Letters to Philemon, #1 — Philemon Fridays

To: Philemon of Colossae

From: Lowell Hennigs of Omaha

Dear Phil,

I hope it’s all right that I call you “Phil.” We twenty-first century Americans are insistently informal on the surface of things. I think it’s one of the ways we try to convince ourselves that we really believe in equality for all people. We don’t really, but that’s something I’m sure we can discuss later.

Your name seems to me to be related to “philema.” If I have this right, that’s the Greek word for the kiss of peace that some of us Christians have shared with one another historically. I hope you’ll correct me if I’m wrong. It makes me wonder if Paul was calling you by the name your parents gave you. Or did he come up with a nickname when you became a Jesus-follower?

The name seems a bit too convenient for my taste. It seems like quite a coincidence that your name has the sense of “peaceful friend” and Onesimus’ name has the sense of “useful” or “handy.” If Philemon really is the name your parents gave you, then I immediately and profusely apologize for my presumption! It’s a quite fine name. I just want to be sure I’m getting this right.

Photo by Anete Lusina on Pexels.com

Phil (still assuming I can call you that), you know better than I that the earliest Christian documents are dotted with such nicknames. Our Lord set the pattern when he started calling Simon “Peter.” In our vernacular, it would be “Rocky,” since “Peter” has become a common and even somewhat formal first name.

We also have the “Sons of Thunder” for James and John, and “The Twin” for Thomas. Paul himself, as you know so well, was renamed from the Hebrew “Saul” after his vocation on the road to Damascus. I wonder how many other nicknames are hiding in plain sight in our early Christian literature. I’m sure they are obvious to you as a native speaker, but we English-speaking folks have to work at it.

It doesn’t take too much study to notice that Paul loved a good theological pun as well. Did you ever notice that (stupid question, I know, but I have to ask)? For example, when Paul wrote to you about Onesimus, he said that Onesimus “used to be useless to you, but now is useful to you and to me.”

Translation is easy if one pays no attention to things like word-plays. But capturing those nuances is one of the real tasks of the translation art. Perhaps we can get into the details of Paul’s statement here later. But he is certainly sly in his vocabulary in that line.

Paul’s clever play on words escapes us in our English translations. But I’m curious if you heard the play on “euchreston” for “useful” and our Lord’s title as Messiah, that is, “christos”. It jumped out at me one day in my study of the letter, but I want to check if I’m just making something up that wasn’t there in the beginning.

Some people in my time who study Paul’s letter to you think that Paul is making a play on Onesimus’ name. There is certainly a connection in the meaning of his name –“useful” or “handy.” Paul was thinking about how useful or beneficial Onesimus had now become (at least to him) and how useless he was to you as one who had escaped from captivity.

But the actual word-play seems to me to be with “Christ.” Is that how you experienced it? That makes the most sense to me. I’d be glad to hear your thoughts on this matter.

I apologize if I use terminology that offends you in these letters. I have some idea what it’s like to be responsible for things earlier in life which I regret (and even am ashamed of) now later in life. I hope that you will take my questions, terminology, assumptions, and descriptions in the spirit in which I offer them. I want to know you and your experience as a fellow Jesus-follower, so I can make progress in my own journey of faithfulness. I’m grateful for your patience.

To get back to the puns on “Christ.” In some parts of the English-speaking Church, for example, baptism is referred to as “Christening.” The literal meaning of that word has faded with time and habit. But it really means “Christ-ening.” It means being endowed with Christ.

I always think of Paul’s words in his letter to the Galatian Christians: “it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me…” Do you know that letter? I can’t help but think that Paul is offering a pointed pun on Onesimus’ baptism into Christ – that he was “without Christ” (“a-Christos”) formerly, but now he is benefitting from Christ (“eu-Christos”). Do you think I’m on track here, or not?

I have so many questions, and I’m grateful that you’ve agreed to be patient with my ignorance and my curiosity. What about Onesimus and his name? Maybe in another letter we can talk about his birth and growing up. But my question for now is simple. Was “Onesimus” his “real” name?

I know that in theory enslaved people didn’t have legal or “real” parents. But did someone give Onesimus that name when he was born? Or was it attached to him at some later time? Was he named as an individual person, or was this just a label for “generic enslaved person”?

I know that “useful” was the description that slaveholders attached to enslaved people generally. And “useless” was the description most often attached to enslaved people in literary accounts of the time. It might surprise you to know that people in my time make whole academic careers out of comparing enslavement in your time and mine. When Onesimus was talking with other enslaved people in the household, did they use a different name for him?

I know I should ask him, but I’m curious about your recollections and reflections on this matter.

Enslaved people in the United States and the Caribbean were routinely deprived of their family names and birth names. Some kept their African names, but generally those names didn’t transfer to the next generation. Enslaved people didn’t have surnames, except for the surnames of their slaveholders.

In fact, that’s often how people have discover the white parentage of “mixed race” children in old records. When those children have the master’s surname as their legal name, the situation becomes obvious. This produces the reality that some people of African descent have English or Irish or German or Spanish surnames, even though most of their ancestors were born in Africa. Did you have something similar in your time?

So, along with their freedom, enslaved Africans suffered the white theft of their names, their heritage, their identities, and their personhood. One of our scholars on enslavement calls this “natal alienation.” He says that this is a characteristic of real slave systems – both yours and mine.

So, that’s why I’m wondering about Onesimus’ name. It appears to me that he keeps the name throughout his life – although maybe you can tell me if the Onesimus in Paul’s letter to the church as Colossae is also “our” Onesimus. But did Onesimus come with that name, or was it applied to him like a brand or tattoo?

I apologize for that last comment. It may be gratuitous, and I don’t mean it as an insult. But I’m wondering if it describes reality accurately.

Enough of my questions for now. We agreed in this exchange of letters to answer one another’s questions. I will stick to that bargain. You asked me why I’m interested in a little letter more than two thousand years old and from half a world away. I’ve asked myself that question a dozen times. I still don’t have it all worked out. But I’ll give it a try.

At first, my reasons were purely practical. Because this is a letter from the blessed Paul, it made it into the collection of documents we now call the New Testament. I know you find it amusing and confusing that we study your letter as scripture. But we do, and I think the “why” of that may get clearer in our future correspondence.

In any event, I settled on the letter addressed to you because I had limited time to study it with a group of people. Your letter is short. Not a noble or intellectually impressive reason, but there you have it.

Quickly, I learned the story behind the letter. I realized that I needed to understand enslavement in your time and mine if I had any chance of understanding the letter. The more I studied, the deeper I was pulled in. That is certainly the case in my desire to understand your culture and your faith experience.

More than that, I was forced to learn much more about enslavement, oppression, racism, history, and my own culture as an enslaver and beneficiary of enslavement. What started out as a simple way to do some Bible study has become an emotional and intellectual and political project for a lifetime. As we write, I imagine I’ll share a fair bit of that project with you.

And I have to wonder if you found yourself in a similar kind of lifetime project once this letter was unfurled in your community. But, that’s a topic for another letter.

Greetings to Apphia, Aristarchus, Onesimus, and all the saints in your household. I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Yours in Christ,


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