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Paul's confrontation with class: the Letter to Philemon as counter-hegemonic discourse.

The claim that the Pauline letters have been most useful to systems of domination and oppression, is clear, well-documented, and has garnered proficient and erudite response. (1) The cultural currency of the Letter to Philemon in that regard has been emended by a hermeneutical tradition that, although widely debated, (2) has sustained as a normative reading. In addition to an interpretation that served to support systemic oppression, the letter has been regarded as bearing little or no theological substance. (3) I take issue with this position, as well as the dominant hermeneutic rendered by the interpretive communities in support of maintaining a hegemonic social structure, (4) with the requisite "hard" demarcations of class. The approach I propose toward assessing a fresh reading of Philemon is to engage a stratagem that is both conscious of and cautiously void of the traditional assumptions that have been found to permeate the writings on this text. These assumptions are convenient, yet dangerous in that their primacy has led to the subordination of the breadth of possibilities that might otherwise emerge as an alternative Philemon homiletic. (5) I recommend a reading of Philemon that diverts the primary focus from the request of Paul directed to the addressees, toward the act of requesting by Paul. It is from a reflexive perspective that a divergent Philemon homiletic manifests, one that recognizes Paul's act of letter writing as praxis. Finally, for the purposes of this treatment, I will define tragedy as an event, which results in the loss (and sometimes violent seizure) of previously enjoyed options of status, authority and liberty for an individual and/or community. (5)

The Letter to Philemon as an autobiographical narrative

I have employed a radical re-viewing of Paul's Letter to Philemon through the lens of an autobiographical narrative. This departure is not a rejection of its epistolary form, (6) but merely acknowledges that form as the "wineskin" housing the narrative. My thesis is opitulated by the proposal that the letter betrays a self-revealing narrative of its author. Reading the letter as a narrative allows the implementation of exegetical tools routinely employed in narrative criticism that might otherwise be disregarded in the study of an epistle. (7) In navigating this terrain I have drawn from and commend Norman Petersen's comprehensive work on the practice of reading a letter as a narrative, which reveals "forms of social relations which are dramatized as actions or episodes within a letter's story". (8)

The concentricity of Paul's literary worlds

Petersen encourages readers to view the smaller world of this particular letter in its concentric relationship with the larger world of Paul's other letters. (9) While I am mindful of the local and broader social worlds, which reciprocally influence and are influenced by the apostle's writings, I recognize the specificity of the occasions, which have summoned Paul's theological treatments relating to social issues. Paul uses the letter as a formal device to address these issues under the compulsion of a concrete situation. (10) The conventions and formulae of letter-writing provided Paul with a recognizable set of literary tools with which to work. Not only would employment of the contemporary devices of Paul's literary world be recognized, the stark differences between Paul's letter when compared to other letters in contemporary literature would be noticed. One difference cited in John White's study is Paul's "confidence formula". This formula has been considered the greatest formal difference between the body-closing in Paul's letters in comparison to the common letter tradition. (11)

Guiding questions and alternate theses

The letter, like the narrative is a construction of the author, is designed to provoke/invoke response. In determining the narratology of Paul's letter we will be concerned with discerning the following elements: (1) what is the contribution of the spatial and temporal settings toward the mood? (2) How does the style and structure contribute to plot or characterization? (3) Are there boundaries demarcating (signaling entrances and exits) the unit? (12) These guiding questions ultimately lead to an overarching one which asks, what is the theological value of the letter for later interpreting communities? (13) Although this last question is within the periphery of my thought process throughout this rereading of Philemon, we will address it in greater detail later. I credit Allen Dwight Callahan's essays in the Harvard Theological Review and his subsequent book Embassy of Onesimus as seminal works within the recent corpus (14) of divergent hermeneutics, which have functioned as a catalyst, encouraging the shift from the historical readings of Philemon. Callahan's treatment of Philemon questions the traditional "... interpretation bequeathed to us from late antiquity that the letter treats the case of Onesimus, a pilfering runaway slave, whom Paul is attempting to rehabilitate in the eyes of Philemon, his rightful angry master." (15) Even if one is not totally convinced of where Callahan's thesis takes him and all of its conclusions, (16) the strength of his criticism of the dominant readings is sufficient to dislodge us from research based on such "inherited" foundations. The inquiry which ensues asks, if not a treatment on a runaway slave, what Paul's Letter to Philemon might offer as an initial theological and subsequent liturgical rendering. This signals the genesis of the search for an alternative Philemon homiletic. Paul's Letter to Philemon and the variant perspectives that emerged from it have been hailed as "an excellent opportunity for a case study about the ways in which a person's social location can serve as a tacit rationale for reading inappropriate values into the text, distorting the documents original intent." (17) I have proposed what amounts to a shift in our reading of Philemon to that of an autobiographical narrative. This move would posit greater emphasis on Paul's action of requesting rather than the rhetoric of his request. It is through an analysis of Paul's action through rhetoric that we discover a public theology (18) that is clearly relevant to the spiritual and human social context.

Character representation in the letter-narrative

The endeavor to read Philemon as a narrative is commenced by engaging in a study of the character representations contained in the narrative. I will begin with the Apostle Paul's self-characterization. In reviewing how each of the characters is portrayed in this narrative we are in actuality looking at how Paul as the author has chosen to cast each individual. As well, this informs the reader of the social/class status of each character within the narrative from the authorial perspective. This action acquires an augmented dimension when examining the author's reflection of himself. This is due in part to what I will refer to as Paul's decasting and then recasting himself. The time and space constraints of this treatment necessitate limiting our analysis of character representation to three individuals, Paul, Onesimus and Philemon. (19)


Contained within the narrative is the decasting of Paul from his apostolic office. Later we will discuss the wider ramifications of this particular disidentification (20) of his apostolic authority. For now our focus is on the literary feature of casting and the circuitous action of recasting himself as the "prisoner of Christ," which was first introduced in the section of the letter where his apostolic identity would normally be inserted. (21) The role into which he has been recast is established as being intrinsically related to the basis of his appeal on behalf of Onesimus (vs.9). However, Paul does retain his "authority" as the only spoken voice throughout the narrative. This feature of the genre of letter writing allows him to shape the way value is ascribed to the characters and events contained in the letter. (22) In Paul's introductory greeting he performs the act of decasting by carefully omitting the attachment of any reference of authority to his name. He refrains from using the term "apostle" and extra text here ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) or the phrase "the servant of Christ" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). His self-designation (casting) is instead revealed in the appellation "a prisoner of Christ Jesus" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). One feature that denotes the uniqueness of this letter is its saturation with self-appellations. (23) Paul might also be understood as utilizing such (counter-hegemonic) language to emphasize his situation as a prisoner, as well as drawing attention to his social solidarity with Onesimus. Paul later reinforces this decasting through the mechanism of his soft (non-apostolic) appeal (vs.9).


Paul casts Philemon as someone whose social status ranks high on the dimension of wealth and evaluation within the sect. Philemon is presented to us as a property owner (a house large enough to accommodate meetings of Christians and house guests). (24) Within the letter, Paul is lauding Philemon's virtues (vs.5), casting him as one possessing both faith and love, thus presenting him as one who is fully capable of carrying out the request yet to come. The view of Philemon that Paul offers, establishes his (Philemon) virtuous possessions as the enabling factor further facilitating his capacity to comply favorably.


Onesimus is cast as an individual whose current value is distinctly different from his former (known) value, which was familiar to the addressees of the letter. (25) Paul again uses the mechanism of disidentification to decast Onesimus from his former ascribed status and presents him to the addressees in an elevated status (re-identification). Paul's use of language represents a play on the meaning of Onesimus' name (26) thereby offering a dichotomous cleavage of identity. He continues this process by encouraging the addressees to elevate him to an even higher social status. Thus, there is the (re) presentation of three status levels for Onesimus within the letter, two realized and one anticipated. (27) Paul raises the expectation of the anticipated higher status with his rhetoric at the start of his conclusion (vs.21). He expresses a personal confidence ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) in anticipation of Philemon's obedience ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) to his request. Yet it is the phrase that follows ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), "knowing that indeed beyond what I say, you will do," that gives evidence of Paul's greater expectation of his addressees. It is here where Paul makes it clear he is not merely requesting the community's ratification of his evaluation of Onesimus, but in fact is expecting that the community complete the transaction (independent of Paul) and graduate the process by bestowing upon Onesimus an even greater status than the one Paul has granted him.

Searching for an alternative Philemon homiletic

Any Philemon homiletic would be rooted in an understanding of the liturgical value of the book and lead to a theory regarding the impetus for its inclusion in the New Testament canon. One key leading to a departure from the traditional reading of Philemon is ensconced within the greeting/address. The fact that Philemon is prominently, while not solely addressed, distinguishes the text as a personal, albeit not private letter. This perspective is contrary to the view of some who perceive the letter as "purely private." (28) The listing of multiple recipients might suggest that although Philemon may be regarded as the principle recipient, the broader intended audience includes other individuals of prominence and influence. As the greeting also includes "the church that meets", it prompts an inquiry to discern if Paul's letter might have some didactic value for the broader audience that ekklesia (29) would infer. On this matter I find agreement with John Calvin who writes, "... he [Paul] seems to be thinking about the interests of the whole Church rather than the private affairs of a single man." (30) Others have expressed a concomitant view based their investigations of the distinct designations that Paul uses as titles for the addressees, his self-designation and the "prescript" formula. (31) This value would not be limited to the original audience, but the inclusion of the letter in the New Testament canon would suggest some recognized liturgical value for subsequent generations of the church. This perspective is divergent to the theory that these "witnesses" are merely included as part of the persuasion tactics of Paul to apply (community) pressure toward compliance. (32) Thus the written text simultaneously reflects and becomes an incarnation of Paul's theology/homiletic. (33) Correspondingly, Paul's address of a problem, and the greeting of specific individuals are not uncommon in his correspondence to churches, what sets the Letter to Philemon apart is the ordering of addressees. Even the specificity in attaching the names of individuals to problematic situations is not a feature unique to the Letter to Philemon. (34)

The historicity of tragedy in Paul's life

In reference to my definition of tragedy, the objective is to ascertain how this involuntary restrictive place of being might have affected Paul specifically in the matter concerning Onesimus. How influential might the place setting and circumstances of Paul been towards fostering an attitude of advocacy? In this regard Paul is no stranger to the efficacy of tragedy as a conduit for transformation. According to the Lukan writer's account, He personally experienced a life-changing transformation, as a result of tragedy (blindness) on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-22; 22:4-16; 26:9-18). One argument has Paul's theological understanding of the (tragedy of the) cross as God "encountering the powers of evil in the world and worldly perspectives and values." (35) It (the cross) is simultaneously viewed by Paul as the beginning of the dominion of the risen Christ, and for what it meant for the entire human race. (36)

The influence of Paul's spatial confinement

Paul's three references to his imprisonment (Vs. 1, 9, 10) prompted my inquiry into the possibility of how his corporeal confinement might be a factor of facilitation toward this expression of advocacy. One article suggests that "tragedy can result in reflection that fosters a balance between humility and power." (37) The tragedy of Paul's imprisonment resulted in his dislocation. The immediate realm of dislocation would obviously be the physical. A secondary and subsequent dislocation, though inspired by the first, was facilitated by the apostle. This dislocation is realized in the aforementioned decasting and disidentification from his apostolic authority. From that place of dislocation, In the midst of his tragic situation, Paul uses language to detach himself from the location of authority (power) that would demand compliance, and again uses language to attach himself to an alternate location (slave/servant of Christ) with a posture of humility, ensconced in love. His physical dislocation has eventually fostered an authoritative disorientation. Even so, Paul's praxis remained unencumbered by his imprisonment. In fact a study of Paul's activity while imprisoned reveals that he continued to be effective in ministry. (38)

The Letter

The device of a letter provides both the tool for articulating the request for the original audience in antiquity, and the medium for documentation of the narrative of events for historical archival. The letter also stands in contradistinction to personal (face to face) confrontation. Petersen enriches our understanding of this concept by offering "The use of a letter allows a necessary distance for a level of contemplation that might not otherwise be possible with a personal confrontation." (39) In this case Paul's tragedy has hindered his ability to proffer this request in person. Subsequently, the addressees are afforded a level of temporal and spatial comfort for deliberation that an in-person confrontation would not necessarily provide.

The sociology of letters

Norman Petersen has set forth five theses pertaining to the sociology of letters that are also relevant to the sociology of their stories. (40) There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you all are one in Christ Jesus (Gal.3:28).

Thesis 1. Every letter presupposes some form of previous relationship between the addresser and the addressee. Even if there is no prior relationship, a letter initiating a relationship must take the prior non-relationship as its premise (Romans is an example of this type).

Thesis 2. Every letter, once it has been received, constitutes a new moment or event in the relationship between the addresser and the addressee. The letter becomes a past-shared experience to which the correspondents can refer in the same way as they refer to past face-to-face encounters.

Thesis 3. Every letter implies at least one future stage in the relationship beyond the reception of the letter, the addressee's response. As in the case of the Letter to Philemon, the response may also include the expectation of reunion.

Thesis 4. Addressers, addressees, and other persons referred to in letters are related to one another within a "system of typifications, relevances, roles, positions, statuses."

Thesis 5. The rhetoric, style, and tone of a letter correspond to the addresser's perception of his or her status in relation to the addressee. (41)

Discourse as praxis and the reflexive theology of Paul's letter

Philemon, in comparison to the other letters of Paul, emerges as an intensely personal letter to be preserved within the New Testament canon. It is precisely its personal nature that adds to its value for study. Adolf Deissmann declared that Paul's Letter to Philemon "is one of the most valuable self-revelations that the great apostle has left us." (42) Following up on Deissman's concept, we will focus our investigation toward the possibilities of what might be discovered by exploring this line of inquiry. Our aim here is to take Alvin Gouldner's reflexive sociology theory and use it as a paradigm for a reflexive theology. This study will focus on the following characteristics of reflexive sociology:

1. A new praxis that transforms the person of the sociologist (author's emphasis).

2. An ultimate goal of deepening of the sociologist's own awareness of who and what he is, in a specific society at any given time, and of how both his social role and his personal praxis affect his work as a sociologist.

3. The relationship between the role and the man performing it. (43)

The transposition of these elements from a sociological to a theological framework would look like this:

1. A new Praxis that transforms the person of the theologian.

2. An ultimate goal of deepening of the theologian's own awareness of who and what she/he is, in a specific society at any given time, and of how both her/his social role and her/his personal praxis affect her/his work as a theologian.

3. The relationship between the role and the person performing it. (44)

With these elements in mind, a reflexive theology would therefore emphasize focusing on the practitioner/theologian. In this case Paul, his transformation, awareness of his personal praxis, and the reconciling of his role and personhood. At this juncture we draw from our previous analysis of Paul's self-characterization, in particular his disidentification of his apostolic office. In this area our study draws its greatest compliment from reflexive sociology. Whereas in R.S. "both the inquiring subject and the studied object are seen not only as mutually interrelated but also as mutually constituted," (45) in a reflexive theology Paul would not only understand his connection to the individuals and communities he ministers to, but would realize their mutual constitution. I would argue that this is what Paul intimates through his statement in vs.10 ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), "I beseech thee concerning my child, whom I begat in my bonds." And further supports by urging Philemon and the community to recognize Onesimus' new status in vs.11 ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), "but now both to thee and to me useful." Paul bridges the gulf of distanciation within the class/social structure by his usage of familial language to reflect an intimacy (mutual constitution) within the Paul-Philemon-Onesimus triangle. Paul's intention was to promote an ideology affirming that within the church of Jesus Christ the primary relationship would be a pseudo-familial relationship among peers. (46) These offerings by Paul to his addressees are not without a veiled reference to his apostolic authority. Even though Paul has elected to frame an appeal based on love he posits his proposition with the reminder in vs.8 that "he could be bold and command" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) "that which is required." (47) Through this reference we acknowledge that Paul's disidentification is not a total abandonment of his apostolic authority. That authority is merely withheld from employment as a mechanism toward compliance in this instance. However, the addressees are not allowed to totally divorce themselves from the reality of Paul apart from his apostolic office and authority. What is made clear to them however, is that Paul is voluntarily making this appeal from a different platform than that of an apostle. Paul is thereby creating a new paradigm by urging compliance based on love and a sense of duty and not simply obedience to authority. In this instance where the transformation of Onesimus has fostered the collision of the two households (one literal and the other figurative), the underlying understanding is that this proposition has been orchestrated by the hand of the apostle, even though Paul veils his role and authority as church leader throughout the process.

The notion of logos in Philemon

A narrative reading of the Letter to Philemon shows Paul actively engaged in a praxis of theology which is concomitant with his thought process in 2 Corinthians 10:11 where he speaks "Let such people understand that what we say by letter when absent, we will also do when present". In the case of the Letter to Philemon, it is in Paul's action (of requesting) that he is actually doing. It is precisely through an analysis of Paul's actions where we are able to sense the idea of the logos (48) present. Though the theological impressions of Paul's letter perceived solely through its epistolary form are admittedly implicit, Paul's actions, derived from a narrative reading are essentially explicit. Paul's language transcends the classification of persuasive rhetoric and demonstrates the active-ness of God in the human social world. The narratology of Paul's letter depicts God as transforming individuals, and shows that transformation to have a bearing on human social relationships. Paul from his place of incarceration embarks upon the task of catechizing Philemon's community into a comprehension of this multi-level amelioration. The imprisoned Paul is not hindered by tragedy, but rather uses it as the womb from which he is compelled to give birth to, and actively intervene on behalf of Onesimus. This intervention is carried out with a high degree of familial intimacy. His intervention includes the re-presentation of Onesimus, replete with a new value assessment, proffered to Philemon and his community. Thus Onesimus' transformation is spiritual in its genesis, but suffuses his social status as well. In this regard Paul assimilates the redemptive work of Christ, which is holistic in composition, and proposes that Philemon and community do likewise.

The praxis of Paul as the embodiment of the gospel

Paul published a praxis testifying to the transforming power of the gospel. In the same manner that Christ utilized the tragedy of the incarnation to facilitate his advocacy for humankind, Paul used the tragedy of his incarceration to facilitate an advocacy on behalf of Onesimus. The paralleled dimensions of Paul and Christ's ministries are striking. Here are just a few:

1. a. Paul used the occurrence of tragedy and method of self-abnegation to advocate for one whom had an experience of transformation at his hands.

b. Christ used self-abnegation as realized through the incarnation, and the tragedy of the cross to advocate for all humankind.

2. a. Paul challenged the existing social order by confronting the existing hierarchical social structure amongst church members (and leadership).

b. Christ challenged the socio-political order by presenting the notion of another "kingdom".

3. a. Paul's advocacy of Onesimus included redemption for whatever debt he had incurred.

b. Christ's redemptive death covered the debt of sin for humankind.

4. a. Paul's advocacy ended with the hope of an apostolic parousia.

b. Christ's earthly ministry ended with the promise of a parousia.

The liturgical and theological value of Philemon

In contrast to contemporary readers, the audience in antiquity might easily recognize the liturgical value of the letter because of their familiarity with the language and imagery used. For instance, the "blessing" contained in verse three composed of three elements and with its resemblance to the Jewish form of blessing would indicate that it was intended for liturgical use. This understanding has prompted Josef Reuss to conclude, "Even this 'private' letter was intended to be read out loud at the celebration of the liturgy." (49) For the contemporary audience a rereading of the Letter to Philemon as a narrative is indicative of engaging in the act of re-signifying the text. A new reading constitutes new meaning and subsequently new liturgical value drawn from that meaning. (50) I would offer that the Letter to Philemon can be regarded as a template for the principle of advocacy the ekklesia should practice as it relates to the notion of one's relationship with the "other". The focus of this particular Philemon homiletic is less centered in Paul's request (the rhetoric) and more disclosed in Paul's requesting (the action).


In referring to Paul's epistles, Bruce Longenecker comments "His letters do not simply offer independent snippets of 'truth' or isolated gems of logic, but are discursive exercises that explicate a narrative about God's saving involvement in the world." (51) Beneath the tension created by a reflective analysis of our prior understandings of these "narratives" lies a unique opportunity. I would identify this opportunity as an occasion to revisit certain ideological concepts under-girded by hermeneutics, which have historically provided theological justification for the vested interests of certain dominant groups. (52) We would do well to reread those texts which have been most useful toward that end and excavate the filament illuminating a counter-hegemonic discursive diatribe. An analysis of the Letter to Philemon, the history of its uses, and proposals for a new hermeneutic would epitomize this concept. The opening section of Paul's letter is indicative of its counter-hegemonic substance in that it begins with a departure from established patterns of roles and authority which traditionally support class systems. Especially telling is the credentials section of the letter where Paul offers himself as "a prisoner in Christ." (53) This status (prisoner), one that was certainly recognized as unfavorable in the world, is exactly what Paul uses as his trajectory for advocacy. It is precisely from this position facilitated by tragedy that Paul "fathers" Onesimus and wishes to submit him back to his community as his son. The overt status-consciousness that pervades the letter emphasizes Paul's acknowledgement of the well-established divisive hierarchical social structure. This is the structure that Paul's advocacy must penetrate and transcend. It is insightful that the methodology he uses is framed in language and character representations that are antithetical to this hegemony. Perry Kea has offered an opposing view of this interpretation and argues that Paul's actions were not counter-cultural, and that he was "implicitly conceding the rights of the slave owner." (54) Even though Kea would accurately categorize Paul's letter as intercessory, his study implicitly diminishes the capacity of this genre to foster counter-cultural values that are in conflict with the dominant society. (55) My disagreement with Kea on this matter is on two fronts and represents the gravity of my thesis. Firstly, Kea, like others, focuses on the omission of an explicit plea for manumission where I place emphasis on what is explicit. Specifically, I am referring to Paul's request that Onesimus be received as a brother and Philemon "refresh" Paul's heart. I would also propose that Paul's submission of the letter to the greater constituency (the ekklesia) might be interpreted as an attempt to advance Paul's actions from the realm of personal conduct, toward establishing them as communal behavioral policy. This notion nominates Paul's epistle as a paradigm for systemic advocacy within the Christian community. Secondly, I view Paul's focus as less on Philemon's "rights" and more on a counter-hegemonic valuation process. Paul facilitated this valuation on behalf of Onesimus, who by virtue of his former status was the victim of social ostracism. Paul's letter and the characterizations represented within, demonstrated the bestowal of compensation in the form of social values (praise, glory, honor, righteousness). (56) Within the narratology of the letter, Paul emerges as the chief agitator. The re-valuation of Onesimus becomes his task. (57) Philemon and the community of believers that gather at his house are given the opportunity to ratify this re-valuation within their social setting, thereby becoming ancillary agents in the process. The tension created by this request is reminiscent of the template of advocacy established when Ananias was asked to render the same service on Saul/Paul's behalf (Acts 9:11-16). The Lord responded to Ananias' reluctance by advocating on behalf of Paul, convincing him of Paul's value and usefulness (Acts 9:13-15). This is crucial because Luke's character representation of Ananias, is as a man of influence (Acts 22:12), and in the same position Paul finds himself in relation to Onesimus (re-presenting him in light of his value and usefulness). This episode marked a fitting orientation to advocacy for the future apostle. In the same manner that Paul had to be re-presented to a community that had known him in a less than favorable light (persecutor), he would eventually perform a similar task on behalf of Onesimus. Of great importance is the idea that the case of Onesimus provided Paul with an opportunity to assay his theology against the empirical reality of this social situation. This set of concrete circumstances presents Paul, Onesimus and Philemon within the theater of their social reality, where the demands required more resolve than any ambiguous theological implications could possibly have provided. Rereading Paul's Letter to Philemon reveals a strategic use of language indicating Paul's unwillingness to canonize the social roles in his cultural environment. He instead resolved to give preference to (legitimize) the familial structure of the church. This was not facilitated without the necessary reflective scrutiny of his role within both structures. Paul, by his actions, refused to allow his audience the comfort of two worlds (religious and social) independent from one other. He illustrated their homology and God's mediation agitating both realms. From this incipient reassessment of Paul's letter to begin to disturb the tranquility of acceptance permeating the landscape of discourse surrounding the Letter to Philemon. Just as Paul's praxis served to fill in the lacuna between theology and social reality, our praxis of adjusting the prism from which we view the biblical texts from our world, and conversely, which we view our world through the biblical texts, bridges the chasm between our theological ponderings and our social praxis. This process is less encumbered when facilitated through a reflexive theology that warrants recognition of our mutual constitution.


1. See Neil Elliott, Liberating Paul: The Justice of God and the Politics of the Apostle (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1994), p.9; Amos Jones, Jr. Paul's Message of Freedom: What Does it Mean to the Black Church? (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1984); Cain Hope Felder, Stony the Road We Trod: African American Biblical Interpretation (Minneapolis; Fortress Press, 1991)

2. See A.D. Callahan's "Paul's Epistle to Philemon: Toward and Alternative Argumentum" in Harvard Theological Review 86 (1993) p.357-76, "John Chrysostom on Philemon: A Response to Margaret M. Mitchell" in Harvard Theological Review 88 (1995) p.149-56, Embassy of Onesimus: The Letter to Philemon (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1997); John Knox's Philemon Among the Letters of Paul (New York: Abingdon Press, 1935); Margaret M. Mitchell's "John Chrysostom on Philemon: A Second Look" in Harvard Theological Review 88:1 (1995) p.135-48; Sara B.C. Winter's "Methodological Observations on a New Interpretation of Paul's Letter to Philemon" in Union Seminary Quarterly Review vol 39 no.3 (1984), "Paul's Letter to Philemon" in Journal of New Testament Studies vol 33 January 1987 no.1

3. See Marion Soards "Some Neglected Theological Dimensions of Paul's Letter to Philemon" in Perspectives in Religious Studies vol.17, no.3 fall (1990) p.209-19, where Soards adequately summarized the existing landscape of perspectives on the theological value of Paul's Letter to Philemon.

4. My statement here bears the implication that I disaffirm the notion that Paul was returning a fugitive slave to his rightful master, and refute the theorem that this was the overriding message and value of the letter to the original and subsequent interpretive communities.

5. The runaway slave hypothesis is lacking sufficient textual support, see J.M.G. Barclay "Paul, Philemon and the Dilemma of Christian Slave-Ownership" Journal of New Testament Studies vol.37 no.2 (April 1991) p. 163. Also, the harboring of a fugitivus would not be salubrious to Paul's commands for dutiful obedience to secular authority. See N.T. Wright, The Epistles of Paul to the Colossians and to Philemon (TNTC 12; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986) p.166 and Brian M. Rapske "The Prisoner Paul in the Eyes of Onesimus" Journal of New Testament Studies vol. 37 no. 2 (April 1991) p. 192.

6. A broader definition would also include the cessation of security, or a disastrous event that excites pity or terror.

7. The epistolary form (structure) of the letter is examined and recognized as housing certain "formulae" that allow us to contrast/ compare it with other letters of Paul and derive meaning. However, in reading the letter also as a narrative we emphasize focusing on the author and function of the letter.

8. This statement is presented with the following caveat; Narrative Criticism uses certain exegetical methods that epistles have little or no use for. i.e., "In narrative criticism the implied reader is a hypothetical concept: it is not necessary to assume that such a person actually existed or ever could exist." See Mark Allan Powell, What is Narrative Criticism? (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990) p.21. In the case of epistles, the reader/ addressee is a character within the narrative, and therefore a key consideration in the interpretive process.

9. For a thorough treatment on Petersen's work on the narratology and sociology of letters see Norman Petersen's Rediscovering Paul: Philemon and the Sociology of Paul's Narrative World (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985) p.43-88. This study is indebted to Petersen's comprehensive work, although the main thrust of our focus is on what the narratology of the Letter to Philemon reveals to us about Paul.

10. ibid p.17.

11. Rudolph Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament vol.1 (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1954) p.190.

12. White, The Form and Function of the Body of the Greek Letter p.104.

13. See Powell, What is Narrative Criticism? P.103-5, and Jan Fokkelman, Reading Biblical Narrative: An Introductory Guide (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1999) p.208-9.

14. Some have argued that the major reason for the presence of the letter in the N. T. canon is that Paul charted a route (even though he himself may not have come to the realization), which suggested that the Christian faith is incompatible with the ownership of slaves. See Karl P. Donfried and I. Howard Marshall The Theology of the Shorter Pauline Letters (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993) p. 190-1

15. John Knox also successfully argued the temerity of the runaway slave hypothesis in Philemon Among the Letters of Paul (New York: Abingdon Press, 1959) p.17-20.

16. Allen Dwight Callahan, Embassy of Onesimus: The Letter of Paul to Philemon. (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1997) p. ix.

17. Callahan's treatment is an alternative reading of the rhetorical and historical situations based on his theory that the letter represents Paul's response to the estrangement of two Christian brothers (Onesimus and Philemon), not runaway slave and master.

18. Cane Hope Felder, "Philemon" in The New Interpreter's Bible Volume XI. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000) p.886.

19. Though many will rightfully argue that we do not have a complete systematic theology from the apostle, I will contend that Paul's Letter to Philemon belongs in the corpus of his writings that reveal a task theology.

20. A more comprehensive study of the Letter to Philemon would encompass an analysis of the character representations of Timothy, Apphia, Archippus, the ekklesia, Epaphras, Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke. In addition, the analysis would investigate the "implied" social status as well as the relationship of these character representations to the overall function of the letter.

21. My usage of this term offers that Paul has temporarily rid himself (decasted) of the characteristics of his apostolic authority in order to draw attention to the basis of his appeal, which in this instance is not rooted in his authority as an apostle to order compliance. This decasting was not a permanent abandonment of his apostolic office, but a temporary cessation from the apostolic role, in order to be recast in a lesser role (authoritatively) of prisoner.

22. The majority of the undisputed Pauline writings bear the declaration of his apostolic office after his name. Those writings that do not follow this strict format (Romans, Philippians, and I Thessalonians) either bear multiple names in the greeting and/ or make a later reference to his apostolic office and authority.

23. Calvin Roetzel., Paul: The Man and the Myth (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999) p.202n.

24. For more on the significance of the self-appellations within the rhetoric of this letter see: Craig S. Wansink, Chained in Christ: The Experience and Rhetoric of Paul's Imprisonment (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press Ltd, 1996) p.171-3.

25. Wayne A. Meeks, The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul 2nd ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003) p.59-60; G.B. Caird., Paul's Letters From Prison: In the Revised Standard Version (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976) p.214.

26. In vs.11 Paul makes reference to that former known status "useless to you," and submits an introduction of the new status "but now he is indeed useful." Paul does not end there, but continues by adding that he and the addressees are mutual beneficiaries in this new status "both to you and me."

27. In vs. 11 there is an allusion to the name "Onesimus", which means "profitable, beneficial". See Robert G. Bratcher and Eugene A Nida., A Translators Handbook on Paul's Letters to the Colossians and Philemon (London: United Bible Societies, 1977) p.124.

28. There is an explicit request for an elevation to brotherhood, and some would argue that there appears to be an implicit request for manumission contained in Paul's words "will do even more". See Caird., Paul's Letters, p.215-16.

29. See Jaroslav Pelikan, ed. Luther's Works volume 29: Lectures on Titus, Philemon, and Hebrews. (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1968) p.93 In a lecture on the book of Philemon, Martin Luther asserts in his opening statement "This epistle is indeed a purely private and domestic one." Also Marcus L. Loane Three Letters from Prison: Studies in Ephesians, Colossians and Philemon where Loane declares "The Epistle to Philemon is the only surviving example of private correspondence between St. Paul and his converts ..." p.124.

30. Paul uses this word here in its local application. His general use of the term denotes the body of believers to which he [1] can appeal to, [2] has responsibility for, [3] for which he must care. See C.K. Barrett Paul: An Introduction to His Thought (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994) p.121.

31. David W. Torrence and Thomas F. Torrence, eds. Calvin's Commentaries: Paul's Epistle to Philemon. (London: Oliver and Boyd, 1964) p.393-4 Even though Calvin's belief is that the reference to the "Church" in the letter is metaphorical and actually refers to Philemon's household (Calvin interprets this as Paul's way of bestowing "the highest praise" upon Philemon's household). He suggests that the weight of Paul's argument is such that it transcends the particularity of this occasion and has value for the whole Church.

32. Sara Winter argues, "Nothing in the greeting suggests that this is a personal letter". Her thesis is based on an examination of the three titles in the greeting (synergos, adelphe, and systratiotes), which Winter believes "suggest that the letter involves a church matter". See Winter's "Methodological Observations" p.208. Eduard Lohse affirms the letter's communal nature based on his investigation of Paul's self-designation of "a prisoner of Christ Jesus." It is his opinion that this moniker conveys a message that obligates its recipients to obey the apostolic word. See his Colossians and Philemon: A Commentary on the Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971 English trns.) p. 189. Joseph Fitzmeyer argues that the three-part prescript formula (naming himself, the co-sender and the addressees in the first two verses, then adding his initial greeting) "makes it likely that the letter was not intended to be read silently by those addressed, but to be read aloud to an assembled group of Christians. See Joseph A. Fitzmeyer, The Letter to Philemon (The Anchor Bible), 34C; New York, 2000) p.81.

33. See John M.G. Barclay Colossians and Philemon (Sheffield Academic Press, 1997) p.103, and Joseph H. Hellerman The Ancient Church as Family (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001) p.120. Hellerman poses the question of whether Philemon would "deny his Christian identity" by "acting first of all with the prerogatives of an angry slave owner," and heightens the sense of drama with by adding "His house church was watching." Also see Efrain Agosoto "The Apostle Paul and Mentoring: Formal and Informal Approaches" in Apuntes 18, no.1 spring (1998) p.10, where Agosto offers that Paul is making his appeal to Philemon before "a cloud of witnesses".

34. Paul's action as recorded in the narrative is the first incarnation. While the embodiment of his actions in written form emerge as the second incarnation. I would argue that the inclusion in the canon reflects the ascribed value of the letter for the church beyond the particularity of the situation contained therein.

35. See Paul's letter to the Galatians (2:11-14), where he mentions rebuking Peter for his inconsistency.

36. Joseph Plevnik, S.J., What Are They Saying About Paul? (New York: Paulist Press, 1986) p.104. ibid. p.77.

37. Gardner C. Taylor., "Reconciliation: Beyond Retaliation?" in 9.11.01: African American Leaders Respond to an American Tragedy Martha Simmons and Frank A. Thomas eds. (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 2001) P.35.

38. Wansink., Chained in Christ, p.205-7

39. Petersen, Rediscovering Paul, p. 53-65.

40. Petersen posits that most of the theses are sociological elaborations of points made by Koskenniemi and elaborated by Doty and others. See Heikki Koskenniemi, Studien zur Idee und Phraseologie des griechischen Briefes bis 400 n Chr. (Helsinki: Suomalaien Tiedeakatemie, 1956) and William G. Doty, Letters in Primitive Christianity (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1973).

41. Petersen, Rediscovering Paul, p.64-65.

42. Adolf Deissmann., Light From the Ancient East: The New Testament Illustrated by Recently Discovered Texts of the Graeco-Roman World (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1927) p.234.

43. Alvin Gouldner, The Coming Crisis of Western Sociology (New York: Basic Books, 1970) p.494-5. Gouldner's list also includes "Its work seeks to deepen the sociologist's self-awareness as well as [his] ability to produce valid-reliable bits of information about the social world of others" and "requires not only valid-reliable bits of information about the world of sociology, and not only a methodology or a set of technical skills for procuring this."

44. Although I have maintained the textual integrity of Gouldner's treatment, my language here reflects the gender-sensitive inclusive language of contemporary scholarship.

45. Gouldner, The Coming Crisis, p.493.

46. Lloyd A. Lewis., "An African American Appraisal of the Philemon-Paul-Philemon Triangle" in Cain Hope Felder ed., Stony the Road, p.236.

47. Rogers, Cleon L. Jr. and Cleon L. Rogers III., The New Linguistic and Exegetical Key to the Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998), p.514. Rogers and Rogers also include "that which is fitting" and "one's duty" as possible translations. All of which would serve to strengthen the argument that Paul is expecting Philemon to understand that he (Paul) has a right to expect that his request should be honored.

48. We identify the logos as Paul's praxis in becoming the embodiment/expression of the revelation of God's will to his constituency.

49. Josef Reuss., The Epistle to Philemon (London: Sheed and Ward, 1971 English trans.), p.69.

50. See James A. Sanders Canon and Community: A Guide to Canonical Criticism (Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1984) p. 61-2. Also, my usage of the term "liturgical" is in order to emphasize the value of the Letter to Philemon for theological reflection and place it within the active worship-life of the church.

51. Bruce W. Longenecker., ed. "Narrative Interests in the Study of Paul" in Narrative Dynamics in Paul: A Critical Assessment (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000) p.4.

52. See Cain Hope Felder "Race, Racism, and the Biblical Narratives" in Stony The Road, p.128-29.

53. In the homologoumena other than Philemon, Paul's credentials are rendered as "apostle", "slave/servant of Christ" or both "slave/servant" and "apostle".

54. Perry V. Kea., "Paul's Letter to Philemon: A Short Analysis of its Values" in Perspectives in Religious Studies Vol.23, no.2 summer (1996) p.223-32. Kea argues that the values employed by Paul conformed to the dominant cultural values of the Roman era.

55. Ibid. p.226-7. Kea borrows from the taxonomy of Stanley K Stowers., Letter Writing in Greco-Roman Antiquity, Library of Early Christianity, Wayne A. Meeks ed. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986) p.155.

56. Klaus Berger., Identity and Experience in the New Testament (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003) p.180.

57. Although I view this as Paul's immediate objective, I believe that the greater goal was for this paradigm to be established as common practice within the Christian community.
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Author:Lyons, Kirk D., Sr.
Publication:Cross Currents
Date:Mar 22, 2006
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