Philemon Fridays — An Introduction

I’m going to dedicate my Friday posts for the next few months to Paul’s Letter to Philemon. I want to introduce that project in this post.

Why study Paul’s Letter to Philemon? My initial reasons were purely practical. I have served over the last ten years as an interim pastor in a variety of settings in eastern Nebraska and Western Iowa. Interim ministry is intended to be quite limited in time. In order to lead congregational bible studies that stood a chance of getting finished, I decided to focus on “little books.” The Letter to Philemon is one of the littlest of the little books in the Christian canon.

What I discovered in this letter is a trove of technical and interpretive challenges as well as a load of social and political dynamite. I was hooked after the first time through. The study of this letter became a standard part of my interim ministry tool kit for reasons that will become clearer as we study together. As my dad often said, it’s better to be lucky than good!

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I am not a professional scholar of the Bible. I have no delusions that I am producing a commentary on the text. That is not to say there is no scholarship or study behind this work. I am blessed with a certain facility in languages. I have maintained and improved my skills in New Testament Greek over the years. While I am no Greek scholar, I have some passable translation abilities. I have translated the text of Philemon a half dozen times, and I keep trying. I hope my translation is helpful while not veering too far into paraphrase or inaccuracy.

Scholars are fairly certain this is an authentic letter from the Apostle Paul to a man named Philemon. Paul is responsible for between one-quarter and one-half of the New Testament as we Protestants have it. Paul started, supported, and encouraged numerous congregations across the eastern Mediterranean, mostly in what we could call modern-day Turkey and Greece.

Philemon was a householder and slaveholder in the city of Colossae, in the Lycus River valley. He was, in Roman terms, the paterfamilias, the official and actual head of a household. Apphia and Archippus were members of that household, although Paul doesn’t specify their relationships. After all, they knew who they were and how they were related. It’s fair to assume that they might have been wife and son to Philemon, but we can’t be certain of that.

Other believers gathered in Philemon’s house for community events, worship, study, and fellowship. We don’t know the makeup of that group, but we know that Philemon was at least the host and was probably the leader of that little faith community. We can’t know the size of the group, but we can speculate that it was made up of a mixture of men and women, free persons, freed persons and slaves, adults and children, and people of a variety of social and economic situations. Perhaps the group had as many as two dozen members, depending on the size of Philemon’s house.

Onesimus was an enslaved person in Philemon’s household (we think). It may be that Onesimus is the first to read the letter aloud to the community assembled in the house of Philemon. We think this was Paul’s typical procedure. He sent the letter in the hands of a personal assistant. That person would not only read the letter but could also interpret what Paul wrote, answer questions and even expand on the teaching if necessary. We think that Phoebe performed such a role, for example, in delivering Paul’s letter to the Romans.

Onesimus may have that role here and therefore would have had a significant voice even if it were an “offstage” presence in the letter. It’s worth imagining that reading scenario as one of the possibilities for the letter. That may have been a step too far in this highly charged situation. It may be that Philemon is the one who first reads the letter aloud to the gathered community. That scenario has its own explosive potential, as I hope you will experience in the following Philemon Friday posts.

Paul probably wrote this letter while he was under arrest in Ephesus. Ephesus was the major political, economic, and religious center in the region. It was sometimes referred to as the third city of the Empire, after Rome and Alexandria. It is likely that Paul was imprisoned at Ephesus at time he wrote to Philemon.  This makes the travel time and distance manageable for all.  This is particularly the case since Paul describes in verse twenty-two his hopes for traveling to see Philemon in the near future.  We’ll learn more about Paul’s imprisonment later.

Dating any of Paul’s letters is always tricky business, and the Letter to Philemon is no exception. I connect this little letter to Paul’s Letter to the Philippians in content and theme. There’s lots of debate about the date of Philippians, but I think it’s fairly late in Paul’s ministry—just before he wrote his Letter to the Romans. Many scholars would put the writing of Philippians some time between 59 and 61 CE. I believe Paul wrote to Philemon at about the same time.

The letter raises more questions than it answers. What does Paul want from Philemon? What did Onesimus do? Was there any deeper connection between Onesimus and Philemon? Why does Onesimus return “home” at the risk of his own life? Does Philemon free Onesimus from enslavement? If so, what happens to Onesimus, Philemon, and the rest of the household after the fact? How do these people continue to have relationships, if they do, after the dust settles? Why does the Church seem to support the institution of enslavement even after this letter becomes part of the Christian canon? What does it have to say to us now — if anything at all?

Thus, the Letter to Philemon is a gift from Paul that keeps on giving—to the energetic reader and to the Church as a whole. I will speculate on responses to some of those questions as we go along. But they are just that—speculations.

Scripture functions in several ways for us Christians. It is a door to life with God through the cross and resurrection of Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit. God’s Word in Scripture changes hearts and minds and brings us into the new life beginning here and now. Scripture is also a window into the lives and faith of first century Christians. We can look through the frame of that window and see some things about our ancestors in the faith.

Christian Scripture is also, and most important, a mirror. If we are willing to look, we will see ourselves. When that happens, we can repent of that brokenness we view and rejoice in the grace we experience. I hope we can allow Scripture to function in all of these ways for us in this study.

Part of the mirror we call the Letter to Philemon will reveal to us our own racism and white supremacy. Most of us who will be part of this conversation are a lot more like Philemon than we are like Onesimus. As we’ll see later, the Roman Imperial slave system and the modern Transatlantic slave system have a number of similarities and differences.

It’s instructive to read these systems alongside one another and to use them as tools for understanding both systems. But we can’t just map the modern Euro-American system on to the Roman system, and we won’t try to do that. Nonetheless, we can learn more about enslavement then and now than most white people have learned in their traditional history classes.

We’ll also see that the Roman system is not racialized in the way the Transatlantic system is. We’ll see that Roman imperial society is not racialized the way American society is. That being said, we can once again see some similarities in the systems that will help us to become better acquainted with our own racism and what it can mean to be allies in the anti-racist cause in our own time and place.

I have found the study of this letter to force me to think about the Transatlantic slave trade, about racism and anti-racism, about white privilege and supremacy, and about the Christian church’s role in each and all of these issues. The study of this letter has led me to read a number of historians, theologians, scholars and novelists—mostly black but not exclusively so—who describe the deep complicity of white Christianity in the system of white domination that is so deeply rooted in our American history and culture. I hope I can share some of those perspectives with you during the course of our conversation.

I don’t know anything really. I’ve read a fair bit. But I’m no expert in any of this—just a student trying to figure some things out. So, I will get any number of things wrong in this conversation. If we are to be allies in the anti-racist cause, we white-privileged folks are sure to get it wrong in many ways.

I hate to get it wrong, whatever the “it” may be. Nonetheless, taking the risk is a first, small step in solidarity with those who are told all the time, not that they get it wrong but rather that they are the definition of wrong. It’s not asking much of me to be vulnerable to a little criticism in order to move our conversation forward.

If you want to play along on this track, I encourage you to read Paul’s Letter to Philemon several times in the next week. It won’t take long, and you won’t need to hurry. Next week, we’ll dive deeper into the text.