Thursday, March 6, 2014

Paul & Slavery (Part III)

For the epistle to Philemon, enjoy it here. I don't post everything here simply because its a post that is already too long.

PAUL: The Epistle to Philemon[1]

Written to a house church (v2), this epistle is thought provoking and unique.[2] Beginning with Philemon, Paul recalls his prayers for this man (v4), his “sharing of faith”(v6) and his joy and encouragement from him (v7). This enforces that Paul has a close relationship with Philemon,[3] and is uniquely aware of his spiritual life; he also gives a hint of his own spiritual life, indicating his relationship with “my God.”[4] This reinforces Paul’s equalizing factor. Just as he has shown that Philemon[5] is ‘spiritual,’ he has indicated that he is as well.[6]
From v8-14,[7] we have a shift in focus, though not out of the blue.[8] Paul explains how “bold” he is ‘in Christ,’ enough to command Philemon to do his ‘duty,’ but would prefer to “appeal to [Philemon] on the basis of love”(v8).[9] Paul is free to command Philemon, and he presents himself as an “old man.”[10] What makes this remarkable is that Paul appears so confident that he can dispense with his ‘command.’ Orders are most likely to breed resentment,[11] so this reinforces the nature of “love” as Paul makes clear from the beginning. Paul is confident, yet aware of the nature of his request. The use of “child” with Onesimus as the subject (v10) now reveals why Paul has bothered writing such a letter; on behalf of his child,[12] Onesimus. Now Philemon is fully aware of this purpose.[13] Playing off Onesimus’ name[14] (useful, helpful), Paul appears to show that he finds Onesimus as ‘beneficial/useful’ to him, as well as Philemon. He affirms his own desire to have Onesimus with him, but doesn’t do so by denigrating his character. V12 shows that Paul has sent him Onesimus back, with his own heart.[15] While the Stoics argued that slaves have souls, Paul seems to indicate that Onesimus is his soul.[16] Paul has now identified with the slave much more than he has with the slave owner; in essence, he has shown that he loves Onesimus, and for Philemon to not return his slave to Paul would break Paul’s heart. V13 continues this, putting the emphasis back on Philemon, who would have to give consent to an imprisoned Paul, who views Onesimus’ return as ‘service.’[17] The Apostle is making it difficult for the slave owner.[18] Paul confirms the nature of this legal request by preferring that Philemon’s good deed would indeed be voluntary.[19] V15-16 appear to imply that Onesimus became a Christian while with Paul, indicating the inherent tension of slaves and slave owners in the New Creation. The parallel use of “in the flesh” and “in the Lord” exemplify life in this world, and in the church. F.F Bruce states, “if Philemon set Onesimus free as the spontaneous expression of the grace of God working in his heart, he would derive real joy from the act, and the joy would be shared by Onesimus [and Paul].”[20] Paul promises to repay any debt Onesimus may have gained. Paul puts himself in Onesimus’ shoes so Philemon sees Paul as well as his slave.
Short of forcing Philemon at gunpoint to manumit Onesimus, Paul goes as far to imply a potential breach in the friendship if Philemon doesn’t act appropriately.
Paul 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.[21] 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[22] 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).[23] 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.”[24]
3) The letter was preserved and canonized seemingly without dispute, maybe even by Onesimus as his ‘charter of freedom.’[25] This lends power 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. This is coming off the heels of Galatians 3:28. Paul also commands slaves to free themselves if possible (1 Cor 7:21), acting consistently with the presentation of Gamaliel in regards to slavery. YHWH’s ideal social order includes women’s equality as well as slaves, and by claiming that slaves and masters are equal before God, God seems to state that slavery is not part of YHWH’s purpose.[26] Allen Bevere states, “The manumission of slaves threatened the unity and very fabric of the empire. Thus, Paul’s implicit way of asking Philemon for Onesimus’s freedom was a way of avoiding trouble for Paul and Philemon with the imperial authorities precisely because his request was politically subversive.”[27]


Onesimus returns, carrying the letter from Paul. Philemon sees him, and orders his men to watch him. Philemon unfurls the scroll, written in large letters and begins to read. Onesimus, trembling, sees his wife and children behind his master. Philemon chuckles a bit, getting through v4-7. Onesimus has spoken highly of him to Paul? Doubtful, but he enjoys the kind words. Then he gets to v8. Paul’s boldness strikes him between the eyes and his brow furrows. Nostrils flare. Hands grip the papyrus tightly. Onesimus stares at his wife, wishing to hold her once before his master gives an order.
When Philemon reads v12, he pauses. Paul, as a token of good will, has sent Onesimus back with the letter, with Onesimus like Paul’s own heart. Philemon takes a few steps to the left, sandals resting on cobbled stone. The guards shift, watching as intently as Onesimus, who doesn’t bother wiping the cold sweat forming on his neck. He shivers when he hears Philemon chuckle, almost lightly. Philemon looks up at Onesimus, meeting him eye to eye. “My voluntary consent…” Philemon murmurs, turning to a slave boy who offers him a goblet of wine. He takes a sip and nods at the boy, who leaves quickly. Turning back, Philemon stares at Onesimus, his jaw loosening.
“No longer as a slave…”
Onesimus avoids eye contact with his master, staring at the tops of his bare feet. The torn toe nails, the scabs, the pain that is rushing back as his body wishes to collapse. A guard steps up, eyes going cold, grabbing Onesimus by the collar. Philemon holds up a hand, and the guard steps back. Slowly, deliberately, Philemon approaches his trembling slave, swishing the wine around in his goblet. Takes a second sip, running his tongue over his teeth.
“Are you thirsty?”

SUMMATION: 1 Cor. 7:21-22 & the Epistle to Philemon

Robert Gagnon provides three reasons to understand both texts as preferring freedom over slavery:[29] first, for Paul, the status of slave was incompatible with the status of brother. Second, the status of slave was in tension with the liberating redemptive event of Christ’s death. Third, freedom gave believers greater latitude of unhinged devotion to Christ. Thus, there appears to be a distinct tension between 1 Cor. 7:21-22, Philemon and the ‘slave’ texts in Colossians, Ephesians, Titus and 1 & 2 Timothy.[30] To them we now turn.

[1] We are never told why Onesimus came to Paul. Most seem to understand Onesimus as a runaway slave. This is possible, and Onesimus could be seeking a mediator in Paul (as some priests functioned this way), but we are simply never told. My own theory is that Onesimus separated himself from Philemon (v15), indicating that the initiative was taken by Onesimus. The reason being possibly that, since Onesimus was ‘useless’ to Philemon, maybe Onesimus was going to be sold. While nothing proves this, perhaps Onesimus had a family. That could inspire a husband/father to act rashly. Perhaps he stole from Philemon and was planning on running away with his family, but was caught and ran off on his own. Only God knows.
[2] For instance, he mentions Apphia and it is implied that she is involved high up in the church.
[3] Possibly due to him converting Philemon, or additionally the stories that Onesimus has told Paul.
[4] Barth and Blanke, The Letter to Philemon, 268.
[5] From this verse (4) on, Paul appears to be speaking only to Philemon. The use of the singular indicates this.
[6] Most profoundly, Paul has already begun to set up Philemon; not in a malicious way, but in that those “in Christ” relate to each other on the basis of being “in Christ.” Right now, its one to one, a most intimate conversation.
[7] One long sentence in the Greek.
[8] Paul has already presented Philemon’s character and reputation, establishing him as a “co-worker” and one who encourages Paul. Rhetorically, this is absolutely powerful. 
[9] Barth and Blanke note that Paul has “renounced a specific use of freedom of speech, [but] not his authority.” The Letter to Philemon, 309.
[10] Age is noted as having maturity and authority, and Paul’s use of this is indeed a socio-cultural move to present himself as having the acceptable power to demand something of Philemon. Since Philemon has already been told that he has “faith toward the Lord Jesus”(5), how much more is Paul’s faithfulness to Jesus? Murphy-O’Connor points out, “any male in his late fifties or early sixties would have been considered ‘elderly.’” Paul: A Critical Life, 4.
[11] F.F. Bruce, The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon and to the Ephesians, 211.
[12] This isn’t the first time Paul calls his readers ‘children’: Titus 1:4; 1 Cor. 4:17.
[13] One wonders if Onesimus was the one to hand Philemon Paul’s letter. Imagine the tension in the room. See “Narrative Reconstruction.”
[14] See the discussion in Barth and Blanke, The Letter to Philemon, 338-342.
[15] Paul doesn’t cite any OT or social law. Legally, Philemon was under no obligation to manumit Onesimus. However, since Paul identifies Onesimus as “his own heart,” this strongly implies that Paul cannot function without his child. Thus Paul seemingly transfers the (heavy!) burden of action to Philemon.
[16] Barth and Blanke, The Letter to Philemon, 360.
[17] This ‘service’ is less likely domestic and more likely as ‘service in the gospel.’
[18] Paul has no legal right to retain Onesimus and he knows it. Priest and mediators could sell the slave elsewhere, but they most likely returned the slave, albeit with the understanding that the owner’s anger/honor was assuaged. Paul’s comment that he could “command Philemon” to free Onesimus must mean that he knows the process by which Onesimus would be freed.
[19] Paul’s view of Philemon’s free will is certainly compatible with Paul’s libertarianism.
[20] F.F. Bruce, The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians, 217.
[21] Philip B. Payne, Paul Applies the Maximal Social Pressure to Free Onesimus, 1-2.
[22] Ibid. 3.
[23] 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.
[24] Wayne A. Meeks and John T. Fitzgerald, The Writings of St. Paul, 96.
[25] F.F. Bruce, Paul, Apostle of the Heart Set Free, 406.
[26] Craig S. Keener, Paul, Women and Wives, 205.
[27] Allen R. Bevere, “Colossians and the Rhetoric of Empire,” Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not, ed. Scot McKnight and Joseph B. Modica, 194. In an otherwise marvelous essay, Bevere does unfortunately qualify his argument in that he casts doubt on whether or not Paul was indeed asking Philemon to free Onesimus. However, based on Paul’s inherent request to free Onesimus and the amount of social/theological pressure placed upon Philemon, Bevere’s doubts seem unnecessary.
[28] There are liberties taken here, but I see this as a consistent rendering of the epistle as a whole.
[29] Robert A. J. Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice, 448.
[30] Many scholars chalk this up to the “real” Paul versus “deutero” Paul. While I don’t accept non-Pauline authorship for the disputed epistles, I can certainly understand why scholars argue thusly. See Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice, 448; Wayne A. Meeks, The First Urban Christians 2nd Edition, 106. Meeks assumes a hierarchy in these texts.

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