Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Philemon:"full of inside jokes.. the most fun anyone ever had writing while incarcerated..Paul's most absurd paradoxes"

Sarah Ruden, in Paul Among the People (Amazon here; 
Christianity Today article and interview here)  spends some time in the preface; as well as most of Chapter 6, on Philemon.  A worthy read! (Sorry about the formatting below, click the links for a cleaner read; see also Philemon: full of humor?

From the preface:
The letter to full of inside jokes and high-as-a-kite invocations of the transcendent...Paul joyfully mocks the notion that any person placing himself in the hands of God can be limited or degraded in any way that matters.  The letter must represent the most fun anyone ever had writing while incarcerated.

The letter to Philemon may the most explicit demonstration of how, more than anyone else, Paul created the western individual human being, unconditionally precious to God and therefore entitled to the consideration of other human beings.  -page xix, preface, read the whole preface here
From Chapter 6:

But bare forgiveness was radical enough, especially in the main territory of Paul's mission
But bare forgiveness was radical enough, especially in the
main territory of Paul’s mission. There, forgiving a runaway
slave (particularly a runaway who had taken goods with him,
as Onesimus may have done), instead of sending him to hard
labor, branding him, crucifying him, or whipping him to
death, was no small matter, when he had so shockingly
betrayed his household (familia in Latin, from which we have
the obvious derivative). Running away and its punishments
are the stuff of black comedy. The ancients treated such
episodes almost the way we treat sex acts: the details are too
shameful for mainstream literature or polite conversation.
For the Romans as for us, a single-word insult—for them
“runaway”—could invoke adequate disgust on its own.

To show the extremity of what Paul faced in having a run-
away slave land in his lap, I will start with a scene in
Petronius. Imagine what the apostle got used to in the estab-
lished Greco-Roman society he experienced, as when he was
staying with a man wealthy enough to have a guest room, as
Philemon did. Petronius’s story of Trimalchio’s dinner party
is exaggerated and absurd, but the narrator Encolpius pro-
vides the voice of cultured common sense among all of the
pretentious uproar. From him we know that it was good form
for the master to order severe punishment for slaves even in
the case of carelessness and accidents that in any way marred

hospitality. It was also apparently polite for the guests to
intervene, in the spirit of “Oh, no, not on my behalf, please!"..

...To be seen and never heard was not the universal rule.
Some slaves gained status in households and entered into
close relationships with their masters. Cicero’s secretary Tiro
is an example. Some masters, like Seneca, vaunted their
humanity toward slaves. But I submit that slaves were like
pets: good treatment of them was about the masters’ enlight-
enment, never about the slaves’ inherent equality. The mas-
ter was absolutely entitled to keep a slave in line, according
to his own convenience.

....The most subhuman slave was the runaway; his only ties
to society had been the uses that real people could make of
him, and he now forfeited these ties. He was a little like a
raped or adulterous woman, but unlike her he bore all of the
loathing and fury, in this case the extreme loathing and fury
that come when absolute privilege is disappointed.

As a rule, a runaway was simply a lost cause: a far-out out-
law as long as he could sustain it, and a tortured animal or a

carcass when caught. Here is a rare detailed depiction. In
Petronius, characters masquerade as caught runaways after
they realize they have a choice between being recognized and
killed, and becoming objects whose repulsiveness will bar
any other impression from onlookers’ minds. They shave
their heads as part of the disguise, and even after this act has
been reported to the owner of the ship on which they are sail-
ing—haircutting at sea was considered a bad omen—and
they must stand in the middle of an angry crowd that
includes their longtime enemies, their protector still hopes
that their role of degradation will shield their identity..

...Again, who a runaway was—nobody and nothing—tells
us who a slave was: nobody and nothing aside from his use-
fulness. And Aristotle and others indicate that he is inher-
ently that. This is what makes the debate over the letter to
Philemon, concentrating on the question of legal freedom, so
silly. We are not in the ancient Near East, where the people
who were slaves in Egypt become masters in Canaan. Such a
change was not conceivable in the polytheistic Roman
Empire. Had Philemon freed Onesimus, it would not have
turned Onesimus into a full human being. That is what Paul
wants, so he does not ask for the tool that won’t achieve it..
....But as I wrote above, Paul had a much more ambitious
plan than making Onesimus legally free. He wanted to make
him into a human being, and he had a paradigm. As God
chose and loved and guided the Israelites, he had now chosen
and loved and could guide everyone. The grace of God could
make what was subhuman into what was more than human.
It was just a question of knowing it and letting it happen.
The way Paul makes the point in his letter to Philemon is
beyond ingenious. He equates Onesimus with a son and a
brother. He turns what Greco-Roman society saw as the fun-
damental, insurmountable differences between a slave and
his master into an immense joke.

This chapter and previous ones have given some idea of
who the most and the least replaceable people were in the
eyes of the Greeks and Romans. I just want to stress again
how crucial the relationship was between freeborn fathers
and their legitimate sons, and between full freeborn brothers.
Along with the misconstruing of ancient slavery, a huge bar-
rier to modern readers’ getting Philemon is that we can’t,
just from our own experience, see fatherhood and brother-
hood as sacred—they have not been so for hundreds of years..

...Brothers also played important roles in the Greek and
Roman social systems. They were supposed to have close bondsof trust and affection, which were idealized in myth and his-
tory. The archetypal brothers were the gods Castor and
Pollux. In one version of their story, the immortal brother
refuses to accept the death of the mortal one and extracts
from Zeus permission to sacrifice part of his own godhead so
that the two can remain together: they now spend alternate
days on Olympus and in the underworld. In another ending,
they become a constellation, the Twins, or Gemini.

In Roman thinking, the legendary first king Romulus’s
killing of his brother, Remus, was almost like original sin, a
presage of the heinous “fraternal slaughter” in the civil wars:
Romans, people of the same blood, essentially of the same
clan, tragically echoed Romulus’s crime.

Since there was no rule of primogeniture (by which the
eldest son gets most or all of the inheritance) among either
the Greeks or the Romans, brothers were on a fairly equal
footing and were expected to collaborate constantly for the
good of the family. “Brother” could be a metaphor for other
close and equal relationships, but Greeks and Romans never
used the term to create
a sense of closeness and equality out of
division. Christians did, which at the start would have
seemed bizarre. Imagine the impropriety of calling every-
body at an open religious gathering “husbands and wives.” In
fact, a rumor that did much damage to the early church was
that the meetings of “brothers and sisters” involved incest.

A slave was a son of no one. No man could claim him as a child,
and no slave could make a claim on any man as his father. He
could never be sure who his full biological siblings were—
not that, officially, it mattered. But Paul unites all of these
categories in writing of Onesimus, in the most thoroughgo-
ing, absurd set of paradoxes in all of his letters:


Onesimus, though a slave, is Paul’s acknowledged son.
Onesimus, though an adult, has just been born.
Paul, though a prisoner, has begotten a son.
Paul, though physically helpless, is full of joy and
Paul is ecstatic to have begotten a runaway slave.
It is a sacrifice for Paul to send Onesimus back: he self-
ishly wants the services of this runaway slave for him-
self; conversely, he gives away his beloved newborn son.
Paul has wanted Onesimus to remain with him in place
of Philemon, as if a runaway slave could be as much
use to him, and in the same capacities, as the slave’s
Onesimus’s flight must result not in punishment but in
promotion to brotherhood with his master.
Onesimus (“Profitable”) was perhaps unprofitable when
treated as a slave and certainly unprofitable as a run-
away, but will be profitable when treated as a beloved
Onesimus will be profitable not only to his master but
even to Paul.
Onesimus, a runaway slave, must be treated as having
the same value as Paul himself.
nobody here but us bondsmen ·
Paul promises emphatically to pay any monetary dam-
ages, but Philemon will (the reader senses) not take
him up on this.
Philemon will acknowledge and act on all of this of
his own free will, not needing any direct command
or explanation from Paul for this rather devastating-
looking set of policies.
Paul is confident that Philemon will do even more
than he asks, but what is he asking? For Philemon to
make Onesimus his brother in practical terms is
impossible; even if Philemon took the dizzying step of
making him an heir, he could not share with him his
own privileges as a freeborn person (assuming he is
one)—laws forbid it. But even as a figure of speech or
an ideal, what does “brother” mean? It is as if Paul were
writing, “I’m thinking of a big,
number. Guesswhat it is!”
Paul may also be parodying letters of recommendation.
Such letters of Cicero have a similar fulsomeness, and a sim-
ilar confident self-mockery as does the letter to Philemon. A
com mon come-on is along the lines of “I’m ridiculously excited
about this person, but of course you’ll indulge me because of
the valuable relationship between ourselves.” Cicero, like
Paul, takes the whole responsibility and promises wonderful
benefits. But Cicero’s letters of recommendation either ask
for specific things or are about people who will ably figure
out on their own what to do with a new connection. And
Cicero always stresses the personal merits of the subject:
(He plays explicitly on the idea of “Letters of recommendation” in
2Corinthians 3:1)

...Imagine, in this tradition, a prisoner writing on behalf of
a runaway slave and perhaps a thief, who may have no per-
sonal merits whatsoever or may just now be starting to show
some, and who could not normally find hope in anything but
pleas for mercy on his behalf from a man of material power
and influence with whom he has taken shelter. “Comic inver-
sion” just doesn’t cover what is going on in this letter. In
worldly terms, it is like a janitor throwing a party for his dog
and inviting a federal judge.

The solution, the punch line of the joke that is the letter
to Philemon, the climax of this farce, is God. God alone has
the power to make a runaway slave a son and brother, and in
fact to make any mess work out for the good—not that any-
one knows how, but it doesn’t matter. Philemon has only to
surrender to the grace, peace, love, and faith the letter urges,
and the miracle will happen. Paul seems to insist that it is
happening even as he prays for it, and he is goofy with joy:
Philemon cannot say no to him, because God cannot say no.
   -pp. 164-167, whole chapter on PDF here

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