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  • Writer's pictureAaron Mead

Backstory to Philemon: The Fugitive Slave Theory

Cover art for Stephen E. Young's book, Our Brother Beloved, showing the Apostle Paul writing.

Over the past five years, I wrote an historical novel telling a backstory to Paul's New Testament letter, Philemon. As I've studied the letter, I've come to understand how critical it is to say my novel tells a backstory and not the backstory. The truth is, we don't know much about the actual history behind the letter.

For a novelist like me, this knowledge gap was an opportunity: it gave me latitude to imagine circumstances that made for a good story. Nevertheless, I tried to hew close to what we do know about the letter, since one of my aims was to illumine the letter for modern readers. To get the history as correct as possible, I read articles, commentaries, and other books on the letter and found that scholars differ substantially over the letter's backstory.

The Fugitive Slave Theory

Since at least the fourth century CE, the dominant view of the backstory has been that Onesimus, a slave, wronged his enslaver, Philemon, in some way—perhaps stealing something from him—and ran away. Onesimus then found Paul in prison, who sent Onesimus back to Philemon with the letter. This view is often referred to as the "fugitive slave theory" since, by Roman law, Onesimus would have been a fugitive under these circumstances.

Despite its ancient pedigree, many scholars reject the the fugitive slave theory. For example, Stephen E. Young does so in his book, Our Brother Beloved: Purpose and Community in Paul's Letter to Philemon. Such scholars favor readings on which Philemon sent Onesimus to serve Paul in prison (Young's view), or on which Onesimus left to seek mediation of his conflict with Philemon, without rejecting his status as slave.

However, I think these alternative views throw out the dark chocolate with the nasty candied orange filling. I remain convinced the fugitive slave theory is the most plausible backstory to the letter. In what follows, I make a case for my view and respond to Young's objections. Fair warning: the essay below is pretty long and definitely for Bible nerds!

No Evidence for the Fugitive Slave Theory?

According to Young, the fugitive slave theory makes two claims: (1) Onesimus escaped from Philemon and was therefore, under Roman law, a fugitive slave; (2) Onesimus wronged Philemon in some way—e.g., by stealing from him—and thus Paul’s letter aimed to reconcile a conflict between them.

Young sees no direct evidence in the letter for either claim (p. 28). Some scholars point to verse 15 of the letter as evidence Onesimus was a fugitive:

Perhaps this is the reason [Onesimus] was separated from you [Philemon] for a while…

But as Young rightly points out, there are reasons for separation other than Onesimus trying to escape slavery. Onesimus could have left to seek mediation, or Philemon could have sent Onesimus to Paul. Young also claims the letter shows no evidence Onesimus wronged Philemon. Paul does state the following in verses 18 and 19:

If [Onesimus] has wronged you [Philemon] in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it.

But Young observes that verse 18 is a conditional sentence (“If he has wronged you…”), which does not entail that Onesimus, in fact, did anything to wrong Philemon. Insofar as the (putative) wrong Onesimus committed is sometimes understood as his motive for flight, Young thinks the lack of evidence for any actual wrong further undermines the fugitive slave reading: he committed no wrong, so he didn’t need to flee.

Additionally, if the purpose of the letter was to reconcile a conflict over some wrong, Young thinks we'd see more language indicating as much. To make his point, Young refers to another letter scholars often cite when interpreting Philemon—a letter sent by Pliny the Younger to Sabinianus, in which Pliny pleads for gentle treatment of Sabinianus’s freedman, who somehow displeased Sabinianus and sought out Pliny to intercede on his behalf. Key sections of Pliny’s letter—as quoted by Young (pp. 29-30)—are as follows:

The freedman of yours with whom you said you were angry has been to me, flung himself at my feet, and clung to me as if I were you. He begged my help with many tears…[He] convinced me of his genuine penitence. I believe he has reformed, because he realizes he did wrong…your anger was deserved, but mercy wins most praise when there was just cause for anger. You loved the man once, and I hope you will love him again…Make some concessions to his youth, his tears, and your own kind heart…I am afraid you will think I am using pressure, not persuasion, if I add my prayers to his—but this is what I shall do, and all the more freely and fully because I have given the man a very severe scolding.

In Pliny’s letter, observes Young, we see talk of “anger, tears, penitence, reformation, realization of wrong done, mercy, a request for a concession due to youth and tears, kindness, and scolding” (p. 30). In contrast, in Paul’s letter to Philemon we see none of this conciliatory language, which, thinks Young, we'd expect if Paul’s aim was truly to reconcile a master to his wayward slave.

Evidence of a Conflict

Young’s case, here, is forceful, but I think he misses critical evidence of a conflict between Onesimus and Philemon. First, if Onesimus hadn’t done something at least Philemon perceived as wrong, why would Paul raise the issue of “wronging,” “owing,” “repaying,” and “charging to my account” in verses 18 and 19? Easy: he wouldn’t. Those verses evidence a conflict between Philemon and Onesimus, and the financial nature of Paul’s language suggests the conflict had to do with money.

Young is right to note the conditional nature of Paul’s statement (“If he has wronged you…”), but, as I’ve argued in another post, the conditional language merely means Philemon’s view of the matter may differ from that of Onesimus or Paul: Philemon thinks Onesimus has done something wrong, while Onesimus and Paul may think otherwise. So, the point of Paul’s conditional statement is to acknowledge Philemon’s point of view (without necessarily conceding it) and to try to make things right.

Paul’s Authority to Command Philemon

Given this evidence of a conflict, verses 8 and 9 suggest Paul’s aim to reconcile Onesimus and Philemon:

…though I [Paul] am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love.

In these verses, we learn Paul thinks Philemon has a duty to do what Paul is asking of him, and that Paul has authority to command Philemon to do it (though he prefers Philemon do it from love). Why, we might wonder, does Paul think he has authority to command Philemon? As I’ve argued in another post, Paul generally doesn’t command things unless he has a teaching of Jesus to back him up. For Paul the authority to command comes from Christ alone.

Young takes a different view: he thinks Paul’s authority to command derives from the fact he's an apostle and Philemon is not (p. 110). Though Young is careful to say Paul chooses not to exercise that authority in this case, he still thinks Paul’s stated authority to command derives from his apostleship (p. 172, note 7).

But Young's view of Paul’s authority, here, seems at odds with the rest of the letter. As Young rightly emphasizes, Paul’s strategy in the letter is to undermine Roman hierarchy and hammer home the idea that all believers are children of God, brothers and sisters, and therefore equal in status. As Young puts it,

The Letter to Philemon…opens up a different world, a world of sisterhood and brotherhood under the fatherhood of God, a world of equality, a world in which behavior is governed by love and in which humbling oneself takes the place of hierarchical pretensions…To dwell within the reality of this family is to move in a sphere in which one is positioned vertically only in relation to God and Jesus Christ, who are Father and Lord over all, while all others are positioned in relation to each other as equals. (pp. 184, 189-90)

If Paul really thinks, as Young suggests, that “all others [beyond God and Jesus Christ], are positioned…as equals,” it would be strange for Paul to claim he had authority to command as an apostle. To do so would be to claim the kind of hierarchical status over Philemon that Young thinks Paul disavows throughout the letter. It seems better to think Paul attributes his authority to a teaching of Jesus.

The Command to Forgive

But which teaching does Paul have in mind? As I argued in a different post, given the conflict between Onesimus and Philemon, the most obvious candidate is Jesus’s command to forgive one another (e.g., Mark 11:25, Matthew 6:14-15, Matthew 18:21-35, Luke 17:3-4). Thus, I think verses 8 and 9 are evidence Paul is urging Philemon to forgive Onesimus, his brother in Christ, for whatever perceived wrong he committed. Paul sees this as Philemon’s duty (verse 8).

If I’m right about all this, then it seems unlikely the “separation” between Onesimus and Philemon occurred because Philemon sent his slave to serve Paul in prison. Would Philemon really send a slave with whom he had a conflict, and perhaps didn’t fully trust, on a long journey to do important work? It seems more plausible Onesimus left of his own accord—either to escape slavery, as the fugitive slave theory suggests, or to seek Paul’s mediation in the conflict with Philemon.

Finding Paul

A second reason Young rejects the fugitive slave theory is he finds it implausible Onesimus would encounter Paul in prison if he were an escaped slave. If Onesimus the fugitive had landed in prison, it would not have been with Paul since there were special prisons for escaped slaves (p. 31). Young also finds it implausible Onesimus the fugitive would have intentionally sought Paul in prison: such a brush with Roman authority would be too risky for an escaped slave, and it's not clear what Paul could have done for him (p. 32).

Young's objections, here, seem correct as far as they go. But surely we can imagine Onesimus encountering Paul in prison (1) without becoming imprisoned himself and (2) without intentionally seeking Paul to support his escape? I won't propose specific possibilities—you'll have to read my novel to find out how I imagine it!—but suffice it to say the encounter with Paul seems eminently possible to me, without supposing Young's implausible scenarios.

Incidentally, the view that Onesimus sought Paul merely to mediate a dispute with Philemon, without trying to escape slavery, seems unlikely given the length of time Onesimus seems to have spent with Paul. Verses 10-13 imply Onesimus served Paul in prison, became dear to Paul, and converted to Christian faith through their encounter. These developments would have taken time. But if Onesimus had only sought mediation and not escape, it seems unlikely he would have remained with Paul so long. Indeed, if he had stayed a long time, it might look suspiciously like he was actually trying to escape his enslavement. Which is partly why I think he was!

Does the Fugitive Slave Theory Have “Blood on Its Hands”?

Another reason Young rejects the fugitive slave theory is he thinks it “has blood on its hands” (p. 37). As I’ve discussed in another post, antebellum supporters of slavery in the U.S. used Philemon to justify slavery, and in particular the forcible return of escaped slaves to their enslavers. Insofar as Young thinks the fugitive slave reading supported such oppression, he thinks it should be abandoned.

But Young’s argument, here, seems too quick. Suppose Onesimus were an escaped slave, a fugitive under Roman law. That mere fact doesn’t have blood on its hands. If it did, we’d have to condemn Harriet Tubman’s escape from slavery, Cora’s escape from slavery in Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, and Sethe’s escape from slavery in Toni Morrison’s Beloved (among many others!). But, of course, we don’t condemn those stories. Rather, we celebrate them as examples of courageous resistance to an unjust institution. So, the mere assertion that Onesimus fled slavery does not have blood on its hands.

What does have blood on its hands is the idea Paul sent Onesimus back in order to resume his role as Philemon’s slave. This view of Paul’s intention is the real problem. When antebellum Americans used the letter to justify slavery, their key point was that Paul's intention was to restore a slave to his master. But, of course, we can (and should, as I’ve argued in a prior post) reject this claim about Paul’s intention without rejecting the idea Onesimus was an escaped slave.

Indeed, the following claims about the letter are entirely consistent and plausible: (1) Onesimus was an escaped slave; (2) Paul wanted him to return to Philemon, not to remain Philemon’s slave, but rather (3) to be reconciled to his Christian brother and (4) to be freed from slavery—something only Philemon could do. This version of the fugitive slave theory (call it the "liberation" version) does not have blood on its hands. Rather, it shows Onesimus boldly resisting the injustice of his enslavement and Paul supporting that resistance.

A “Reprehensible” Act?

The last reason Young rejects the fugitive slave theory is he thinks it portrays Paul in a reprehensible—and therefore implausible—light. If Paul had sent Onesimus the fugitive back to Philemon, says Young, Paul would have put Onesimus in grave danger of retribution at the hand of his master, a result that seems hard to imagine given Paul’s claim in the letter that Onesimus is “his very heart" (v. 12).

But Young’s assertion here seems too strong. On the liberation version of the fugitive slave theory, Paul’s intentions are good and consistent with the gospel. He is trying to reconcile two estranged Christian brothers and to persuade Philemon to free Onesimus from slavery. And we can hardly accuse Paul of forcing Onesimus to return: Paul was in prison. At most, he could have persuaded Onesimus. Moreover, it’s not as though Paul asked Onesimus to risk something Paul himself was unwilling to risk: when Paul wrote the letter, he was on death row in a Roman prison, having risked his freedom and life for the sake of the gospel. In light of these considerations, Paul’s request hardly seems reprehensible.

With that said, I admit my reading remains shocking to the modern sensibility. If Onesimus was indeed a fugitive slave, Paul did ask Onesimus to risk his freedom and possibly his life by returning. It was within Philemon’s right, as a Roman paterfamilias, to reject Paul’s appeal and punish Onesimus severely. As moderns, this kind of risk might seem unacceptable.

But the shock we feel strikes me as just the kind of shock the gospel should produce. Paul’s request challenges our value system, on which life and freedom rank far higher than forgiveness and reconciliation. If we’re honest, even personal comfort is typically more important to us than reconciled relationships. If we have a conflict with Uncle Bob, and he'll be at Thanksgiving dinner, we just won't go.

Paul’s ranking of values turns ours on its head. This stark difference is one reason I think the letter is important for us today: the shock we experience at Paul’s request points to a problem with modern (or at least prevailing American) Christian values. We should be willing to risk far more than we do for the sake of forgiveness and reconciliation—values that lie at the heart of the New Testament gospel.

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