This past week I received a question from a reader about the book of Philemon. The last time that happened … well, actually, I think it has happened only once before in the history of the blog! And now that vibrant and widespread interest has been raised, it is a good time to address it again! Seriously, it involves an unusually intriguing question. What was Paul’s view of slavery?
Philemon provides an unexpected answer, at least as I read it. This is the shortest of Paul’s letters (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.
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 hidden away in the inner recesses of the New Testament. Merely a single page in length, the size of an average Greco-Roman letter, it is the only undisputed epistle of Paul addressed to an individual. Rather than dealing with major crises that have arisen in the church, the letter concerns a single man, the runaway slave Onesimus, and his fate at the hands of his master, Philemon.
On first reading, there may be some confusion concerning
A short letter with a completely unexpected twist that almost everyone misses. Want to learn more? Join the blog! Click here for membership options