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?