The letter to Philemon is about freedom. It is not about justifying slavery. However, despite my efforts to demonstrate that far from being a biblical rationale for slavery, verse 12 of Paul’s letter (as well as the rest of it an many other Pauline, New Testament and other biblical passages) actually subverts and challenges such systems, I encountered opposition to such views online. These ranged from Islamic apologists to fundamentalist US Christians that appear to want to continue to justify slavery on biblical grounds. My hope is that Paul’s most overtly anti-slavery words in verses 15 and 16 further clarify the situation:
Philemon v15: “This is why he was parted from you…”
Why was Onesimus parted from Philemon? There are many theories. Some accused Onesimus of theft or find him – somewhat patronisingly and degradingly – guilty of “abandonment” of his “master” or owner. Others suggest he left in protest of his being a slave at all. The text doesn’t engage with or share any detail of whether or not any actual offence was committed. However, at this point in verse 15 it does provide the answer. Onesimus “was parted”, a third person clause that implies the sovereign providence of God. Nineteenth-century bible scholar Marvin Vincent agrees, interpreting the verse on behalf of Paul like this: “if I had kept him, I might have defeated the purpose for which he was allowed to be separated from you for a time.”
Furthermore, the impersonal, passive feel of this verse reinforces suggestions that Onesimus, Paul and ultimately God are challenging the concept of slavery because it – crucially – passes over the opportunity to attribute any blame to Onesimus. If Paul was going to concede that Onesimus was guilty in some way, this is the moment to do it. Rather, the text leaves room for the sovereignty of God in the course of events and suggests a particular reason why the two “were parted”. So Philemon could “Have him back” in the only biblically appropriate manner, something that is explained further in the subsequent verse (v16).
“No longer as a bondservant…” The word here for bondservant is “doulos”, which can be used as either a voluntary or involuntary servant. The Global Study Bible Notes (GSB) says: “…Bondservants were bound to serve their master for a specific period of time. People did not necessarily become slaves because of their race, nor were they completely without legal rights. A person might become a slave as punishment for a crime or as a way to pay off a debt.”
Likewise, Keener adds: “In contrast to most slaves in more recent cultures, slaves in the ancient Mediterranean world were able to work for and achieve freedom. Some scholars estimate that even as many as half of household slaves may have had the opportunity to become free at some point in their lives (at least if they lived for an extended time). Some freed household slaves became independently wealthy; at least in Roman custom, their former holders became their patrons and were supposed to help them advance in society.”
An academic book using Paul and Acts as a leadership metaphor (“Conflict Management and the Apostle Paul”) offers another interpretation. Manumission was possible, but this in a way tacitly confirmed that the slavemaster remained the power holder. And such freedom could then be seen as a carrot to keep slaves in submission to their “owners”.
In addition, Paul was Jewish and the concept of bondservants had particular significance in Levitical law. For example, Ex 21:5 “…if the servant declares, ‘I love my master and my wife and children and do not want to go free,’”. Therefore the bondservant was a kind of voluntary servant that, motivated by love for his master and his family CHOSE to remain a servant.
“…but…as a beloved brother” Paul, however, writing in the New Testament context takes things a whole lot further. Onesimus is not returning as any kind of slave or bondservant but as a “beloved brother”.
“…BOTH in the flesh and in the Lord”. The double emphasis ensures that it can’t be just a spiritual, metaphorical or immaterial, but rather a complete change in power and status and identity to what went before. When read in the context of v7 (in which Paul also calls Philemon “brother”), it raises Onesimus up to the level of Philemon himself. This means, what has happened to Onesimus spiritually in terms of his conversion to Christianity, must have a temporal impact as well.
Therefore, I believe this letter is an audacious appeal for Onesimus to voluntarily and unreservedly emancipate Onesimus – something that Paul pleads for the basis of his own moral, ethical and spiritual grounds. The express purpose of that is so Onesimus (and to some extent Philemon) can better serve God. If I am right and if Philemon responded positively to this appeal, then Onesimus should have been free[d] to minister – as we saw historically when Onesimus became Bishop of Ephesus.
“Receive him as you would receive me”. But the elevation of Onesimus’ status doesn’t end there. In order to illustrate the transformation of Onesimus’ identity, Paul stakes his whole relationship with Philemon on it:
“…if you consider me your partner” Koinonon (noun from the root Koinonia) here means partner, sharing – directly connects this main body of the letter with v6. Indeed this word is used to bookend this main thrust.
Paul then specifies once again that Philemon and the church that meets in Philemon’s house should “receive [Onesimus] as you would receive me [Paul]”. At this point it is worth considering how Paul would be received. We know he says that those that labour in the word are worthy of “double honour”, which includes financial remuneration (1 Tim 5:17). Therefore, Paul’s injunction could include Onesimus (the fact that the KJV attributes scribal work to him is some evidence of such a reading). But even if not, Paul gives an example of his expectations of how he should be received in v22.
At the same time, prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping that through your prayers I will be graciously given to you.
Since the text says the church should treat Onesimus in the same way they would treat Paul, and since Paul requests practical care in the form of a guest room fit for the apostle, Onesimus must therefore be received back into the house in which he was a slave with complete freedom and not only that, but also the extra honour of a special guest.
Did Onesimus steal anything?
It is not clear from the text that Onesimus did actually steal anything. The Believers Bible Commentary: “The apostle doesn’t say that Onesimus had stolen anything from Philemon, but this verse suggests such a possibility. Certainly theft was one of the cardinal sins of slaves. Paul is willing to accept responsibility for any loss that Philemon might have sustained.”
However, a footnote in the Passion Translation highlights the counter argument: “Although the Greek verb adikeō means “to do wrong” or “to defraud,” the clear implication is that Onesimus had stolen from his master. Philemon 1:18”.
This is, however, an implication and not evidence of guilt, which many translates to not make explicit. In the absence of textual evidence that Onesimus was guilty of theft, we are forced to work with what we do know. He was some kind of runaway. Here’s how I read it: Philemon saw Onesimus as his own property. Therefore for him to runaway was to steal slave labour from his master. If this was the case, no-matter how “good” a slave owner he was, this mindset still needed to be worked out of Philemon. And that’s why Paul backed Onesimus – challenging the convert (Philemon) to “forgive” as he himself had been forgiven.
Some sources reinforce such a reading on the basis of huiothesia, interpreting “beloved brother” to mean adopted brother.
1. Using Philemon and the Bible as pro-slavery documents is textbook slave master theology. Philemon is CLEARLY an early Christian abolitionist text. In order to understand Paul’s references to “slave” you must also understand υἱοθεσία (huiothesia) or the Doctrine of Adoption. https://t.co/9ZL3VuqarH
— Kyle J. Howard (@KyleJamesHoward) July 5, 2020
This invokes the spirit of adoption Paul writes of in Romans 8, of which all Christians are beneficiaries and that again elevates the adopted child’s status to the level of the firstborn son. Therefore, in Paul’s eyes Onesimus is no longer a slave, but rather an heir of true, complete and eternal freedom. As Paul says in Galatians 5, so also for Onesimus – it was for freedom that Christ set him free, no longer to subject to the yoke of slavery.