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?


Matt said...

Fitzmeyer takes this approach in the Philemon Anchor Bible commentary. I think it is right on target and makes all the sense in the world. This is like the Edict of Claudius and its impact on the book of Romans (structure, etc) - all the information has been on the table for so many years but few have put the pieces together. Thanks for bringing it up!

Frank Bellizzi said...


I haven't seen the Fitz commentary on Philemon. I'm curious to know if he cites the work of Scott Bartchy.

Seems like this beginning point would make all kinds of differences in how a reader hears the rhetoric of the letter. I suspect the commentary picks up on a lot of that, yes?

Anonymous said...

Have you seen Scott Bartchy's PhD dissertation? I am not sure if it has ever been published except as a paperback copy by SBL. It is a study of I Cor 7:21, and also has a lot of insight into slavery in the Roman world.

Were you referring to his article on Philemon in the Anchor Bible Dictionary or has he written additional material?


Frank Bellizzi said...

Hi Leland.

I have seen so many references to that dissertation, but have never read it.

Bartchy made a presentation at the (1991?) SBL meeting in Kansas City. I got the statements of the Roman jurists from the handout he used that day. His ABD article(s) were just being submitted back then, I think.

Bob Bliss said...

Frank, Dr. Black at Harding Grad in his Advanced Intro to the NT introduced this idea. It makes sense to me. Paul shows in his letter that he knows Philemon well and certainly Onesimus would have known about Paul although we don't know if Paul actually knew him before his arrival in Rome. I don't remember Dr. Black's sources but I will check my notes tomorrow and see. I'll have to check out Fitzmeyer's commentary on Philemon. I think this idea fits the letter well. I agree that we should be careful to compare America's slavery industry with the first century's.

Looking forward to more about Larimore.

Anonymous said...

I would be happy to loan you my copy of the dissertation. I just looked at it and the copyright is 1973! I think I bought it in about 1980, and it was difficult reading because there are footnotes in at least 3-4 languages (without translation): Greek, Latin, German, French, etc.

Let me know and I will mail it. It is a photocopy publication directly from the Harvard Div dissertation.

preacherman said...

I am going to try to get F.F. Bruce's take on this one. Do you know?

Matt said...

It is the Anchor Bible Commentary on Philemon and not Anchor Bible Dictionary. I will have to look and see if he quotes Bartchy. I will get back with you in an hour or two.

Matt said...

According to Fitzmeyer here is the low down. This theory was "proposed by Lampe and seconded by Rapske. It is preferred by Bartchy, Dunn, Patzia." (not sure why he left out an "and" there!). Fitzmeyer, 18). Anyway, it looks like it wasn't developed by Bartchy.

Matt said...

Sorry for all the comments. To answer P.M.'s question - Bruce has a very similar view to those expressed by Frank and he sites E.R. Goodenough in HTR, 22 (1929), 181-183. That would take this debate back quite some time before Bartchy.

Anonymous said...

Sorry for the confusion. The Philemon commentary by Fitzmeyer is in the Anchor Bible series. The articles by Bartchy on slavery and on Philemon are in the Anchor Bible Dictionary. I was referring the latter, and not the former. The articles are lengthy and also quite helpful.

Frank Bellizzi said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Frank Bellizzi said...

Thanks, Matt, for tracking down the history of this viewpoint.

Because the general observation (ie, regarding the Roman legal background to Philemon) has been around for so long, I wonder why it has hardly even been mentioned in the more-recent secondary literature.

Something else that comes to mind: How is Philemon interpreted by early Christian writers, those much closer to the circumstances of the letter. (No, Matt, I'm not sending you on another research errand :-). But I wonder how, for example, Chrysostom or Augustine understand Philemon.

Matt said...

I think I know how Pliny would have understood it!

Matt said...

I really doubt they shed much light on that aspect of it but I could very well be wrong.

preacherman said...

What does Paul say on the matther? What does the Bible say? Is it our authority?

Matt said...


Did you run away?

ben overby said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Stoned-Campbell Disciple said...

The caution of reading American slavery back into the text is a worthy one.

Bobby V

Will Lecorchick said...

You might find it nice to have a comment on something you wrote almost three years ago but I came across this on a Google search. I've been doing a class on how to study the Bible at my small church in Toccoa, GA and our instructor chose Philemon for it's shortness. I grew up in a fundamental church that taught Onesimus was a runaway slave but as I read it it seemed to me more that he was more like an indentured servant who had some rights. His slavery was starkly different then that in southern USA. My wife and I had a discussion on it and I said that nowhere does it imply he is a runaway. I also said, "why would he as a runaway slave, if death could be his punishment, go to a friend of his slave owner? A runaway slave would be miles away from anyone his master knows". So when we got home I got online and found your article. Excellent! Not because it agrees with what I found for myself, but that you had quotes from Roman slave law that gave proof to that theory. I'm tired of people speculating things and then preach it as FACT from the pulpit rather calling it speculation. I don't know what one's reasoning for doing that is other than claiming to know all truth and not admitting they may not know much at all. Or it's just ignorance. In my person experience with my old church I believe it was a matter of claiming authority and acting as though they have the absolute truth in all their teaching. I guess I took this a little further than what you intended but I believe it is alright to not be absolutely sure of something. I think in that way, faith is real because you move despite doubt whereas if you think you have it all figured out than you move not in faith but in the assumption that what you believe is totally true. In essence, it takes less faith to walk on a sidewalk then on ice.

Frank Bellizzi said...


Thanks for your comment. I'm glad that the post was helpful.

Dennis R. Horn said...

I came into this discussion just today. All comments, save one, are insightful. In my thirty plus years on ministry I have taught, when occaision arose, that Onesimus was a runaway. This was so because I had not heard any other opinion or idea, NOT because I am convinced of my own infallibility or condemnation of those who might have thought otherwise. Having read this now I may have to revise my thoughts and ideas. Since no major doctrinal issue hangs on the actual status of Onesimus I am not quite certain why Mr. Lecorchick takes the expression of Onesimus as a runaway as certain proof of egotism and self emollience on the part of those who merely suppose so not having heard any other opinion. Nor am I much impressed that he feels that what he "is tired of" or not "tired of" has any bearing on the discussion or the slightest modicrum of weight in making any determination. I would suggest he take time to reflect upon the very probable possibility that he himself is guilty of the hypocritical idea of autoinfallibility he accuses others of who may hold a different opinion. It is also kind of surprising that you would allow such an arrogant expression of distain for alternate beliefs based on passion rather than reason. This is inconsistent with what has otherwise been a superlative blog.

DellaRose said...

One of my professors, more than 20 years ago, used this book as an example of reading what is in the text and not assuming anything else (despite what your pastors or sunday school teachers may have taught you). He pointed out that the text does not say that Onesimus had run away, just as it does not prove that Onesimus had stolen anything or even necessarily wronged his Master. My professor suggested that, in the historical context, it was quite possible that Onesimus may have been separated from Philemon as a part of his duties as a slave, in order to conduct, on his masters behalf, business affairs in Rome. I am perplexed as to why, even today none of these ideas seem to be questioned in mainstream interpretations or commentaries.

It seems to be assumed that the purpose of this text is to teach forgiveness and condemn a different form of slavery than what is likely represented here.

I would interested to know of any presentations of this book that may be open to these types of ideas, that would be accessible to laymen.