For this week’s post I thought I’d take a break from relaying class discussions and write about something I found in N.T. Wright’s latest Paul and the Faithfulness of God. Not only am I reading an author I thoroughly enjoy, but I’m also knocking another part of homework for my Paul and the Law class.
Anyhow, he opens the first chapter with a discussion about a letter from Pliny the Younger, a Roman senator who lived roughly seventy years after Jesus. Since many probably do not have Wright’s book nor have a copy of Pliny’s letter, I’ve transcribed Wright’s translation of the letter:
You told me you had been angry with a freedman of yours, and no he’s come to see me! He threw himself at my feet and clung on to me as though I were you. He wept a lot, he asked for a lot, thought he kept quiet about a lot too. To sum it up, he made me believe that he was genuinely sorry. I think he is a changed character, because he really does feel that he did wrong.
Yes, I know you are angry; and I know, too, that you have a right to be angry. But mercy earns most praise when anger is fully justified. Once you loved this fellow, and I hope you will love him again; for the moment, it’s enough if you let yourself be placated. You can always be angry again if he deserves it, and you’ll have all the more reason if you’ve been placated now. He’s young, he’s in tears, and you have a kind heart – make all that count. Don’t torture him, and don’t torture yourself either; anger is always torture for a soft heart like yours.
I am afraid it will look as though I’m putting pressure on you, not simply making a request, if I join my prayers to his. But I’m going to do it anyway, and all the more fully and thoroughly because I’ve given him a sharp and severe talking-to, and I’ve warned him clearly that I won’t make such a request again. (This was because he needed a good fright, and I said it to him rather than to you, because it’s just possible that I shall make another request, and receive it too – always supposing it’s an appropriate thing for me to ask and for you to grant.)
My studies in Paul have been rather limited, so finding out that this style of letter-writing was actually fairly common is quite fascinating and N.T. Wright’s next topic was exactly the similar Pauline letter to Philemon (please read if you have a Bible handy). Yet one major difference that Wright points out about Paul is even more fascinating; “Paul is in prison, a fact he mentions not as though it decreases his social standing (which it naturally did) but as though it gives him a higher status rather than a lower one.”
What do you think the significance is of Paul’s imprisonment in comparison to Pliny’s social power? What does this say about our own social statuses and how we use our platforms? What are some other similarities/dissimilarities between Pliny’s letter and Philemon that you think are significant?
Personally, I think that Paul’s lack of status does inform how we read him, whether he is addressing slaves, women, or whoever else. He was poor and marginalized in this world because of his apostleship and this allowed him to relate to those who were poor and marginalized as well. I think we struggle with reading Paul’s word more because of their reception history than their authorial intent. Paul’s words have been used and abused by the powerful to justify oppression rather than being understood as one oppressed person (although oppressed because of his calling rather than his person) speaking to other oppressed persons.
That being said, a previous post I wrote on Paul and slavery resulted in an interesting discussion a while back that you may be interested in reading: https://nearemmaus.wordpress.com/2013/08/28/the-legality-of-onesimus-flight-to-paul/
Brian: Thanks for the link! I’ll take a look at the comments when I have a little more downtime. It is quite interesting, though, to view Onesimus not as a runaway slave, but as something else by coming to Paul. Looking forward to reading more!
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