Since the act of manumission was entirely in the hands of the slaveholders, slaves had no possibility of remaining in slavery against the will of the owner. Thus those translations of 1 Cor. 7:21 that read "even if you can gain your freedom, make use of your present condition more than ever" (so the NRSV) display ignorance of the actual options open to a manumitted slave (see Bartchy, Slavery, 96-98; Harrill, Manumission, 126-28, 194). Note also that the "synagogue of the Freedman" mentioned in Acts 6:9 was apparently a congregation founded by former Roman slaves (perhaps captured by Pompey's forces during the Roman attack on Jerusalem in 63 BC) who had been able to move back to Jerusalem. Quite often slaves of Roman citizens became full Roman citizens themselves when manumitted, a fact that astonished many ancient Greek commentators (see Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Ant. rom. 4.22.4-23.7). A high-status example of such a freedom is Marcus Antonius Felix (see Acts 23-25), the Roman governor of Judea (AD 52-58), who had been a slave until Antonia, the Emperor Claudius's mother, manumitted him (see Suetonius, Claud. 52; Tacitus, Hist. 5). (1)In regards Philemon, specifically, Paul's letter includes a multitude of rhetorical devices and clever ploys. Paul softens Philemon by giving him a culturally standard thanksgiving, establishing a form of equality, hence the term "brother" in verse 7. Consequently, we have Paul using the conjunction "therefore" or "for this reason" to continue his train of thought. Having already established his equality with Philemon, he then pulls out the social pressure card, calling himself an ‘old man’ when age is an important factor. It also implies that Paul is a stratum higher than Philemon (and the church that met with him), but Paul is careful not to condescend. Strategically, Paul is asking for Onesimus, implying that Paul is able and willing to speak up for those that may otherwise be unable to do so.
Paul, however, strips away the dichotomy [of slavery being of social value] in the same sentence by stating that Onesimus is a beloved brother of Philemon both in the material and the spiritual realm.(2) The entire letter is quite awkward to think about: since Paul intends to come and stay with Philemon in v22, Philemon can hardly be expected to have his slave greet Paul at the door. Talk about social faux pas. Instead, Paul recognizes the practical implications of his words in Galatians and works through the conventional means of his day to free a slave. Not only is he risking capital(3) but also his reputation. He is not insensitive to the needs of others, and it is likely that Onesimus gained his freedom and served in the church (Col 4:9).(4) Several factors make this very likely that Paul was able to secure Onesimus’ freedom:
1) Owing Paul a favor, likely due to his conversion at the hands of the Apostle, it makes considerable sense that Philemon acquiesced to Paul’s request and freed his slave.
2) The reference to “The Bishop Onesimus of Ephesus to whom Ignatius wrote four or five decades later was the same man.”(5)
3) The letter was preserved and canonized seemingly without dispute, maybe even by Onesimus as his ‘charter of freedom.’(6) This lends credence to the second point.
The parallel passage in Galatians 4:7 indicates that "no longer a slave" should carry more than just "spiritual" equality. If a slave is equalized with his master, then any subordination is not only awkward but also seemingly contradictory.
The lower section is from a personal paper I wrote on Paul, women and slaves. A fun project.
1. The World of the New Testament, ed. Joel B. Green and Lee Martin MacDonald. pg174-75.
2. Philip B. Payne, Paul Applies the Maximal Social Pressure to Free Onesimus, pg1-2.
3. Ibid. pg3.
4. It isn’t entirely certain that this is the same Onesimus, but Onesimus is a common slave name. If anything, this suggests that slaves served in leadership. Especially given the close textual relationship between Colossians and Philemon.
5. Wayne A. Meeks and John T. Fitzgerald, The Writings of St. Paul, pg96.
6. F.F. Bruce, Paul, Apostle of the Heart Set Free, pg406.