Philemon and Slavery in the First Century

There is an obvious need for a clear understanding of slavery as we approach the book of Philemon.   In this  post I want to summarize a few points from John Byron on slavery.   The article is dealing with Paul’s metaphor of a slave, but some of the information provides an excellent entry point into the difficulties of dealing with slavery in the first century.

John Byron surveys recent attempts to deal with Paul’s slavery metaphors in New Testament studies. The bulk of the article deals with a shift from the work of Bartchy in 1973 which made extensive use of Greco-Roman and Jewish legal texts to more recent sociological studies by Patterson and others. Bartchy’s view was that slavery in the first century was “decidedly benign,” while Patterson argues that slavery was equivalent to a “death experience.”  Bartchy’s views have been far more influential on New Testament commentaries than Patterson’s studies, perhaps skewing the point of Paul’s metaphor of slavery.   Byron’s article is a challenge to the commonly taught idea of selling one’s self into slavery to pay debts and the possibility of a better life as a slave.

This debate highlights the problem of sources.  Bartchy, for example, uses legal texts to show that there was a softening of attitudes toward slaves in the first century which made the slave into something more like “employee” rather than property.  There are a number of problems with using legal, as Byron points out in his conclusion.  The main source for Roman Law is dated to A.D. 533, well after the first century.  In addition, there is a great difference between a law and actual social attitudes.  Bartchy may cite laws protecting slaves, but there is no real evidence that society accepted those laws or that authorities always enforced them. Even in America, we know that simply having a law does not guarantee everyone obeys the law, nor does the law tell us anything about society’s attitude toward the law.  Traffic laws would be a good example here.  Someone studying American law could say the maximum speed on the highway is no more than 70 M.P.H., but we know this is not the case at all.  In some cases, authorities may choose not to enforce a strict speed limit.  The same may have been true for slavery, therefore Roman law becomes less secure for reconstructing actual practice towards slaves in the first century.  Consistency in application of laws is not a forgone conclusion in the case of slavery in the world of the first century.

There are other literary sources for slavery dating to the first century which may provide some data.  Philosophers are often cited as indicating a shift in society’s attitude toward slavery.  As Byron notes, there is no evidence these writings reflect public sentiment.  In fact, one might argue there are very few times in history where the writings of a philosopher accurately reflected the views of society as a whole!  It is possible to miss the point of a philosopher by not taking a saying in context of their system of thought.  For example, the oft-cited view of Seneca that masters ought to not mistreat their slaves is not an example of a softening of attitudes toward slaves but rather an example of the Stoic ethic of self-control.

References to slaves appear in the satirists and in novels.  These references are also problematic since they do not really say anything about the status of a slave in the society.  To take sayings of Marital, for example, as indicative of the general thinking of the populace is akin to taking Jerry Sienfeld as an example of how all Americans think.  Novels which portray slaves as virtuous, socially mobile, etc. are poor evidence since the slave character is usually a prince who has wrongfully been enslaved and overcomes this setback and is restored to his proper status in the end.  The novelist and satirist do not intend to give a sociological opinion of the status of the slave in the first century, therefore it would be dangerous to rely too heavily on them in our research.

There is much to be learned from the sociological approaches to slavery described by Byron.  These studies seem to turn the accepted view of slavery one normally encounters in a commentary on Philemon around in a completely opposite direction. The law codes are a “legal fiction” and slavery was far from a pleasant experience.  If one was forced into slavery it was as if one has died.  This was no mere economic decision (selling yourself into seven years of slavery to pay off a debt, for example.)  The slave, at the social level, was no longer a person but rather he has become property and is no longer his own. This “dying to self” and giving up personal ownership to a master is an appealing element when looking at Paul’s use of the metaphor, but it may be more influenced by American / western values of individuality and freedom rather than that of the Greco-Roman world.  Was “freedom” more important than slavery?  Perhaps not, sometimes it my have been better to be a slave to a powerful person than a freedman.

How does this “background” effect the way we look at Philemon and his slave, Onesimus?

Bibliography:  John Byron, “Paul And The Background Of Slavery: The Status Quaestionis In New Testament Scholarship,” CBR 3.1 (2004) 116-139.

Book Review: Scot McKnight, Philemon (NICNT)

McKnight, Scot. Philemon. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2017. 126 pp.; Hb.; $25.00. Link to Eerdmans   

Commentaries on Philemon are often added to the end of a Colossians commentary as if this short letter is an appendix to Colossians (or, in the case of Jac Müller’s 1955 NICNT commentary, an add-on to Philippians). Perhaps editors consider the letter too short to merit a full sized commentary, unless it is heavily supplemented with additional material on slavery in the Roman world (as in the 588 page Barth and Blanke Eerdmans Critical Commentary, 2000). Although Scot McKnight’s commentary on Philemon in the NICNT series was originally intended to be included with this forthcoming Colossians commentary, Eerdmans decided to publish Philemon separately.

As McKnight recognizes, commentaries on Philemon must deal with the problem of slavery in the letter. In Philemon, Paul “envisions a new kind of relationship on the basis of siblingship,” even if that new relationship is between a slave and master (2). For many modern commentators this is a problem since slavery is a horrific abuse of human rights and a serious problem throughout the world today. Rather than tell Philemon to release his slave Philemon from his bondage, Paul does not seem to notice a problem with slavery in this short letter. Taken along with Colossians, Paul tells slaves to obey their masters rather than commanding masters to set their slaves free. In 1 Corinthians 7:21-24 Paul tells people who were slaves when called by Christ to “not let it trouble them” and to gain their freedom if possible. McKnight points out this is as close to modern abolitionism that Paul gets, “but abolitionism it is not” (29).

In this commentary, slavery is in the background, but the relationship of masters and slaves is not the point of the letter. For McKnight, Philemon is a “deeply disturbing text” which embodies a new vision of reconciliation. This commentary argues the church ought to be a place of reconciliation first among its own people and second in society. “Reconciled people become agents of reconciliation” (5). In Philemon, Paul “envisions a new kind of relationship on the basis of siblingship” even if that new relationship is between a slave and maser.

Because Paul does not appeal to Onesimus to set Philemon free, he seems to approve of slavery. One approach to the problem is to fully describe slavery in the Roman world then draw contrasts to various modern practices of slavery in order to claim Roman slavery was often not harsh. Onesimus is imagined to be an educated majordomo for a wealthy Philemon, appealing to Paul to adjudicate some dispute with his master. This strategy attempts to reduce Paul’s offensive lack of interest in ending the dehumanizing practice of slavery.

McKnight provides a twenty-two page description of slavery in the Roman world, summarizing a wide range of recent scholarship on Roman slavery. He carefully defines slavery and describes Rome’s pervasive “slave culture.” This includes brief sections on the family loie of a slave, the slave’s relationship with the master, and options for obtaining justice for the slave, including manumission and the possibility of becoming a runaway. Each of this subsections are illustrated with some Greco-Roman source and each example could be multiplied. McKnight offers illustrations and ample references to more detailed works of Roman slavery, thus keeping this commentary on Philemon from becoming too bloated with background material.

After surveying the possibility of slavery as providing a way for a person to move up the Roman social ranks, McKnight comments “we must come down from these utopian mountains to the reality” (26). The western ideal of freedom was unknown to the vast majority or Romans. Only those at the very top of Roman society would have something like the freedom western (especially American) people enjoy. We are, as McKnight says, “driven by culture to evaluate Paul’s moral message on the basis of later abolition of slavery and freedom of slaves” (26). In order to properly interpret a text like Philemon, we must enter the word of the Roman first century and read Philemon in that context.

This is material valuable, but McKnight does not simply lay out background then proceed to the commentary. He includes a six-page essay entitled “Philemon in the Crucible of New World Slavery and Slavery Today” (30-36). Here he deals with the serious problem of slavery in the twenty-first century. A reader of Philemon may feel smugly satisfied modern Christianity has “gone beyond Paul” by ending slavery in England and America, but the conditions of slavery persists throughout the world with estimates as high as thirty-five million people living in slavery. This includes sex trafficking as well as labor exploitation (either agricultural or domestic). McKnight mentions three brief examples, Thai fishing ships, child sex slaves and forced marriages. “Modern slavery” McKnight says, “is different from the past in its deception, its technological sophistication, and is disregard for ethnicity and race” (36). Paul’s answer to this heinous problem would be the same as his answer to Philemon: the church is to be a place where reconciliation happens and justice in the church ought to become justice for all.

The body of the commentary is only about sixty-five pages, about half of the volume. McKnight proceeds as do other contributions to the NICNT. After providing a translation of the text and a brief introduction, McKnight works through the text phrase-by-phrase, with any comments on the Greek in transliteration (although Greek appears untransliterated in the footnotes). Since Philemon is less complicated grammatically than other Pauline letters, the notes only occasionally need to deal with lexical and syntactical issues. More often McKnight comments on the rhetoric of the letter, focusing on how Paul makes his appeal to Philemon.

Conclusion. This new contribution on Philemon ought to take its place alongside other major exegetical commentaries (Barth and Blanke, Johnson, Knox). This small commentary will assist pastors and teachers to prepare sermons and studies on this small but important letter of Paul which are sensitive to the original cultural context but also squarely aimed at contemporary issues. McKnight has already contributed an excellent commentary on James to the NICNT series and his Colossians volume is scheduled for release in February 2018 to replace the venerable NICNT commentary by F. F. Bruce on Colossians, Philemon, and Ephesians (1984). In anticipation of this new commentary, McKnight posted “Ten Reasons the Church Needs Philemon” to his Jesus Creed blog. EerdWorld has a short video interviewing McKnight on this commentary and his forthcoming NICNT commentary on Colossians.

NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

Why Did Paul Write to Philemon?

The traditional “background” to Philemon posits Philemon as a wealthy man and slave owner (15-16) probably living in Colossae.  He is described as a “partner” in Paul’s ministry and his house appears to have been used for meetings of believers (2).  His wife and son appear to share in the ministry of this house church.  Paul considers Philemon an “old friend.” It is possible he was saved in Ephesus when Paul spent three years earlier in the city.

PhilemonOne of Philemon’s slaves, Onesimus has escaped and fled to Rome. It is possible Onesimus stole something from Philemon when he left. Rome is an easy place to “get lost” since it was very large; he could easily find a place to lay-low for the rest of his life.  While in Rome Onesimus meets Paul and accepts Jesus Christ as his Savior.  He apparently is with Paul for a while, since he is described as “useful” in Paul’s ministry.

Onesimus returns to his former master to ask forgiveness and accept his punishment.  The letter to Philemon is something like a “letter of recommendation” from Paul to Philemon vouching for Onesimus’ conversion.  Paul also promises to pay any debt Onesimus has incurred as a result of his escape.

This traditional background makes for a great story but it is hard to make this short letter fit this complex story. The main problem with the traditional view Onesimus’s encounter with Paul. If Rome is such a large city, how does Onesimus just happen to meet Paul there, a good friend of his former master?

One attempt to answer this problem is to assume Onesimus fled to Rome in order to find Paul and ask him to intercede on his behalf. Perhaps Philemon was not treating him fairly “in Christ” and he wanted to Paul to adjudicate their dispute. Paul would function as an amicus domini, a “friend of the master,” who is called upon to mediate a dispute. The situation is not unusual. In fact, Pliny wrote a letter which is similar to the situation in Philemon. In this letter Pliny writes Sabinianus on behalf of a freedman who has “fallen at his feet.”  Pliny asks Sabinianus to forgive a man who has insulted him in a youthful indiscretion.

A second possibility is Onesimus was an unsaved slave sent to help Paul in his imprisonment, perhaps on the analogy of Epaphroditus in Philippians. While working with Paul Onesimus accepts Christ and becomes useful in Paul’s mission in Rome. The letter of Philemon is therefore Paul’s requests to Philemon allow Onesimus to join Paul’s ministry team and perhaps even grant Onesimus his freedom.

A third, less likely possibility is that Onesimus is not a slave, but the wayward brother of Philemon. Verse 16 could be read as saying Onesimus is Philemon’s literal brother. The point of the letter would be the same (reconciliation with Philemon).

Fourth, perhaps Philemon was not the owner at all, but rather Archippus, from Colossians 4:17.  In Col. 4:17 Paul tells this man to “complete the work you have in the Lord.”  John Knox takes this to mean, “Free Onesimus.”  Philemon is the local “partner in ministry” in Colossae who is asked to act as a go-between for Onesimus and Archippus.  While this is an intriguing theory, there are a number of un-provable assumptions standing behind it.

 

 

Bibliography: John Knox, Philemon among the Letters of Paul (Nashville: Abingdon, 1959). L. Cope, “Rethinking the Philemon – Colossian Connection” Biblical Research 30 (1985): 45-50.  Knox is following his teacher E. R. Goodenough,  “Paul and Onesimus,” HTR 22 (1929): 181-83.

God has Reconciled Us (Colossians 1:22)

Colossians 1:22 begins with “but now” (νυνὶ δὲ). These are two very important words in the Greek, indicating an important contrast. The contrast is between time when we were enemies of God and the present time when we have experienced reconciliation with God. Reconciliation means the relationship is fixed, walls that existed between the two parties are torn down, and that they can now go about the business of building that relationship.

God has reconciled us through the death of Jesus. The basic idea behind reconciliation (καταλλαγή, καταλλάσσω) is the restoration of friendship between two estranged parties. This assumes an offense has separated two parties (political, social, familial, or moral, TLNT 2:263). In non-biblical Greek the word is virtually never used in religious sense primarily because the relationship between the gods and men is not personal. For most of the Greco-Roman world, worship appeased the gods, so a form of ἱλαστήριον (propitiation) would be used.

Josephus reflects the same usage of reconciliation. He uses the related term διαλλάσσομαι for a political agreement between Archelaus and Alexander (the son of Aristobulus) and Herod the Great. After a political arrangement is made, including due honors and gifts, the estranged parties entered into a formal friendship and they “spent their time feasting and agreeable entertainments” (War 1.513, 514).  In this example, Herod is in a far superior political position, but he honors Archelaus with great gifts in order to preserve the dignity of all parties.

Unlike secular Greek, Josephus uses καταλλάσσω in a religious sense.  In the context of the story of the twelve spies, Moses sought to reconcile God and the people (Ant. 3:315, using the noun.)  Similarly, when Saul offended God by sparing the Amalekites (Ant. 6:143), Samuel prays that God “be reconciled” to Saul (using a passive infinitive).

Returning to the earlier analogy of estrangement, the opposite of an estranged relationship is an reconciliation.  Rather than a divorce, the married couple overcomes their differences and has decided to remain married, they have reconciled their differences. God saw that we would not turn to him, so he had to provide the method of reconciliation himself.   Because the cause of the estrangement was our sin, and the fact that we could not pay for it ourselves.

God therefore provided a way for the debt of sin to be paid. He sent his own son to be killed as an atoning sacrifice so the problem of sin could be permanently solved, once for all.

Paul therefore describes a new state of being for the one who is in Christ. If this is the case and those who were once enemies have now been reconciled through the Cross, what are some implications for how we live out this in Christ life? Paul answers this in the second half of Colossians.

Are We Alienated from God? (Colossians 1:21)

Paul beings by pointing out humans are alienated from God, or perhaps “estranged.” In English, estranged can simply mean separation, “a man and his estranged wife…” This doesn’t mean that the one of the marriage partners are wrong.  It means that the couple has had marital problems and they are no longer living together. That is the relationship that we have with God before we are saved. We are “separated,” we have left God are living a life which is anti-God in every way we can.

EnslavedPaul uses this same word in Ephesians 2:12 and 4:18 to describe our state before Christ.  Gentiles are not just ignorant of God, they are darkened and hardened (Romans 1:18-32). The grammar is carefully chosen to highlight the rebelliousness of humans – “still more forcibly the persistence of the state of things” (BDF 352, a perfect passive participle).  At one time, we were persistently and wholeheartedly “As such they did not serve God; rather, they were enmeshed in idolatry and slavery to sin.” (O’Brian, Colossians, 66).

Put simply, before Christ, humans are “enemies of God.” This is a state of hostile towards an enemy. Think of the (many) countries who consider America an enemy: They are committed to harassing us at every turn, and they want to harm us as best they can. That is the way that we were before we were saved, we hated God, and didn’t want to have anything to do with Him. We were estranged, and we hated the one we were alienated from. We had walked out of the relationship ourselves, and we were the ones who turned our backs on God.

Before humans encounter Christ, they are in this state of hatred.  But God did not hate us, in fact, he still loved us with an intense self-sacrificing love that was very patient. it was God who did something to reconcile that relationship, and God alone.

Both of these conditions is a result of our “evil behavior.”  Obviously this could refer to paganism, the lifestyle out of which the Colossians were saved.  “These phrases denote the actions of the unbelieving world, which belong to the ways of darkness rather than the ways of light, and which ultimately lead to death.” (O’Brien, Colossians, 67).

Is this true of all unsaved people?  Were we really “enemies of God” before Christ? We are enemies of God because we are a part of the human race, although not all of us are playing the role of “enemy insurgent.” Just as when Iraq was at war with America, all Iraqis are technically the enemy; not all Iraqis are actively attacking American interests.  Some are more active enemies than others, but all are enemies by definition.

Does this accurately describe the human condition?

The Image of the Invisible God (Colossians 1:15-20)

Colossians 1:15-20 appear to have been an early Christian hymn.  There is evidence this was poetry, perhaps pre-dating Paul and well known to the congregation.  Paul uses material like this in other contexts (Phil 2:5-9, for example).  It is likely Paul is drawing on a well-known “statement of faith” passed along to the church as part of their education in who Jesus was and is, then drawing some implications from this hymn which are specific to the problem at hand – a group within the church which has some misunderstandings about who Jesus is.

ColossiansWhy use a hymn to relate theology?  One possibility is that it is a call back to the foundational understanding of Jesus they received through Epaphras (and hence through Paul).  A second possibility is this hymn may have been used and adapted by the false teachers in the Colossian community.  We know that in the first century Jews were beginning to speculate seriously about wisdom and were developing the idea of an incarnate Wisdom through whom all things were created. It is possible the false teachers were poking around in the nature of wisdom. Paul says by means of this hymn that if they want real wisdom, they ought to look to Jesus not their own philosophy.

Paul begins by identifying Christ is the “image of the invisible God” (1:15).  The word εἰκών is usually translated “image” as in the image an emperor’s head on a coin (BAGD).  It is an exact duplicate that is integrally a part of the original. By saying that Christ is in the image of God, he affirms that he is an accurate picture of what God is, and in fact, he is God.  L&N 58.35, “that which has the same form as something else.” This is the word chosen by the LXX to translate the Hebrew µl,x{{, in Genesis 1:26-27; 5:3, and 9:6. In Genesis, it is humans who are the image of the invisible God, in the sense that we are God’s representatives in this world; the Law makes it clear no other image of God is to be made.

The word ἀόρατος, “invisible,” is used only five times in the New Testament. In every case it refers to some quality of God, although here in Col 1:16 it refers to the (unseen) spirit world.   The use of this word for the spirit world is somewhat common. “Rulers both visible and invisible” appears in Ignatius’s To the Smyrnaeans 6.1, for example.

God as “invisible” is both a Jewish and a Greek idea.  In the Hebrew Bible God is never to be represented as an idol or an image, and although there is a great deal of representation of the gods in Greco-Roman paganism, Plato and other philosophers (Stoics, for example), believed in a real god who was invisible, immovable, and totally transcendent.

“To call Christ the image of God is to say that in Him the being and nature of God have been perfectly manifested—that in Him the invisible has become visible.” (F. F. Bruce “Colossian Problems: Part 2: The ‘Christ Hymn’ of Colossians 1:15–20” BSac 141 (1984): 101). Romans 1:20 refers to God’s “invisible qualities.” This is said not to separate Christ and God into two separate categories, but to show that they are part and parcel of the same being, which we refer to as the Godhead, one invisible, the other visible.

Paul seems to be claiming a great deal about Jesus in this verse. What is the theological at stake in this line? Or perhaps to think in about it in another way, what is the Colossian church questioning about Jesus that prompts Paul to respond with this rather audacious claim about Jesus?

 

 

What was the Problem in Colossians?

One of the main issues we need to sort out for understanding the letter to the Colossians is the nature of the false teaching which was causing problems in the church.  Paul clearing thinks that it is important enough to write a letter to a church which he did not found in order to correct the problem.  Paul says that members of the church are being help captive to this inadequate theology, which he calls a philosophy and an empty deceit (Col 2:8).

Burn the HereticJames D. G. Dunn suggested that the problem in Colossae was the same as in Galatians and other early Pauline epistles – Jews were arguing that the gentile Christians were not really “saved” since they did not keep the ceremonial law of the Jews, especially Sabbaths and food laws.  This is the “normal” Jewish critique of Gentile Christianity.  While this adequately accounts for the Jewish aspect of the Colossian heresy, there is nothing in Galatians which leads to the conclusion that worship of angels or visions were part of the Judaizer’s agenda.

Fred Francis has argued that the Colossian church was influenced by the merkabah mysticism of early Judaism.  This mystical form of Judaism stressed visions of heaven and the throne room of God.  This sort of vision is found in the Enoch literature and likely does date to the pre-Christian era.  A potential problem for this view is that most of the merkabah-type literature we know about is found in Judea, not Asia Minor.

At his presidential address at the 2011 ETS conference, Clint Arnold suggested that the false teaching in Colossae was related to the type of Jewish exorcisms we find in the sons of Sceva (Acts 19).  In that passage these Jewish exorcists attempt to cast out a demon in the name of Jesus, but are soundly beaten by the demon possessed man.  Arnold discussed parallels in the Testament of Solomon, which is more or less a manual on how to diagnose a demon possession.  If the demon’s name could be discovered, then the appropriate angel may be invoked to bind that demon and free the person from oppression.

I thought that Arnold did a good job supporting his claims, and it is a connection which ought to be obvious for anyone who reads the Testament of Solomon.  He illustrated his point with several images of magical amulets found in Asia Minor which invoke angelic names as magic charms and occasionally depict Solomon as conquering demonic powers.   While Arnold did not take it this far, it is possible that a Jewish mystic / exorcist came to faith in Jesus as savior, but failed to move away from his esoteric practices to deal with demon possession or other illness.  Like the Corinthians, some  individuals in the Corinthian church were continuing to believe and practice in ways which were not compatible with their new faith.  Instead if visits to the Temples, as in Corinth, these believers were clinging to their esoteric knowledge which they believed controlled demons and illness.  For Paul, this is an inadequate view since Jesus created these spiritual powers (Col 1:15-20) and has alread rendered them powerless.

Thinking of the Colossian heresy in these terms provides another level of application which may be overlooked.  For new believers in the non-western world, it is difficult to leave certain culturally accepted folk beliefs because they seem to “work.”  But there are ways in which believers in the west fail to “take every thought captive” to Jesus (2 Cor 10:5)

Bibliography:

J. D. G. Dunn, “The Colossian Philosophy:  A Confident Jewish Apologia,”  Biblica 76 (1995): 153-81.
Fred Francis, “Humility and Angel Worship in Col 2:18”, in Conflict at Colossae, 163-95.