I had intended next to describe the wretched state of slavery in the ancient Mediterranean world, but I promised we’d cover Philemon first. The epistle to Philemon is one of those few books you can refer to simply by verse number, because there’s only one chapter. With today’s online Bibles you’ll frequently see references to Philemon 1:1, but traditionally, you could just refer to Philemon 1. (Quick trivia question: What are the other four single-chapter books in the Christian Bible?)*
Because this tiny letter seems to offer a glimpse of real people and real events from the first century CE, Philemon remains one of the most tantalizing books of the New Testament. We can only guess exactly happened before and after the letter. How did Onesimus end up with Paul? What did Paul expect Philemon to do with his returned property, and did he do it? How had Onesimus, whose name means “useful,” become “useless” to Philemon? Was he a runaway slave? Or had he committed some act that displeased Philemon, who subsequently dismissed him?
Throughout the centuries, scholars have debated over Paul’s ultimate intentions, offering (as I mentioned in earlier comments) a wide range of interpretations. Did Paul want Philemon to free Onesimus or not?
Why didn’t he just come right out and say it?!
A voluntary act
Paul assures his recipients that he is certainly in a position to compel Philemon to “do the right thing” (whatever that is), but prefers that he reach this decision of his own accord.
24. but without your consent I did not want to do anything, so that your goodness would not be, in effect, by compulsion but of your own free will. (NASB)
So one could argue that Paul wanted Philemon to receive Onesimus as a brother, and free him. And he wanted his slave-holding friend to come to that conclusion on his own, because a coerced good deed is less desirable than turning away from evil and carrying out a righteous act with a free and open heart.
That’s one way to approach it.
However, we should recall that normally when Paul learns of sinful behavior among his congregations, he does not gently prod them into changing their ways. Consider the man in Corinth accused of incest (viz., fooling around with his father’s wife). Paul doesn’t coyly intimate what they should consider doing . . . maybe . . . perhaps, if it isn’t too much trouble.
No, he blasts them, and tells them exactly how to handle this guy:
4. When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus,
5. you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord. (1 Cor. 5:4, ESV)
Nice and direct, isn’t he? Clearly, when Paul sees something evil, he has no qualms about pointing it out and suggesting a remedy. Thus, even if you think Paul was hinting that Philemon should free Onesimus, the act of holding slaves cannot have been something inherently and universally wrong in Paul’s mind. If it were a sin, we wouldn’t be left to wonder about it; Paul would have made sure to let us know.
Whatever it is that Paul wanted the slaveholder to do, it was a better thing to do, but something within the range of “possible” things he could do. In the language of 1 Cor. 10:23, all things were “lawful” for Philemon, but perhaps one particular thing was more “expedient.”
Put it on my tab
But what is that expedient thing? What exactly does Paul want? “Here’s your slave back,” says Paul. “I hope you’ll do the right thing.” Which is? Well, that depends on the meaning of the following verses.
15. For perhaps he was for this reason separated from you for a while, that you would have him back forever,
16. no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother, especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. (Philemon, NASB)
Today’s apologists seize upon verse 16 for what appears to be the clear meaning: Paul, under this interpretation, is sending Onesimus back to his master with the intention that Philemon should free him, and accept him as a brother. True, the phrase “no longer a slave” sounds as though Paul simply meant “not a slave.”
And yet the next set of words — “more than a slave” (ὑπὲρ δοῦλον/hypèr doûlon) — could invite a different translation: “not just a slave, but more than a slave.” Don’t imagine that I’m going out on a limb here. Many exegetes have concluded that Paul meant “not merely a slave.”
If that’s the meaning of the original Greek, then Paul is returning the slave to his master for reconciliation and forgiveness, expecting the sort of merciful treatment and love due to a trusted and “useful” slave — whom he should treat as a brother. In fact, Paul’s words are not too far from the words of Shimon ben Yeshua ben Eliezer ben Sira, written two centuries earlier:
31. You have only one slave? Treat him like yourself, since you have acquired him with blood.
32. You have only one slave? Treat him as a brother, since you need him as you need yourself.
33. If you ill-treat him and he runs away, which way will you go to look for him?
(Sira 33:31-33, NJB)
In other words, within enlightened Jewish thought at the time, we know that a person could own a slave and think of him as a brother.
Paul’s words that follow in verse 18 may elucidate further.
18. If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. (Philemon, ESV)
Here we see Paul striving to effect a reconciliation between two Christians to the point of offering money to square things up. Did Onesimus steal or damage something that belonged to Philemon? Or is Paul cognizant of the loss Philemon has suffered from the (temporary?) loss of the use of his “capital investment”?
Reconciliation or Manumission?
Which is more likely?
- Paul wants Philemon to receive Onesimus back as a trusted and beloved slave, without harsh punishment, treated as a brother. If Philemon thinks Onesimus owes him anything, Paul will pay for it. Let the “useless” thing become “useful” again!
- Paul wants Philemon to manumit Onesimus, and treat him as a real brother. Philemon forgoes his investment and welcomes his former slave into his household “forever.”
If Paul seriously meant option 2, then verse 18 is insufficient, because now Philemon has lost productive property. In other words, Paul offers to repay anything Onesimus owes, but that doesn’t include the loss of Onesimus himself.
I recognize that many, if not most, of Christians today will disagree with my analysis, and that’s fine. As we mentioned at the outset, people more intelligent than I have been arguing over Philemon for centuries. You can line up the names of great scholars on either side of the debate.
We can argue about Paul’s specific intent in his letter. However, one thing is certain, if you’re looking for clear, unambiguous evidence that Paul was anti-slavery, you’re not going to find it in the in the epistles.
A statement leading directly to the conclusion that Paul considered the institution of slavery as a sin cannot be found in the Pauline letters. The slave system is, to use Pauline terminology, one of the “principalities become enemies of God and humankind. Being creatures of God, they are not sinful by nature. Because they have rebelled against God and are stronger than human individuals and groups, they can be subjugated and restored to order by no one other than God and Christ alone. According to Paul, they have been, they are, and they will be so defeated and so used that they cannot separate God’s children from God’s love. Therefore, the mere fact that a person owns property, and among his property one or several slaves, does not automatically make him or her a sinner. Neither is it sinful to have to live under the yoke of slavery. Or else the Bible would never call God “Lord,” Jesus “Master,” or describe the chosen people as God’s and/or the Messiah’s property and servants. (Markus Barth and Helmut Blanke in The Letter to Philemon, p. 415, emphasis mine)
Even if we grant that Paul wanted Philemon to set his slave free, and even supposing he did it (which is what later Christian tradition says), it’s still a specific case. Should Philemon release his non-Christian slaves, as well? Should all Christian slaveholders release their slaves?
You could say that once Onesimus became a Christian, keeping him as mere property seems incongruous. In fact, many today argue that it was this notion of basic equality and brotherhood among Christians that eventually led to the abolition of slavery in the West.
To such dewy-eyed optimism, I would respond, “If that was Paul’s hidden agenda, it only took about 1,800 years for people to catch on.”
* (Answer: Obadiah, 2 John, 3 John, and Jude)