“With All Fear”: Christianity and Slavery (Part 3)

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Tim Widowfield

Interpreting Philemon

English: The apostle paul reading by candlelig...
The apostle paul reading by candlelight, with a large open book leaning on a skull, seen from below. Mezzotint (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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, since 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 what 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?

  1. 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!
  2. 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 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)

The following two tabs change content below.

Tim Widowfield

Tim is a retired vagabond who lives with his wife and multiple cats in a 20-year-old motor home. To read more about Tim, see our About page.

If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!

14 thoughts on ““With All Fear”: Christianity and Slavery (Part 3)”

  1. We know people’s attitudes and behavior change over time. Did Paul write this at a different date then his harsher texts.

    We also know that we talk one way to some people, and another way to others. Was Paul just being crafty in his desire affect?

    You said, “Many exegetes have concluded that Paul meant “not merely a slave.” Do you have links or sources for that?

    Cool quote from “Sirach” — I had to look that up. It is not in the protestant canon — do you know why. And further confusing is that it is also called “Ecclesiasticus”. Seems like it was in Paul’s canon, eh? Many texts seem to be in the canon of NT writers but not in many Xian canons.

    1. Sabio wrote: Do you have links or sources for that?

      You can start here. http://biblehub.com/commentaries/philemon/1-16.htm

      Or click this Google search.

      Sabio wrote: Cool quote from “Sirach” — I had to look that up. It is not in the protestant canon — do you know why?

      Sirach never made it into the Hebrew canon (too late), but it was part of the Septuagint. Traditionally, Christians considered the Septuagint canonical, but Luther and Co. believed that for a book to be “true” OT scripture, it had to be Hebrew.

    2. It’s one of those “letters from prison,” but there seems to be no clear consensus on where that prison was. Most likely it was house arrest — but whether it was Rome, near the end of Paul’s life, we just don’t know.

      Here’s a curious thing to consider. I didn’t bring it up in the text of my post, but Colossians and Philemon are often paired together in commentaries. That’s because they seem to have a lot in common. (See, e.g., F.F. Bruce’s collected commentaries on Colossians, Philemon, and Ephesians.) However, scholars usually treat Philemon as authentic, but they think Colossians is deutero-Pauline.

      F.C. Baur thought it was a second-century fake. Of course, scholars have no time to read Baur — not when you’ve got guys like Jimmy Dunn keep plopping out 1,000-page books once a week.

  2. Tim,

    Just finished reading this post. Interesting topic. While I don’t recall at the moment where else in Paul’s letters he expresses his “okayness” with slavery (if your a slave then stay one, I’m thinking), Deuteronomy 23:15 says that “you shall not hand over to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you. He shall live with you, in your midst.”

    So I’m thinking whatever it was that Philemon did (beyond running away), perhaps it wasn’t bad enough to warrant Paul keeping him, regardless of however Paul wished Philemon be treated after his return.

    1. Deut. 23:15 refers to foreign slaves that have escaped into “the camp” of the Israelites. I’d think Paul would have seen this as a different circumstance.

      1. That could well be given the preceding verses. I did not take that into consideration, given the hodgepodge of laws that follow 23:15. My bad. But along with Dt. 23:15, there are other verses that illustrate God’s “okayness” with slaves, yet call for fair (or even special, e.g., Lev. 22:11) treatment of them.

        So could we say that however Philemon’s master may have treated him (was he even Jewish? Does it even matter?), it could not have been to the extent that his eye was damaged or tooth knocked out, ala Ex 21:26-27, or else Paul would not have sent him back?

        1. The passage I was thinking of regarding Paul’s attitude towards slavery is 1 Cor. 7:20-21: “Each man must remain in the condition in which he was called. Were you called while a slave? Do not worry about it; but if you are able also to become free, rather do that.”

          So as far as I can tell from the OT and NT, both God and Paul are “cool” with slavery, to a certain extent, under certain conditions (even if Paul thinks slaves should be free if possible). And this is not taking Roman law about runaway slaves into consideration, which I imagine was not as lenient about these matters, and maybe that is playing a big part here.

          Also, in a comment above I should have said Onesimus’s master, not Philemon’s.

          1. John: “So as far as I can tell from the OT and NT, both God and Paul are ‘cool’ with slavery . . .”

            I’m not sure “cool with it” is accurate. I think Paul just saw it as part of the way things are — some people are slaves, and some people are masters. I would wager that if you had floated the idea of general manumission before the average person in the Roman empire, he would have told you the result would be total chaos.

            John: “. . . even if Paul thinks slaves should be free if possible.”

            See Part 2 for a discussion of how 1 Cor. 7:20 may not mean what apologists would like it to mean.

            1. I only meant “cool with it” in a very loose sense (with respect to both God and Paul), but your description accurately sums up how I see it. It looks like we see it the same way.

              I was wondering if part 2 might say something about 1 Cor. 7:20, so I will look at that.

        2. John wrote:

          So could we say that however Philemon’s master may have treated him (was he even Jewish? Does it even matter?), it could not have been to the extent that his eye was damaged or tooth knocked out, ala Ex 21:26-27, or else Paul would not have sent him back?

          Tim has more reading under his hat than I have on this topic, so I stand to be corrected. But I wonder if we have any reason to think that the author of the letters ostensibly by Paul would have considered normal treatment of slaves — even physical violence (our larger Sirach passage recently quoted informs us that were to be disciplined like animals) — revolting enough to refuse to return the slave.

          But more generally, I also believe it is more valid to treat our ancient sources as relics in their own right before bringing in the assumption that they are windows into something else. Is not the letter of Philemon really nothing other than the parable of the prodigal son told from the perspective of God (or his representative)? I am not saying that it does not also point to real life realities behind the words, but that surely is a separate question that needs other data for verification. We have already seen how even Larry Hurtado acknowledges that Paul’s letters are beyond the norms of style of genuine letters of the day (he admits that Paul’s letters are longer than the formal letter-forms — i.e. not real letters — by Seneca and Cicero), which adds a point in favour of those who argue Paul’s letters are really artificial literary creations and not to be understood at face-value as, say, a man pleading with real church members in Corinth, etc.

          This does not really change the way we approach the view of slavery as expressed in the letters, but it does influence how we express the different points of the argument. Was it a real apostle Paul addressing a real Philemon or was it a writing appearing as such for some other reason now lost to us. The letter-form was a popular medium for all sorts of fictions — ideological, philosophical, entertainment . . . — at this time. We should leave it to the fundamentalists and the Hurtados to take for granted that anything that any document from the day should be taken at face-value regardless of any other scholarly investigations into this genre of this particular period.

          1. It reminds me a lot of the Prodigal Son parable as well. As to whether the letter to Philemon is a parable, a real letter, or a little of both, I can’t help being suspicious. The amount of wordplay with respect to Onesimus (“useful”) and Philemon (“loving, affectionate”) is too great to ignore.

            As I mentioned earlier, Baur couldn’t get over the fact that the epistle seems so heavily related to deutero-Pauline epistles and that the slave’s name is clearly allegorical.

            F. C. van Manen thought it improbable that Paul could have written it. Note: van Manen wrote the entry on Philemon in the Encyclopaedia Biblica.

            The romantic element in the story does not need to be insisted on. It is to be put to the credit of the writer who may very well perhaps have made use of the story which has been so often compared with it (see above; Pliny, Epist. 9.21. 24). A freedman (libertus) of Sabinianus makes his escape and seeks refuge with Pliny, who was known to him as a friend of Sabinianus who also lives in Rome, whereupon Pliny sends him back with a commendatory letter in which he pleads for the runaway from the standpoint of pure humanity. Our unknown author makes the freedman into a slave whom he brings into contact, at an immense distance from his home, with Paul, Philemon’s spiritual father, who converts Onesimus also, and thereupon sends him back with a plea for the slave from the standpoint of Christian faith and Christian charity.

            Our “unknown author”! Such thinking is really unfashionable today, and by “unfashionable,” I mean “dangerous to your career.”

  3. Further to indications that the Letter to Philemon is more a literary treatise/epistle of some kind than a genuine letter, we have an article by Martin R. P. McGuire from 1960, “Letters and Letter Carriers in Christian Antiquity” (cited in a recent blogpost by Larry Hurtado), which informs us that though Philemon is the shortest letter by Paul, it is nonetheless twice as long as non-Christian papyri letters.

    Letters on papyri average 87 words per page, and a letter hardly ever exceeds a total of 200 words. . . . Philemon [has] 355 [words].

    How expensive were writing materials? Paul did not seem constrained by economies when it came to even personal correspondence over such personal matters and did wax eloquent with literary plays, puns, and rhetorical flourishes here.

    An interesting exercise might be to try to re-write Philemon more according to the conventions of genuine personal correspondence of the day.

    1. “How expensive were writing materials? Paul did not seem constrained by economies when it came to even personal correspondence over such personal matters and did wax eloquent with literary plays, puns, and rhetorical flourishes here.”

      With my Eisenman glasses on, I’m thinking that perhaps this is because Paul may have been a Herodian.


      While it is typical for Eisenman to speculate about every little unanswered detail in Christian origins, and it can be difficult to sift through (even for me, with respect to The New Testament Code, which, after years of anticipation, I gave up trying to finish), the distilled essense of this idea convinces me that not only did Paul likely have Herodian connections, but that he is also the Herodian Saulos in Josphus, for reasons I’ve mentioned here before but don’t have time to repeat at the moment.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Discover more from Vridar

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading