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. Be sure to scan through the comments below, John Byron has interacted with this post in the past. He recently published A Week in the Life of a Slave (IVP Academic, 2019). This short book uses a novel to present the life of a slave in first century Rome. It is in the same series as Gary Burge’s A Week in the Life of a Roman Centurion or James L. Papandrea, A Week in the Life of Rome.

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 also appear in Roman 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 Seinfeld 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. If a novel tried to accurately describe the life of a real slave, it would not be a very interesting novel at all! Novelists and satirists do not offer a sociological opinion of the status of the slave in the first century, therefore it would be dangerous to rely too heavily on this literature in research on first century slaves.

There is much to be learned from the sociological approaches to slavery as 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.

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.

Philemon BibleOne 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.

Top Five Philemon Commentaries

I included a few Philemon commentaries with my Colossians post a few weeks ago, but I thought it would be interesting to find commentaries on just Philemon. This is a bit of a challenge, since there are very few commentaries written on just this letter.  I only have two additional “Philemon only” commentaries which I will include in this post.  Yes, I know the title says five…

Markus Barth and Helmut Blanke, The Letter to Philemon (ECC; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2000). This commentary likely holds the record for the largest commentary on the smallest book in the modern era. Barth and Blanke wrote the Anchor Bible commentary on Colossians and Markus Barth is responsible for the idiosyncratic two-volume Anchor commentary on Ephesians. Philemon has 330 words, this commentary has just under 500 pages, or about a page and a half for every word in the letter.

Actually, the commentary has 242 pages of introduction. Barth and Blanke begin with about 100 pages on slavery in the first century. This is practically a book in and of itself, but understanding this material is essential for properly understanding the letter, and more importantly, understanding why Paul does not request that Philemon give Onesimus his freedom. I have commented several times that one of the problems understanding slavery is that most people in the Western world have American slave trade in mind, but that is not at all what Roman slavery was like.

The second half of the introduction treats the more typical topics one expects to find in a commentary. A major concern in the type of letter and the rhetoric Paul uses to achieve his goal. In fact, Paul’s goal in the letter is not obvious unless we read the letter as an example of a Greco-Roman letter. Barth and Blanke provide a number of parallel letters from the Greco-Roman world which help illuminate Philemon. The main concern of the introduction is the situation behind the letter to Philemon. Much is assumed about Onesimus, his flight and theft, his conversion and the reasons for his return.

The actual commentary on Philemon proceeds phrase-by-phrase, treating the English text. All Greek appears in transliteration and all sources are cited in-text. This commentary is less interested in lexical issues, but that may be a result of the fairly straight-forward Greek found in the letter.  The commentary also includes twenty-two excursuses on a variety of topics from house churches to providence and free will. Most of these run only a few pages and can be skipped if desired. The excursus on brotherhood (p. 423-46) is the longest. Barth and Blanke survey the Old Testament background for this term and compare Paul’s use of brother language for fellow believers to other “brotherhoods” in the ancient and modern world.

Something I find strange with this commentary is that it does not have an introduction or forward. I was interested to know how Blanke completed the work of his teacher Barth (who died in 1994).

Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Letter to Philemon (AB; New York: Doubleday, 2000). Unlike Barth and Blanke, Fitzmyer’s commentary on Philemon is more or less the length that one would expect. At only 138 pages (78 of which are introduction), the commentary is tiny in comparison to Barth and Blanke’s girth. Fitzmyer was chosen to replace Barth who died before completing the commentary on Philemon. Fitzmyer had written the article on Philemon for both the Jerome Bible Commentary in 1968 and the revised New Jerome Bible Commentary in 1990, so he was prepared to expand his work for the Anchor volume.

His introduction has a mere 8 pages on slavery, but it is enough to set the context of the letter. More important is Fitzmyer’s survey of the occasion and purpose of the letter. Fitzmyer argues that Paul is serving as a friendly intermediary (amicus domini), attempting to exert some influence over Philemon and reconciling him with Onesimus. As evidence, he includes several letters from Pliny which serve a similar purpose. This explanation of the letter has been widely accepted.

The body of the commentary begins with a fresh translation, followed by comments and notes. He treats the Greek through transliteration, commenting on lexical and syntactical matters, as well as text-critical issues. As with Fiztmyer’s other commentaries for the Anchor series, he concludes each section with a bibliography which includes English and international scholars.

Conclusion. Are there any other “solo” Philemon Commentaries?  Perhaps there is a brief tract which has been helpful in your studies – let me know what you have found useful for reading Philemon!

 

Index for the Top Five Commentary Series

 

Introduction to Series on Commentaries

On Using Commentaries 

Matthew        Mark        Luke        John        Acts
Romans        1 Corinthians         2 Corinthians
Galatians         Ephesians        Philippians        Colossians
1-2 Thessalonians        Pastoral Epistles         Philemon
Hebrews        James         1 Peter         2 Peter & Jude 
Letters of John         Revelation

Conclusion:  Last Thoughts on New Testament Commentaries

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?

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