Monday, October 29, 2007

Onesimus: Not a Runaway After All?

I know, it's been a couple of weeks since I last posted. A few things came along and derailed my best intentions. I do plan to add a final installment to the mini-series on T. B. Larimore. But something else I've been working on has made it to the front burner. . . . .

Most introductions to Paul's Letter to Philemon describe the historical backdrop like this:

"Like everyone else in his position in the Roman empire, Philemon had a number of slaves. One of them, Onesimus, had run away from Colossae, . . ." --John Drane, Introduction to the New Testament (New York: Harper & Row, 1986), p. 342.

Another introduction puts it this way:

"Paul writes to Philemon on behalf of the runaway slave Onesimus . . . . Onesimus eventually made his way from Colossae to Rome . . . where the slave was converted to Christianity, perhaps by Paul himself." --Stephen L. Harris, The New Testament, 5th ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2006), p. 370.

Yet another example, this one much more dramatic:

"For causes unknown to us Onesimus ran away from his duties under Philemon. This was a serious crime, which resulted in stern punishment if the offender was caught. Burning, branding, maiming, or even death was possible." --Walter A. Elwell and Robert W. Yarbrough, Encountering the New Testament, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005), p. 321.

As that last quote indicates, interpreters who take this traditional approach have had a difficult time explaining how Onesimus, a runaway slave, not only makes it all the way to Rome, but then meets up with the Apostle Paul. One writes, for example:

"There is no way of knowing how or why Onesimus visited the imprisoned apostle." --Donald Guthrie, New Testament Introduction (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1970), p. 635.

I'm not sure why, but on this question the insightful work of New Testament scholar S. Scott Bartchy has been almost completely overlooked. Several years ago, Bartchy pointed out that when we read the legal evidence from the ancient world, a different picture emerges. According to this alternate view, Onesimus was not a fugitive slave who held no rights. Instead, Onesimus the slave had a dispute with his master, Philemon, and was now exercising his legal option to seek out a third party (in this case, Paul) who could serve as an advocate for the slave. According to this position, Onesimus left the town of Colossae with Philemon's knowledge. And, Onesimus fully intended to return to his home under new, better conditions and without punishment.

What follows are three quotations that represent the Roman legal evidence for the alternative view:

1. A slave is not a fugutive "who, having in mind that his master wished physically to chastise him, left to seek a friend whom he persuaded to plead on his behalf. " --Proculus, a prominent Roman jurist of the early first century A.D.

Here we have a clear indication that physical punishment of slaves was well-known in the Greco-Roman world. Whether Onesimus feared as much is anyone's guess. If that was the case, however, then according to this statement Onesimus would have had grounds for seeking out a third party.

2. "If a slave leaves his master and comes back to his mother, the question whether he be a fugitive is one for consideration; if he so fled to conceal himself and not to return to his master, he is a fugitive; but he is no fugitive if he seeks that some wrongdoing of his may be better extenuated by his mother's entreaties." --Vivianus, Roman jurist of the late 1st and early 2nd century A.D.

What's intriguing about this statement is that it provides the possibility for a mother to plead in behalf of her slave son or daughter. Though he couldn't be a mother, Paul certainly could be a father, which is exactly how he describes himself in relation to Onesimus. Twice in Philemon verse 10 Paul refers to Onesimus as "my son."

3. "A slave who takes himself off to a friend of his master to seek his intercession is not a fugitive." --Paulus, Roman jurist of the late 2nd century A.D.

This sounds much like the first quote. But here, there is no certain reason required in order for the slave to leave seeking a third party to intercede.


1. Given this background, it seems much more likely that instead of being a runaway, Onesimus was exercising his legal rights as a slave. Instead of imagining that he was a fugitive who just happened to run all the way to Rome (hundreds of miles away) and then somehow (in a city of a million people) met up with Paul (who was under house arrest), we can posit that Onesimus left Colossae knowing exactly where he was going and who he wanted to talk to when he got there.

2. When American Christians discuss slavery in the Bible, it is tempting for them to look at the words of the New Testament against the background of slavery in the antebellum South. But when we consider things like the real legal provisions for slaves in the first-century, significant differences begin to show. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that in the ancient world poor free people actually resented many slaves who were able to "get lost" in the bureaucracy of a large, wealthy household, or who had relatively-cushy jobs and didn't have to work so hard for a living.


1. If this alternate view reveals the way things really were in the case of Onesimus, Philemon, and Paul, how does that change the way in which we think of that personal triangle?

2. How would this change the way in which we hear the Letter to Philemon?

Thursday, October 11, 2007

A Letter from T. B. Larimore

In the "Gospel Advocate" dated March 22, 1894, David Lipscomb explains one reason why he's calling attention to the weeks-long "meeting" that T. B. Larimore was then conducting at Sherman, Texas.

The purpose of his report, he says "is simply to use this meeting as the basis of an appeal to preachers and churches everywhere to do more preaching. It pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save folks, and the means of salvation ought to be vigorously operated night and day as long as there are people to save."

Lipscomb points to passages like Acts 19:9-10. In the lecture hall of Tyrannus, located in the city of Ephesus, Paul had spoken every day for two years. As a result, everyone living in the province of Asia had heard the word of the Lord.

The editor also notes Acts 20:30, where Paul reminds the elders from Ephesus that for the space of three years he had not ceased to warn them night and day with tears. Then, with tongue in cheek, Lipscomb concludes that long meetings are scriptural, provided that they don't continue night and day for more than three years! Lipscomb realizes that all of this raises an important question:

"But how can a preacher hold up so long and preach continuously every day? How can he find sermons enough to preach? On these points I wrote Brother Larimore for his experience, etc., and received the following reply:"

[What follows is the entire letter from T. B. Larimore as quoted by Lipscomb. Words in italics appear that way in the original, I assume because those words had been underlined by Larimore himself]:

Yours received. Much obliged. I hastily answer as best I can. We are just beginning to get things loosened up at the roots. The interest is increasing every day. You are anxious to know how I am holding up. I am well. Nothing can be better for me than to preach twice every day and three times on Sunday--unless it is to preach three times "every day and Sunday too." My voice? It's all right. Length of sermons? Fifty minutes--entire service, seventy minutes. When is the meeting to close? No mortal knows. Subjects and material for sermons? The Bible is full of them. Its treasures are simply inexhaustible. Study? That I do. I am not only studying, but learning--learning rapidly every day. I see new beauties in the Bible every day, and am simply astonished at at the sweet, sublime simplicity of God's eternal truth. Exhaust the Bible themes, and thoughts, and truths, at this rate, after a while? Yes, when the swallows drink the ocean dry. What books do I consult? The Bible, Webster's Dictionary, and the Bible--these three, and no more. How long to I propose to fight on this line? Till mustered out of service. Texas is glorious country. Sherman is a good, growing town. Young and old are standing by me bravely in this fight. May the Lord forever bless them all. We are having a pleasant meeting--not wild, bewildering excitement, but a genuine revival, the effects of which will last till time shall be no more--a sacred school, where a thousand pupils are learning the word, the will, and the way of the Lord. I have a perfect home, where every wish is gratified.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

More About That T. B. Larimore Meeting

A few weeks ago, I mentioned the great T. B. Larimore (1843-1929) and his emphasis on Christian unity.

That post included a bit of information about a famous 5-month "meeting" that Larimore held in the city of Sherman, Texas during the first half of 1894. Preaching fifteen sermons a week, Larimore led over 250 people to Christ. I wanted to know more about that meeting.

While I was in Abilene for the ACU lectureship, I got to spend a little time in their library. The staff there helped me track down the microfilm reel for Volume 36 (1894) of the Gospel Advocate magazine.

Evidently, we know as much as we do about the Sherman meeting because David Lipscomb, the main editor of the GA, took quite an interest in what was happening. Starting on the front page of the issue dated March 22, 1894, Lipscomb wrote:

"The meeting now in progress at Sherman, Texas, has grown to considerable proportions, and a few random remarks and observations concerning it might not be unprofitable reading in these columns."

Evidently, Lipscomb had learned about the meeting in a letter he had received from one "Brother Earnest Hildebrand." Lipscomb describes Hildebrand as "an active co-worker in the meeting, and a zealous member of the Sherman church." Lipscomb then quotes Hildebrand's letter:

"Brother Larimore's work with us has been, in many respects, remarkable. It began with the new year, and has continued, with steady and constantly-increasing interest to the present--nine full weeks--two discourses every day and three every Sunday. Still, nobody seems tired, and no one seems willing to entertain the thought of closing the meeting. Indeed, the church, preacher, and people seem more anxious and in better condition in all respects for work to-day than on any previous day of the year. There has never been the slightest indication of even a probable decline in interest, or in the mental, physical, or heart-power of any one engaged or interested in the work."

Hildebrand then turns to the question of how Larimore is holding up:

"How our preacher endures all this mental, physical, and heart-pressure, and grows clearer and stronger every day, we do not know. He attributes it to Providence, and this may be the secret of it all."

And the results to that point?

"The number of additions thus far is small considering the number and character of discourses--133 discourses, and 153 additions. These figures express only a small per cent of the good accomplished by this work."

What was the procedure? How did things work?

"The services are all very simple: a prayer, a song, a sermon, an invitation song, confessions, baptism, any necessary remarks or announcements, closing song, benediction. The sermons are strictly scriptural and practical. Our brief voluntary song-service closes and the pulpit service begins promptly at 3.30 P.M., and 7.50 P.M. every day, and at 10.50 A.M., 3.30 P.M., and 7.50 P.M. every Sunday. The entire services, not including the voluntary song-service, occupy seventy minutes."

That's the entire letter from Hildebrand as quoted by Lipscomb. Interesting, isn't it?

Comments? Reactions? Thoughts?

P.S. Once he realized what was happening at Sherman, David Lipscomb wrote a letter to Larimore to get an update from the preacher himself. Next time, I'll post the letter that Larimore sent to Lipsomb in reply. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

The Wright Response

Over at the website called "On Faith," hosts Sally Quinn and Jon Meacham recently posted this question:

Best-selling atheist Christopher Hitchens wrote: "Religion is violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children." Why is he right or wrong?

Check out the reply from N. T. Wright, "Human Behavior, By Any Other Name . . . "

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

A Few Resources on Caring for Creation

The post just before this one, about our 100 billion bags a year, seems to have struck a chord. Many thanks to John Dobbs for giving it a needed push. For what they're worth, here are links to some other things you might find helpful:

On Preaching the God of Creation tells a little about how I came to the decision to place this truth on center stage at least once every year that I preached.

The Best Preaching on Earth is a short review of a book by that title. It's a fine collection of sermons and sermon ideas.

If you decide to do some teaching (or, more teaching) on Christians and the Environment, you may want to check out a book by Roger Gottlieb called A Greener Faith: Religious Environmentalism and Our Planet's Future (Oxford, 2006). It's billed as "the first comprehensive account of religious environmentalism."

Preachers, find out how some biblical conservatives are plugged into environmental issues; see the website for the Evangelical Environmental Network. The links on the left side of the home page include "Fact Sheets" that you can use in your teaching in order to reach even those Rush Limbaugh fans in your congregation.

"The earth is the LORD's, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it"
--Psalm 24:1, NIV