Letter Fourteen — Philemon Fridays

Dear Phil,

I don’t know why this didn’t dawn on me until now, but clearly, I’m not (as we say in our time) always the sharpest tool in the shed. You noted in passing that Tychicus read Paul’s letter to you and the Colossian assembly the first time you all heard it. I had assumed that perhaps you, as the “president” of the assembly would have read such important correspondence the first time. I also wondered if Paul took the risk of having Onesimus himself read the letter aloud to you, uncertain as he might have been of your response.

Of course, the normal method in the Pauline assemblies was to have an appointed, trained, and gifted reader perform the task for the assembly. That has been made clear to me through the work of a number of our contemporary scholars. Your mention of Tychicus confirms for me what these scholars have proposed over the last decade or so.

This makes perfect sense in a number of ways, I now see. The letter was addressed primarily (although not exclusively) to you, and it certainly would have been painfully awkward, I imagine, for you to have to read that letter for the most part to yourself. It was intended to advocate for and defend Onesimus. It would be nearly as awkward for him to plead his own case in the words of the letter – some of which might have provoked an aggressive response from you. In hindsight, the use of a lector was the only reasonable approach.

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Having Tychicus read the letter, I’m sure, provided Paul with the opportunity to coach Tychicus on the finer points of inflection, gesture, emphasis, and pauses in the reading. “If the contents of the letter were to bring about reconciliation,” Adam White notes in a recent article, “then the letter would need to persuade Philemon not only in its content, but also in its performance.”[i]

The thing is, Phil, our weekly Sunday morning worship services are probably pretty tame affairs when compared with the drama of your house church assemblies. I can imagine your household and other Jesus followers gathered in the dining area of your home on a Sunday evening. The scene was lit by torches and a hearth. A meal was set for all. There must have been an air of expectation that night – a letter from Paul, imprisoned in Ephesus (or was it Rome?), and the return of the escapee, Onesimus.

Phil, did you know the contents of the letter before it was read aloud in front of the whole assembly? Had you seen or talked with Onesimus before that worship service in your house? What kinds of diplomatic maneuvers did Tychicus execute in order to keep you from executing Onesimus on sight? If we had drama like that in our services, we probably wouldn’t have to beg people to attend regularly.

So, you sat at the head of the table and the room, in the place of honor. Were you flanked by Lady Apphia and Master Archippus, also addressed in the salutation of the letter? I imagine so. Tychicus probably stood facing you as he read. I wonder if Onesimus stood behind him as the one on whose behalf the letter was presented. The rest of the assembly were seated or standing around the space in readiness for the letter and the meal. That circle of witnesses included, I imagine, those enslaved in your household and perhaps those enslaved persons from other households as well.

“The performance itself was an event that involved several people: the lector presenting the text and the audience listening; all these present in the room,” writes Adam White, “were collectively involved in generating the meaning of the text that had reached them.”[ii] The tension in the space must have been so thick you could cut it with a knife.

I imagine you welcomed the assembly, as you had several times before. Then I suspect you invited Tychicus to read. Nothing else was going to happen until that letter was out in the open. Tychicus stood up in the middle of the space, in the place representing Jesus, and likely in the very space that Paul had occupied if and when he had come to the assembly in your home to preach and teach. Tychicus was required to “imitate” Paul in a quite literal fashion.

Our scholars propose that this reading was not a flat recitation of words on scroll. That was not the practice of lectors in your time and culture, as far as we can tell. Tychicus needed to convey the same gestures, emotions, attitudes, and emphases that Paul would have presented if he himself were present. The letter was not read, it was performed. “The task of the lector was to represent the voice and persona of the author,” Adam White suggests, “he was expected to re-enact and bring to life the original performance of the text through appropriate facial expressions, gesticulations, and vocal inflections. It was his task,” White continues, “to read the letter in the way Paul wanted it to be read.”[iii]

I imagine that this is what happened in your home that evening. Even though the letter was addressed to you, it was performed for the whole assembly. The responses, and perhaps the final decision, were not yours alone. I imagine, Phil, that all eyes were trained on you during the performance of the letter. And I also imagine that you felt a great deal of pressure from the assembly to render an appropriate judgment in the case.

For, it would seem, you were the “judge” in this situation. White uses that imagery to describe your position and role. I wonder if you find that to be an accurate description of how it was for you. White explores the conventions of rhetoric of the time for clues in this regard. It was up to the reader to persuade the judge toward a favorable decision.

The reader needed also to be sensitive to the emotions and responses of the assembly, since that was often a factor in the decision as well. “In other words,” White argues, “the content of the letter, as well as the performance of the lector need to pull all the stops. The letter needs to draw on all the rhetorical resources available and these need to be performed well to move Philemon,” he continues, “to the audacious decision of welcoming Onesimus back.”[iv]

White analyzes the letter to you as a performance piece with several intentional elements. First, Paul described your loving and generous character in the past. That already began to set you up for loving and generous actions in the future. Paul noted that he often remembered your love for all the saints and your faithfulness to the Lord Jesus. Paul praised your partnership in the gospel and then suggested that all these good characteristics would lead to a productive decision in the case at hand.

Paul lifted up your gifts for refreshing the hearts of the saints. Many in the assembly, perhaps, had benefitted from your gifts. Paul portrayed you as a brother, a partner, an honored giver of care, and one who lived out the love and compassion of Jesus. “Paul brings to the attention of those assembled in the room the very characteristics that he will shortly call on in dealing with the case,” White observes, “It would be impossible at this point for the audience to see Philemon in any other light,” he concludes, “moreover, the gathering would now be expecting him to act in a way that preserves this reputation.”[v]

When we read the letter in our own cultural setting (and in English), the letter sounds like a fawning attempt to butter you up with flattery and manipulate you into the behavior Paul wants from you. But that’s importing our cultural assumptions into a very different setting. Reminding you of your loving and honorable character was precisely the expected path that this letter should take. Paul was not, if I am correct, manipulating you. Paul was simply asking you to be who you truly are in Christ. I wonder if I have that right?

Paul was not at all above tugging at the heart strings of all the listeners. He described himself as an old man, suffering in prison, for the sake of the gospel. And he makes sure that everyone remembers who is speaking – “This is me, Paul!” Just when that emotional appeal was ringing through the room, the reader returned to and for the first time named Onesimus.

Perhaps Onesimus stepped out of the shadows at this point in order to emphasize what was happening in the letter. I wonder if that was part of the performance, a set piece not written down on the scroll. I could go on for a while regarding Paul’s description of Onesimus. Suffice it to say that Onesimus was presented as a brother in Christ, a humble member of the body seeking reconciliation, and a necessary part of the ministry of Paul in prison.

Then comes the “ask.” By the end of the letter, it would seem that you were left with no alternative but to receive Onesimus as a beloved brother in Christ and “even more than a brother.” Did you do so joyfully, tearfully, with the Eucharist waiting in the background? I wonder. I’d be interested in your recollections of the night.

Phil, thanks as always for taking the time to instruct me and to correct my foolish assumptions. I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Yours in Christ,


[i] https://journals.co.za/doi/abs/10.25159/2309-5792/3260.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid., p. 6.

[v] Ibid., p. 7

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