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New Testament Words and Verses
Understanding Philemon, Two

I left off my first essay on the engaging but completely unclear point of Paul 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.”


We have no idea what Paul means.  Had he saved Philemon’s life on some occasion?  Kept him out of legal trouble? Given him a new direction in life that changed Philemon completely?  Not a clue, but this obscure reference certainly acts as an assertion of power by Paul to get Philemon to receive Onesimus back.  Onesimus must have violated Philemon’s trust (or his pocketbook) in some significant way. That’s all we can say about that issue.


                                                                             Earlier in the Letter


But we can say even more if we retreat to the earlier verses of the letter.  The opening seven verses aren’t too important for my consideration in these two essays, but two quick comments on them are appropriate. First, verse 6 makes little sense. Literally we have “so that the fellowship of your faith might become active in knowledge of all the good things among us in Christ.”  The phrase “fellowship of faith” is bewildering; perhaps Paul is just talking about the fellowship created through the act of faith, but I think Paul, as many other early Christian writers, gets a bit carried away with verbiage.  But the more interesting point is his appeal to “love” in vv 5 and 7.  Love, of course, is a wonderful Christian virtue, but Paul’s double mention of it with regard to Philemon in three verses is a kind of “flag” for me, signaling that there may be an appeal to “love” to “force” certain behavior in the next few verses.


                                                           Manipulating the Concept of Love

Indeed, that seems to be the case. Paul deftly goes from his mention of Philemon’s love, which all the world, apparently, or at least a bunch of saints, “find refreshing” (ἀναπέπαυται, v 7), to an appeal to this love based on Paul’s authority.  We know that Paul is trying to manipulate the concept of love when we read the next verses:


8 Διὸ πολλὴν ἐν Χριστῷ παρρησίαν ἔχων ἐπιτάσσειν σοι τὸ ἀνῆκον 9 διὰ τὴν ἀγάπην μᾶλλον παρακαλῶ, τοιοῦτος ὢν ὡς Παῦλος πρεσβύτης νυνὶ δὲ καὶ δέσμιος Χριστοῦ Ἰησοῦ·


“On account of the great freedom/boldness I have to command what is fitting to you, I would rather encourage you, out of love, being as I am Paul the elder statesman, and a prisoner of Jesus Christ.”


I think I get some mixed signals in these verses.  Obviously Paul is preparing to ask Philemon for a favor.  He is in the “windup” mode before throwing the “pitch.”  He has a great boldness in Christ and can order Philemon to do things.  He is, after all, the Apostle and, as I have just pointed out, Philemon in some sense owes his very self to Paul.  In addition, since Philemon is motivated by love (Paul tells us this twice), Paul exhorts Philemon out of love (the third time the word is used—v 9) to do his bidding.  So, Paul has really ramped up the authority here, from mentioning how he could demand that Philemon act in a certain way to saying how loving Philemon is.  I can sense that a really big favor request is coming.


                                                            The Big Favor Request

And it is, in vv 10-17.  I need not go through and exposit all these verses to get to the main point.  All I seek to do is to point out a few ambiguities that make Paul’s request opaque to us today.  First, he mentions that he “begat” Onesimus while in chains/imprisonment (v 10).  Does that mean he led him to a confession of faith? Something else? Then, he mentions that Onesimus formerly wasn’t useful to Philemon but now is useful to both of them. Was he a bad slave, if indeed he was a slave?  Is Paul just speaking spiritually—that as a non-believer Onesimus wasn’t ”useful?”  Can’t go very far with this one.  

But then the really difficult issue arises.  Paul wants him Onesimus to go back and be received “no longer as a slave” (οὐκέτι ὡς δοῦλον, v 16) but “more than a slave” (ἀλλ’ ὑπὲρ δοῦλον, v 16).  Other translations of this terribly ambiguous phrase are possible, but this seems to capture it well enough. But this isn’t the worst of it.  Onesimus is now a “brother,” indeed a “beloved brother” (got to get in another reference to “love,” v 16) especially to Paul, but πόσῳ δὲ μᾶλλον σοὶ καὶ ἐν σαρκὶ καὶ ἐν κυρίῳ, or “how much more to you both in the flesh and in the Lord.”

What??  If we go along with the literal or word-for-word meaning of these verses we have not only the fact that Onesimus was a slave but that he was actually the physical, genetic brother of Philemon.  Paul will receive Onesimus as a brother, but Philemon receives him as his brother “both in the flesh and in the Lord.”  How could Paul possibly have mentioned Onesimus’ relation to Philemon in this way if he were not actually his brother?


                                                                         Meaning Escapes Us

But that is where we have now lost all meaning.  Or, better said, we are dealing with so many incompatible concepts that we just have to say “Uncle!” For if we take these words literally we have the reality of a brother (Philemon) enslaving his (physical/genetic) brother (Onesimus), then Onesimus somehow having done something unjust to Philemon and having run off to Paul, perhaps for some kind of protection, and then Paul providing that protection verbally by holding something over Philemon’s head from the past.  And Paul bathes it all in the language of love, which should lead Philemon to make the “right” decision in this case.


It really is a very intriguing letter, but intriguing not because we know what is going on or because it is so generative of hypotheses of what is going on, but because we can see power dynamics at work, and especially the way that money may play a part in  it.  As for using this text to construct aspects of Christian doctrine, be my guest.  I am just luxuriating in the human complexity created by the words.

I Timothy 1:1-7
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