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Paul's Epistle to Philemon: Toward an Alternative Argumentum

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  10 June 2011

Allen Dwight Callahan
Harvard Divinity School


In 1964, the Elenchus Bibliographicus Biblicus, which until that time had listed together works treating Colossians and Philemon, provided Colossians with its own heading and introduced a new rubric: “Philemon; Slavery in the NT.” So firmly established is the interpretation of the epistle as a “cover letter” addressed to the master of a repentant runaway slave that any discussion of slavery in the New Testament invariably alludes to Paul's Epistle to Philemon; all recent commentators on the epistle include in their treatments at least a brief disquisition or excursus on ancient slavery. Even in his methodologically sophisticated study of the “narrative world” of Philemon, Norman Petersen began his summary of the “story” behind the letter as follows: “Once upon a time there was a runaway slave named Onesimus.…” Furthermore, the epistle is universally construed as a delicate and canny intervention on the part of the apostle Paul into the problematic of Christian relations under the Roman slave regime, despite the concession on the part of modern exegetes that Philemon fails to elucidate Paul's attitudes toward either slaves in particular or the institution of slavery in general.

Research Articles
Copyright © President and Fellows of Harvard College 1993

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1 Petersen, Norman, Rediscovering Paul: Philemon and the Sociology of Paul's Narrative World (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985) 5Google Scholar.

2 Corcoran, Gervase, “Slavery and the New Testament,” Milltown Studies 1 (1980) 40Google Scholar.

3 Lehmann, Richard, Épître à Philemon: Le Christianisme primitif et l'esclavage (Geneva: Labor et Fides, 1978) 25Google Scholar; my translation.

4 The violent punishment of slaves is stipulated in Roman law (see The Digest of Justinian [ed. Mommsen, Theodor and Krueger, Paul; trans. Alan Watson; 4 vols.; Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1985Google Scholar] 7.1.2–3 [1. 222]). On the primary importance of whipping and other violent and degrading punishments to all slave regimes, see Patterson, Orlando, Slavery and Social Death (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982) 34Google Scholar.

5 For example, a sound public drubbing, the verberatio, was a punishment inflicted on lower-class violators lacking the means to pay punitive fines. Only the lower registers were subject to this humiliating penalty.

6 Knox, John, Philemon Among the Letters of Paul (New York: Abingdon, 1935) 10Google Scholar.

7 For a brief account of the demolition of Knox's theory, see Lohse, Eduard, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Colossians and Philemon (trans. Poehlman, William and Karris, Robert J.; ed. Koester, Helmut; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1971) 186–87Google Scholar, esp. nn. 1 and 2.

8 Lampe, Peter, “Keine Sklavenflucht des Onesimus,” ZNW 76 (1985) 135–37Google Scholar.

9 Winter, Sarah, “Paul's Letter to Philemon,” NTS 33 (1987) 115Google Scholar. For what Winter herself referred to as the “hermeneutical component” of her work on Philemon, see her “Methodological Observations on a New Interpretation of Paul's Letter to Philemon,” USQR 39 (1984) 203–12Google Scholar.

10 Lampe, “Sklavenflucht,” 136.

11 Ibid., 137.

12 Schubert, Paul, The Form and Function of the Pauline Thanksgiving (Berlin: Töpelman, 1935) 63Google Scholar, 65–66.

13 Winter, “Letter,” 3.

14 Lohse, A Commentary, 197 n. 4.

15 Hugo Grotius, “Commentatio in epistolam Pauli apostoli ad Philemonem,” in idem, De jure belli ac pads libri tres (Amsterdam: Waesberg, 1701Google Scholar) [3]; noted by Stuhlmacher, Peter, Der Brief an Philemon (Neukirchen: Neukirchener Verlag, 1975) 61Google Scholar.

16 Church, F. Forrester, “Rhetorical Structure and Design in Paul's Letter to Philemon,” HTR 71 (1978) 19CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

17 Knox, Philemon, 20.

18 Nordling, John G., “Onesimus Fugitivus: A Defense of the Runaway Slave Hypothesis i n Philemon,” JSNT 41 (1991) 101Google Scholar.

19 Ibid., 100.

20 Nordling's treatment is further compromised by his adduction (ibid., 112) of Ephesians and 1 Timothy, widely recognized as deutero-Pauline, in support of his observations about Pauline vocabulary and usage.

21 Lehmann, Epitre, 25.

22 Lightfoot, J. B., Saint Paul's Epistles to the Colossians and Philemon (London/New York: Macmillan, 1892) 310Google Scholar.

23 Roman law recognized slave flight from torture and other abuse as a common problem (Digest 21.1.23 [2. 609–10]). Buckland, W. W. (The Roman Law of Slavery [1908; reprinted New York: AMS, 1969Google Scholar] 58) has noted that “fugitivi were a great administrative difficulty” of the empire. Nordling (“Onesimus,” 106), after reviewing ample papyri and inscriptions, concluded that runaway slaves were “a grave social problem” of the Greco-Roman world.

Art imitated life on this point during the principate. In Leucippe and Clitophon, the second-century novel by Achilles Tatius, the slave girl Clio flees upon hearing that her mistress is planning to torture her to obtain information about the intrigues of the mistress's daughter. Before absconding, Clio declares that she would kill herself before submitting to the rack (2.26). The Roman jurists had been constrained to recognize slave suicide as the ultimate flight (Digest, 6 [ 2. 605–6]). See also Finley, Moses, Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology (London: Chatto & Windus, 1980) 72Google Scholar.

24 Patterson, Slavery and Social Death, 90.

25 Ibid., 96.

26 Elkins, Stanley, Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Economic Life (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1959) 82Google Scholar. As my remarks imply, I do not agree with Elkins's assertions that the “Sambo” stereotype is peculiar to the American slavocracy and that on the basis of psycho-historical method the stereotype had some foundation in fact. For a confutation of both these errors in Elkins's important work (along with a recognition and characterization of its significance), see Genovese, Eugene, “Rebelliousness and Docility in the Negro Slave: A Critique of the Elkins Thesis,” Civil War History 13 (1966) 293314Google Scholar; reprinted in idem, In Red and Black: Marxian Explorations in Southern and Afro-American History (New York: Pantheon, 1971) 73101Google Scholar. In modern New Testament scholarship, John Knox (Philemon, 10) had recognized the standard characterization of the runaway slave as stereotypical.

27 Lightfoot, Epistles, 308–9.

28 Horsley, G. H. R., New Documents Illustrating Early Christianity (5 vols.; North Ryde, Australia: Macquarie University Press, 1982) 4Google Scholar. no. 96.

29 Morrison, Larry, “The Religious Defense of American Slavery before 1830,” The Journal of Religious Thought 37 (19801981) 19Google Scholar.

30 [Dalcho, Frederick], Practical Considerations Founded on the Scriptures, Relative to the Slave Population of South Carolina by a South Carolinian (Charleston: Miller, 1823) 2021Google Scholar; see also Richmond Enquirer, 3 December 1819. These sources are cited in Morrison, “Religious Defense,” 20.

31 Bourne, George, A Condensed Anti-Slavery Argument (New York: Benedict, 1845) 82Google Scholar.

32 Ibid., 83.

33 Ibid., 84.

34 Ibid.

35 Fee, John Gregg, An Anti-Slavery Manual (1848; reprinted New York: Arno/New York Times, 1969) 112Google Scholar.

36 Ibid., 113.

37 This report is cited in Albert Raboteau, Slave Religion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982) 139Google ScholarPubMed.

38 Rufinus Ex commentario Origenis in epistolam ad Philemonem (PG 14. 1305–8).

39 Kummel, Werner Georg, Introduction to the New Testament (trans. Mattill, A. J. Jr.; New York/Nashville: Abingdon, 1966) 353Google Scholar.

40 Baur, Ferdinand Christian, Paul the Apostle ofJesus Christ (trans. Menzies, A.; Edinburgh: William & Norgate, 1875) 84Google Scholar.

41 Jerome Comm. in Phlm. praef.; cited in Lightfoot, Epistles, 315 n. 2; my translation.

42 John Chrysostom Horn, in Phlm., Argumentum (PG 62. 700); my translation.

43 See Stuhlmacher, Philemon, 58.

44 John Chrysostom Horn, in Phlm., Argumentum (PG 62. 699).

45 The British patristics scholar Henry Chase recognized this over a century ago: “The very fact that there is nothing of controversy or argument in the Epistle to Philemon led to its depreciation in the days of Chrysostom…. In answer to such Chrysostom dwells on the extreme interest of any details of the Apostle's life. And further he is at pains to shew [sic] how the Epistle is of varied practical importance.” See Chase, , Chrysostom: A Study in the History of Biblical Interpretation (Cambridge: Deighton Bell and London: George Bell, 1887) 178Google Scholar.

46 Lee, G. M., “Eusebius on Saint Mark and the Beginnings of Christianity in Egypt,” SP 12 (1975) 425–27Google Scholar.

47 Some ancient witnesses to the Pauline corpus show Philemon to be the runt of the letters, as it were. The Coptic manuscript tradition consistently placed Philemon last in its collection of the Pauline corpus. See Paulinus Bellet, “Analecta Coptica,” CBQ 40 (1978) 44. Philemon was almost certainly the last of the epistles in the earliest witness to the corpus we possess, 46, although the epistle, along with 2 Thessalonians, is now missing. In descending order of length, 2 Thessalonians would have immediately preceded Philemon, and thus the two epistles probably comprised the tail end of the corpus.

48 John Chrysostom Horn, in Phlm., Argumentum (NPNF 1st ser., 13. 546).

49 Elizabeth A. Clark, Jerome, Chrysostom and Friends (New York/Toronto: Mellen, 1979) 1.

50 See Nordling, “Onesimus,” 118 n. 1.

51 I would mention as a minor qualification, however, a brief reference to Philemon by Athanasius in his second discourse against the Arians (Contra Arianos 2.14.3), neither mentioned in Stuhlmacher's rehearsal of the epistle's history of interpretation nor indicated in the indices to the NPNF. In arguing for the full deity of the Son, Athanasius contended that scriptural references to Christ as slave do not disqualify him from peerage in the godhead. Athanasius asserted that those called “slave” (δοῦλος) in the Bible are not to be understood as such in the strictly literal sense: “Thus Sara called Abraham lord, though not a servant but a wife; and while to Philemon the master the Apostle joined Onesimus the servant as a brother, Bathsheba, although mother, called her son servant, saying to his father, ‘Thy servant Solomon;’—afterwards also Nathan the Prophet came in and repeated her words to David, ‘Solomon thy servant.’ Nor did they mind calling the son a servant, for while David heard it, he recognized the ‘nature,’ and while they spoke it, they forgot not the ‘genuineness,’ praying that he might be made his father's heir, to whom they gave the name of servant; for to David he was a son by nature” (NPNF 1st ser., 4. 349–50). Athanasius argued here that Sarah, Onesimus, and Solomon afford examples that militate against a literal reading of δοῦλος, for i t is precisely such an uninformed reading that had led some biblical exegetes into the Arian error of interpreting the servanthood of Jesus as an indication of creaturely inferiority. He was implying that none of the above mentioned biblical notables were literally slaves. Two observations are important for the evaluation of this reference. First, in the underlying Greek text Onesimus is here referred to as an οἰκ έτηο, (“domestic servant”), as he is in the subscription of a number of Greek MSS of the epistle (K, L, 42, 101) and several versions (syrh, arm, geo). In these same subscriptions, Philemon is called δεσπότης (“master”) (for example, Euthalius MS: πρός Φιλήμονονα και’ Aπφίαν δεσποτας’ Oνισήμου [sic]), but Athanasius referred to him here as κτησαμένος (“owner”); the NPNF translation quoted has “master” here. Perhaps Athanasius was implying that Philemon was Onesimus's owner, but his use of the participle could be emphasizing the contrast between the owner of the house, presumably Philemon, and the servant of the house, Onesimus. There is no suggestion in this brief, somewhat ambiguous reference, however, that Onesimus was a thief or a runaway.

52 Lucian, Demon. 9 (8 vols.; trans. Harmon, A. M.; LCL; New York: Macmillan, 1913) 1. 149Google Scholar.

53 Philostratus, Vit. Ap. 1.13 (2 vols.; trans. Conybeare, F. C.; LCL; New York: Macmillan, 1912) 1. 3135Google Scholar.

54 Betz, Hans Dieter, Plutarch's Ethical Writings and Early Christian Literature (Leiden: Brill, 1972) 233–34Google Scholar.

55 Patterson, Slavery and Social Death, 13.

56 Xenophon, Cyro. 6.4.7 (2 vols.; trans. Miller, Walter; LCL; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press and London: Heinemann, 1968) 2. 195Google Scholar.

57 Sophocles, Ant. 512–17 (2 vols.; trans. Storr, F.; LCL; London: Heinemann and New York: Macmillan, 1912) 1. 353Google Scholar.

58 Lewis, Lloyd (“An African American Appraisal of the Philemon-Paul-Onesimus Triangle,” in Felder, Cain Hope, ed., Stony the Road We Trod [Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991Google Scholar] 233, 236) points to the importance of this familial language, in which Paul “reinforces the image of the church as a particular type of family.” He comments further that this language, used i n Philemon and elsewhere in Paul's letters, indicates “Paul's intention that within the church of Jesus Christ the primary relationship would be a pseudo-familial relationship among peers.” Lewis, however, follows the traditional interpretation of the epistle.

59 Funk, Robert, “The Apostolic Parousia: Form and Significance,” in Farmer, W. R., Moule, C. F. D., and Niebuhr, R. R., eds., Christian History and Interpretation: Studies Presented to John Knox (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1974) 249Google Scholar.

60 Ibid., 252.

61 Ibid., 253.

62 Several early manuscript witnesses ἒπεμψα here.

63 Funk, “Parousia,” 255. Funk points this out in hi s analysis of 1 Cor 4:17.

64 Ibid., 258; see pp. 255–58 for adduction and analysis of pertinent pericopae.

65 Martin, Clarice, “The Rhetorical Function of Commercial Language in Paul's Letter to Philemon (Verse 18),” in Watson, Duane F., ed., Persuasive Artistry: Studies in New Testament Rhetoric in Honor of George A. Kennedy (JSNTSup 50; Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1991) 321–37Google Scholar, esp. 332–33.

66 A felicitous translation for this highly idiomatic phrase continues to challenge translators. F. Forrester Church (“Rhetorical Structure,” 24), whom I have followed, renders it as “my very heart.” The challenge, furthermore, transcends English. For an account of Mandarin Chinese glosses, see Lancashire, Douglas, et al., “The Bible in Modern Chinese,” The Bible Translator 11 (1960) 108Google Scholar. The New Revised Version of the Segond Bible replaces the previous gloss of the old version, “mes propres entrailles” (akin to the King James Version rendering, “mine own bowels”), with “une partie de moi-meme” (“a part of myself). See Ellington, John, “La Bible Segond et la Nouvelle Version Segond Revisee,” The Bible Translator 31 (1980) 138Google Scholar.