Monday, November 18, 2013

can Wright be wrong? Philemon and Onesimus as (half) bothers AND slave/master

When looking at "alternative" readings of Philemon, it is amazing how few even deal with the reality that the most obvious way to read  vv 15-16-- "a dearly loved brother, both in the flesh and in the Lord" --as
both a literal and spiritual brother.

Tim Gombis is so right:

My main contention in these posts is that commentators must take Paul’s reference to Philemon and Onesimus as adelphoi en sarki with greater seriousness.  It is highly unlikely that Paul regards the two as sharing in a common humanity.  It is far more likely that they are actual brothers.  This may demand a re-consideration of the scenario that eventuates in Paul’s letter, even though any modification to the consensus view need not be as dramatic as the view advanced by Callahan.  link

Even N.T. Wright, who specializes in Philemon; even making it the key to his new magnum opus on Paul,
acknowledges the "literal brother" interpretation, but does not even consider it or discuss it (in 1700 pages) other than to say:

"one writer [Callahan] has even suggested that Philemon and Onesimus were not master and slave, but actual brothers who have fallen out, but, this too, has not found support."  (p. 8)

Just because Callahan may have gone too far, must we throw interpretations out with bathwater?
Is Wright (surely!) aware that they could be master/slave and literal brothers, as Gombid develops (here) and suggests "this is the most natural reading."   Wright's work is indeed brilliant and seminal, but perhaps Moo has a point about him being too sure of his the degree that, though he is the nicest guy, he can seem dismissive:

I won’t list other instances, but Paul and the Faithfulness of Godcontains too many of these kinds of rhetorically effective but exaggerated or overly generalized claims. A related problem is Wright’s tendency to set himself against the world—and then wonder why the world is so blind as to fail to see what he sees. A key thread, for instance, is Wright’s insistence that the basic story Paul’s working with has to do with God’s fulfillment of his covenant promises to Abraham—a vital focus that “almost all exegetes miss” and that has been “screened out from the official traditions of the church from at least the time of the great creeds” (494). This problem is sometimes compounded by a caricature of the tradition with which he disagrees   Moo, full review

Don't get me wrong, I'm still getting the T-shirt...just saying (:

Another post from Gombis:

Several years ago I was teaching Bible study methods to undergrads and we were doing an exercise with the text of Paul’s letter to Philemon.  A student raised his hand and noted that according to the text it appeared that Onesimus was the brother of Philemon.
This sounded outrageous and obviously wrong, so I asked how he could possibly have arrived at that notion.  He directed my attention to vv. 15-16.  We were looking at the NASB:
For perhaps he was for this reason separated from you for a while, that you would have him back forever, no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother, especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.
I hadn’t studied this letter all that closely previously, so I assumed that Paul’s indication that they were brothers “both in the flesh and in the Lord” must mean something else.  Other translations make this very assumption:
Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever—no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord (NIV).
Maybe this is the reason that Onesimus was separated from you for a while so that you might have him back forever— 16 no longer as a slave but more than a slave—that is, as a dearly loved brother. He is especially a dearly loved brother to me. How much more can he become a brother to you, personally and spiritually in the Lord (CEB)!
I told him that I’d need to look at that a bit more closely and get back to him at a later point (one of those unfortunate classroom moments when you don’t have a ready answer–ugh!).
As I dipped into commentaries over the subsequent weeks and months, I was increasingly disappointed by how commentators treated Paul’s expression.  The NIV’s and CEB’s renderings represent how nearly every major commentary I’ve looked at handles Paul’s

I have had similar experiences in college classes.  Often in  a class of fifteen, where most are reading the text for the first time, I ask "How many of you assumed Onesimus was a slave?"  Often, no hands go up.
I need to ask : "How many of you assumed Onesimus was a Philemon's literal brother?"

Interesting that a far more popular (in the sense of "speaking to laypeople" and not in the academic journal world) writer than Wright, assumes the literal brother view, without even acknowledging the "traditional" view (emphases mine):
  Philemon is a marvelous example of the strongest force in the universe to affect control over someone -- grace. It takes up one of the most difficult problems we ever encounter, that of resolving quarrels between family members. We can ignore something a stranger does to hurt us, but it is very hard to forgive a member of our own family or someone close to us.
The key to this little letter is in the 16th verse. Paul says to Philemon that he is sending back Onesimus: 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. (Philemon 1:16 RSV)

The background of this story is very interesting. This letter was written when the Apostle Paul was a prisoner in the city of Rome for the first time. It was sent to Philemon, a friend Paul had won to Christ, who lived in Colossae. Evidently Philemon had a young brother whose name was Onesimus.
Some way or another, we do not know how, Onesimus got into trouble -- maybe he was a gambling man -- and became the slave of his own brother, Philemon. In those days, if a man got into trouble, he could get somebody to redeem him by selling himself to that person as a slave. Perhaps Onesimus got into debt, and went to his brother, Philemon, and said, "Philemon, would you mind going to bat here for me? I'm in trouble and I need some money."
Philemon would say, "Well, Onesimus, what can you give me for security?"
Onesimus would say, "I haven't got a thing but myself, but I'll become your slave if you'll pay off this debt." Now that may or may not have been how it occurred, but the picture we get from this little letter is that Philemon is the brother of Onesimus, and his slave as well.  -Ray Stedman, link

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