Byron, John. A Week in the Life of a Slave. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2019. 160 pp. Pb; $16. Link to IVP Academic
John Byron is professor of New Testament at Ashland Theological Seminary in Ashland, Ohio and is well-known for his publications on slavery in the Roman world. His Slavery Metaphors in Early Judaism and Pauline Christianity: A Traditio-historical and Exegetical Examination (WUNT/2 162; Tubingen: Mohr-Seibeck, 2003) is a major contribution to the study of slavery in the New Testament and his article “The Epistle to Philemon: Paul’s Strategy for Forging the Ties of Kinship” in Jesus and Paul: Global Perspectives in Honor of James D. G. Dunn for his 70th Birthday (London: T&T Clark, 2009) laid the foundation for this academic novel. As with the other contributions in the Week in the Life series from IVP Academic, Byron is a world-class scholar who knows his material every well as he spins an engaging tale.
Byron focuses this book on one particular slave, Onesimus, the escaped slave in the background of Paul’s letter to Philemon. In order to make the plot line work, Byron suggests Paul was imprisoned in Ephesus when he wrote Philemon rather than Rome. His guards at his prison are Christians and they facilitate Paul’s continued ministry while under arrest and also arrange for the escaped slave Onesimus to meet with Paul in his prison cell several times. Since the series books are supposed to place in one week, Paul must be in prison some place close enough to Colossae for Onesimus to escape, travel to Paul and then return to his master within one week. This would simply be impossible if Paul was in prison in Rome.
In addition to illustrating some aspects of the life of a slave in the Roman world, Byron also suggests how stories about Jesus may have passed between various local churches. He imagines how congregations in Ephesus, Laodicea, and Colossae worshiped together and how the owner of the home hosting a gathering may have had some influence on how the church functioned. Example, in the novel one church permitted slaves to worship alongside free people, but another church did not. This is an excellent illustration of how the Pauline view of equality within the body of Christ had a real-world impact on people. At one point the slave Onesimus is amazed that a master and his slave worship equally and that some masters treat their slaves with respect during the church service.
As with the other contributions to the series, Byron supplements the novel with many sidebars explaining some aspect of slavery in the Roman world. For example, Byron includes information on sexuality and marriage among slaves, how an individual might become a slave, the exposure of infants, slave names, the practice of manumission, etc. Given Byron’s academic interests, he includes almost two pages on slave metaphors in the New Testament. He has a page on the use of slavery or freedom in the New Testament and a two-page note on letters of mediation in antiquity, including the famous letter from Pliny as background for the letter Paul sent to Philemon mediating the situation between Onesimus and his master.
I will not give away the plot (as if you haven’t read the book of Philemon before), but I do have one concern about this book. Because it focuses on a suggested plot line in the background of Philemon, there are many things about slavery that are not covered in this book. I was expecting a week in the life of a generic Roman slave rather than the story of Onesimus and Philemon. I interacted with John Byron on slavery in the Roman world in this post, and was hoping the book would be more along those lines. Because the book of Philemon is so brief, it generates more than its fair share of fictional narrative and we may not need yet another novel about Philemon.
Nevertheless, A Week in the Life of a Slave is a very good introduction to slavery in the Roman world. Byron told an entertaining story, which illustrates how the early church may have function in the city of Ephesus, Laodicea, and Colossae. Most readers will be both entertained and educated in this short book.
For reviews of other volumes in this series, see my reviews of James L. Papandrea, A Week in the Life of Rome and Gary M. Burge, A Week in the Life of a Roman Centurion. Although not part of this series, see Ben Witherington, Priscilla: The Life of an Early Christian and Paula Gooder, Phoebe.
NB: Thanks to IVP Academic for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.
2 thoughts on “Book Review: John Byron, A Week in the Life of a Slave”
This does sound like an interesting book as to what Onesimus’ life could have been like, even though it sounds more like fiction. It would be quite engaging to hear of Onesimus falling out with Philemon, as well as witnessing him coming to Christ from the help of Paul. I am rather curious as to what kind of falling out that had been as well as to knowing where Paul was? Nevertheless is an interesting letter Paul wrote to Philemon as he is a partner in his ministry with using his house for meetings for believers (Long, p150). It is also quite clever of Onesimus to flee to Rome as it is filled with all kinds of people, making it easy to blend in (Long, p150).
In the end I like how Paul seeks to impress Philemon at the beginning and at end of his letter where he subtly says that we are all baptized by one Spirit: forming one body, whether it is Jew or Gentile, slave or free, we are one body made of many parts (1 Corinthians 12:13-14) (Longenecker, p 216). All of it to provide Onesimus useful to Philemon’s eyes as to keep him since he escaped in the first place.