Philemon used to be covered with Philippians and Colossians, and consequently, it went ignored. (Do you remember the last time Philemon came up in Gospel Doctrine?) However, Philemon merits our close attention. It’s short and it offers a great discussion point for something really relevant and important. So, I’ll go long on Philemon (and the bottom has some old-post leftovers about Philippians and Colossians.)
In spite of its brevity, Philemon has a lot of uncertainty to it, factual details known to Paul and the recipient that “go without being said.” Again, in Paul’s letters, we’re only hearing half the phone call. I say that so you understand the proper weight to give the reconstructed narrative below, accepted by many scholars as the likely-but-speculative reconstruction of Philemon. But first, go read the whole letter. It’ll take less than five minutes. Really, I’ll wait…
The first part of the story, in brief. Paul is in prison or under house-arrest. He writes to Philemon, who became Christian after meeting Paul. He seems to know him well, in fact. Philemon is apparently well-off, as the local church meets in his home and he owns slaves. One of those slaves, a man named Onesimus (oh-NEE-suh-muss, Greek meaning “useful, profitable” ), has run away and perhaps stolen a little (fleeing?) money from Philemon. Onesimus encountered Paul
somehow and become a Christian. He now serves Paul in prison, and has become quite “useful” to him (Phm 1:11). In keeping with the law, Paul is sending Philemon the slave back to his master.
In the biblical world, this institution took on forms quite unlike the New World slavery practiced in the West particularly in the 18th and 19th century.
Perhaps most significantly, modern Western slavery included a strong racial component that was not present in the ancient Near Eastern world. Nevertheless, don’t think Israelite or Greco-roman slavery was something good or pleasant or significantly different in other ways. As a hint, there is no distinction between “slave” and “servant” in Greek or Hebrew. Any notion of Downton Abbey-esque jobs implied by “servant” is merely translational smoothing, making it nicer for the reader, cleaning up the slums for the Olympics.
That said, some slaves were well-educated and quite powerful. These were the rare exception to the rule, though. Beyond the exegetical debate during the Civil War, in which southerners touted the Bible in favor of slavery (and anti-slavery northerners had to be creatively selective about their Bible reading), there have been some more recent apologists for slavery because “it’s in the Bible!” so it must not have been that bad, right? Or approved by God somehow? That’s a hard argument to make, and I’m certainly not doing it.
[A]nyone familiar with slavery in the ancient Near East, or in the Greco-Roman world, will know that ancient varieties of slavery were every bit as cruel and depersonalizing as slavery in the American South. During the well-documented Roman period, slaves were mere bodies, to be used according to the whims of their owners. They were presented naked for inspection to prospective buyers and were often branded upon purchase. Attractive women and boys were especially prized for there service in hetero- and homosexual gratification. This was particularly true when their owners wished to engage in sexual activities that their spouses found unsavory, or where their owners wished to rent out their sexual services. Slaves were constant victims of physical and emotional deprivation, and of extreme corporal punishment. According to Roman law, the legal testimonies of slaves had to be verified under torture. All this is not to mention the generally destructive effect that Roman slavery had upon the affected families. It is true that Roman-era slavery sometimes provided comfortable and prosperous lives for slaves, and that most slaves were eventually released, usually by age 30 or so. But [it is wrong and unwise to accentuate] the parallels between modern employment and ancient slavery. The two things are entirely different at precisely the most important points. Consequently, it is an empty and fruitless endeavor to “save” the Bible from its endorsement of slavery. The biblical authors lived in a day when slavery was an accepted social institution, and in many cases they displayed only the most rudimentary tendencies to swim against that social current. -Kenton Sparks, God’s Word in Human Words: An Evangelical Appropriation of Critical Biblical Scholarship, my emphasis.
Second, how widespread was slavery?
The Greco-Roman slave system was an integral part of every aspect of life in Paul’s time. Estimates are that 85–90 percent of the inhabitants of Rome and peninsula Italy were slaves or of slave origin in the first and second centuries A.D. Facts and figures about slavery in the provinces are sketchy by comparison with those in Italy, but the existing evidence suggests a comparable percentage…. By law slaves were what Aristotle called “human tools.” Nevertheless, in the first century they were granted many rights. They could worship as members of the extended family of their owner. They could marry. Such marriages, however, were called contubernium rather than matrimonium. This meant that the offspring of slaves became the property of the owner. Therefore, this may have been the largest source of slaves in the time of the early Empire. During the late Republic slaves were usually prisoners of war. Only very early in Roman history was slavery the result of debt. Slaves also were allowed to accumulate money of their own, the peculium, that often could be used by them to purchase their freedom or to start a business when once they were manumitted, that is, set free by their owners. In addition to being farm workers or semiskilled laborers, slaves were also artisans, workers in crafts, architects, physicians, administrators, philosophers, grammarians, writers and teachers. Frequently they worked for industrial or building corporations for daily wages that were then paid in part (about two-thirds) to their owners. Sometimes slaves worked alongside freed persons, and freeborn workers. Such competition depressed wages and eliminated inflation from the fourth century B.C. to the end of the first century A.D. Freed persons, that is slaves who had been manumitted, played an important role in society, if for no other reason than that by the beginning of the first century their numbers had increased dramatically. As a consequence Caesar Augustus saw to it that laws were passed governing the number and the ages of slaves who could legitimately be set free (Bartchy ISBE 4.545; ABD). Often these freed persons entered into business partnerships with their former owners. Usually such partnerships were informally negotiated between the two parties involved at the time of the slave’s manumission. Cicero says that a slave could expect freedom in seven years, but in any case, under Roman law, persons in slavery could expect to be set free at least by the time they reached age thirty.- Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, “Slavery,” my emphasis.
Third, as noted by Sparks, both Testaments simply assume the validity of slavery. The Old Testament discusses laws governing slavery in several places, such as Exo 21:1-11, Deut 15:12-18, and Lev 25:35-55. The Torah made distinctions between Israelite and non-Israelite slaves, but neither was particularly pleasant. Exo 21:20-21 talks about how much you can beat them, for example. When it comes to the New Testament,
The Gospels assume that slaves are part of the social order. Jesus heals a centurion’s slave (Mt 8.5–13), and the slave of the high priest is in the crowd of those who arrest Jesus (Mk 14.47). Slaves figure in some of the parables, echoing Roman stereotypes of the good and bad slave, and hinting at the violence to which a slave might be subject as well as his subordinate social position (Mt 25.14–30; Mk 12.1–11; see also Lk 17.7–10). The household codes mandate obedience: Eph 6.5–8 combines a negative stereotype with a hint of the threat of violence to which slaves were subject, and then frames it in the context of the teachings of the church in which God will reward both slaves and free for the good that they do. The Jesus Movement and contemporary Jewish groups shared the Graeco- Roman practice of slavery but differed from it due to religious teachings and social conditions. Neither the institutions of pagan Rome nor those of Judaism and Christianity offered a fundamental challenge to the practice of slavery.- Jewish Annotated New Testament, 404.
Jesus, notably, never says anything against slavery, or Christianity might have been different. It often appears in Paul’s letters, both metaphorically (“Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus” opens several of his letters like Rom 1:1, Phil 1:1) and and non-metaphorically. Note the slave-related directives of Col 3:22ff, 1Co 7:20-22, and Eph 6:5-8.
The problem, then, neatly encapsulated in Philemon, is that scripture fails to live up to a standard we see as ethically and morally cut-and-dried, and presumably eternal.
Modern Christianity maintains that the owning and trading of human beings as chattel is immoral and unacceptable in the eyes of God. How is it possible that this modern theological judgment, now so putatively unassailable and certain, was not reached and preached explicitly by the biblical writers themselves, who wrote under the influence of the Holy Spirit and so presumably knew —or should have known, it seems— that slavery was an abominable practice that dishonored human bearers of the divine image?- Sparks, God’s Word in Human Words, my emphasis.
Scripture simply doesn’t reflect the eternal ideal, as we understand. How do we account for this? What model of scripture, revelation, and prophets allows “God’s word,” God’s prophets, and Jesus himself to do or allow something so… inhuman? Philemon forces us to rethink— or maybe think for the first time— about how we conceptualize these things. It’s easy to rule out a few responses due to their reductionist simplicity. Slavery wasn’t merely a one-time blip, but a fundamental part of the Old and New Testaments. This prevents us from the unfortunate framing of “oh, that prophet was just acting as a man,” as if it were a one-off kind of thing. Nor can we say, “oh, that part isn’t inspired,” because it’s through the whole thing. I also don’t think we want to to be apologists for Biblical slavery, just because “it’s in the Bible.” We think, “they were prophets, they should have known.” And yet, they didn’t.
Rather, we need to recalibrate our expectations about the nature of revelation, prophets, and scripture. For example, scripture is not an encyclopedic repository of the platonically ideal unchanging ethics and doctrines. It is, rather, a human-but-inspired record (of sorts) of God’s line-upon-line, accommodationist dealings with fallen humans. Scripture is not all history, “literal/figurative” is a false dichotomy (and tends to misunderstand what “literal” means), and we easily misread ancient genres, especially with books like Jonah. Both the ideas of line-upon-line and accommodation imply progression, that God slowly brings us around. The New Testament progresses beyond and “redeems” the Old in several distinct ways, evident both from things like the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus is a new Moses and much more subtle things.
Like other early Christians, Matthew viewed Jesus as the “new Moses” prophesied in Deu 18:15: “Yahweh your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own brothers. You must listen to him.” This is why the life of Matthew’s Jesus closely parallels the life of Israel’s ancient lawgiver. Like Moses, Jesus was born as a savior. Like Moses, a foreign king tried to kill him. Like Moses, Jesus was hidden from the threatening king in Egypt. Like Moses, Jesus fasted in the desert wilderness for forty days and nights. Like Moses, Jesus returned from that desert experience and taught God’s people on the mountain. And in that Sermon on the Mount he presented his teaching as a new law that reversed and fulfilled the law of Moses.
Also, in Matthew as a whole, the teaching of Jesus is presented in five sections, each ending with the words “When Jesus had finished saying these things.” This structure parallels the five books of Moses that stand at the beginning of the Old Testament. Once we realize that this was Matthew’s intention—to present Jesus as the new Moses of prophecy—then we are in a better position to appreciate the conclusion of his Gospel in Mat 28:16–20, commonly known as the “Great Commission.”Readers will probably recall that, because of his sin, Moses was not able to lead the Israelites into the Promised Land. At the end of his life, he stood on a mountain overlooking the land and said to the Israelites, “I cannot go with you, but God will be with you.… Go, and kill all the nations.”
This parallels very closely what we find at the end of Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus takes his disciples “to the mountain” and there speaks his own final words: “Go, make disciples of all the nations … and I will be with you.” It is quite clear that Matthew wished to portray Jesus as a better Moses, who, because he was sinless, could address his followers from within the land and could extend the promise to be with them in their mission. Particularly striking, of course, is the profound contrast between the two missions: “kill all the nations” (Greek panta ta ethnē); “make disciples of all the nations” (again panta ta ethnē). Matthew apparently means to teach us that the true fulfillment of the command to kill the Canaanites is actually found in our efforts to convert the lost to faith in Christ. The Gospel is thus understood as a spiritual conquest in the name of Christ and for the good of the nations. So the Gospel of Matthew is a deliberate and sustained attempt to redeem the Old Testament law and make it serve the purposes of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.- Kenton L. Sparks, Sacred Word, Broken Word: Biblical Authority and the Dark Side of Scripture, 68–69. (Cf. Sparks’ paper here)
So whereas the New Testament does “redeem” the Old Testament in terms of “killing all the nations,” it does not do so with slavery.
we should note that even the New Testament, in spite of its special position and redemptive role in the canon, is by no means fully redeemed. It still envisions slavery as an acceptable social practice, maintains a very low view of women at points, and throws ethnic slurs at Cretans. So the authors of both testaments were human beings who lived and wrote within certain limits and therefore relatively they are all vulnerable and therefore capable of error even in respect of religion and theology.- Sparks, Sacred Word, Broken Word: Biblical Authority and the Dark Side of Scripture
If we receive revelation line upon line, then scripture, as a partial history of accommodated revelations, should be a record of earlier and therefore less perfect times. And as time goes on, the revelations God gives, that we can accept, tailored to our own weaknesses and culture, will hew closer and closer to that divine eternal ideal.
Moreover, prophets are full actors in their culture. LDS views on race and slavery were largely inherited from their environment just as Paul’s were. This is clear from the Race and the Priesthood article. I’ve not done a fantastic job laying all this out in such a short space, but I think the problem, at least is clear. My view is that prophets and scripture can be inspired and still “wrong” in very real senses, for a number of reasons. Please read Sparks.
Now, back to the text of Philemon, with a few notes. Paul wisely uses the passive in Phm 1:15, Onesimus “was separated” from Philemon, instead of stating something like “when he ran away.” With his own hand, he offers to recompense Philemon of any financial burden incurred by Onesimus (whether through absence or stealing) in Phm 1:18-19.
Philemon lived in Colossae, roughly a hundred miles inland from Ephesus; the letter to the Colossians was being sent there at the same time (see Colossians 4:9). He had become a Christian, it seems, through hearing Paul preach, presumably when Philemon was visiting Ephesus. Paul at this stage hadn’t been to Colossae itself, but had remained working in Ephesus. Paul had been thrilled with the way Philemon, a man of some means and influence, had responded to the gospel. It had gripped his heart and made him a man of love and generosity. He and his wife, Apphia, and their son, Archippus, had joined Paul in the work of the gospel. They had gone home to Colossae and made their home a place of love and hospitality, where the handful of Christians in the area had begun to meet.
And now Paul had a problem. It seems a simple one to us, but we don’t live in his world. Like every person of any substance in that world, Philemon owned slaves. To them, this was as natural as owning a car or a television is for people in the Western world today. Indeed, most people would wonder how you could get on without them. To us, of course, slavery is now abhorrent. To them (as we saw when looking at Ephesians 6 and Colossians 3) it was like electricity, gas, or cars. You couldn’t imagine society without it. Suggesting you should get rid of it altogether was about as realistic as suggesting today that we should abandon all electric appliances and petrol-fired transport, including cars and planes.
But one of Philemon’s slaves had run away. That, in his world, was a capital offence, and many owners would take that severe vengeance. Worse, the slave had probably helped himself to some money as he did so. And he had gone, as a runaway would, to the nearest large city, in this case Ephesus. There, perhaps when the money ran out, he had met … Paul. And that’s where his story really took off. The slave’s name was Onesimus. (It’s a Greek name, so you pronounce the ‘e’ separately: ‘Own-ee-si-mus’.) The name, ironically enough, means ‘useful’, which was precisely what he hadn’t been to Philemon; perhaps Philemon had crossly told him he wasn’t worth the cost of his own food. But anyway, Onesimus had now come under Paul’s influence; perhaps he had sought him out, having heard the family speak so warmly of him. And he had become a Christian. So eagerly had he embraced the faith, and so grateful was he to Paul for telling him about Jesus, that he had started to look after Paul in prison, to attend to his needs with a devotion he’d never shown to his real master. He and Paul had become friends, brothers in the Lord Jesus, close partners in the gospel. But Paul couldn’t shield Onesimus from what had to happen next. Nor could he shield Philemon from it. He was going to make huge demands on them both, and, like the chairman of a company, he was going to come up with a proposal that his partners would instinctively resist, and perhaps even resent. He was going to send Onesimus back to Philemon and ask Philemon to accept him back again without penalty—and perhaps even hint that Onesimus should be set free.
Everything in that society was against it. You can imagine the feelings on both sides. If everybody did that, the world would grind to a halt! Philemon will be the laughing stock of all his friends! If runwaway slaves get rewarded with freedom, then they’ll all want to do it! Yes, Paul knew all the arguments. And he outflanked them—with the gospel message of Jesus, King Jesus, the Lord before whom he, Philemon, Onesimus and all others were themselves slaves, household servants. The reason for it all, and the method by which it had to happen, were contained in the gospel itself.
The gospel, after all, isn’t simply a message about how people ‘get saved’ in a purely spiritual way. It’s about the lordship of Jesus the king over the real world, over people’s real lives, over the difficult decisions that real people face…. The relationship between Paul and Philemon is itself that of father and son, or preacher and convert. As becomes clear later in the letter (Phm 19), Philemon had come to faith through Paul’s preaching. Paul is conscious, as well, that he himself has been given a strange authority by God, to be the church-planting evangelist through whom communities loyal to Jesus will spring up around major parts of the Greek and Roman world. Within the Christian fellowship, this gives him a status and position that would enable him, if the worst came to the worst, to give commands. But that’s not the best way to do things except in an emergency. Much better that Philemon is helped to think through the issues and come to the right decision for himself. Paul’s appeal, then, is one of love. He appeals to Philemon’s love, and sympathy and affection, by describing himself as an old man and in prison. Paul probably wasn’t what we would call very old; quite possibly only in his forties or early fifties. But in a world where life expectancy was much lower than today he would be seen as a senior figure, with a natural claim on Philemon’s respect- Wright, Paul for Everyone: The Prison Letters: Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon. My emphasis.
How does the story end? How did Philemon receive Onesimus? We really don’t know but Christian tradition (grain of salt) says this.
What is known of Onesimus, except for a reference in Col 4.9, comes from the Letter of Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, to the church at Ephesus, written probably in the year 107, when Ignatius, under arrest, was on his way to Rome to martyrdom. He refers (ch 1) to the bishop of the church at Ephesus, Onesimus, and tradition has held that this is the same Onesimus as in Philemon.- Jewish Annotated New Testament
Further Reading on Scripture, Revelation, and Prophets
These books get at our assumptions about the nature of these things, and are very helpful.
- Kenton Sparks, Sacred Word, Broken Word: Biblical Authority and the Dark Side of Scripture (Eerdmans, 2012) If you read any of these books, read this one. It’s a more popular, directed version of his book below. It’s fantastic.
- God’s Word in Human Words: An Evangelical Appropriation of Critical Biblical Scholarship (Baker Academic, 2008)
- Peter Enns has authored several books related to this topic, though in a different vein than Sparks.
- Matthew Schlimm, This Strange and Sacred Scripture: Wrestling with the Old Testament and Its Oddities (Baker, 2015) I’ve got this on order, as it’s been recommended highly and I really like the bits I’ve read. The ToC includes things like “The R-Rated Bible,” “Killing All that Breathes: Violence in the Old Testament”
On Race, Slavery, and the Bible in General
- Goldenberg, The Curse of Ham: Race and Slavery in Early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (Princeton, 2003) This is excellent. It also has a chapter on the curse of Cain.
- Haynes, Noah’s Curse: The Biblical Justification of American Slavery (Oxford, 2002) This is also excellent, and dovetails nicely with the above title. Both are cited in the Race and the Priesthood article.
- Hezser, Jewish Slavery in Antiquity (Oxford, 2006) I haven’t read this, but I’ve never seen a book that costs $100 for the Kindle edition.
On Mormonism, Race, and Slavery
- Armand Mauss, All Abraham’s Children: Changing Mormon Conceptions of Race and Lineage (University of Illinois, 2003)
- Russell Stevenson, For the Cause of Righteousness: A Global History of Blacks and Mormonism, 1830-2013 (Kofford 2014)
- Paul Reeve, Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness (Oxford, 2015) Reeve spoke at the FAIR conference this year (transcript), and his book has received rave reviews from just about everyone.
- Bringhurst and Smith, Black and Mormon (University of Illinois, 2004)
Tidbits/Notes on Philippians
Phil 1:12 “What has happened to me” ie. Being under arrest, in prison.
Phil 2:4 look to the interests of others. Cf. Mosiah 18, the symbolism of the cross, and duties/responsibilities to the community.
Phil 2:6-11 Paul quotes an early Christian hymn.
Phil 2:12 The famous line, “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” Fear (Heb. yarē) is a classic Old Testament way of describing a healthy respect for God. We think of “fear” in terms of abusive parents or something, so think of it as the Chronicles of Narnia repetition of “He’s not a tame lion!”
Phil 3:2-4 warned against Judaizers.
Phil 3:4-6 Paul’s biography.
Phil 3:8 “dung”- Paul uses a Greek term skubalon that is probably better translated as a 4-letter word. I talked about the problems of the R-rated Bible in my Religious Educator article on Bible Translations, section called “Appropriate Language.”
Phil 3:15 “perfection,” Gr. teleious. Cf. Matt 5:48, 3Ne 12:48, 1Co 2:6
Phil 3:20-21. Christ will make our bodies like his. What is his like? Luke 24:36-39. 1co 15:20. Spiritual, not carnal. (Cf. Luke 13:32 on third day Jesus is “perfected” finished, brought to completion, etc.)
Phil 4:8 The source of “Paul’s admonition” per the 13th article of Faith. (1Co 13:7 for other part)
Col 1:15 On seeing God (John 1:18, Matt 5:8 (Psalms), 1ti 6:16, etc.) Invisible and alpha prefixes. Seeing god and dying.
Col 2:12-13 Baptism as symbol of death and resurrection. Spiritual death, spiritual rebirth. Physical death, physical rebirth. Romans 6:3-8.
Col 3:5 Put to death carnal desires…
Col 3:9 taken off, put on. Endow. Cf. Col 3:12.
Col 4:9 Onesimus. Philemon.
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