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.”
The reason for this assessment seems to be that, at least on the surface, the letter is taken up with a quotidian personal problem between a master and his slave, which, in the ancient world, might have seemed something like an employer-employee dispute—at least to ancient readers who were not slaves. Additionally, on its surface, the letter seems to carry little theological freight, unlike Paul’s heavy-duty letters to the Galatians and Romans. Given this pushback, some interpreters suggest the only reason Philemon made it into the NT at all is that Paul wrote it. (Modern scholars almost universally attribute Philemon to Paul.)
Strategy 2: Paul Supports Slavery
In response to the first interpretive strategy, Chrysostom established a second strategy according to which the letter holds important moral lessons for the church, chief among which is that the church ought not to overthrow established law and order. In the letter, says Chrysostom, by sending Onesimus back to Philemon, Paul is upholding the Roman institution of slavery, an established feature of his social order. Christians, he argues, ought to follow Paul’s example, obeying and not overturning the legal structures of their day. (Never mind that the author of Acts describes the ordinary course of Paul’s ministry as “turning the world upside down.”) Chrysostom also emphasized Paul’s humility in the letter as an example to Christians: Paul intervened in a dispute involving “even a slave” (Williams 17). This second strategy aimed to show the letter useful to Christians, and thereby to shore up its providential pedigree.
The second strategy influenced readers of the letter up through the Reformation and beyond. Indeed, slaveholders used it to diabolical effect in the United States, before the Civil War. For example, Charles Colcock Jones, a white Presbyterian plantation missionary, recounted in his memoirs a sermon he gave to a slave congregation in 1833:
“I was preaching to a large congregation on the Epistle of Philemon: and when I insisted upon fidelity and obedience as Christian virtues in servants and, upon the authority of Paul, condemned the practice of running away, one half of my audience deliberately rose up and walked off with themselves, and those that remained looked anything but satisfied, either with the preacher or his doctrine. After dismission, there was no small stir among them; some solemnly declared ‘that there was no such an epistle in the bible’; others, ‘that they did not care if they ever heard me preach again.’…There were some too, who had strong objections against me as a Preacher, because I was a master, and said, ‘his people have to work as well as we.’” (Williams 36)
White Protestant interpreters shamefully employed a similar reading of the epistle in justifying their support for the controversial Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which stiffened requirements on citizens of free northern states to cooperate in returning liberty-seeking slaves to their masters in the southern U.S.
Strategy 1 Redux
Ironically, as Colcock Jones’s account suggests, this second interpretive strategy pushed some black interpreters—at least those listening to his sermon!—back onto the first strategy, rejecting the idea that Paul’s letter to Philemon could be a legitimate part of the Bible. If the letter actively advocated slavery, it couldn’t be divinely inspired.
I suspect a similar reaction may be at play in the (predominantly) white Protestant church circles in which I have moved over the past twenty years. Although I hear a sermon preached almost every week, I have never heard one on Philemon. Why is this? I suspect it is because, on a superficial reading, Paul is doing something bad with the letter, namely, returning a slave to his master. Given the (appropriate) collective white shame over the historical enslavement of blacks in the U.S., and what seems to be the morally dubious nature of Paul’s action recorded in the letter, I suspect white Protestant preachers have generally decided to leave well enough alone. They have effectively adopted the first interpretive strategy, ruling the letter outside the Biblical canon.
Strategy 3: Paul Asks Philemon to Free Onesimus
This result is a shame. In fact, I think the letter encapsulates some of the clearest evidence in the NT that Paul did not support the ancient Roman institution of slavery, even if we wish he would have been more forceful and consistent with such a view in other letters (or that he’d outright condemned it). With Williams and the other essayists in the volume pictured above, I believe the correct reading of the letter is one on which Paul requests not only gentle treatment for Onesimus, but his manumission. This is what I would call the third interpretive strategy of Williams’s essay. I’ve argued in another post my own version of that third strategy.
Williams’s helpful essay has made me realize that black interpreters, and other “interpreters from the margins,” have been working on intellectually rigorous “third-strategy” readings of Philemon for quite some time (at least since the 1990s). My hope is that white Protestant preachers will catch up, take hold of their work, and reclaim the value of this important little letter for their congregations.