Letters to Phil #6 — Philemon Fridays

Dear Phil,

So, you’d like to hear the various theories about what happened between you and Onesimus? All right. I’ll play along, but at some point, I hope you will tell me what really went on behind the letter we have.

The oldest and most traditional reading of what happened is the “fugitive slave scenario.”  In this reading you own Onesimus as an enslaved person.  Onesimus escapes and takes refuge with Paul. There is some debate about whether Paul is imprisoned in Ephesus or in Rome when he writes to you (I lean toward Ephesus, but I’m in the minority in that regard). Then Paul sends back or allows Onesimus to return to your house, letter in hand.

One variation of the “fugitive slave scenario” is the “intercession scenario.”  In this reading, Onesimus does not intend to escape from enslavement as such.  Instead, he has some difficulty with you, his master.  Onesimus flees to a friend of his master who can serve as a mediator and/or advocate in this situation. 

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We have a copy of a letter from Pliny the Younger to one Sabinianus. Pliny was roughly your contemporary and served as a mid-level imperial official in your part of the world. It’s entirely possible that you have heard of him or even had dealings with him. Frankly, I hope not, since he tended to torture first and ask questions later when it came to Christians.

Pliny wrote lots of letters, some to the Emperor and many others to supplicants of various stripes. A freedman whom Sabinianus had formerly enslaved and then released from enslavement had somehow run afoul of his former enslaver and current patron. The unnamed freedman fled to Pliny and asked him to beg Sabinianus for mercy and forgiveness on behalf of and for the sake of the freedman.

The comparisons and contrasts between this letter and the one Paul sent to you are noteworthy as we try to discern what is behind your letter. Pliny is clear that he writes on behalf of the freedman to express remorse and beg for reconciliation. We don’t get that in your letter. Pliny asks Sabinianus – who is likely beholden to Pliny in some way – to pardon the freedman and not to threaten him with punishment. There is no mention of any renewed or deepened relationship along the lines of Paul’s words to you.

So, Pliny’s letter is instructive more for its differences than it is for its similarities with your letter. It may be that Onesimus fled to Paul for protection, intercession, and advocacy. But Paul’s tone and request are quite different from what we find in Pliny’s letter. So, we surmise that the situation was different in significant ways. Perhaps you could enlighten us when you get the chance?

The “intercession scenario” is really only loosely based on the text of Pliny’s letter as we have it. This intercession scenario depends to a large degree on research into Roman law of the time.  The records of that law are theoretical and general and may be of limited value in understanding the actual legal administration of enslaved persons who have fled. 

So, contemporary scholars tend not to put much stock in this variation. That doesn’t mean it’s not accurate or interesting. It’s just that we don’t have much evidence of this practice from your time frame. Our examples don’t seem to convey the same dynamics that we find in Paul’s letter to you.

A second and relatively traditional reading is the “sent slave scenario.”  In this reading you own Onesimus as a slave.  You have sent Onesimus to Paul to comfort and serve him, and perhaps to bring him some money, during his imprisonment in Ephesus (or Rome). In this scenario, Onesimus acts as an extension of you rather than as an independent agent.

A scholar named J. B. Harrill notes that Onesimus may have been sent by the church to protect Paul from the uncertainties of his imprisonment.  This makes Onesimus less of an appendage and more of an agent. In this scenario Paul wishes to retain Onesimus as one of Paul’s co-workers in the Gospel.  This reading does not clarify whether Paul is asking you to free Onesimus from enslavement or merely to “lend” him to Paul. That’s a fairly large difference from our vantage point.

The advantages of this “sent slave” scenario are twofold. In his letter to you, Paul doesn’t condemn Onesimus’ actions, and that absence has to be explained. Nor does Paul offer any apology or remorse on behalf of Onesimus and in his defense. That absence must be explained as well. The sent slave scenario accounts for both of these absences. Since, in this scenario, Onesimus did not “escape” or abscond with your property, there’s nothing for which to apologize.

According to Harrill, Paul’s letter to you contains more similarities to Pliny’s letter and others like it than most scholars would concede. He points, however, to similarities to several pagan letters from a slaveholder’s friend to the slaveholder.  In the letters is often an apology for keeping the enslaved person too long.  Harrill notes some verbal similarities between Paul’s letter and some pagan letters of the time that account for keep another’s slave overlong. 

Harrill expands on this scenario by proposing the “apprenticed slave scenario.”  He notes the similarities between Paul’s letter to you and various ancient contracts to let out a slave as a “journeyman apprentice.”  Harrill argues ”that the letter asks you to let Onesimus be apprenticed to Paul for service in the Gospel…” 

He points to the “partner” and “coworker” language in the letter as evidence for this scenario.  He also notes “that the proposed apprenticeship will turn a ‘useless’ slave (one unskilled in any particular trade) into a ‘useful’ one, both to the master craftsman and to its original owner.”  In this scenario, Onesimus remains a slave—tasked now to Paul for a noble purpose, but still owned by another human being.

A recent, revisionist, reading proposed by Allen Dwight Callahan is the “a brother, not a slave” scenario.  In this reading, Onesimus is a literal brother to you and only metaphorically a slave.  Now, you may find this proposal insulting, if, in fact, you and Onesimus are not brothers “in the blood.” You know better than I that many enslaved people were the products of sex between enslaver and enslaved. That reality was a commonplace if the American slave system, and I can go into the details of that if you’re interested.

That being said, this reading holds that there is some sort of estrangement between the brothers, and Paul is seeking to act as a reconciling mediator between them. I apologize if this makes you uncomfortable for any reason (unless it should make you uncomfortable, and then you won’t be expecting an apology). As they say in my time, I don’t write it — I just report it.

A further development of the revisionist reading is the “both a brother and a slave” scenario.  Again, I repeat my apologies if this is not the case. In this reading, Onesimus may have been sold into enslavement to satisfy a personal or a family debt.  Or Onesimus may be a half-brother to you through an enslaved mother.

Each of these positions has things to commend it. I suspect that elements of each of these proposals have some truth in them. As we read, study, and interpret your letter, we tend to keep all of these in mind. I rely mostly on the first traditional interpretation, in the absence of any other information (Hint, hint; nudge, nudge; wink, wink!).

Now, Phil, you are likely wondering why this all matters so much to us in our time. You may know of another set of letters from one of your contemporaries, Seneca. In his Moral Letters to Lucilius, he addresses enslavement in Letter 47. While he begins by identifying the enslaved as human beings just like the rest of us, he ends up softening the horrors of enslavement and romanticizing the relationships between the slaveholder and the enslaved.

You see, Phil, Paul’s letter to you has often been used to accomplish the same propagandistic purpose. Following our own Civil War, an ideology and theology arose which came to be called the “Lost Cause.” One of the many elements of that mythology was that the relationship between the enslaved and slaveholders was relatively benign and that the formerly enslaved were actually better off in their former condition than as freed persons.

Scenarios based on the notion that Onesimus remained enslaved after you received the letter have been used to support this mythology. Scenarios that depend on a relatively cordial relationship between you and Onesimus prior to your conversions further support this mythology. Scenarios that suggest enslavement was and is compatible with Christian discipleship and community underwrite this mythology. So, you can see that discerning what actually happened makes a great deal of difference in our time and space.

One of our scholars, Stephanie McCarter, has written on this topic, and you might find her comments illuminating.* “What starts in Seneca’s Letter 47 as a recognition of the humanity of slaves quickly gives way to a similarly romanticized view,” she writes, “as Seneca replaces what he considers to be slavery’s less savory aspects with a damaging fiction: that the institution can be redeemed, even turned into a force for good in the life of the enslaved, by the noble Stoic slave owner.”

I know this takes us back to my previous letter and your displeasure with being used as a prop for how good it was for the enslaved to be enslaved. But that sort of nonsense continues to come back in different disguises over and over again. The goal is always to whitewash the ugliness of the past and to sanctify the power dynamics of the present.

Such efforts have never worked – not for Seneca and not for his twenty-first century acolytes. “No matter how many knots Seneca or proponents of the Lost Cause tie themselves into to posit the idea of a noble master,” Stephanie McCarter writes, “neither the Southern gentleman nor the Stoic sage can ever redeem slavery.”

Thus, many of us hope that what really happened was something that moved Christians toward condemning enslavement rather than redeeming it. That information, however, remains with you, my friend. Looking forward to hearing from you soon.

Yours in Christ,