The Locus of Speech about Bondage and Freedom:
Apostolic Consciousness and the Epistolary Genre

Group I Presentation - Feb. 19, 1999

Back to Philemon Home

      In the exploration of bondage and freedom in Philemon, Group One began to seek an understanding of the author's intentions in Philemon by studying aspects of the Pauline epistles. This exploration focused on Pauline language, self-understanding, and genre. It looked to the other letters of Paul to gain insight into the content of Philemon. The search for insight raised new questions.

      Bondage and Freedom: It seems that Paul's letter to Philemon is very plain: he seeks the pardon of the runaway slave, Onesimus. At twenty-five verses, the letter is very short and deliberate, but this letter may carry a deeper message when read closely. There is a subtlety that becomes evident when comparing Paul's letter to another letter of his day written for the same purpose. One such letter is from Pliny addressed to Sabinianus seeking the pardon of a runaway slave (found in Philemon Among the Letters of Paul, by John Knox).
      Pliny's letter emphasizes repentance by the slave and forgiveness by the master. Paul's letter surprisingly lacks both elements. Paul's ultimate motivation for the letter seems to be discussion of the themes of bondage and freedom - namely, freedom in Christ. This explains why the letter was meant to be read in church (v. 2) and not only to an individual.
      Questions raised: How do we know Onesimus is a runaway slave? Is it implied in verse 15? Are there technical terms for a runaway slave? How did he meet Paul?

      Servanthood in Philemon: Paul does not designate his status as apostle in greeting Philemon as he does in many of his letters. Why? In verses 18-20, Paul uses a vocabulary of bondage which might help answer this question.
      In Verse 18 Paul uses "elloga", ‘to set to someone's account'. He uses this word to instruct Philemon to charge to Paul anything Onesimus owes. In verse 19, Paul uses his own name to state that he will pay Philemon for any damages. In writing this, Paul uses a Greek legal technical term, "apostiso", meaning ‘to make compensation.' Paul's use of this word with his name is the equivalent of signing an I. O. U. to Philemon (Commentary on Colossians and Philemon, O'Brien). Is Paul making himself a servant using these terms for indebtedness? Has he placed himself in financial bondage to Philemon? Has he been a servant to the runaway slave, Onesimus, by offering to pay the debt of the slave. In verse 20, Paul uses the word "onaimain" to ask that he ‘may have some benefit from' Philemon in the Lord. Paul may be making a play on words with the slave's name, Onesimus (meaning, ‘useful'). Is Paul asking Philemon to be a servant to Paul?
      In his appeal to Philemon, Paul sets an example of becoming a servant to one another in Christ. Perhaps this is why Paul restrains from appealing directly to his status as an apostle. He does not seem to be coercing Philemon with an apostolic mandate, but uses instead a less assertive argument - one of personal servitude to another in Christ.

      Apostleship: According to the Anchor Bible Dictionary (Vol 1), the word 'apostle' is derived from the Greek word "apostello", which means ‘to send.' Origen defined apostle as one who is sent on behalf of another. Paul legitimizes his claims to apostleship by pointing to signs, miracles and wondrous deeds (Romans 15, 2 Corinthians 12). Where Paul received his apostleship is a mystery. Paul and Barnabas were sent as "missionary apostles" - or as an envoy, or delegation (Acts 5). Paul's apostleship was controversial, especially in the churches he did not found. His assumptions of the title and office rested on a theological perspective which gave apostleship a new meaning. He was called an ‘apostle to the Gentiles.' Why/How could Paul's apostleship be legitimized: 1) He had personal knowledge of Jesus Christ; 2) He had seen the risen Lord; 3) He founded churches. In Peterine traditions, the task of the apostle is seen as transmitting the words of the prophets and Jesus to the Church. Paul's ministry does not fit well into this category, and this may explain some of his difficulties in obtaining recognition. Although controversy surrounds his apostleship, there seems to be enough support to call Paul an apostle.

      Birthing Language in Philemon: Paul uses birthing language in Galatians 4:19, First Corinthians 4:19, and Philemon 1:10 in reference to the amount of pain that is experienced until an individual is converted to Christianity.

      Koinonia: In verse six of the Letter to Philemon, Paul uses the word "koinonia" to describe "sharing of the faith" in the house church he is addressing. The root of the word is "koinos", which can mean common or belonging to many. The English translation of "koinonia" is at best a pale comparison to the depth of meaning present in the Greek. The word denotes a feeling of commonality and fellowship. Paul uses the word to remind the church ("ekklesia") that all members have a common bond of the same faith. Paul uses this word while praising the church of Philemon's house for doing and being what a faithful Christian community ought to do and be. Paul seems to be telling the community and Philemon that they must continue to act as a mutually responsible community "in the faith." Paul encourages the "ekklesia" to be known for faithfully practicing koinonia.
      Looking at Paul's use of the word "koinonia" structurally and theologically helps to extrapolate Paul's views on bondage and freedom within the Christian community. It seems that Paul sees the "ekklesia" as being a redeemed structure of common bonds and shared faith. In Paul's argument, the community is structured around "koinonia" in faith rather than through hierarchical relationships, such as those connected to slavery. How this plays out in the larger Pauline corpus remains to be seen, but the work is necessary and vital to looking at the historical justification of human bondage by use of Paul's writings.

      Epistolary Genre: A letter and an epistle are similar in form, but there is a difference in essence. A letter is private communication between two people and can only be adequately understood by knowing the writer, the reader, and the circumstances surrounding the writing of the letter. An epistle is a liturgical document, but its aim is general. The epistle's meaning may also be hidden, and it may not expose authorship any better than a letter. Therefore, Paul's writings may be called letters, based on their personal content, and epistles, based on their exalted message and aim. The structure of Paul's epistles generally follow the outline below, though some do not contain certain elements:

      Opening formula: Names author or co-author, and greeting.
      Addressee: May be a person or a group.
      Greeting: May be extensive or terse, and may convey significant in either case.
      Remembrance or Well-Wishing: Conveys fondness, and sometimes points to correction.
      Thanksgiving: Thanksgiving for what God in Christ Jesus has done for us.
      Body: The bulk of the message.
      Conclusion: May contain a variety of elements: health wishes, a doxology, a benediction, a postscript with specific instructions and admonitions, and/or further greetings.

      Epithets: Paul uses the following epithets in his the opening statements of his epistles:
      saints/consecrated ones/holy ones
      brothers/fellow believers

Paul uses the following epithets in the closing statements of his epistles:
      beloved brother/fellow believer
      faithful/trustworthy minister/deacon
      fellow slave/servant in the Lord
      the fellow prisoner/captive held at spear-point in Christ Jesus

Sources for the epithets listed above: Romans 1:1-7, 16:21-27; 1 Corinthians 1:1-3, 16:19-24; 2 Corinthians 1:1-2, 13:12-14; Galatians 1:1-5, 6:18; Ephesians 1:1-2, 6:21-24; Philippians 1:1-2, 4:21-23; Colossians 1:1-2, 4:7-18; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-3, 5:23-28; 2 Thessalonians 1:1- 2, 3:16-18; 1 Timothy 1:1-2, 1 Timothy 6:20-21;2 Timothy 1:1-2, 4:19-22; Titus 1:1-4, 3:12-15; Philemon 1-3, 22-25.

If you'd like to respond to this summary or ask questions about it, please use the User Response form below.

User Response form

Top of Page
Back to Philemon Home

© 1998- Dr. John E. Alsup - all rights reserved