Schlatter's Der Brief an Philemon
Book Review on: Adolf Schlatter, "Der Brief an Philemon" in: Erlaueterungen zum Neuen Testament, Vol. II, pp. 311-318 offered by JEA.
Adolf Schlatter (1852-1938) was Prof. of Theology at the Univ. of Tuebingen (earlier also in Greifswald and Berlin). His "remarks" on Philemon were published in a three volume commentary on the New Testament, Calwer Verlag, Stuttgart, in 1928 4th ed. His voluminous literary production - all without the help of secretarial assistance - has been going through numerous reprints in recent years as interest in Schlatter and his views has been rekindled. The "genre" of this commentary is that of a - for contemporary standards - popular, non-academic resource for the church. In a day when footnotes abound to the extent of occupying more space on the page than "text" it is refreshing in some ways to have a "commentary" before you that simply is in dialogue with the text. The critique of his positions on our questions must be carried out among us in dialogue, since it does not happen in the footnotes.
In Summary: S. regards the genre of the document to be not that of apostolic/didactic epistle but that of personal letter, which is written to help someone who has "fallen" to get back on track and to find new direction for his feet. As regards the addressees, S. thinks that Apphia is the wife of Philemon and that Archippus is probably their son [cf. Col. 4:17]; he does not wrestle with the house/church phrase in v. 2, translating simply "the church in your [sing.] house." The "koinonia" term S. renders "fellowship" (= "Gemeinschaft", p. 311), which he elaborates somewhat when he describes (p. 312) that which gives constitution and growth to the community/congregation (= "Gemeinde") and all its members as "common labor/ministry (= "gemeinsame Arbeit"), a "strong connectedness" ( = "starke Gemeinschaft") based on faith in Christ. Prayer (vv. 4ff) is - for S.- Paul's way of saying that Philemon and what is happening to him are God's good work; the intercession is that God will continue to grant the vision for the good thing and make it happen.
At. v. 7 S. renders "anapauo" with bringing "rest" of a sort prompts joy because it has not disappointed expectations [p. 313]. And while at vv. 8f. S. follows the customary renderings of not "order" (= "gebieten"), "what should be" (= "was geschehen soll"), and instead "make request (= "bittet"), his way of talking about "compassions" (Gr. "splanchna") in connection with "rest" is worth noting. S. translates "inwendig" (= "on the inside"). In colloquial German this term is used often in wordplays with its companion "auswendig," which is often rendered "by heart," "by rote," or "by memory." While it's not so clear in English translation the intent in German is to put the poles of inward and outward into close proximity so that the outward manifestation is an expression of the inward reality. This would acknowledge for S. that Philemon is on the right track and that something along the parenetic track is yet to follow. S.'s exegesis here supports such a wordplay. Also in these verses S. considers "chains" and "old man" to be literal. He adds that one never should refuse the request of an old man because you never know how much longer you'll be able to comply! [p. 314]. S. thinks that Onesimus had struggled against the gospel (= "sich noch gegen...straeubte") when he left Philemon and that he first received the life that Jesus' word affords human beings [p. 314] through becoming Paul's child. For S. this creates for Paul and Onesimus a strong connection (= "Verbundenheit").
Undoubtedly, says S., Paul is in Rome awaiting trial, but one cannot say what stage was in progress. Vv. 10f definitely play on the name "Onesimus" [p. 315], who became "unuseful" because he ran away. The Roman legal ramifications of the matter were considerable but Paul sees here not a matter for the courts but for forgiveness and for new beginnings; S. translates v. 16 with "no more as slave, but more than only as a slave, as a beloved brother...in the flesh and in the Lord" (= "nicht mehr als Knecht, sondern mehr als nur als Knecht, als geliebten Bruder..."). [pp. 315f]. Both Philemon and Onesimus stand not at the end but at the beginning of their journey. [p. 316]. Both are going to have to change on the inside toward one another. [pp. 316f]. For v. 17 S. translates "koinonos" with "have me for fellow/comrade" (= "mich zum Genossen hast"); the "brother name" applies to Philemon as an honor and the honor is to do for Onesimus what he would do for Paul. [p. 317]. Vv. 18ff indicate that Paul wants Onesimus to be able to make a totally new beginning with Philemon. Though the letter does not say it expressly, S. thinks that Philemon owes to Paul his calling to God...after his ministry in Ephesus; the "posture" (= Haltung") of the letter suggests it. [p. 317].
On the verbal form of the name Onesimus in v. 20 S. says, "He [Paul] once again uses the name 'Onesimus' since he beseeches Philemon that he should now become for him an Onesimus, one who 'yields' for him [Paul] usefulness and benefit." [pp. 317f]. S. sees Paul as in a battle for his freedom; he expects a positive outcome (S. Points to Phil. 1:25). When free Paul hopes to be a gift of answered prayer to his congregations. The people in vv. 23f are, with the exception of "Justus," the same as in Colossians.
Evaluation: For our discussion most major benefits will derive from probing in the direction of why S. draws his conclusions as he does. In some cases he draws indications from the text and in others he makes some assumptions based on the Book of Acts or from other pauline epistles. Sometimes he reflects the consensus of conversation among his contemporaries. Most engaging are his theological probings into the reasons behind the assertions and urgings of the Apostle. These are all important moments for us to weigh as well. Ultimately, his fresh translations of the text and regular dialogue with it points in a very useful direction for exegesis. To this we add - in the team-work mode - the history of interpretation from our bibliography.
If you'd like to respond to this summary or ask questions about it, please use the User Response form below.
User Response form
Back to Philemon Bibliography
© 1998- Dr. John E. Alsup - all rights reserved