Philemon is the shortest of Paul’s epistles. Although even identifying the subject matter of the letter is controversial, readers typically understand the letter as Paul’s request that Philemon, a Christian slaveholder, welcome back his estranged slave, Onesimus, and treat him as if he were Paul himself, i.e., with love and gentleness.
I recently read an excellent essay in which Demetrius K. Williams, a black professor and pastor, describes three main strategies interpreters have taken with the letter over the years. (The essay is entitled “‘No Longer as a Slave’: Reading the Interpretation History of Paul’s Epistle to Philemon,” and is published in a volume called Onesimus Our Brother, pictured above. Black interpreters and commentators wrote all the essays in the volume.)
Strategy 1: The Letter Shouldn’t be Part of the New Testament
One strategy has been to question the divine providence of the letter and the appropriateness of its place in the New Testament (NT). Indeed, this seems to have been a popular reading of the letter in the early church. According to Williams, several of the so-called “church fathers,” including John Chrysostom, Theodore of Mopsuestia, and Jerome referred to opinions that the letter was “trivial, insignificant, banal,” and “unspiritual.”
In recently reading Esi Edugyan’s majestic 2018 novel, Washington Black, I noticed a thematic similarity with Paul’s New Testament letter to Philemon, which I have studied for the past few years as I’ve been writing a novel telling a backstory of the letter. Both works suggest an important distinction between two possible motives for helping someone.
In this post I’ll spell out the distinction in both works, then draw from it what I think is an important lesson for white allies hoping to support their black and brown neighbors in the swelling anti-racism movement. Spoiler alert: What follows will divulge plot information you may not want to know if you plan to read Washington Black (which I highly recommend doing).
The following is an imaginative fictional account of Zechariah’s experience in the temple (Luke 1:5-20). I suggest reading the passage of scripture first, and then my fictional account.
I hurried through the Nicanor Gate and into the Court of the Priests, the sun low in the sky. The smell of smoke, blood, and animal dung drifted on the breeze. I shimmied out of my traveling clothes and immersed in the cool water of the bronze laver. I washed off the hill-country dust, still clinging from the day’s journey, and I thought of Elizabeth. With her tender hip, she couldn’t manage the animals anymore, and the boy from next door knew little about goats; they always looked too scruffy, too dirty when I returned home. If only we’d had a son.
In recent posts (e.g., here and here), I’ve been writing about the authorship of the Gospels, and the degree to which Gospel content may be traced back to eyewitnesses of Jesus.
The point of the work has been to counter Bart Ehrman’s view (in How Jesus Became God, pp. 90-91) that the authors of the Gospels were not eyewitnesses or close disciples of eyewitnesses (as traditionally claimed) but rather were Christians of a later generation, whose writings are thereby less historically reliable. I have resisted Ehrman’s view and claimed that, in fact, there is decent (though perhaps not conclusive) evidence for the traditional view.
Mind the Gap
However, even if I’m right, there is still a problem for the historicity of the Gospels, namely the gap between the time of Jesus’s ministry and the writing of the Gospels.
For example, if we assume that Jesus died around 30 CE, then the time between his ministry (late 20s CE) and the composition of Mark (late 60s or early 70s CE), is at least 40 years. Given the apparent reliance of Matthew and Luke upon Mark (discussed in this post), those two Gospels would entail an even longer gap—maybe 50 years. The Gospel according to John is thought to have been written in the 90s CE, suggesting a still longer gap for that Gospel.
Scholars generally agree that during this in-between period the stories and teachings in the Gospels would have been passed on orally. Ehrman claims that such oral transmission would be unreliable, leading to distortions that further call into question the historicity of the Gospels. Continue reading →
Lately, I’ve been thinking about what, exactly, the message of the gospel is. Of course, the term ‘gospel’ means “good news.” The puzzle for me is that, at least the way it is often presented by Christians, the gospel is not obviously good news.
This typical version of the gospel focuses on Good Friday: Jesus died on the cross, taking upon himself God’s judgment and punishment for human sin, so that we sinful humans could be spared and forgiven by God. According to this “Good Friday gospel,” the good news is that we humans have been given a second chance, that God has forgiven us.
Good News, Bad News
But, while it is clearly good news to escape the judgment of God and be forgiven our sins, to accept this as good news we must first swallow a huge piece of bad news—namely that our sins are such that we deserve death (after all, Jesus died for us) and that we require God’s forgiveness. So, at best, this Good Friday gospel is “mixed news.” Continue reading →
During the struggle for the abolition of slavery and the slave trade in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the New Testament letter to Philemon was used by slaveholders and slave traders to justify their wicked practices (Thompson).
Sometime in the middle of the first century, the apostle Paul sent the letter to Philemon, a wealthy Christian slaveholder who hosted a church at his house in Colossae. The occasion for the letter was Paul’s encounter with Philemon’s slave, Onesimus, who had run away from Philemon, found Paul in prison, and become a Christian under Paul’s influence. Paul sent both Onesimus and the letter to Philemon to persuade him to welcome Onesimus generously and not harshly: “welcome him as you would welcome me,” Paul writes in verse 17.
The “Traditional” Reading
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, those who claimed to be Christians and favored slavery saw in the letter scriptural evidence that Paul did not object to slavery, and thus justification for their continued practice of it. On this “traditional” reading, Paul is concerned that he has been harboring a slave who has done something illegal according to Roman law (running away), and thus Paul is motivated by a legal obligation to send Onesimus back.
If this account is correct, then Paul felt some obligation to uphold the institution of slavery, indicating that he did not see it as wrong. Continue reading →
There is something deeply right and beautiful about the principle, “From each according to her ability, to each according to her need.” To the extent that this principle encapsulates the doctrine of communism, I’m a communist at heart.
I see this sort of economic arrangement in the following passage from the New Testament Book of Acts (2:44-45): “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” The picture here is of a community in which people give what they have generously, property is considered communal, and everyone’s needs are met.
Like the rest of the New Testament, the Lord’s Prayer was originally written in Koine Greek (though Jesus likely spoke it in Aramaic). When we read it in English, we are reading a translation. Pope Francis recently argued that scholars should seek a different translation of the line of the Lord’s Prayer traditionally translated, “Lead us not into temptation” (Matthew 6:13 and Luke 11:4, NIV). (Incidentally, Francis expressed this view in a television interview in which he was not speaking ex cathedra. Thus, faithful Roman Catholics need not interpret his view, here, as infallible.)
Francis’s concern is that the traditional translation is theologically suspect, since it seems to imply that God might actively push us or guide us into a situation where we are likely to sin (a state of “temptation”). According to Francis, as a good father God would not do this. “It’s Satan who leads us into temptation — that’s his department” (Los Angeles Times, December 8, 2017).
For this reason, Francis would prefer a translation that implies a more passive role for God, like “Do not let us enter into temptation,” or “Do not let us fall into temptation.” The implication of these alternative translations is that when we find ourselves in temptation, we have led ourselves there; God has merely allowed us to do so.
My latest post is published on Medium.com. Choice quote:
A while back a more seasoned colleague gave me some networking advice. He recommended that when I am looking for someone to talk to at a networking event, I should not talk to people who are by themselves. Rather, I should seek out people who are already talking in groups of two or three and try to break into one of those groups. Why? Because the “loners” typically aren’t well-connected and generally won’t be useful business contacts. At the time, I remember thinking this was a twisted piece of advice, though I held my tongue.
I’ve been given much. It’s been given to me to hear, understand, and embrace the gospel of Jesus. I’ve been given a wonderful family; dear friends; a healthy church community; opportunities to receive a good education, to work at a solid job, and to write; and a mind and motivations to make good on those opportunities. I bet you’ve been given some similar things.
According to Luke 12:48b, Jesus requires much from people like us: “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.”
I’ve always read this verse as imposing a requirement to produce for Jesus. All the things I’ve been given I should somehow offer back for the purposes of his kingdom and glory. I should use my gifts to further his ends—faithfully loving him, loving my neighbors (be they family, friends, or strangers), serving my church community, providing for my family, and sharing the good news in deed and word.
To be clear, in reading the passage this way I’ve not been snared by a works theology, believing that I must earn my standing before God (this standing, too, is a gift of grace in my view). Rather, I’ve simply believed that Jesus has goals, that following Jesus is in large part about furthering those goals, and that everyone ought to pull their own weight—serving in accordance with their God-given opportunities and abilities. And, I still don’t think this reading of the verse is wrong; it just might be too narrow. Let me explain. Continue reading →