Update: readers will want to read the comments as well. There have been some very helpful insights/challenges posted there. S. Scott Bartchy’s article “Slaves and Slavery in the Roman World” in the recently published The World of the New Testament: Cultural, Social, and Historical Contexts addresses the legality of Onesimus’ flight to Paul from Philemon. He writes:
Not infrequently, knowledgeable slaves left their owner’s control temporarily to hide from an angry owner and wait for tempers to cool, perhaps hoping to find an advocate to intervene on the slave’s behalf. Others took off to visit their mothers (Dig. 188.8.131.52-5).* According to Proculus, the foremost Roman jurist of the first century, such a slave emphatically did not become a fugitivus (Dig. 184.108.40.206).* In light of this legal option, the fact that Philemon’s slave Onesimus did not take off for parts unknown but rather fled to Paul in prison strongly suggests that it is incorrect to regard Onesimus as a runaway slave (see Byron, Paul and Slavery, 116-37).* 
Elsewhere in this chapter he notes that whether or not a slave attempted to flee their master had much to do with how much they knew about the outside world. Sometimes if they thought they could escape to freedom they would do so, but this wasn’t always the best option. Slaves had very hard lives, but they were not the lowest social class: “impoverished free persons” were the lowest social class. Technically, a slave could do quite well being given “highly responsible and sensitive positions, such as managers of large farms, of households, of business enterprises and workshops, as well as physicians, accountants, personal secretaries, tutors, sea captains, and even municipal officials.”  Some slaves owned their own slaves (a sort of slave hierarchy) and they could accumulate a person fund. Often people sold themselves into slavery as a means of survival. In other words, better to live a slave than starve to death as an impoverished free person. 
When we read Paul’s letter to Philemon we may not find a Paul who is wildly supportive of slavery. In fact, his language suggests that he hoped that Philemon would consider his relationship to Onesimus to be more than that of slave-master. What we do find is Paul functioning in an acceptable social role as an advocate. Onesimus is not a fugitive because he fled to Paul. He did the proper thing. If Onesimus would have fled to escape he may have been treated far, far worse if caught and who is to say whether he could have survived if he had not been caught. Remember, slaves had it bad, but the “economy” functioned in such a way that slavery was the better option at times (Batchy notes that unlike the situation in the southern United States there was no “free north” to which a slave could flee). Paul himself was not a political or socially powerful man. He likely didn’t have the means to do much for Philemon, but because Philemon had come to embrace Paul’s Gospel this did give Paul a particular relational standing that allowed his to be Onesimus’ advocate. What we find in Paul’s epistle is Paul functioning in that role, doing what he can to soften Philemon’s heart, even nudging him to reconsider the nature of his relationship to Onesimus.
* Dig. = Digesta (Digests), and anonymous ancient work. Byron = John Byron, Recent Research on Paul and Slavery (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2008).
 p. 172
 p. 173
While I appreciate that this entry tries to bring out some relevant historical context for understanding the Epistle to Philemon, it (as best I can tell from this blog post about it) unfortunately reproduces some very unhelpful apologetic that is common among New Testament scholars about slavery in the ancient Mediterranean. It has become pretty standard for NT scholars to talk about how, ‘though Greco-Roman slavery was bad, it wasn’t really that bad…some slaves could do quite well economically…Greco-Roman slavery just wasn’t like that truly evil slavery of the American South,’ etc.
This is selective use and interpretation of ancient evidence and comparisons. Different iterations of Greco-Roman slavery were just as morally repugnant as everything that comes to mind when most readers of this blog hear the word ‘slavery,’ even if some slaves could advance economically, etc. The various scholars, often NT scholars, who emphasize the lesser severity of Greco-Roman slavery are, beyond apologetically refracting the ancient evidence, reproducing the ideologies of certain ancient literate elites who likewise minimized the bodily and physically treacherous, dangerous, brutal, and insecure aspects of ancient slavery.
For example, since most authors of ancient extant sources considered it virtuous for a male higher up on the social hierarchy to sexually penetrate those lower on the social hierarchy (and certainly those who were property!), they do not tend to draw attention to masters’ ubiquitous raping of their slaves in ways that emphasize the violent, immoral, traumatic, and degrading aspects of this that likely were more apparent from the point of view of ancient slaves (granted, a few authors do in limited ways…but not so much to subvert these violent patriarchal ideologies and social conditions, but usually to mock their rivals). For scholars to privilege such kinds of sources in their analysis of ancient slavery would be like a modern researcher of sexual abuse and exploitation of women reproducing the claims of a pimp of young women who would likely talk about how he’s really a paternal figure who takes care of his girls, protects them, and even helps some of them advance in life with economic and social opportunities they would never have had without him, etc. You get the idea.
Rather than continue to expound on this at length about various aspects of ancient slavery, I suggest readers look at books like Jennifer Glancy’s, Slavery in Early Christianity (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2006).
Also, for a helpful balancing perspective on Philemon, see, for example, Joseph Marchal’s recent article, “The Usefulness of an Onesimus: The Sexual Use of Slaves and Paul’s Letter to Philemon,” JBL 130 (2011): 749-70.
FWIW, the author of the article I quoted doesn’t deny any of the points you are making. They are discussed as well. Neither would I say he paints a rosy picture of slavery, but he does try to present the “big picture” if you will, which includes some of the points I’ve relayed here. I shared what I thoughts what I thought might be relevant to understanding the complexities of Paul’s role as a mediator between Onesimus and Philemon, which no doubt may not fit the situation (since all we have is the letter and not much else). Thank you for sharing your concerns and resource recommendations.
Also, I tried (key word) to be clear that slaves had it bad. I said that very thing, emphasizing that the only ones who may have had it worse were those who could barely survive, which is why some chose to sell themselves as slaves. If this post conveyed the idea that slavery was a jolly option then I apologize. That was hardly the intent of it.
Thanks for posting this quote from Bartchy. While I appreciate that Dr. Bartchy blazed a new trail in slavery studies for NT scholars in teh 1970s, I am a bit perplexed that he seems to be promoting some very outdated ideas. His suggestion that Onesimus was not a legal runaway is not a new one. It was first suggested by Peter Lampe in 1985 (in German) and then by Rapske in 1991 (NTS 37: 187-203). Bartchy then promoted this idea in his article on Philemon in the Anchor Bible Dictionary (1992). The problem with this hypothesis, however, is that Al Harrill demonstrated that legal texts cannot be used this way nor with such confidence (ZNW 90 : 135-38). Most of us who study slavery recognize that using the law is problematic on several levels.
I am also a bit mystified by Bartchy’s reference to my work. While I am grateful that he gives me credit, I am not sure for what. The quote, as you have presented it, seems to suggest that my chapter on Philemon supports this hypothesis. In reality, I do noting of the sort. What Bartchy has done is list the page numbers for my chapter on Philemon, but doesn’t indicate something specific that I said. Moreover, at the end of my book I have this to say about using legal texts, which undermines the notion of the whole hypothesis (see below). So I am a bit confused by what he is doing here.
One area which has been a particular stumbling block for NT scholarship is the problem of what sources should be used to inform our understanding of slavery and how we should use them. The most obvious resource would be Roman legal texts regulating slavery. But using these is problematic for three reasons.
First, the primary source for Roman law is the Digest of Justinian, which was not published until 533 C.E. The Digest is a compilation of legal excerpts from which all obsolete rulings had been excised and only those still relevant to 533 C.E. had been preserved. While some laws in the Digest undoubtedly go back to the first-century, many may also be missing. Though the relevance of the Digest for NT studies cannot be dismissed out of hand, it is not necessarily an accurate indicator of which laws were in vogue in the first-century. It is quite possible that there were other laws that did not survive and could shed light on NT texts. Thus, while a picture of the legal situation of early Imperial Rome is very good, it is also inherently incomplete.
Second, the use of legal texts to define the nature and practice of slavery is methodologically questionable. The danger is that it results in monolithic claims about Roman slavery. Legal texts were not necessarily positive indicators of social practice. As Harrill has cautioned, “legal codes, at best, provide only inexact knowledge about social practice and, at worst, can build a highly misleading model of slavery. Reading law codes as descriptive rather than prescriptive overlooks the course of juridical decisions in the practice of law.” Slavery laws were established in response to situations that required some type of legal control. Whether or not they actually mirror social practices and attitudes is debatable.
Third, it is difficult to determine the extent to which Roman laws were fully implemented in Rome’s provinces. Roman law applied only to Roman citizens while non-Romans typically retained their own local rules. Provincial governors applied Roman law as part of their official duties, but how effectively and thoroughly are questions difficult to decide. Governors were under no compulsion to hear particular cases, and their authority was probably felt more in cities than in rural areas, where local practices are likely to have predominated. This being the case, it would be difficult for us to determine, for instance, which, if any, Roman laws applied to the case of Onesimus and Philemon.
(Byron, Recent Research on Paul and slavery , 138-39).
Thank you for sharing these insights. Obviously, as both you and Stephen have made apparent, I’m not well-acquainted with recent studies on this subject. This article is new though, but the critique you have both provided has me loosing confidence in its claims, especially as regards later legal rulings. While I don’t have the book in front of me right now I do think he notes that it is hard to know whether or not these laws are applicable to certain situations or even of they were enforced. I’ll have to check when I get home, because I don’t want to have accidentally misrepresented his overarching argument.
As far as his citation of your work, I don’t know what to make of that. There was nothing present other than the citation, so I presumed he was citing you favorably.
Stephen, the example you provide of how a male higher up on the social hierarchy was ‘permitted’ to sexually penetrate those lower on the social hierarchy was a sexual ethic of Rome, not specific to slavery. So while it is an example of the immorality of Roman sexual ethics you can’t really apply that to Roman Slavery as counter evidence Roman slavery was somewhat more humane than American Southern Slavery. (Incidentally, there’s a good case to be made that this same sexual ethic was at work in unspoken rules of land-owning British Aristocrats until as recently as the 1700’s).
You’re successfully making the case that this particular sexual ethic was immortal, but that doesn’t prove that Roman slavery was no different than American slavery. That American slaves could not themselves own slaves, or be professionally successful is a difference – and there is value in pointing out that when we speak of Roman slavery we not see it through the same lens as American slavery.
The two are still very different contexts and pointing this out is not in fact an apologetic in defence of Roman slavery.
OK, I’m back home with the book in front of me and I don’t see anything that indicates that your book was citing for any other reason than to support the point he made in that paragraph.
As regards the legislation aimed to protect slaves he says this at the end of the chapter (pp. 175-176):
“There and other imperial protections of slaves influenced earlier historians to emphasize an increasing humanitarian concern for the enslaved. Yet, as more recent historians have stressed (see Finley, Ancient Slavery; Bradley, Slaves; Glancy, Slavery, the benevolent legislation that various emperor ordered had little effect on improving the daily life of slaves. All these measures serve to highlight the inhumane treatment of slaves that had been taken for granted prior to such imperial proclamations.”
The nine main points of differentiation from slavery in the Graeco-Roman world and slavery in the United States are as follows (pp. 172-175):
(1) Not based on skin color.
(2) Escaped slaves sometimes tried to make themselves “invisible,” but some slaves fled their masters for temporary periods of time while seeking an advocate (the section I quoted is found under this argument).
(3) Slaves and master shared the same basic worldview, i.e., cultural values, social codes, religious traditions.
(4) Slaves could own property and/or other slaves.
(5) Slaves could be educated and this was encouraged since it increased their value.
(6) Many slaves held positions of high responsibility, e.g., managers of large farms, business enterprises, workshops, physicians, accountants, tutors, sea captains, etc.
(7) “Although slave status was universally despised and slaves had no honor, slaves as a group were not at the bottom of the socioeconomic pyramid.” He says that “impoverished free persons, who had to seek work as day laborers with no guarantee, made up the lowest level.” Then he says some of them sold themselves into slavery because it could result in jobs, clothing, the paying of debt, etc (p. 173).
(8) Came from a variety of backgrounds; not conscious of being a “social class as such.”
(9) A large number of slaves “could anticipate being set free often by the age of thirty.”
That is the heart of the article for whoever is interested in Bartchy’s claims, some of which have been rebuffed by Stephen and John Byron above.
That’s a great summary. Thanks!
Thanks for your thoughts. Mind you, I never claimed that “Roman slavery was no different than American slavery.” I focused on that point since it came up in the Bartchy entry that Brian discussed, and because it features in common claims in NT scholarship about ancient slavery. It’s unclear to me that they have to be “no different” for one to be incredibly reprehensible like the other.
Also, how does the fact that a set of common sexual ideologies was not limited in general to slavery change the fact that such sexual ideologies and social structures in which associated behaviors operated characterized the varied landscape of Greco-Roman slavery? This is very much a facet of being a slave in that world, making such an existence physically/bodily degrading, traumatic, brutal, etc.
Why do people even want to argue that Greco-Roman slavery was “more humane” than slavery in the American South? Even if one could meaningfully quantify this (and I would challenge many of the common arguments; not, again, because I deny any differences, but because many of the arguments are simply wrongheaded), it is like saying that the Nazi genocide of Jews was more humane than the Hutu genocide of Tutsis, because the Nazis usually gassed the Jews whereas the Hutus hacked the Tutsis to pieces with machetes. What’s the point?
It is one thing to emphasize differences for historical contextualization purposes; it’s another to use arguments about differences to make these bizarre arguments about one brutalizing and dehumanizing variegated societal system being “more humane” than another…especially when this latter moral comparison seems to dominate the discussions of the issue.
Thanks for your interaction. I did not take your post as intending to say that ancient slavery was rosy and jolly. I was more responding to how the piece you discussed seemed to trade in some problematic claims and goals in discussing Greco-Roman slavery; was trying to offer some perspective.
It was helpful. I was worried that your comments regarding being “apologetic” were reflecting on the post. I wasn’t aiming to be apologetic, per se (though I do tend to want to give Paul the benefit of the doubt when possible).
I hope I didn’t come across as defensive. I just didn’t want to misrepresent the author or fail to present my own point with precision.
All of Roman society was brutalizing and dehumanizing – I don’t deny this incidentally. What brutalizing and dehumanizing behaviour we see in Roman slavery was a hallmark of the entire society.
That said, I’m not certain the argument betwixt Greco-Roman slavery and American slavery is about humanity (or even morality) but about context. Much of Greco-Roman society was both inhumane and immortal. I think all too many people have a sense of American slavery and simply assume Greco-Roman slavery was the same.
Nevertheless I don’t agree that a comparison to genocide is quite the same.
In the Greco-Roman context, for example, a gladiator was most certainly a slave and for the vast majority their existence was brutalizing and dehumanizing – yet these Greco-Roman slaves could not earn fame, they could also earn their freedom (through luck, skill, benevolence – whatever) even if many did not. No American slave had this option.
Relative to the surrounding society Roman Slavery was (likely) no better or worse. American slavery was absolutely worse than the surrounding society. A comparison between these two systems is a disservice to American slavery.
@Brian – You did not appear defensive. You did a great job and especially with the summary. That’s handy.
The book quote and your analysis both assume that Onesimus fled his hometown and I think that assumption is wrong.
Parallels between the letters of Colossians and Philemon have led most scholars to conclude that Philemon and Onesimus lived in Colossae. Most commentators have assumed that Onesismus was a runaway slave which is nowhere stated in the letter to Philemon.
Paul was writing from a prison which was probably in Rome or Ephesus. How Onesimus made it across 1,500 km of land and sea to arrive in Rome or even the shorter distance of 170 km to Ephesus needs to be explained.
My theory is that Onesimus originally left Colossae as a traveling companion of Epaphras to visit with Paul in prison. I base that on two standard interpretations that:
(1) Epaphras traveled from Colossae to visit Paul in prison and bring news about the Colossian Church, and
(2) Onesimus later accompanied Tychicus while traveling from Paul to Colossae with both the letters of Philemon and Colossians.
Most travel recorded in the NT books involved traveling companions. If Epaphras had a traveling companion from Colossae to visit Paul in prison, then it could have been Onesimus as supplied by his master Philemon. That would explain how Onesimus managed to meet with Paul in prison. When Paul later sent Tychius with a letter to the Colossians, it was also time to deal with the issue of returning Onesimus back to Philemon.
My travelling companion theory has these benefits over the fleeing slave theory:
+ It would avoid the difficulty of trying to explain how a fleeing slave made a trip to visit Paul in a prison far away from Colossae,
+ It would provide a simple explanation of how Onesimus met Paul in prison,
+ It shows that Philemon had a good relationship with Paul by helping through sending his slave Onesimus,
+ It enhances the character of Onesimus by showing he was not a fleeing his master,
+ It would mean that there was no problem concerning Onesimus returning to Colossae,
+ It would show that Philemon & Paul did not have a strained relationship over the return of Onesimus,
+ It gives a better focus to Paul’s appeal to Philemon to release Onesimus from slavery.
I’d be interested in your thoughts on this issue.
Wow, that’s a lot to process. I’d have to look over your points while re-reading the letter to see if they shed any light on it. Do you know of any literature that makes this argument in one place, like an article or chapter on it?
Brian and David,
The travelling companion theory was first put forward by John Knox and Sarah Winter in separate works. Neither hypothesis has gained much traction. Sorry I don’t have the bibliographic information in front of me, but I am sure its in the back of my Recent Research on Paul and Slavery.
Going to read Marchal’s article either tonight or tomorrow.
@John and David:
FWIW, I wouldn’t have thought of Onesimus as a traveling companion when reading the text. I know “at face value” may be a meaningless designation, but “at face value” Onesimus has always seemed to be a run away slave to me. I’m open to being persuaded though, I guess.
While Marchal’s article is helpful for describing the plight of the slave in his/her sexual exploitation I find his application to Paul to be quite the stretch. I get his point that the language might be interpreted as being the same as other writers in antiquity there are several problems in my view. First, I don’t know that the pun-like nature of sexual exploitation being used by other authors necessitates Paul’s using it the same way. There is nothing in this letter that leads me to think that Paul taking it to the furthest extreme. Second, it doesn’t jive with Paul elsewhere. That Paul “may” be using sibling, father language a certain way is possible, but it seems far more likely that he is using it as he uses it in his other letters: the family of Messiah. Marchal recognizes that point, but seems to hint that this may be one of those private correspondences that shows us the “other side” of Paul if you will. But how “private” a correspondence was it? Would it have been for Philemon’s eyes only? Obviously if Paul thought such a thing he was greatly mistaken since its been read for almost two millennia, but I’m not convinced that this is the best reconstruction of the setting for this letter. That brings me to my third concern: why didn’t anyone recognize this until now. Sure, I get it that modern scholarship can shed light on Paul’s letters, otherwise what’s the point of doing the hard work, but considering the sexual ethics of early Christianity why didn’t this seem to bother anyone? Why did it easily become part of the corpus of Paul’s letters? Did Paul’s contemporaries and near contemporaries overlook his pun, missing the joke, while one modern armed with some analogies from other writings—where the context is obviously about the sexual use of a slave—”hears” Paul correctly. I find that idea to be a bit incredible.
Brian and John:
There are two important things we don’t know from the Biblical text:
1. Where was the prison that Paul was writing from ?
2. How did Onesimus get to that prison ?
Interpreters have generally concluded that:
1. Paul was probably a prisoner in Rome.
2. Onesimus was a runaway slave who travelled from Colossae to Rome.
Here are some problems I see with with the theory that Onesimus was a runaway:
* It is NOT stated in the letter to Philemon.
* It was a LONG trip of 1,500 kilometers over land and sea from Colossae to Rome.
* Once he was in Rome, how did he come to visit Paul in prison ?
* Why would a runaway slave who was breaking Roman law, be spending time with a prisoner under Roman guard ?
Here is why I propose Onesimus went as a traveling companion with Epaphras:
* Epaphras traveled from Colossae to visit Paul in prison and bring news about the Colossian Church.
* Onesimus later accompanied Tychicus while traveling to Colossae with both the letters of Philemon and Colossians.
* It was common for travelers in the New Testament period to have traveling companions.
* Philemon could have sent Onesimus as a traveling companion with Epaphras for the long trip from Colossae to see Paul.
In your view of the epistle what do we make of vv.16-18 where Paul appears to be advocating for Onesimus’ status to be reconsidered (more than a slave, but a brother) and Paul’s concern that Onesimus may have “wronged’ Philemon? In the traditional view while there are other problems these vv. are explained easily as Onesimus being a run away who has cost his master time and resources. His return would result in punishment, unless Philemon’s heart is softened and he heeds Paul’s words. Thoughts?
I agree with your assessment of what we do and don’t know about the letter. I also agree that many think Paul was in Rome, but I am inclined to wonder if he was in Ephesus. Ephesus is only 120 miles from Colossae and much easier to access than Rome, as you note. But I can’t prove Ephesus anymore than someone else can prove Rome. Some will note that Acts never mentions an Ephesian imprisonment, to which I would note, Acts leaves much out from Paul’s life and is sometimes at variance with what Paul has to say. Acts only mentions one ship wreck, but Paul mentions three in 2 Cor 11:25, which seem to precede the one mentioned in Acts. There is so much about Paul’s life that we don’t know and Acts and Paul’s letter are very limited in what they can tell us.
I think Brian hits the nail on the head; what we make of vv. 16-18 is important. Paul is making an appeal on behalf of a slave, who seems to have wronged Philemon in a way that has cost Philemon money (v. 18). Onesimus was not a Christian when he left Philemon and he wasn’t very useful to Philemon (v.11). After he met Paul Onesimus became a believer and, perhaps, a more useful slave.
As tantalizing as it is to wonder the how, why and where of the story, we simply don’t know more than we can tease out of the letter. I suspect the reason Paul doesn’t come right out and say that Onesimus ran away is because he doesn’t want to dwell on the event that led to their “separation” as Paul puts it. He wants to focus on Onesimus’ new status as a believer.
If you are interested, I have written an essay on the topic in a festschrift for Jimmy Dunn. Here is a link to it.
@Dave Lindsay, all things being equal – Occam’s razor.
You’ve sold me on your theory as a possibility ….
@John Byron re “Neither hypothesis has gained much traction.”
Strangely, the round earth theory took a while to catch on too! (It still hasn’t caught on fully) Don’t place much stock in that ….
@Brian “Onesimus has always seemed to be a run away slave to me.”
Does anyone know the origins of this idea? Is it a ‘church’ tradition or something. I’ve also just assumed it to be true … but now I’m wondering.
I presume that vv. 16-18 are most easily understood as addressing the situation of a runaway slave. That may be a wrong interpretation, but it seems to me to be the least complicated option. Other than that I don’t know enough about the reception history of Philemon to know how the earliest interpreters understood things.
I was just looking at that from your other comment; I can offer a plausible explanation for that given the natural prejudice that existed between Jerusalem Judeans and heathenized House of Israelites, now pagans (see [Jer 2:14] for example).
However your comment made me wonder if anyone had actually traced the history of the idea that Onesimus was a slave.
Certainly vv 16-18 can reasonably be taken that way, however I find David’s objections to common presuppositions compelling. So if it is a case we all accept this simply because it is taught to be so, who first understood vv16-19 to mean Onesimus was a slave?
I may be wrong, but I don’t think David doubts that Onesimus may have been a slave, just not a run-away slave. @David, am I misunderstanding you? Do you think Onesimus was still a slave or do you think he was a freed person?
As for interpreting Onesimus as a runaway, I believe John Chrysostom may be one of the earliest to demonstrate that this was a common interpretation during his time.
@ Brian (so this is the convention here?),
Glad you had a chance to read the Marchal article, and thanks for your thoughts! I recommended it not so much because I am convinced of all the possibilities it suggests, but because it usefully brings together some of the relevant primary and secondary sources on Greco-Roman slavery and the conditions of slaves that are neglected by many NT scholars — especially when it comes to the vulnerable, brutal, traumatic, and rape realities of life as a slave. In this way it balances the depictions common among many other NT scholars.
That said, I wonder if you have missed the dynamic of some of Marchal’s arguments? Working through your points:
First, Marchal’s argument about sexual-use/exploitation doesn’t turn primarily on the “pun” issue in question, but on the common meanings and significances of “use” terminology not only in broader Greco-Roman discourses about slaves, but (of especial relevance here) in Paul’s letters themselves. E.g., see Rom 1.26-27. While this does not mean that Paul’s language in Philemon must have that meaning, it’s an incredibly relevant consideration that makes sense of the data…and, as you know, this kind of thing matters greatly to historians engaged in historical-textual analysis.
Second, unless I’m misremembering, Marchal offers the family language issue as another relevant consideration given how other contemporary sources depict slaves, and given the social realities of slaves’ position relative to household-heads’ authority and will. FWIW, such possible valences in Philemon wouldn’t necessary be opposed to Paul’s family discourse elsewhere in his letters. As you know, Paul doesn’t use family language simply for the common modern love/emotive reasons. Paul also sketches this family of Christos very much in terms of ancient hierarchical cultural codes about “family” (e.g., Paul is basically at the top and then there are hierarchies of people within it; and Paul very much depicts different locations in the ‘family’ as having different social statuses, roles, authority or de-authority [if you will]). The significance of Paul’s kinship/family language for Gentiles in Christ is also largely bound up with his explication of Christ’s ethnic significance as making it possible for Gentiles to become descendants of Abraham and thus to inherit the Judean god’s promises and blessings for his people. There is a large and growing body of scholarship that emphasizes how matters that us moderns often think of in terms of “religion” (not that we have ceased using ethnic categories for “religion” these days) were explicated within Greco-Roman sources very much in terms of ethnicity, kinship, etc. (on Paul in particular, see, e.g., Caroline Johnson Hodge, If Sons, Then Heirs: A Study of Kinship and Ethnicity in the Letters of Paul [New York: Oxford University Press, 2007]). My point is that kinship/family terminology in Paul’s discourse has ranges of associations that are much more complex and plausibly imbricated with these significances that Marchal emphasizes.
Third, we need to be careful when talking about “the sexual ethics of early Christianity,” or even just Paul for that matter. Far too much of the moral discourse about sex in early Christian writings gets treated as though it signals “Christianity’s” distinct (even unique) concern with sexual morality compared with their Greco-Roman contemporaries. Much early Christian (including some of Paul’s) moral discourse about sex isn’t so much just straight-up evidence of “what Christians really believed,” as conventional competitive and marginalizing polemic that trades in common delegitimizing tropes about how X person, people, group, etc., is basically effeminate, sexually-uncontrolled, sexually deviant, etc., etc. etc. In this way early Christians sexual discourse works just as it does much in its surrounding culture: to depict themselves as having attained recognizable prestigious “elite” ideals of self-mastery, control of passions, moderation, etc., in contrast to others, especially their competitors [whether other Christ followers or not]. Though many publications tackle different aspects of these cultural codes, discourses, and tropes, we thankfully have a recent treatment that pulls many of these matters together with a focus on early Christian literature: Jennifer W. Knust, Abandoned to Lust: Sexual Slander and Ancient Christianity (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006). Also on this topic, it is unclear that ancient intellectuals who, similar to Paul, strongly advocated self-mastery, moderation, control of passions — and all as exemplified in proper sexual behavior — would have construed sexually penetrating one’s slave as a violation of such proper morality. Though some such ancient intellectuals may have considered such sexual use of slaves contrary to virtue, we cannot assume that, especially since we have much evidence of ancient moralizing intellectuals (who advocate positions very much like Paul’s) who either did not consider a male who sexually penetrates his slaves (either male or female) to be violating proper moderation or virtue or, going further, even construe such use of slaves as conducive of virtue and moderation.
The fact that we assume early Christ followers like Paul would have just obviously revolted at these ideas and practices illustrates (1) our tendency to retroject our own theological-moral ideas back onto our authoritative sources, combined with (2) our lack of familiarity with the landscape of Greco-Roman (including Judean) cultural codes about those matters. Things that seem shocking, contradictory, etc., to us may very much not have been to them. Though some ancient Judeans and Christians (and broader Greco-Roman intellectuals) may have adopted positions more similar to ones that we prefer in certain ways, that cannot be simply be assumed. In the case of Paul, for example (and I believe Marchal mentions this), Jennifer Glancy has recently made a point of showing that his letters betray no significant concern to overturn or reject some of these ideas when it comes to slaves. In fact, she even argues for the possibility that 1 Thess 4.4 illustrates Paul encouraging sexual-use of slaves as part of pursuing proper sexual virtue and holiness. While I am not saying that I completely agree with Glancy’s argument, the point is that one cannot dismiss it by simply adducing “the sexual ethics” of early Christianity or Paul, or assuming that such an idea would just obviously be abhorrent to ancient Christian intellectuals who wrote the writings we now use as evidence for discussing early Christianity.
Hope this helps.
Thank you for providing further food for thought. Indeed, this has turned into a bit of a mini-conference. I’ll have to take some time to ponder the points you’ve made (probably a lot of time since I have no plans to give extensive attention to slavery and sexuality in the ancient world any time soon). This isn’t a subject I’ve studied in-depth, though I have no qualms admitting that I am prone to ask whether or not there is any evidence that Paul’s letters were interpreted to mean these things by his contemporaries or near contemporaries, or if this suggestion seems to make sense of the broader Pauline corpus (I am quite skeptical of the 1 Thess 4:4 interpretation), than I am to base my interpretation of Paul almost solely on what may be parallels with other writers of his day. My reasoning for this is simple: Paul said a lot that sounds like what other said, whether it be political or philosophical, and often the error is made of reading other people’s writings into Paul forcing his message to be determined by his broader setting when we might need to step back and see if Paul is reshaping, recycling the language to give it a different meaning (this is why later reading of Paul mean more than I think you’ve given credit: people might have gotten Paul wrong, but where in early Christianity do we see admirers of Paul showing any sign that his memory promoted these sorts of behaviors). Even when Paul echoes broader culture there is often a twist (not always). Maybe, just maybe, Paul’s “neither slave nor free” allowed for temporal conventions to remain in some situations similar to Paul’s “neither male nor female,” maybe (even then, Paul seems inconsistent, sometimes being far more supportive of women than at other times). So I hear what you are saying as regards the parallels, and the possible ways these uses may shed light on Paul, and how our own time and place may lead us to misreading Paul through the lens of our own ethics or traditional Christian interpretations of Paul, but I think the same danger lies with those who dislike a certain uptight, moralistic Paul, and who dislike his interpreters even more, who hope to find something that makes Paul more of a modern, or at least not all that different from his contemporaries. It is definitely a methodological sword that can cut both ways.
Quick note of clarification: I understand that Paul’s interpreters could misunderstand him. If the Pastoral Epistles are from a “Pauline School” than it can be reasonably suggested that his followers may have been more “socially conservative” (?) than Paul himself. What am I resisting is the suggestion that because Paul echoes imperial language this means his Gospel was one of anarchy or because Paul’s ethics reminds us of the Stoics then he must have been a Stoic. On the one hand, if the evidence points to Paul being a man of his time at certain points (which you seem to suggest that these particular arguments do reshape our understanding of Paul’s view of the slave person as well as his sexual ethics) then so be it. On the other hand, if Paul is reshaping ideas, or subverting them, then I don’t want to make the mistake of seeing culture as static and determinative of a person’s thoughts. If Paul is unique then I want to know that as well.
As far as I could discover, Chrysostom is the earliest advocate of the runaway slave theory. It has held sway ever since then save a few detractors (most recently, Allen Dwight Callahan). FWIW, in the forthcoming Fortress Commentary on the Bible, I try to make the case that the runaway slave theory is not the best way to understand the background of the letter but instead that Onesimus was probably in Paul’s presence with Philemon’s knowledge. After all, Paul never explains how Onesimus happens to be in his company; if he were a runaway slave, that would be quite the tale to tell.
Thank you for stopping by and sharing that information. Would you mind giving us a preview of your argument by letting us know what you think is going on in vv. 16-18, since that tends to be where most people find the “runaway slave” theory to be most convincing? Why does Paul have to advocate for Onesimus?
@Andrew – I think Onesimus was a slave but not a fugutive runaway.
@John Byron – thanks for the link to your paper on Philemon.
Paul offering to pay any debt owed by Onesimus (v 18) could simply be part of his appeal to have Onesimus released from slavery. It would be hard to free a slave with debts and many slaves had debts which got them into slavery in the first place.
Here’s the relevant portion from the commentary:
But why was Onesimus with Paul in the first place? In v. 15, Paul seems to allude to a period of separation between Philemon and Onesimus. Why were they separated? Was it because Onesimus happened to flee his captivity? Was it because Philemon and/or the church who meets in his home sent Onesimus to care for Paul’s needs while in prison (see v. 13)?
It seems most likely that Onesimus was not a runaway slave. The encounter of a runaway Onesimus and an imprisoned Paul seems all too serendipitous. What are the chances that they would meet and develop a close relationship only to discover that Paul knows Onesimus’s aggrieved master? Such a striking coincidence would certainly need to be mentioned in the letter. Instead, Paul assumes that Philemon knew that Onesimus was in his presence. Paul never explains how he came to know Onesimus. Thus, it seems most likely that Onesimus was sent by Philemon to care for him in prison. During that time, Paul has to come see Onesimus in a new way. Now Paul invites Philemon to do the same.
Verses 15-16 mark the transformation of Onesimus and a reinvention of the relationship between him and Philemon. Paul theorizes in v. 15 that Onesimus’ separation from Philemon (whatever the reason) was a divine initiative so that their bonds would be extended but also transformed. Onesimus is much more than a slave now, Paul says; he has become your brother, your kin, a part of you (v. 16).
Just as Onesimus previously stood in Philemon’s stead, Paul now asks Philemon to receive his erstwhile slave as if Paul himself were his guest (v. 17). When Philemon sees Onesimus, he ought to imagine the face of Paul. Paul offers to fulfill any debt he might have incurred, even taking the scribe’s pen in his own hand to state this (v. 19). And yet, the very next verse, is an even more powerful rhetorical stroke: “I say nothing about your owing me even your own self.” In saying nothing of this indebtedness, Paul nonetheless raises it. In these renewed communities of faith, it seems, debt is ever present, never discharged, but its payment also never demanded.
Perhaps the debt Paul offers to repay in Onesimus’s place is not a straightforward offer. Previous interpreters have offered that these debts may have been the reason for Onesimus’s slavery or that he incurred a debt in running away from his master. But what if the mention of the debt is rhetorical? Between brothers and sisters in faith, no such thing could exist. It may be that the debt Paul speaks about is figurative in light of how v. 19 concludes.
Yes, is is true that many slaves would have owed some form of debt to a master. However, in the case of v. 18 the syntax does suggest that Onesimus does owe something to Philemon from some type of wrong committed.
Far too much of the moral discourse about sex in early Christian writings gets treated as though it signals “Christianity’s” distinct (even unique) concern with sexual morality compared with their Greco-Roman contemporaries. Much early Christian (including some of Paul’s) moral discourse about sex isn’t so much just straight-up evidence of “what Christians really believed,” as conventional competitive and marginalizing polemic that trades in common delegitimizing tropes about how X person, people, group, etc., is basically effeminate, sexually-uncontrolled, sexually deviant, etc., etc. etc.
What about Galen? He notes as a second-century outsider that Christians practiced unusual sexual restraint.
@David and @Eric
Both of these takes are insightful. You are correct that (at least in my case) as readers we assume the separation to be one of flight, and the debt to be one incurred because of the unlawfulness of his departure, but it is not immediately apparent that this has to be the case.
Is it possible that v. 18 refers to something further back (like whatever may have lead to Onesimus’ enslavement) as David suggest or do you see it as indicates something more recent?
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