literal fulfilment won’t achieve the desired goal anyway. One of my closest and oldest friends has been blind since childhood, and I remember once discussing this passage with him. “Believe me, Trystan”, he said over his pint of beer, “tearing someone’s eyes out won’t stop them lusting!” While such a statement should not be taken literally, it should still be taken seriously. This passage teaches us something far deeper, far more radical about God’s kingdom. Everything we do, Jesus is telling us, has profound effects on both others and ourselves… Jesus’ exaggerated statements in the Sermon on the Mount, then, are not to be taken literally.
As a general matter of interpretation, there need not be the inference that an actual master and slave are being referred to by Paul in Philemon, any more than Theophilus (God lover) who Luke writes to is anything but a generic type the work is addressed to. Analogously, in the epistle form, for instance, Ovid produced three collections of verse epistles, composed in elegiac couplets, including the Heroides, letters written in the person of legendary women to their absent lovers. Onesimus is also mentioned in Colossians 4:9, though there is no suggestion he is a slave and that letter is not included among the undisputed Pauline ones. It may be a different person completely, or Paul may have borrowed the name of this average/typical Christian to create the slave in Philemon out of whole cloth. Regarding the name of the slave, as a background to his specific plea for Onesimus, Paul describes the affection he has for Onesimus and the transformation that has taken place with Onesimus’s conversion to the Christian faith. Where Onesimus was “useless”, now he is “useful” – a wordplay, as Onesimus means “useful”.
Paul indicates that he would have been glad to keep Onesimus with him, but recognised that it was right to send him back. Paul’s specific request is for Philemon to welcome Onesimus as he would welcome Paul, namely as a Christian brother. He offers to pay for any debt created by Onesimus’ departure/possible thievery and expresses his desire that Philemon might refresh his heart in Christ. Baur described the subject matter of the epistle as “so very singular as to arouse our suspicions,” and concluded that it is perhaps a “Christian romance serving to convey a genuine Christian idea.” The transformation seems to be from a bad runaway slave/thief to a loving slave/servant of Christ after encountering Paul, mirroring how evil Saul was transformed by Jesus into holy Paul. Onesimus’ honor and obedience is not claimed by Philemon, but by Christ, as with all Christians. One commenter suggests:
- What is perhaps most amazing about this letter, and what is most needful for churches today in reading and preaching and teaching this letter is this: Philemon is put into the corner of decision by Paul. The audience who heard this letter publicly read would have been asking all along: “What will Philemon say? What will he do?” This isn’t a theoretical letter about pre-emancipation theories about slaves. This is a pastoral letter from an apostle, who refuses to claim his authority (and so models what he wants Philemon to do), to a co-worker named Philemon who ran a household and who had slaves and who had power. Paul asks Philemon in front of everyone: “What’s your answer, Philemon?” Or better yet, “How Christian are you, man?” Or for the whole audience, “How gospel-shaped will your household be? Verses 13–14 suggest that Paul wants Philemon to send Onesimus back to Paul (possibly freeing him for the purpose). Marshall, Travis writes, “Paul hoped that it might be possible for [Onesimus] to spend some time with him as a missionary colleague… If that is not a request for Onesimus to join Paul’s circle, I do not know what more would need to be said.”
The thematic parallel is obvious. Just as Saul was resurrected as Paul with his encounter with Christ, so can we see this possibility for ourselves with the lowest of the low, a runaway thief/slave Onesimus returning to his master free and loved thanks to his encounter with Paul. There’s no reason to think there is anything historical here. Sarah Ruden, in her Paul Among the People (2010), argues that in the letter to Philemon, Paul created the Western conception of the individual human being, “unconditionally precious to God and therefore entitled to the consideration of other human beings.” Before Paul, Ruden argues, a slave was considered subhuman, and entitled to no more consideration than an animal. Part of my friend David Goicoechea’s project was to show Paul envisioned a new interpretation of personhood.
Like to read more? Click on my family TARTAN image below to see the Scripture Studies Index. Only Philippians and a summary left with Goicoechea on Paul, and then on to Mark and Matthew – and then my Scripture Studies Project is FINISHED!