McKnight’s commentary on Philemon has a strong message for the church of the twenty-first century. Today, more than ever, the church needs to proclaim a message of reconciliation to our divided society and to a world that has never abandoned the disturbing reality of slavery.
Two factors influence the interpretation of Paul’s letter to Philemon. The first factor is the reality that Rome was a slavery society. In my previous post, Slavery in the Roman World, I introduced McKnight’s discussion on slavery in the Roman empire. No one will be able to understand the book of Philemon unless one gains a good understanding of slavery as it was practiced in the Roman world. My discussion of McKnight’s view on slavery was only a brief summary of the vast amount of information he provides in his commentary.
The second factor that influences the interpretation of Philemon is the two Philemons that are in the background of Paul’s letter. The first Philemon is a Roman citizen, a non-Christian slave owner who probably was a very influential citizen in his society. Paul never introduced the non-Christian Philemon, although he had known Philemon before he became a believer.
The second Philemon, the one to whom the letter was addressed, is the Philemon who was a Roman citizen and a slave owner. However, Paul now was addressing the Philemon who was a Christian, a leader of the church, a man in whose house the church met. The issue Paul was raising in his letter was very important to Philemon as a Christian and as a leader of the church. How will the Roman citizen Philemon deal with Onesimus, as a non-Christian slave owner or as a Christian who was the leader of the church? As McKnight wrote: “That Philemon was a Christian can be assumed; that it transformed his attitude toward slavery and toward Onesimus can neither be assumed nor inferred from this letter” (p. 57).
In his commentary, McKnight addresses the plight of slaves in the Roman empire. Roman citizens had very strong views about their slaves. Slaves were the property of their masters. They were considered to be inferior persons whom the master could use and abuse at will. Although some slaves occupied important positions and occupations in Roman society, they were still slaves and the property of their masters.
In describing the plight of slaves, McKnight says that some female slaves were occupied in routine domestic chores while others served as wet-nurses or as sexual partners of their masters. As for male slaves, McKnight wrote: “Male slaves remained ‘boys’ and their manhood–connected of course to family and autonomy and inheritance and dignity–was denied” (p. 16).
In his discussion of Onesimus’ status, McKnight emphasizes that Paul did not call Onesimus “son”; he called him a “boy.” He wrote: “In Roman legal fashion, is Paul attributing to the slave Onesimus the status of a ‘boy’ or a ‘child’? The term Paul uses is not the Greek term for ‘son’ (huios) but the term for ‘child’ (teknon). I confess to disappointment at the use of this term by Paul. It may, in fact, reflect the status of a Roman slave, who could never become a man and always remained a boy” (p. 85).
I can understand McKnight’s disappointment at the way Paul addresses Onesimus’ status as a slave, but I think this use of words is very important to the argument Paul will present to Philemon. Philemon only knew Onesimus as a slave who was not a Christian, thus he knew him only as a teknon. This is the reason Paul called Onesimus a teknon. But now Paul has to convince Philemon that Onesimus was more than a teknon. Onesimus is returning to Philemon as “a beloved brother” in Christ (Philemon 1:16). This change of status is very important to what Paul is trying to accomplish. McKnight wrote: “At the level of status and term, the charter of Gal 3:28, where we first read from Paul the binary ‘neither slave nor free,’ means here in Philemon ‘no longer as a slave . . . but a dear brother.’ The language elevates a slave from the margins of the family to the family table” (p. 95).
McKnight believes that Onesimus was a runaway slave. Many causes prompted slaves to run away from their masters’ houses. Slaves ran away because they were physically abused by their masters or because they were severely punished when they refused to obey. They also ran away when they refused to become sexually involved with their masters.
Why did Onesimus runaway from the house of Philemon? “With regard to Onesimus, were there marks of abuse on his body? Had he been sexually used and abused? What kind of master was Philemon?” (p. 20). We are not told the reason Onesimus ran away from Philemon’s house. Paul’s statement, “If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account . . . I will repay it” (Philemon 1:18-19), may indicate that Onesimus caused Philemon some financial loss, but Paul was willing to repay the loss.
In his letter, Paul makes four appeals to Philemon on behalf of Onesimus. McKnight presents an ideal scenario about the reading of the letter. He wrote:
We need to imagine our way into Philemon’s household and into a first-century house church, sitting, lounging, or standing as this letter is read. We need to think, too, that the house church is not limited to Philemon’s own oikonomia but neighbors and fellow believers and seekers who have joined in. We do not know the courier, but it is probably Tychicus or perhaps Onesimus (who may have read about himself in the third person). All eyes are on Philemon-the letter courier and reader standing there with all the authority of the apostle Paul, despite Paul’s denial of his own authority in the words of the letter. We need also to realize that up until this moment only the letter courier and anyone who traveled with Onesimus from Ephesus to Colossae knew the contents of the letter. The head of the household, Philemon, a man of status and power, is about to be confronted by the apostle Paul with a request (p. 77).
Once the letter was read, Philemon had to make a decision: “what should I do with my slave Onesimus who is now my brother in Christ?” McKnight once again emphasizes that Paul is not asking Philemon to manumit Onesimus, but rather to liberate him in the church. Paul is asking Philemon “to treat Onesimus as a brother, to welcome him home, to forgive, to reconcile, and to reshape the household on the basis of the kingdom of God’s new creation realities that there is ‘no longer a slave’ but rather a grand encompassing unity in Christ” (p. 108).
Paul recognizes that Onesimus has done wrong, however Paul is asking Philemon not to treat Onesimus as other Roman citizens would do, with punishment and violence. Rather, Paul is asking Philemon “to create a cycle of grace, forgiveness, restitution, and reconciliation. More tellingly, Paul seeks here to create a new kind of society, a fellowship of equals in which the slave owner and slave were brothers (and sisters) in Christ” (p. 5).
Paul could not change the slavery mentality of the Roman world, but he could change the way the church in general and Christians in particular dealt with the problem of slavery. McKnight wrote:
Churches form the vanguard of creating a place where those deemed by the world and society and culture as unequals will be welcomed, not in terms of the world but in terms of being in Christ. As a place that embodies reconciliation in space and time, the church generates a new way of life-Christoformity-that is to become paradigmatic of how Christians enter into society and the world. That is, this letter points the way for Christians to become agents that subvert slavery in our world by finding it, by naming it, by fighting against it, and by embodying a way of life that establishes social equality as the ground rules for the new communities in Christ.
McKnight points out that the scourge of slavery is still with us in the twenty-first century. According to some estimates there are twenty-one million people in slavery today. Other estimates put the number of slaves today at thirty-one million. Of these, 150,000 people are enslaved in Europe and 60,000 are in slavery within the USA (p. 34). It is here where Christians must become agents of reconciliation.
Modern day slavery is found in many forms. The most prevalent form of slavery today is the sexual exploitation of women. But involuntary servitude is also found in the exploitation of domestic helpers, agricultural workers, and forced marriages. Slavery takes many forms in today’s society.
What can Paul’s letter to Philemon say to churches today about the different forms of slavery found in modern society? Using the example of Hagar, the female slave used and abused by Sarah, Phyllis Trible provides a model that symbolizes the kinds of people to whom Christians can also become agents of reconciliation. Trible wrote: “As a symbol of the oppressed, Hagar becomes many things to many people. Most especially, all sorts of rejected women find their stories in her” (1984:28). Trible then lists several categories of women who share the same fate of oppression that Hagar suffered.
McKnight has written a very provocative book that will force Christians to rethink their role in the world. Paul could not change Rome’s attitude about slavery, but he could challenge the church to change the way they treated oppressed people in their midst. As a Christian, Philemon was transformed by the power of the gospel and that transformation, by the grace he found in Christ, would motivate him to forgive his runaway slave and receive him, no longer as a slave, but as a dear brother in Christ.
It is sad that we do not know what happens with Paul’s appeal to Philemon, whether it led to Onesimus’ liberation within Philemon’s household or to his manumission as a free man. If the Onesimus who is mentioned as the bishop of Ephesus in the letter of Ignatious to the Ephesians (p. 114) is the same Onesimus who was Philemon’s slave, then Philemon accepted Onesimus as a brother in Christ and made him a free man.
I strongly recommend Scot McKnight’s commentary to pastors and lay people. There is much to learn in McKnight’s commentary about becoming agents of reconciliation in the places where we live and minister. The book includes an extensive bibliography, an index of subjects, an index of authors, and an index of Scripture and other ancient texts.
Claude F. Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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STUDIES ON PHILEMON:
McKnight, Scot. The Letter to Philemon. The New International Commentary of the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017.
Trible, Phyllis. Text of Terror. Overture to Biblical Theology. Philadelphia, Fortress Press, 1984.