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Does Paul Condemn Slavery? The Case of Philemon and Onesimus.

I received an interesting question this week about Paul’s letter to Philemon.  And hey, how often do you get a question about Philemon?!?   This is the shortest of Paul’s letter (it’s a one-pager) where he is writing to his convert Philemon, a rich slave owner, asking him to receive back into his good graces his run-away slave Onesimus.

So what was *that* all about?  Here is the question and my response.



A question on an atheist discussion group, “Why did Paul send Onesimus back?” got me thinking.
From your writing about Greco Roman notions of dominance as status, it seems that the simple manumission of a slave was not a de facto improvement in status, because a man with no wealth, power, or influence was about as low on the ladder as one can be, save for a similarly situated woman. A trusted slave of a wealthy, powerful individual would have more status than a “free” Onesimus.

Would it be unreasonable to suggest that Paul was hoping for an improved station in life for Onesimus as the favored slave of Philemon, who was probably not enormously wealthy and powerful by Roman standards, but pretty high up in the Colossian Christian community? He may have really hit the jackpot and become Philemon’s adopted son, which would be far better than a simple manumitted slave.

This also puts a different spin on the implications of Paul’s self-identity as a slave of Jesus Christ. “Your master is a centurion or a senator? My master is the King of the Universe and sits at the right hand of God Almighty!” Am I reading it right?



The question assumes the very common view that what Paul is doing is asking Philemon to receive Onesimus back and set him free from slavery (“manumit” him).   Most people read the book of Philemon that way.  And I don’t think it’s at all right.  In my view there is not a hint in the letter that Paul wants Philemon to set Onesimus free.   Then what is he writing about?   Here is how I explain the entire letter in my book The New Testament: A Historical Introduction


The letter to Philemon is a little gem ….

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Does the Book of Acts Accurately Portray the Life and Teachings of Paul?
Why Women Came to be Silenced



  1. Robert
    Robert  May 11, 2018

    So rather than freeing a slave, Paul wants to acquire his own him as his own slave … for free!

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      godspell  May 13, 2018

      If that’s what Bart is suggesting, it’s not the opinion of the majority of scholars, and it’s hardly a proven point.

      And it makes no sense, because Paul didn’t need a slave. He lived a very simple life, with very simple needs (even when he wasn’t in prison).

      If he wanted Onesimus to stay with him, which is clearly the case, it was because he saw a chance at a talented protege who would be an asset to the new church. All one to him if Onesimus remained a slave or not, but slave or free (and once enslaved, something of the stigma of slavery remained in Roman society, long after you were emancipated), he could make himself useful to the true master, who is God.

      • Bart
        Bart  May 16, 2018

        Yup, it’s what I’m suggesting. I’m afraid we know almost nothing about Paul’s daily life.

        • Avatar
          godspell  May 16, 2018

          I don’t think he wanted Onesimus for a slave. Acolyte, maybe. Paul would not have needed to hold Onesimus against his will. He might have remained a slave in the eys of Roman law, but he wouldn’t have been one in fact–not if he wanted to be there. And Paul is probably asking because Onesimus has hinted or stated out loud that he’d like to stay with Paul. We know enough about Paul to know he was good at acquiring people in a different sense than enslaving them.

          I’d need a lot more convincing than I think you’d have time for. And since I’m reading an entire book about enslaved Christian leaders right now–by someone specializing in this particular area of study at the present time–I’ve got enough context to keep asking more pertinent yet impertinent questions, and I think you’ve got better things to do. Back to the Afterlife with you. 😉

  2. Avatar
    Judith  May 11, 2018

    Your appeal in red to join the blog is amazing to me. Did you come up with that on your own? It was funny and yet deep with meaning. Almost daily readings of the blog further us along in understanding what we can about Christianity. Without this blog, we stay where we once were with what we know. I’m not saying this right but just know I find you astonishing sometimes!

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    forthfading  May 11, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman,

    When you are working with your doctoral students concerning this epistle, What are your hoping the greatest “take away” will be for your students?


    • Bart
      Bart  May 13, 2018

      Actually, I’ve never discussed this epistle with my graduate students — in 30 years of teaching! My seminars are always on other things.

  4. Avatar
    nbraith1975  May 11, 2018

    I find verse 11 (Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.) to be foundational to Paul’s argument to Philemon to accept Onesimus back without any repercussions or punishment for whatever he may be guilty of against Philemon. The question is; how had Onesimus become “useless” to Philemon? Did he become useless because he ran away? Maybe Onesimus refused to work or had become incapable of doing physical work which rendered him useless to Philemon. There is no mention of Onesimus’ age, so maybe he had gotten to old to perform his duties, or maybe he had become ill and couldn’t work.

    In any case, a slave that has run away, refuses to work or is incapable of work is useless, and the one fact given in this letter is that Onesimus had become useless to Philemon. And I believe this situation has a lot to do with the circumstances involving Onesimus.

    • Avatar
      nbraith1975  May 12, 2018

      In addition to my former comment, I should have noted first that the bigger question that ties my idea regarding Onesimus’ apparent condition of being useless is what exactly was it that Paul could have ordered Philemon to do?

      8 “Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do…”

      And what was it that Paul could have done that needed Philemon’s “consent” to do?

      14 “But I did not want to do anything without your consent…”

      Was Paul considering offering Onesimus his freedom? This seems like the only possible answer because Paul didn’t need Philemon’s consent to simply to put things back the way they were – i.e. send Onesimus back to his owner.

      • Avatar
        godspell  May 15, 2018

        Not freedom in the sense of “Go do whatever you want” but more like an apprenticeship.

        If, as I think Bart states correctly, this was not a matter of Onesimus looking for freedom, but rather having done something for which he could be punished (perhaps seriously) under Roman slave laws, he could not, in good conscience, sense him back to face that, without having gained an assurance his new friend would be forgiven his trespasses.

        Slavery was a great evil in the Roman world (that the Roman world had basically zero problems with), but it was a different evil than the one we remember from more modern times.

        And to Paul, freedom is something no one can truly have until the Kingdom comes. So just by having converted Onesimus, awakened him to a larger truth, he’s made him more free than the richest (and cruellest) of masters.

        And I don’t know as I’d argue the point. Slavery isn’t a choice, no matter what Kanye West thinks. But how you live within the bounds of the life you’re born into is.

  5. Avatar
    Wilusa  May 11, 2018

    At this point in his life, would Paul still have believed that the Kingdom was at hand, and there would come a time – soon – when those in power would be overthrown, and the humble exalted? (So it would be *better*, down the road, for a slave to have remained a slave?)

    • Bart
      Bart  May 13, 2018

      My sense is yes, but nothing in the letter suggests one way or the other.

  6. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  May 11, 2018


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    joncopeland  May 11, 2018

    Dr. Erhman, I’d like your opinion on an alternative reading of Philemon.

    In his book Embassy of Onesimus, Alan D. Callahan argues that this letter isn’t about slavery at all, but rather, Paul has been called upon to mediate a dispute between brothers (“in the flesh”) over money. He argues that the entire tradition of Onesimus’ status as a slave hinges on the use of the word in verse 16. He says it depends on how one interprets “hos doulon”, “as a slave.” Does that mean something metaphorical, “as IF a slave?” Callahan argues that Paul is being literal when he encourages Philemon to treat Onesimus no longer as (if) a slave, but as “adelphon…en sarki,” a brother (literally)…in flesh.

    There’s more to his argument; “Onesimus” doesn’t necessarily have to be a slave name, the tradition only goes back as far as John Chryststom (I think this is disputed), there are other examples of “hos” being used to introduce metaphors. But the most compelling argument, to me, is the Paul’s use of “in flesh” to describe their relationship. If the talk about repayment is actually about a debt between brothers, then there doesn’t seem to be anything else in the letter about slavery. Just curious as to your thoughts.

    Finally, thank you for this blog. I look forward to reading it every day.

    All the best,

    • Bart
      Bart  May 13, 2018

      Yes, I don’t think that reading makes much sense. It’s not clear why Philemon ever *would* accept Onesimus back “as a slave” if he weren’t really a slave. Onesimus means “useful” and that is the typical way slaves were named, by their function. So it’s an interesting idea, but I don’t find it persuasive.

  8. Avatar
    Tony  May 11, 2018

    Interesting points and I agree that freedom for Onesimus was not the purpose of the letter. But why was the letter kept, and why did the NT canon compilers include it?

    I think the answer may be in vv. 15-16: ” Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.”

    Like other mystery religions, Paul’s preached universality for cult members. Gal 3:28: ” There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”. Paul message was that Onesimus had become a brother of the Lord – just like Philemon. The NT compilers may have seen this as Gal 3:28 in action and included the letter for that purpose.

    • Alemin
      Alemin  May 14, 2018

      “and why did the NT canon compilers include it?”
      That one’s easy! Because Paul wrote it. If they’d found his shopping lists I’m sure those would be in the canon!

      • Avatar
        Tony  May 16, 2018

        Paul refers to other letters he wrote. We do not have those. Philemon, at first glance, does not appear to carry any theological significance – like a shopping list.

        • Bernard
          Bernard  June 1, 2018

          I would really like to know if Dr. Ehrman agrees with the “shopping list” motive or if he has some other view of why Philemon is included in the canon.

          • Bart
            Bart  June 2, 2018

            No, Philemon is not like a shopping list It may have been included because of it’s close ties with the letter to the Colossians.

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    Franz Liszt  May 11, 2018

    I’d agree that Paul doesn’t make any argument against slavery as a whole here, but it seems in my opinion that he does see the ideal as Onesimus being free. For instance, Paul says at the end of the letter that he trusts that Philemon will do “even more than I say.” And this is after Paul said to treat Onesimus as though he were Paul himself! Also, I’m skeptical of the analogy to the ‘not as a woman, but as a friend.’ It would seem in this case that one can be a friend in addition to being a woman. Does it really make sense for Paul to envision someone being a brother to someone else as well as a slave? It seems to me that those would be mutually exclusive. Perhaps I’m mistaken, and this was a feature of the ancient world that I’m not familiar with. I’d be interested to hear your take.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 13, 2018

      I think the problem is thinking that ancients had the same view of slavery as evil that we have, and then reading that back into ancient writings. Paul in other places (see 1 Cor. 7) does not only fail to *condemn* slavery when he had the chance, but *supports* it, and tells slaves not even to try to receive manumission! So when he says “do even more” he doesn’t mean, probably, set him free. My view is that he is asking Philemon to give him the gift of Onesimus himself to serve Paul.

      • Avatar
        godspell  May 13, 2018

        But in what capacity, and as Katherine Shaner suggests, the language may indicate that he wanted Onesimus to become directly involved in the church, because he saw ability he coudl harness.

        I don’t think he needed or wanted a valet.

  10. Avatar
    Alfred  May 11, 2018

    I was fascinated by this when I first read it. Thank you for sharing it once more. On re-reading I wondered if you had any thoughts on why a letter to an individual came to be copied regularly enough to find its way into scripture. There must have been many letters to individuals – why was this one special? Or is it another case of it being in the nature of coincidences that they happen?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 13, 2018

      No one knows. It was connected to the letter of Colossians (same names mentioned in both) and so may have been preserved together with it and made it in the ealry Christian collections of Paul’s letters for that reason.

  11. Avatar
    ardeare  May 11, 2018

    I studied this letter a while back. It seems that Paul accepts slavery as a fact of life but doesn’t want Onesimus punished. Onesimus has gained Paul’s favor and trust. Forgive and forget. The process from ownership to brotherhood is being introduced. Does Paul want Onesimus for his own after he is released from his prison home? I don’t think so. At least not as a slave.

    Paul is planting a seed in the mind of Philemon. Philemon owes his own conversion to Christianity to Paul and this very same Paul will be arriving at an unknown date to see how things are working out………including his relationship with Onesimus. The subject of Onesimus joining Paul as a missionary seems to be a possibility, but Paul’s primary focus would surely have been on acquiring resources (money, food, goods) to continue his missionary work.

  12. Avatar
    godspell  May 11, 2018

    Short answer–no. Paul does not condemn slavery as an institution, and there’s no reason to think any Christian of that time did. (Or any Jew, or any pagan. Maybe some Zoroastrians, jury’s out.)

    My read is that Paul doesn’t consider slavery to be an issue he has to confront–or an issue, period. But he does not view it as an ordinary Roman would. As he sees it, we are all servants of God, all equal in God’s eyes.

    In Paul’s time, slavery has been a part of the world of men for as long as anyone can remember. Slaves are universally present in every part of Roman society. Nobody is talking about abolishing slavery. Nobody. Spartacus wasn’t talking about that. We don’t know what exactly he was after (or whether he really was the leader of the Servile Rebellion), but that was much more of a revolution of the have-nots against the haves than the enslaved against the enslavers. It was a war on Rome itself, not slavery. That’s why so many free (but poor) people joined Spartacus.

    The notion of individual slaves wanting to be free, or an enslaved race seeking mass emancipation, was nothing new (you can find it in Exodus, and the Spartans lived in mortal fear of their slave race the Helots overthrowing them, as finally happened).

    The notion that you might want to abolish slavery everywhere, make everyone free–nobody’s ready for that. There are a lot of jobs in the Roman world that no sane person would want to do. (There are jobs in our world that no sane person would want to do, and do you ever think about the people who made your smartphone? And the suicide nets they put under the factory windows? Oh, but the apps are so great!)

    But Christians don’t think it matters, because the Kingdom is coming. In the Kingdom, everyone will be equal, and there will be no property, so how could there be slaves? There is neither slave nor free within each Christian community (important distinction).

    Pliny is perplexed and disgusted by how slave women–who he tortures for information they’d provide willingly, because in the Roman world, slave testimony is considered worthless unless produced under torture–can hold positions of high status within this strange cult. He clearly views this as evidence that Christians are insane.

    This is because at this time, most Christians are living as if the Kingdom is already here. (Or at least trying to, with mixed success, because they’re human beings.) Pagan masters might be kind or cruel, Christian masters might be kind or cruel–but the difference is that Christians, as a DEVOTIONAL GROUP, don’t stigmatize slaves, or people who were formerly slaves. They don’t think one’s personal worth as a Christian is determined by whether one is or has been enslaved. As more and more pagans convert, the pagan attitude towards slavery asserts itself, but the Christian attitude resists. When we are worshipping, there is neither slave nor free, and gifts of the spirit may well be found among the most humble, and be absent from the most exalted. That is precisely what Jesus had taught, after all.

    You could be a very rich well-educated ex-slave–you were still an ex-slave, and the assumption was that meant there was something defective about your nature to start with. Only Christians believed you could shed all your past failings–including whatever innate failings that might have put you in a servile state–by embracing Christ.

    Why did so many American slave owners not want their slaves to become Christians? In the early stages of that evil and thankfully shortlived institution, that wasn’t necessarily true. But when black slaves wanted to convert, wanted to become Christians, they were often brutally viciously discouraged (and persisted, regardless).

    Why? Because that would denote equality of the spirit. That would make them brethren. And by that point in time, in the Christian world, it was considered wrong to enslave your brothers and sisters. That’s why African slavery became the norm, after earlier experiments with indentured servitude. That’s why American slavery was so utterly dehumanizing and racist–because unlike the Romans, who had no guilt at all over slavery, could not imagine a world without it, American Christians knew they were committing a moral wrong for material gain. They did it anyway. But there is ample evidence many feared they were risking hell by doing so. Many left wills asking their slaves be freed. (Often those wills were not honored.)

    Paul has spent significant time with Onesimus–it is a joy to him to (as he sees it) have saved another soul. He clearly thinks this soul was particularly worth gaining for the church. No, I do not believe he wanted Onesimus to become his property. Makes no sense. Paul’s existence is entirely encompassed by the church. He has no secular life. Slavery is part of the secular world–that he believes will end with the coming of the Son of Man.

    But more than that, there’s no point. Onesimus wouldn’t need to become his property. You’ve studied Paul, you know how charismatic he was. Onesimus would have happily been his companion and disciple, just as his master happily forgave the debt Onesimus owed him to please Paul.

    Paul is asking for Onesimus, yes. But not as an earthly possession. And not as a manumitted freedman (and again, this would still carry a stigma in the secular world). Paul doesn’t condemn slavery because he doesn’t think there is any inherent difference between slave and free. We can argue–rightly so–that there was a huge difference. In the world that existed then, and the world that exists now. But he was seeing a different world. A world that didn’t exist yet. A world that might never have existed at all, if Rome had remained pagan. But as I keep trying to tell you, paganism never really died. The good or the bad of it. Still here.

    One more thing, separate post.

    • Avatar
      godspell  May 11, 2018

      Just recently, I was looking at a new book, by Dr. Katherine A. Shaner. “Enslaved Leadership in Early Christianity.” It crossed my desk at the library, and I was intrigued. I’m still reading it now. But I skipped ahead to the part about Onesimus.

      She is reading the same text as you, with about the same qualifications to interpret it, and of course there are so many more questions than answers within that letter. I’ll focus on one point. I’m not qualified to say if her point is valid or not, so I relay it to you.

      Her argument is that Paul is not asking that Onesimus remain with him as a personal manservant (given the ascetic life Paul lived, what exact use would he have for one?).

      The specific Greek word he uses (which I can’t very well recreate here with my keyboard), refers to ‘cultic practices’, according to Shaner–in other words, he wants Onesimus to become a form of minister or deacon, working under him, serving in a religious function. He sees potential here, and he wants to develop it. (As you know, there is a debate within scholarly circles as to whether this Onesimus is the same one who later became a bishop within the church.)

      We don’t have Philemon’s response. We don’t know what happened. Did Onesimus stay with Paul? Did he go back to Philemon in his former capacity? Or did he become a deacon in Philemon’s church, and gain a status independent of his servile state?

      I have my problems with Paul–many problems.

      But he wasn’t a hypocrite. Not that you said he was.

  13. Avatar
    Leovigild  May 12, 2018

    Fred Clarke has suggested Paul is presenting Philemon with the opportunity to re-enact the parable of the Prodigal Son:


    • Bart
      Bart  May 13, 2018

      Interesting idea. Of course tha twould presuppose that Paul *knew* the parable. (Note: it is found only in the Gospel of Luke, written a couple of decades after Paul’s death)

  14. Avatar
    The Agnostic Christian  May 12, 2018

    I’ve just started reading The Triumph of Christianity. I noticed you gave some recommendations to read on the life of Constantine. The absolute best book I’ve ever read on the subject, and frankly one of my favourite books ever, is Constantine and the Conversion of Europe by A. H. M. Jones. It’s definitely written for a popular audience. I’ve read it twice and even bought it on Audible (which was also read very well). I highly recommend to everyone reading this blog.

    Here’s the eBook edition that is very reasonable priced: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B0167GDUNO

  15. Avatar
    mikezamjara  May 13, 2018

    Dear Dr Ehrman

    I am a specialist in a different field from yours (biochemistry and biotechnology) but i am interested in the research in textual criticism as a hobby (yes, that sounds extrange). In my field the Journal citation report (JCR) is a tool to check the ranking of scientific journals. In your field, would you recommend me to use it or do you have another index to check publications?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 13, 2018

      I’m afraid we don’t have the same system in biblical studies. You have to rely on a knowledge of the field to know which journals are the top ones. For textual criticism, that would include The Journal of Biblical Literature, New Testament Studies, Novum Testamentum, Zeitschrift fuer neutestamentliche Wissenschaft, and…. several others!

      • Avatar
        bensonian  May 14, 2018

        Per your response to the post from mikezamjara: I am a graduate student trying to build a list high quality academic resources and I would love to see the list of “and…. several others.” What would you consider as the most scholarly / academic works / text books / that you have written (I am one of the six people who care)? Should we use the bibliographies contained within your works published by Oxford University Press as a starting point? What about leveraging Bruce Metzger’s writings (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bruce_M._Metzger#Books_and_commentaries)?

        • Bart
          Bart  May 16, 2018

          A couple of them are not really suitable for anyone other than textual critics. Trust me. (The books on Didymus the Blind and Origen and my two collections of essays on NT textual criticism, one that I wrote and the other edited) The other scholarly ones are The Orthodox Corruption of Scriptures; Forgery and Counterforgery; and my bi/tri-lingual editions of the Apostolic Fathers (2 vols.) and the Apocryphal Gospels.

  16. Avatar
    Iskander Robertson  May 13, 2018

    Dr Ehrman

    paul claims to be dangerous persecutor
    In acts he gets help getting lowered in a basket

    Do you see anything strange ?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 16, 2018

      Are you thinking that former persecutors should not be lowered in baskets?

  17. talmoore
    talmoore  May 13, 2018

    Anyone who wants a good understanding of how slavery and slaves were thought about in the eastern Mediterranean, you should read the first book of Aristotle’s Politics, where he descibes the relationship in detail.


  18. Avatar
    evalis  May 15, 2018

    Thank you for this! My first blog post reading here as a newcomer! Sadly I don’t have your book at hand, Dr. Ehrman (–but I bought “The Triumph of Christianity” last week 😀 – very good and capitvating so far! –), but could you help me with a reference to the recent studies on Roman slavery and the “legally recognized practice” of this intervention? Would be great! Thank you in advance and best regards

    • Bart
      Bart  May 16, 2018

      I’m afraid I’m away from my books (for virtually the entire summer!), but I think you could find this in most modern commentaries on Philemon and, maybe most easily (?), in the article on Philemon in the Anchor Bible Dictionary (a highly valuable six-volume set)

      • Avatar
        evalis  May 17, 2018

        Thank you, great will check … und fröhlichen Sommer fern den Büchern!

        • Bart
          Bart  May 18, 2018

          Strangely, I’m away from my reference books but not from my research books, which are happily residing here on my table at the beach!

  19. Avatar
    GregAnderson  May 26, 2018

    Um, ok, I’m gonna blurt it out: Does no one here imagine that Onesimus’s slavery was sexual?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 27, 2018

      Not to my knowledge. I don’t know what is known about “sex-slaves” in antiquity — are you thinking of an ancient reference in particular (or modern study)?

      • Avatar
        GregAnderson  June 5, 2018

        I recommend the enlightening and entertaining book, “The Roman Guide to Slave Management: A Treatise by Nobleman Marcus Sidonius Falx,” by Dr. Jerry Toner, Fellow and Director of Studies in Classics at Churchill College, Cambridge.

        “The fact that the philosopher emperor Marcus Aurelius was proud of himself for resisting the temptations posed by two beautiful slaves suggests that this is not a course that most masters would have taken. There was little stigma attached in masters having sex with boys and adolescent males: all slaves were there for the master to take advantage of if he so wished, whatever their sex or age.”

        Just as in 18-19th c America, Roman slaves were used for sex and were bred, among their other duties.

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