Tuesday, October 30, 2012


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As usual, let's start by looking at the wikipedia page for Philemon. Apparently Philemon was the leader of the Colossian church. The book is generally regarded as one of the undisputed works of Paul, neat.

Greeting (v. 1-3)

Mostly just a greeting, Paul says he's writing the letter from jail, and that in addition to Philemon, he intends for Apphia and Archippus to read this.

Philemon's Love and Faith (v. 4-7)

Philemon's love and faith are great, he should share them. v.6 "I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good things that is in us for the sake of Christ"

This section is mostly just Paul telling Philemon how awesome he is. I found verse 6 interesting, Paul says he wants Philemon to share his love and faith and he hopes that it will give us knowledge. I guess it really highlights a way of thinking, if we get our knowledge directly from God (or from the spirit or something) then the best thing we can do for knowledge it to spend all of our time getting closer to God. All important knowledge will come as a consequence of that. It actually has a sort of logic to it, the problem is if you are wrong about God existing, or if you believe in the wrong God, it is a huge waste of time.

Paul's Plea for Onesimus (v. 8-22)

Philemon had sent his slave Onesimus to help out Paul, and now Paul is sending him back to serve Onesimus once again. Part of Paul wishes he could keep Onesimus near him instead, but he is sending him back to Philemon because he doesn't want Philemon to do something purely by command. (I'm guessing they had previously agreed that Onesimus would help Paul out for a specified amount of time and then be returned). Paul says he loves Onesimus and wants Philemon to accept him back as a brother, not as a slave. He says if Onesimus has wronged Philemon or owes him anything, the debt should be applied to Paul instead.

I actually like this section quite a lot, which is pretty remarkable since it does involve the topic of slavery. Let's actually hit that topic right away, in verse 16 Paul pleads for Philemon to release him from slavery and instead treat him as a brother. This is pretty awesome, as freedom has got to be one of the greatest things you could give to a slave. In fact, I could imagine a modern day reader might try to argue that this is an indictment of slavery as a whole. I think this is taking it a bit far, as the plea from Paul is a specific plea for a specific slave he has grown close to. This doesn't read to me as "slavery is bad, everyone deserves freedom", but rather it reads as "I love this person, please free him". That being said, the simple fact that there is an argument (even a tortured argument) within the bible that slavery should go away is a good thing.

As expected, Guzik tries to make this argument. He says "Paul effectively abolished the sting of the “master-slave” relationship and laid the foundation for the eventual legal abolition of slavery." and he quotes Bruce who says "What the letter to Philemon does is to bring the institution into an atmosphere where it could only wilt and die". This argument falls flat for me, as slavery was still around for another good 1800 years.

Paul says twice (v. 8-9 and 14) that he is in a position of power over Philemon and he could order him to do something, but he doesn't want that, he wants Philemon to act on his own accord. This is pretty cool. My understanding is that Paul is basically the pope of the early church. As he says, he could simply command Philemon to do whatever he wants him to do. But instead he makes it a request, and even sends Onesimus back to Philemon to fulfill their previous deal. Seems like a good way for a leader to act, trust your people to do what is right, encourage them, but give them some latitude.

In verse 18, Paul takes on Philemon's debt. This is pretty great as well, it gives Philemon no excuse to not free Onesimus. He is really going above and beyond to help this guy out. One thought I had was that since Paul was in jail, taking on his debt isn't a big deal, but I quickly abandoned that thought. Paul is in charge of the church, and presumably he is in charge of a great deal of resources at this point. Furthermore, he obviously cares greatly about the church, giving away the churches time and money is not something he would do lightly. The more I think about this, the more it seems like a very nice gesture. One final point here, in v22 Paul asks that a room be prepared for him, he clearly doesn't expect to be in jail for much longer, which is a further point in favor of Paul taking this debt very seriously

If I want to be nitpicky (and I do) there is one verse in this section I really don't like. v11 is talking about the situation where Onesimus was sent from Philemon to Paul, it says "formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me." The way I read this is that Philemon owed Paul something, and he decided to pay him with a fairly useless slave. Paul says this in a fairly matter of fact way. It apparently makes sense to him that slaves are properly used as payment. This makes sense, as slavery was just a fact of life at the time, but it is part of what keeps this section from being an indictment of slavery in its entirety.

Well this is interesting, Guzik says that Onesimus ran away from Philemon and went to Paul. So him being formerly useless is because he had run away. Having run away, he was no longer in the possession of Philemon and is therefore useless to him. I'm not sure I am convinced, but this certainly seems consistent with what is written in the text. In verse 15, it says "this is perhaps why he was parted from you for a while". I interpreted this as him being traded, but perhaps it means he ran away. I tried looking at other translations to see if it helps, but it still seems pretty ambiguous to me. I tried looking at other translations, but it is not clear, I still think it reads more like a loan of a slave.

v19-20 "I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it--to say nothing of your owing me even your own self. Yes, brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ."

This is interesting, he is trying to say that he will repay any debt that is owed to Philemon by Onesimus, and he follows up by pointing out what Philemon owes him. He basically says Philemon owes him his life since Paul saved him. Makes me think back to Pascal's wager, can you really say you lose nothing by believing?

One other stupid thing I'll mention, I don't really know what to make of this, but both Guzik and Gill noted that Onesimus means profitable. Is this actually a real story, or is it supposed to be a lesson and the characters are aptly named? It's not impossible that his name means profitable and he happens to be in a dispute over whether or not he is a profitable slave, but it sounds like lazy writing. To use an  analogy, I'm sure there are some librarians with the last named Bookman, but if you saw one in a story with that name you'd probably judge the writer for it.

Final Greetings (v. 23-25)

Just says goodbye, nothing to see here.

For the overview post (If you think I should add or remove stuff from this list please let me know, I think it would make good conversation)


Phil 8-9, 14 making request is better than giving orders

"Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, 9 yet for love's sake I prefer to appeal to you..."

"but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord."

Phil 16 Paul requests Onesimus be released from slavery

"no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother--especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord."

Phil 18 Paul takes on Onesimus' debt

"If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account."


Phil 6 we gain knowledge through faith

"and I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ"

Phil 11 it is implied that trading slaves is an acceptable form of payment

"Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me."

Phil 19-20 By being saved, your life is owed to the church

"I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it--to say nothing of your owing me even your own self. Yes, brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ."

I've mentioned this before, and if I recall correctly, it has always gone in the other direction before. But simply counting the number of good versus bad is not a very good metric for judging how good or bad a book is. In this instance, I have 3 good things and 3 bad things, but I would not judge this book as equally good and bad. In my opinion, the bad things are more nitpicky, and in v11 it is an interpretation of mine that I'm not even particularly confident of (I still think it's worth mentioning though). The point is, even though we have 3 vs. 3 here, I would argue that this book is more good than bad if we examine the content more deeply.


  1. ""If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account." I have seen that quote in the "bad" column before. It seems it is often used to prop up the idea of atonement. There is a decent amount of literature out there implying that the entire concept is immoral. Jesus would have no right to put our "sins" on his account and it would be immoral to punish an innocent man (him) for the transgressions of others.

    Curious wouldn't you say?

    1. This is a very interesting point, and it speaks to a larger issue that I was thinking about today as I was preparing my overview post for tomorrow. As I look back, it is not terribly uncommon to find similar entries in the good and bad columns. I was trying to figure out why this happens, and I came up with 2 possibilities: 1. I was simply in a different mood when I read it the different times. 2. the situations were different enough to warrant the different classification.

      While option 1 seems like it might possibly come up, I doubt it is the culprit very often if ever. Which leaves option 2, the situation is different. (I suppose this option should include me misreading things one of the times and making the situation different in my head even if it is actually the same).

      so in this situation, what is the situation? As I read it, is that Onesimus is a slave, and Paul is buying his freedom. In this case it seems like a noble thing to do. Also, if he is simply paying some debt, Onesimus owes Philemon some money and Paul is making Philemon whole while letting Onesimus off the hook, I have no problem with. What if Onesimus has committed some sort of crime? It does say "if he has wronged you" after all. If the crime is minor enough that the punishment is a fine, then I don't really have a problem with it being paid on his behalf. On the other hand, if the crime was great, say murder, and Paul was trying to throw money around to get him out of punishment, that would obviously be wrong in my opinion.

      Unfortunately, the actual text seems to be light on the details, and we have to make our best judgement as to what the intent is, and base what we take out of it from that.

      If I saw someone try to use this as an argument that Jesus can pay for our sins, I would say no. Right or wrong, I read this verse as a purely financial transaction, and in that context I found it a good thing. If the situation was changed, for example, if Paul was actually saying that any prison time assigned to Onesimus should instead be added on to Paul's sentence, I would consider that a very bad thing.

      Details matter :) (that turned out a little longer than I meant, although I guess it fits well with my last statement)

    2. Sorry it took me so long to get back to this. Its been a hectic week. I was pretty unfamiliar with the passage but saw it in one of John Loftus' books. Some apologists do use to justify Jesus taking on our sins apparently. The author of the specific chapter (it wasn't Loftus) took that whole idea to task for many reasons, but never mentioned that he viewed it as a purely financial transaction. Interesting stuff.

    3. Interesting stuff, I definitely agree that if the purpose of the passage is to be used to justify Jesus covering our sins then I don't like it, and I would certainly take issue with anyone making that point.

      Reading it again, the "If he has wronged you at all" sticks out a little more to me, and I think my initial assessment was probably a bit off. It is possible it was purely financial, and he is just covering his bases, but the more I think about it the more I think you guys are right here.

  2. I think you're right in considering Onesimus a special case rather than a blanket anti-slavery sentiment, and the point that slavery existed for so long in Christian hands supports that side.

    At v15, I kind of got a slightly different vibe; more of the "God is in control, so perhaps in your indebted loaning of Onesimus to me, God used the time to transform Onesimus from a useless slave to a useful brother in Christ." But I'm just guessing.

    To me, Epistles like these are better at making a case for Christ than the Gospels, which seem a little too much like fairy tales. Here you see someone who appears to honestly believe in this newfangled Salvation. Yet it's hard to verify that such sincerity was justified. There are lots of sincere Hindus and Muslims too.

    1. I'm not exactly sure what you mean by "a case for Christ", but I think I get the gist of what you are saying. These letters do seem pretty genuine and I agree it seems like Paul is a true believer. It would appear we are getting a pretty good look into the early church, and I must say, the picture looks pretty gross.

  3. Verse 7 cracks me up, only because a few of the translations say "bowels" instead of heart including the KJV.

    I do agree with you that it's a good thing that Paul pleaded for the guys' freedom, but he did miss an opportunity to condemn slavery as a whole institution rather than just in this case. If the slave ran away, why not just let him go free? Here is a blog post which takes short interesting look at a famous book from 1851 called "Bible defence of slavery."

    1. hehe...bowels

      I agree about the missed opportunity. Not only that, but the opportunity was so obvious and easy to reach from what he was actually saying, that one could reasonably think the lack of such a blanket indictment of slavery is itself an endorsement of slavery.

      That friendly atheist post is pretty incredible. I like that you can go look through the book yourself if you want. I was going to ask if you knew how to get a pdf so I could read it on my kindle, but I don't think I could stomach much of it. Maybe I'll bookmark the blog post and look through the comments to see if anyone slogged through it and found some interesting stuff.


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