Half the Black Congregation Walked Out on the White Presbyterian Preacher

Onesimus Our Brother: Reading Religion, Race, and Culture in Philemon

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.”

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…and then the apostle Paul sent the slave back to his master

Paul writing from prison

Image credit: Dr. Jeffrey and Angie Goh

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

Obedience, Submission, and “Slave Morality”

According to Orlando Patterson, the Roman mime-writer Publilius Syrus wrote, “The height of misery is to live at another’s will” (Patterson, Slavery and Social Death, 77). In this statement, Publilius, a former slave from Syria, had in mind the lot of a Roman slave.

To the Roman mind, living “at another’s will,” in submission and obedience to another, was miserable not because the one obeyed was necessarily harsh or unkind, but because living in this way was itself dishonorable. In effect, the slave had no life of her own; her life was a mere expression of the master’s life. Her actions expressed the master’s desires, and her very existence was dependent on the master. As Patterson puts it, “The dishonor the slave was compelled to experience sprang…from that raw, human sense of debasement inherent in having no being except as an expression of another’s being” (78). In contrast, to be a Roman slaveholder, with others subjected to your will, contributed to one’s honor.

As Patterson notices (78), this Roman view of honor and dishonor is wrapped up in a picture of the good on which power is central. He quotes Friedrich Nietzsche: “What is good? Everything that heightens the feeling of power in man, the will to power, power itself. What is bad? Everything that is born of weakness. What is happiness? The feeling that power is growing, that resistance is overcome” (Nietzsche, The Antichrist). Anachronism aside, I suspect many Romans—slave and free alike—would have endorsed Nietzsche’s idea.

Of course, the Christian picture of the good could not be more different. Continue reading