Theologizing a Slave’s Anthropology in Philemon

In this seemingly insignificant and socially-mundane letter, Paul makes a shocking theological claim about a slave’s anthropology.

In the ancient Roman world, slaves were generally viewed as a “thing” (res), a “property with a soul,” a non-person person, living a “suspended death” and enduring a painful and shameful existence. But when a slave named Onesimus believed the gospel, he became Paul’s (and God’s) “child” (v. 10) while remaining Philemon’s slave. So, Paul sends him back (v. 12). However, Philemon also became Paul’s (and God’s) child through the gospel (v. 19), which makes perfect theological sense. Philemon ought to recognize Onesimus as his brother. Paul therefore calls Onesimus to receive him “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother [ἀδελφὸν ἀγαπητόν]…both in the flesh [ἐν σαρκὶ] and in the Lord [ἐν κυρίῳ]” (v. 16).

But what does this oft-debated verse mean? Many scholars think that the title “brother” implies absolute equality, with theological status “in the Lord” eradicating social status “in the flesh” (e.g., Susan Bieberstein, Norman Petersen, Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza). In this way, Paul, they argue, redeems Onesimus’s personhood. But this argument affirms an over-realized eschatology, imposes a modern definition of “equality” onto Paul, and assumes familial language erases social distinctions in the world (not to mention the denial of Col, Eph, and 1 Tim as “Pauline”).

Instead, this paper will argue that Paul’s implicit theology of grace in this letter theologizes Onesimus’s anthropology and redeems his humanity without erasing social distinctions. Paul does this by outlining a theological relationship “in Christ” (vv. 4-6), in which he incorporates Onesimus. By doing so, he moves from the worldly economy (“flesh”) to an other-worldly economy (“in Christ”), and he moves from identifying as “property” to existing as a “gift” (cf. vv. 14, 17, 20). Philemon is then called to accept this gift and relate to him as such in “the now and not yet” of these economies. For while they are “in the Lord,” their theological status must govern (but does not eradicate) their social relationship “in the flesh.”

What results is a socio-theological recalibration of the master-slave relationship, one that counters egalitarian interpretations and showcases Paul’s theology of grace as he reconfigures Onesimus before Philemon’s very eyes and promotes a counter-cultural way of relating to those who are socially inferior. In the end, Paul’s letter to Philemon becomes a clarion call to permit theology to determine our anthropology and that of others.

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