Questioning the Consensus, Pt. 1

As I mentioned in a previous post, I think that it is unlikely that when Paul states that Philemon and Onesimus are adelphoi en sarki (“brothers in the flesh”), that he means that they are both human beings.  I say this for at least five reasons, the first of which I’ll elaborate here.

First, this is not at all an assumption that would have been common in the ancient world.  On the contrary, the realities of slavery revealed them to be considered as less than human.  They were thought of as property and slavery was “a state of absolute subjection.  The slave has no kin, he cannot assume the rights and obligations of marriage; his very identity is imposed by the owner who gives him his name” (Wiedemann, pp. 202-203).  Slaves were treated according to Aristotle’s sentiment that a slave is a “living tool, and the tool is lifeless.”

While Roman legal texts distinguished slaves from other commodities that could be owned, our understanding of the realities of slavery must go beyond the legal texts and take into account the “roles played by power abuse and violence” (Wessels, p. 147).  Wessels maintains that this more comprehensive view reveals that “slaves were in reality nothing but chattel, movable possessions, which could be bought and sold by owners without any consideration of the human and cultural relations that slaves might have had” (Wessels, p. 148).

Jennifer Glancy notes that “Slaves in the Roman Empire were vulnerable to physical control, coercion, and abuse in settings as public as the auction block and as private as the bedroom” (p. 9).

Commentators on Philemon quite regularly cite Stoic writers, especially Seneca, to indicate that the equality of all humanity was a common notion in the ancient world.  In his 47th letter to Luciliu, Seneca writes at length about the treatment of slaves, delineating the elements of the model master-slave relationship according to Stoicism: “Kindly remember that he whom you call your slave sprang from the same stock, is smiled upon by the same skies, and on equal terms with yourself breathes, lives and dies.”  Later, he writes that, “all men, if traced back to their original source spring from the gods.”

But Seneca’s moral exhortation has been misused by NT scholars.  Rather than being representative of a widespread conviction, Seneca is exhorting abusive masters who aren’t living up to Stoic ideals.  He is a noteworthy exception, not an instance of the commonly-held conviction that slaves shared the same humanity as their masters.

For Glancy, “Little evidence supports the contention that these philosophers represented or affected wider public perceptions of the institution of slavery.  We cannot assume on the basis of their writings that their philosophical positions on the relative insignificance of legally defined bondage or freedom affected their actual treatment of slaves they encountered or owned, much less that they influenced others to follow either their counsel or their example” (p. 7).

Now, we must keep in mind that there were different sorts of slaves in the ancient world—menial slaves, those who worked the mines, and others who worked in the fields were treated with contempt.  There were also skilled laborers and even slaves who were trained as cooks, shopkeepers, artists, magicians, poets, teachers, and philosophers.  And we simply don’t know what sort of slave Onesimus was, nor whether he was born a slave or became one at some later point.  It may be that his name, which means “useful,” points to his being a menial slave, but this is only speculation.

Much more could be said here, but my point is simply this: Because the assumption was widespread that slaves did not share the same humanity as those born free, or certainly with their masters, it is unlikely that Paul’s expression adelphon en sarki can mean “fellow human.”

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11 responses to “Questioning the Consensus, Pt. 1

  • Gary T Meadors

    Interesting, fresh work…looking forward to seeing the eventual “article” from your paper. Keep us posted.

  • Andrew

    You say you have 5 reasons, with the inequality of attitudes towards slavery being the first.

    This is powerful argument. Are you presenting your reasons in any particular order, say strongest to weakest, or weakest to strongest?

    Also wasn’t there suspicion Seneca was a Christian based upon Tertullian’s comment “our Seneca”? If Seneca had Christian sympathies, his attitudes about the equality of all humanity would be a reflection of Christian sentiment rather than Roman, further making your point.

  • S Wu

    I agree with your evaluation of slavery here, Tim. As you said, Seneca’s moral exhortation has been somewhat misused by NT scholars. I am afraid that the same misuderstanding of Roman slavery can be found at a popular level too. Your quote from Glancy is helpful.

    Welcome back to blogging!

  • Phillip Mutchell

    Now now, they were human but they weren’t victorious, being beaten they were made slaves because their god hadn’t protected them their slavery should be accepted as due punishment for their failure to appease their god, simple. Only the black man has been systematically subjected to your doctrine of ‘less than human’ as justification for slavery, the ancient world didn’t need to justify anything – ‘money talks bullshit walks the marathon’.

    • timgombis

      Slaves taken in war had their identities stripped from them, their children taken, their spouses likely killed or taken elsewhere. I’m not saying that regarding such people as less than human justified such behavior. I’m saying that such treatment constitutes a regard for others as less than human. The evidence from the ancient world indicates that those who owned slaves regarded them largely as property that moved, not as fully human.

  • Onesimus and Roman slavery | NEAR EMMAUS

    […] Tim Gombis has continued his series of posts on Onesimus’ identity in the Epistle to Philemon, see his recent entries: Philemon and Onesimus: The Consensus and Questioning the Consensus, Part 1. […]

  • J.J.

    I’m enjoying your fresh take on this issue. One question in my mind though… are there any other examples of brothers being in a master-slave relationship in antiquity? It would seem to be unusual. And I’m curious to see how you propose that this situation ever arose. To me, I think this is why the consensus has assumed Philemon & Onesimus are not brothers… it would seem so unusual that Paul’s words here must be understood otherwise. Thanks again for the fresh perspective.

    • timgombis

      There are indeed examples of slave-owners having offspring through female slaves. In such cases, they weren’t considered actual siblings with free-born children in the household. That was the case in the Roman world, in the Roman view of things. Perhaps Paul, being Jewish, sees their blood-relation as grounds for claiming that Philemon ought to consider his relation to Onesimus as moving him to welcome him.

  • Tim Gombis on Philemon | Everyone's Entitled to Joe's Opinion

    […] the rest of the series:  Introduction  Part 1  Part 2  Part […]

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