Sunday, April 14, 2013

Philemon: alternative interpretations

Alternative views:

a)He might be a slave, but not a runaway.  He simply was asking Paul for help in being an advocate.  This view solves several problems with the traditional view, and this article  is helpful on Paul's style of persuasion/theme of the letter.  by Brian  Dodd: click here

  b)"This is not about a runaway slave at all.  Paul and Onesimus are literal brothers.":

There are several problems with the interpretation that Onesimus is a runaway fugitive slave.  There are other examples of letters written in the period that Paul was writing that implore slaves to return to their masters and that implore masters to receive their slaves back graciously.  Paul’s letter to Philemon does not follow the same pattern.
In addition, the epistle itself never says that Onesimus is a runaway or a thief, this is simply a presumption.  Finally, the entire argument that Onesimus is a slave is based on verse 15 and 16 where Paul uses the greek word doulos to describe Onesimus.  Certainly the word can be interpreted as slave, however, the word is used many other times in scripture and does not always mean that the one called doulos is a literal slave.  Sometimes doulos refers to a son or a wife, not a slave.  That one word is not a definitive identification of Onesimus.
What if Callahan’s interpretation is correct?  Onesimus not just a Christian, he is actually a blood brother to Philemon.  This interpretation means that the book of Philemon is about reconciliation in families rather than an admonition for the slave to remain obedient and the master to treat the slave fairly.  LINK: Philemon...Slave Master?

..and then we encounter these verses which have caused many varied interpretations.  Verses 15-16.  Callahan translates them as, “For on this account he has left for the moment, so that you might have him back forever, no longer as though he were a slave, but, more than a slave, as a beloved brother very much so to me, but now much more so to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.”[1]
First, there is a grammatical question about how to translate this phrase which many have rendered “no longer as a slave.”  Callahan dissects the greek and he argues that the phrase is more accurately translated, “no longer as though he were a slave.”  Even with Callahan’s translation, the question remains:  Why did Paul choose to use the word slave if Onesimus wasn’t a slave?
The word used is doulos and according to Callahan’s research, it “was a term of both honor and opprobrium in the early Christian lexicon.”[2]
It was thought to be an honor to be called a doulos tou theou or a slave of God.  In fact, Paul calls himself a slave of Christ in several of his letters including Romans, Philippians, and Titus, as do other authors of the epistles of James and 2 Peter.
It is also true that the term slave signified subjugation, powerlessness, and dishonor, one who does not have liberty or agency on one’s own.
Callahan argues that Paul is using the term doulos to capture both dimensions of the human condition and is perhaps even making a connection with the Christ hymn in Philippians 2 where he quotes an ancient hymn that exalts the Christ who humbles himself to be nothing, powerless, and empty of the divine dimension, like a slave to the human condition.
Callahan argues that Paul is simply calling Onesimus a slave in the same way that he describes himself as a slave.  Onesimus is also a doulos tou theou, a slave of God.
If this is the case, then Paul uses language that indicates Onesimus and Philemon are related, in fact that they are brothers in the flesh.  Reconciliation and love between brothers was a special concern for several ancient writers and philosophers.  One Roman philosopher named Plutarch writes of the importance of repairing a breach between brothers, even if it comes through a mutual friend...

-LINK: Philemon...Brother?

NOTE also: metaphorical terminology by Paul re: slavery in Galatians 4:7:
"So you are no longer a slave, but God’s child; and since you are his child, God has made you also an heir"... actually a verse quite similar to Philemon 16 (first clause the same, second clause family language)
"no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother."


Philemon, an allegory?

Consider the following passage (Philemon 8-18) with these analogies in mind:
Paul (the advocate) : Jesus
Onesmus (the guilty slave) : us (sinners)
Philemon (the slave owner) : God the Father
Accordingly, though I (Paul) am bold enough in Christ to command you (Philemon) to do what is required, yet for love's sake I prefer to appeal to you—I, Paul, an old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus— I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment. (Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.) I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart. I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel, but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own free will. For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.
So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me. If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it—to say nothing of your owing me even your own self.   LINK: Philemon, an allegory?

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