Thursday, March 08, 2007

Philemon – more than a slave?

It is a strange oddity that the meaning of Philemon is so contested. The main question appears to be, does Paul ask Philemon to liberate his returned-run-away slave, Onesimus. The main answer, historically, seems to have been no Paul does not ask for emancipation. However, I am convinced that he does indeed ask Philemon to release Onesimus, and what is more, I find the evidence fairly overwhelming. I freely admit that I do not own a large quantity of commentaries on Philemon, but John Calvin, Markus Barth, R.L. Dabney, William Henderson, and William Barclay all favor the idea that Philemon is just to forgive Onesimus for running away or give him some kind of cushy-slave job.

Some commentators do appear to favor the idea that Onesiums was to be freed, and slavery as a whole condemned. J.B. Lightfoot seems to hold this view and more recently the always controversial John Robbins. Despite Robbins’s reputation, I believe he is right.

Commentators like Markus Barth get bogged down in minute details, and miss the flow of the argument over all, including the high occurrence of slave related terms.

It seems to me Paul starts out calling Philemon a ‘fellow-laborer’ to bring to mind the idea of a slave immediately. More than that, he applies to both himself, Timothy and Philemon, while in verse two only calling Archippus a ‘fellow-soldier’. Paul goes on to speak of Philemon’s ‘love and faith’, which is an unusual word order placing emphasis on love. It is Philemon’s love toward Jesus and all the saints that is about to be put to the test in how he treats Onesimus, who is a fellow saint. Paul is building up to his point about correct treatment of Onesiums.

In verse 8 Paul says he could command him as an apostle, but would rather appeal to the love toward the saints, and especially toward Jesus, which had just been commended. Of course Paul tops that off with another slave reference. He mentions that he is in bonds for the sake of Jesus and the gospel. He repeats the bonds in verse 10, the first mention of Onesimus. Paul continues to ramp up the argument by saying Onesiums should be received as Paul would be received because Paul would have liked to keep him to minister to him while he is in the bonds of the gospel, another reference to slavery applied to Paul.

Verse 14, the beginning of the height of the argument, Paul explains why he did not command Philemon because this good deed should be done not out of necessity, but voluntarily. Commentators like Barth spend many pages discussing the difference between coercion and free-will decisions, but seem to neglect the fact that this is another slave-reference. Paul does not want Philemon to be coerced like a slave, but make a decision like a free man does. This leads to the famous verse 16 where Paul exhorts Philemon to make Onesimus ‘more than a slave, a brother beloved’. Remember the love of the saints is what Philemon is known for the most. But he is also to make him more than a slave because Onesimus is a beloved brother ‘both in the flesh and in the Lord’. It seems probable to me that ‘the flesh’ here simply means he is a man, a human. Thus, Paul, Philemon, and Onesimus are all brothers because they are all believers in Christ (in the Lord), and because they are all human (in the flesh). Paul is saying Onesimus must be more than a slave because he is a man just like Philemon and Paul.

In the end, I do think Paul is asking for Philemon to release Onesimus from slavery. Too many commentators make a big deal that he never says ‘Emancipate Onesimus’ that they torture the words to make Onesimus being ‘more than a slave’ mean still a slave. I think it is time that we let go of odd bias and see Paul’s argument for what it is, an argument for emancipation.

A few interesting extrabiblical notes, archaeologists have found an inscription on a tomb in Laodicea. The tomb was inscribed by a former slave to the master who freed him. The dead master’s name is Marcus Sestius Philemon. Also we see an Onesimus in the letter of Ignatius to Ephesus. That Onesimus is a man of inexpressable love who is also the bishop of Ephesus. Could that be our Onesimus? It would have made sense that a free Onesimus would have served the church, as he had already served Paul.


Andrew McIntyre said...


How would you then explain Paul's instructions to master and slave in his other epistles, especially where he instructs Christian slaves to submit to their Christian masters? If in fact Christian brotherhood and human equality negate slavery in an absolute sense, would not the biblical instructions on the matter reflect this?


Lee said...

I don't think that Paul's instructions ever contradict this equality of man negating slavery. Paul often exhorts slaves to be good servants and be obedient. This is not contradictory because Paul is not in favor of slave rebellions. Masters are to give their slaves freedom rather than slaves rise up and take it. He did send Onesimus back, which shows disapproval of slaves running away.

Only twice does Paul exhort the masters.
"And, ye masters, do the same things unto them, forbearing threatening: knowing that your Master also is in heaven; neither is there respect of persons with him." (Eph. 6:9)
"Masters, give unto your servants that which is just and equal; knowing that ye also have a Master in heaven." (Col. 4:1)

Neither of these statements is a real endorsement of slavery, and both mention equality. The Ephesians passage specifically tells us that God himself is not a respector of persons. Both passages also mention how we are all slaves of Christ Jesus. Both of these facts play important roles in Philemon.

So I do not think that Paul's other letters ever endorse slavery as a Christian system. Paul's commanding of the slaves to be patient and hardworking in their position in life is not an endorsement of slavery, but rather just a Christian way to live.

Lane Keister said...

Hmmm. I'll have to think over your arguments. They seem to make sense.

About commentaries (since you so wanted me to comment about them!): I just gave you the Barth commentary. I didn't say it was good or bad. But it is not a commentary to ignore. That much I can say. You know, of course, that Marcus is Karl's son?

Lee said...

The Barth commentary is a good commentary. I just think he is wrong. Barth is very typical of the arguments one would find everywhere else like Dabney's Defense of Virginia and the South. It is not a commentary to ignore by any means. I just wish more people would cover the arguments of Robbins and Lightfoot.