The Letter of Paul to Philemon

Embassy of Onesimus: The Letter of Paul to Philemon

Harrill, J Albert

ALLEN DWIGHT CALLAHAN, Embassy of Onesimus: The Letter of Paul to Philemon (The New Testament in Context; Valley Forge, PA: Trinity, 1997). Pp. xiv + 96. Paper $11.

This commentary is a revision and expansion of Callahan’s article “Paul’s Epistle to Philemon: Toward an Alternative Argumentum,” HTR 86 (1993) 357-76, which challenges the standard textbook interpretation of Paul’s letter to Philemon. Callahan argues that Onesimus was not a slave, and consequently not a runaway, but was Philemon’s brother in blood relation. According to C., Paul, writing to Philemon, does not address the question of slavery at all; he addresses rather the estrangement of two (actual) brothers whose philadelphia he hopes to restore by dispatching Onesimus as his “apostolic emissary” (p. 40).

This thesis is bold but not original (as C. himself admits). Nineteenth-century antislavery and abolitionist Protestant preachers advanced it as part of their biblical argument against the moral legitimacy of legalized slavery in the American South. If C. is correct, he offers an appealing revisionist history that might help to reduce a hermeneutical tension between biblical interpretation and Christian moral debate. Unfortunately, C. weakens the plausibility of his thesis by sidestepping the whole embarrassing issue of slavery and by confusing two separate exegetical questions: first, whether Onesimus was a fugitive slave; second, whether Onesimus was a slave.

In the introduction C. surveys past scholarship on the letter, beginning with John Chrysostom, whom C. faults as the source of many interpretive errors. Since much is contrary to C.’s own reconstruction or is simply “redundant” (p. x), he chooses not to be exhaustive here. Readers who need a comprehensive, detailed history of exegesis or of ancient slavery will have to look elsewhere. C. hopes to avoid what he calls the “perversity” of “academic obsession with minutiae” and chooses instead to exercise “restraint in an effort to be clear, concise, and simple, but not too simple” (p. xi).

The commentary contains two key sections, an excursus on “a beloved brother” (Phlm 16) and another on “I shall repay” (Phlm 19). In the first he argues that Onesimus is Philemon’s actual brother; in the second he claims that Phlm 19 is a text supporting the justice of national reparations for African Americans after the precedent of those given to the victims of the Iranian civilian airliner downed in July 1988 and to Japanese Americans interned during the Second World War. Yet, given C.’s previous claim that the letter has nothing to do with slavery, its relevance to contemporary debates over appropriate actions to correct America’s legacy of slavery and racism is not immediately apparent.

Concerning the question of the fugitive slave, C. may be correct, but not for the reasons he gives. Essentially, he follows previous challenges to the traditional hypothesis of the runaway slave held by John Knox, Sara Winter, and Peter Lampe, among others. Following Lampe (“Keine ‘Sklavenflucht’ des Onesimus,” ZNW76 [1985] 135-37), C. asserts that “according to the authoritative opinions of several Roman jurists, if, indeed, Onesimus came to Paul for intercession, such a situation does not constitute flight” (p. 6). The issue is more complex. It involves a technical debate over the difference in Roman private law between a runaway (fugitivus) and a truant (erro), about which the jurists themselves did not agree (Digest 11.4.1.5, Ulpian), which the jurists acknowledged to be removed from common opinion (Digest 21.1.17.4, Vivian). In the reconstruction of the social situation of Paul’s letter, these technical minutiae of classical juridical debate have dubious value. C. confuses law with social description.

Whether Onesimus was a slave at all is a separate question, and here C. strains credulity. He makes questionable use of patristic sources in his effort to portray both the hypothesis of the runaway slave and the idea that Onesimus as a slave was an invention of Chrysostom (an idea to which objections have been raised by Margaret M. Mitchell, “John Chrysostom on Philemon: A Second Look,” HER 88 [1995] 135-48, which C. does not adequately counter). Pace C.’s statements on pp. 12-19, the reason for the letter’s devaluation and sparse commentary prior to Chrysostom is that its particularity caused doubts about its suitability for general use in the churches (see Nils Alstrup Dahl, “The Particularity of the Pauline Epistles as a Problem in the Ancient Church,” Neotestamentica et Patristica: Eine Freundesgabe Herrn Professor Dr. Oscar Cullmann zu seinem 60. Geburtstag uberreicht [NovTSup 6; Leiden: Brill, 1962] 260-71, at 265). What commentary does survive C. incorrectly dismisses. For example, quoting Athanasius, “Thus Sara called Abraham `lord,’ though not a servant but a wife, and . . . Philemon the master the Apostle joined to Onesimus the servant as a brother,” C. says the passage “mitigates against a literal reading of `slave,’ doulos” (p. 17). This is simply wrong. Athanasius’ point depends on the fact that he understood Onesimus to have been an actual chattel slave.

There are also doubts about C.’s philology. C. insists that the use of the Greek hos in v. 16-which C. translates, “no longer as though he were a slave”-indicates that “Onesimus’s servile status is a thought or assertion on Philemon’s part and not a point of fact” (p. 44). This is highly speculative and does not follow normal Pauline usage of hos elsewhere (e.g., hos Christou apostoloi, I Thess 2:7).

Readers unfamiliar with the American antislavery and abolitionist material should be aware that C.’s history of interpretation omits a crucial fact. The nineteenthcentury debate over the status of Onesimus as a slave belonged to a larger, and more important, debate over the term “servant” in the King James Bible. Antislavery preachers alleged that there were no slaves in the NT because at every occurrence of the NT term doulos the word was translated “servant.” The English term was read for its so-called plain sense to mean a voluntary servant, free apprentice, or hired employee. This view became known as the “Barnes Hypothesis,” after its most forceful expounder (Albert Barnes, An Inquiry into the Scriptural Views of Slavery [Philadelphia: Perkins & Purves, 1846] 318-31, concerning Onesimus). Yet this particular antislavery line of argument should be taken for what it is: semantic subterfuge whose exegetical failure even later abolitionists eventually recognized.

Unfortunately, we have one of those cases in which we cannot correct a NT passage that appears to be immoral, even when the interest to do so serves the noblest of aims.

J. Albert Harrill, DePaul University, Chicago, IL 60614

Copyright Catholic Biblical Association of America Oct 1998

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