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New Testament Words and Verses
Philemon:  Getting Our Bearings



Recently I spoke to a long-time friend, a distinguished scholar of the New Testament and Early Christianity, and she informed me that she just completed teaching an intensive January session on Philippians and Philemon. It’s not too often that Philemon comes up in a conversation so I decided to re-read these 25 verses in Greek and see, if I could, what is going on there.  I studied the epistle in the bloom of youth but have not returned to it in many years.


In a nutshell I will say at the outset that we don’t know what is going on in Philemon, and Paul is just ambiguous enough at many points, and leaves many issues stated unclearly that could have been stated clearly, that it not only invites speculation but shows in this case the poverty of speculation.


                                           The Traditional View of the Letter to Philemon


Well, let’s begin with the “standard” view of Philemon.  Philemon, as the dominant narrative goes, was a wealthy slave-owner in Colossae who had a church that met in his home.  Paul may or may not have visited that city, but he had a particular interest in aspects of the church life in that town, reflected in his Letter to the Colossians (though it is a “disputed” letter, I tend to lean towards its being a genuine Pauline epistle). In the Letter to Philemon we run into a man named Onesimus who seems to have been a slave of Philemon who somehow had made his way to visit Paul in his imprisonment (probably at Rome) and had embraced the Christian faith.  Though Paul would love to keep Onesimus with him to help him out, he realizes he must send him back to Philemon.  But he sends him back with this letter in hand, urging Philemon to receive him as “more than a slave” but as a “brother.”  


We can see tantalizing uncertainties even in this brief standard description of the short letter. Was Onesimus actually a slave, and a slave owned by Philemon?  When Paul sent him back, what was he really saying to Philemon?  To release him from slavery?  Or simply to treat him well?  What does it mean that Onesimus may have wronged Philemon and that this wrong should be charged to Paul’s account?


Well, it certainly is time for me to re-read the letter, and perhaps not just me.  But let’s begin.


                                                                  Beginning with the Tone


No one these days questions the authenticity of the Letter to Philemon.  It is written by the Apostle Paul from one of his imprisonments. The clearest sign to me that Paul is speaking here is that in his other letters he doesn’t know how to speak very well about money and its relationship to his authority as an Apostle, and that subject also comes out loud and clear in Philippians.  It is a theme not often noted by scholars in reading his letters (people are more interested in lofty theological issues) but is one that really can’t be faked very well by eager disciples who might otherwise want to “copy” his style. 


Paul doesn’t know how or whether he should ask for money from his congregants or followers.  Should he gently ask for it, beg for it, demand it?  Does he really need it?  Should he mention it at all? Does the “value” he has brought them as Apostle mean that they “owe” him anything?  Can he just require obedience or does he have the right to expect them to support him? He is just so confused as to how to calibrate the relationship of money and faith and his authority, and he often therefore doesn’t speak clearly on the subject. He wouldn’t be the last person in a position in ministry to be confused about this issue.


                                                    To the Text—Authority and Money


We see his awkwardness regarding money near the end of the letter. Paul has urged Philemon, using an ambiguous appeal to “you owe me” in verse 17:


εἰ οὖν με ἔχεις κοινωνόν, προσλαβοῦ αὐτὸν ὡς ἐμέ.


“If you really hold me in common fellowship (with you), receive him as you would me.”


So, Paul is encouraging Philemon to receive Onesimus back, but he puts in what I call the “dig of authority.”  It is a little bit of the “if you really loved me, then . .”—type of line. Now that Paul has opened the authority door, he drives right through it.  First, he turns to money and wrongdoing in verse 18-19a:


18 εἰ δέ τι ἠδίκησέν σε ἢ ὀφείλει, τοῦτο ἐμοὶ ἐλλόγα. 19 ἐγὼ Παῦλος ἔγραψα τῇ ἐμῇ χειρί, ἐγὼ ἀποτίσω·


“If he has done you some kind of harm/wrong, or he owes you something, charge this (wrong/harm) to me.  I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will repay (you).” 


Paul’s delightful use of words ought not to be ignored here.  He uses two rare verbs (for the NT):  ἐλλόγα (an imperative: “impute” or “charge”) and the hapax ἀποτίσω, (future tense:  “pay back”).  Then, he uses the colorful ἠδίκησέν (an aorist tense, “injure” or “do wrong to”), but softens it a bit with a financial word: ὀφείλει (present tense, “s/he owes”).  Of course the presses run overtime trying to accommodate all the suggestions of scholars as they hypothesize on what wrong a slave (if indeed Onesimus was a slave of Philemon) could have done to his master, or what he might “owe.”  Indeed, if he is a salve, you would think that he has already given his mater his life.  What more could he “owe”?  Has he stolen something from his master?  Then you see how all the speculation can become pretty worthless pretty quickly.


What is most interesting to me is the financial component of the connection between Paul and Philemon.  Paul is offering to pay Philemon back for some debt/injury Onesimus has done.  But then, the next words demonstrate to me Paul’s discomfort with the whole subject to money and faith.  He says in verse 19b:  


ἵνα μὴ λέγω σοι ὅτι καὶ σεαυτόν μοι προσοφείλεις.


“It goes without saying that you owe me, in addition, your very self.”


What???  I love it when sentences begin with “it goes without saying” (a kind of free, but accurate, translation of the ἵνα μὴ λέγω σοι) because the person is usually quick to tell the reader what goes without saying.  And what goes without saying is said in an engaging and ultimately unclear way:  ‘you owe your life to me.’  What could Paul possibly mean by that?  Silence.  But this gives you enough, I hope, to convince you that there may be enough to look at in a second essay on Philemon.

Philemon, Two
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