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).
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 →
At the beginning of last school year my daughter made a friend who has had an especially hard childhood. As the year wore on, she learned and told us more of his story. My wife, both of my daughters, and I all began to feel equal measures of compassion for him in his suffering and anger at the injustice he has experienced. Toward the end of the school year and through the summer we began to connect with him regularly as a family and to help him in various ways. As the new school year starts, this process of connecting and helping is only increasing, to the joy of us all.
Recently, he was at our house to help celebrate my daughter’s birthday. He arrived around noon, after the group had eaten breakfast. He had not eaten anything all day. We asked him what he would like to eat, and began getting out some of the copious leftovers to heat up. His response was that we didn’t “have to” do this for him. This is often his response when we try to help him with something. He says this (at least in part) because he doesn’t want to be a burden to us, which is understandable: none of us wants to be a burden. Continue reading →
I’m writing a historical novel that tells the backstory of Paul’s little New Testamentletter to Philemon. The letter is written to a Christian slaveholder in Colossae (Philemon), and it asks the slaveholder to forgive and welcome back his runaway slave, Onesimus, who has been attending to Paul while he is in prison.
The letter is rarely taught these days, probably owing in part to the difficult questions it raises about slavery. For example, what is a Christian doing owning slaves? And why would Paul blithely encourage Onesimus to return to his bondage rather than keep running? The letter also has the dubious reputation of being used by antebellum American slaveholders and their sympathizers to justify the practice of slavery in the American South. After all, it can seem that by sending Onesimus back to Philemon, Paul implicitly accepts (endorses?) the institution of slavery. These are just a few of the issues I plan to tackle in the novel.
In researching interpretations of Philemon and the institution of slavery in the First-century Roman Empire, I have noticed that part of the contemporary Christian defense of Paul’s actions in Philemon often includes the claim that First-century Roman slavery was generally kinder and gentler than antebellum American slavery. Continue reading →