Monthly Archives: July 2013

Philemon & Onesimus: Brothers in the Flesh

Over the last several posts, I’ve argued that it is unlikely that Paul’s words in Philemon 15-16 can be interpreted to mean that Philemon and Onesimus partake of a common humanity.

I think that it is more likely that Paul indicates that Philemon and Onesimus are brothers.  This is the most natural reading of the expression adelphon en sarki and at least two scenarios can account for it.

First, it may be that Philemon and Onesimus are two sons of the same mother and father.  Philemon is the older brother upon whom their father has conferred the management of the household, comprising any number of smaller family units, other relatives, and slaves.  Onesimus is the younger son, born free, and the recipient of a smaller inheritance which he squanders and ends up selling himself into slavery (cf. Luke 15).

Such a situation would bring shame on Philemon, threatening his ability to do business with others of his social class.  Onesimus is not Philemon’s slave but has become a slave through his own folly.  Philemon must then buy him out of slavery and bring him home perhaps to punish him in some way in an effort to restore the family’s honor and the household’s economic viability.

This scenario accounts for the fact that the imprisoned Paul can send Onesimus back to Philemon.  It also accounts for all the language in v. 16—that Onesimus is a slave and Philemon’s actual brother.  The only obstacle for this scenario is that “Onesimus” is a slave name.

Onesimus Mosaic

A second scenario—and perhaps the more likely one—is that Philemon and Onesimus have the same father, but that Onesimus is born to a slave woman.  In such a case, Onesimus would share the same status as his enslaved mother and would not be considered a legitimate brother to Philemon nor an heir of his natural father.  Female slaves often served as sexual partners for their owners and their children in such situations, would have no claim on their “father’s” property.  A paterfamilias would have no qualms about fathering children in this way.  Slaves didn’t have fathers, in this sense, so a slave born to a slave woman would have no claim to be the legitimate son of such a father.  Free men who fathered children by female slaves had no obligation to acknowledge their paternity and only rarely did so.

F. F. Bruce suggests that the two may be related in just this way.  He says, “Such a state of affairs would be not at all unusual: if, for example, Onesimus were the son of Philemon’s father by a slave-girl, then Onesimus and Philemon would be half-brothers, but Onesimus (unless emancipated) would still be a slave.”

If Bruce had left things there, I think he would have done a fair job of treating the text.  Unfortunately, he goes on to say, “But nothing in Paul’s language implies that this in fact was the situation: his language means that, whereas the master-slave relationship was a relationship ‘in the flesh,’ the new brotherly relationship into which the two men had entered was a relationship ‘in the Lord.’”

Bruce should have followed through with his initial insight!  It’s too bad that he says that “nothing in Paul’s language implies that this was the situation” because this is precisely what Paul’s language implies.  And Paul does not say that the “in the flesh” relationship is one of master-slave.  They are related “in the flesh” as beloved brothers.  The interpretive debate is whether this means “fellow human” or “actual brother.”

If Philemon and Onesimus are in fact half-brothers, then much of the consensus view is unthreatened.  Onesimus is still regarded as a slave in the household of Philemon and in some way brought harm to Philemon and has made his way to Paul.  Paul sends Onesimus back to Philemon urging the latter to receive the former as Paul himself.  The consensus view would need modification, however, to recognize the additional factor that while Philemon is the freeborn master of the household, Onesimus is now Philemon’s brother in the Lord, having been converted to Christian discipleship by the Apostle.  This new relationship in the realm of “the faith” goes beyond the already-existing relationship in the realm of natural relations, in which they are also brothers, sharing a common earthly father.

My main contention in these posts is that commentators must take Paul’s reference to Philemon and Onesimus as adelphoi en sarki with greater seriousness.  It is highly unlikely that Paul regards the two as sharing in a common humanity.  It is far more likely that they are actual brothers.  This may demand a re-consideration of the scenario that eventuates in Paul’s letter, even though any modification to the consensus view need not be as dramatic as the view advanced by Callahan.

Questioning the Consensus, Pt. 3

In this post, I’ll enumerate a few more reasons why I believe that when Paul states that Philemon and Onesimus are adelphoi en sarki that he does not mean that they are both human beings.

Third, Paul notes that Philemon’s and Onesimus’s sharing “brotherhood in the flesh” is a relationship that goes beyond what Onesimus and Paul share.  In some way, that is, Philemon and Onesimus are adelphoi en sarki in a way that Paul and Onesimus are not.  Paul states that Onesimus is “a beloved brother, exceedingly to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.”

If Paul meant to note that Philemon and Onesimus share a common humanity, this would make little or no sense.  All humans share in a common humanity.  But if Philemon and Onesimus are adelphoi en sarki with this phrase meaning “actual brothers in the flesh,” then Paul’s words make good sense here.  Onesimus would clearly be dearer and more beloved as a brother to Philemon than to Paul.

St Paul

Fourth, Paul might have used other expressions if he were going to insist on the common humanity of Philemon and Onesimus.  In Acts 10, Luke narrates the meeting between Peter and Cornelius, who falls on his face upon meeting Peter.  Peter lifts him up and says, “I also am a man” (v. 26).  I’ve already mentioned Seneca’s 47th letter, in which he claims that all humans “sprang from the same stock, [are] smiled upon by the same skies, and [are] on equal terms with [those who are free], each breathing, living, and dying.”  Further, all humans “spring from the gods” equally.  While other examples could be cited it is unlikely that if Paul meant to note their common humanity that he would assert that Philemon and Onesimus are adelphoi en sarki—“brothers in the flesh.”

Finally, if Paul really wanted to communicate that these two were blood brothers, what other expression could he have possibly used other than adelphoi en sarki?  That they are “brothers in the flesh” is simply the plainest and most straightforward way of understanding this expression, even though it then functions as a serious thorn in the flesh for the majority view of the scenario lying behind Paul’s letter.

For tomorrow, a few alternative scenarios that can account for Paul’s language in v. 16.

Questioning the Consensus, Pt. 2

Last week I claimed that no one in the ancient world would have assumed that slaves and masters share the same humanity and that this made it unlikely that the phrase adelphoi en sarki (lit., “brothers in the flesh”) can mean “fellow humans.”

One might object, however, that this is precisely the burden of Paul’s letter—he’s urging Philemon to view Onesimus differently.  Rather than seeing him as property or as less than human, Paul wants Philemon to welcome Onesimus and to treat him with the dignity due a fellow human and brother in the Lord.

Responding to this objection leads to a second reason why I think that it is unlikely that Paul means that they are fellow human beings.

While some commentators read vv. 15-16 as Paul urging Philemon to view Onesimus as adelphon en sarki, Paul’s statement simply cannot be regarded as an exhortation.  If it were an exhortation on Paul’s part, the case for the phrase meaning “fellow human” would be strengthened.  On such a view, Paul would be calling on Philemon to treat Onesimus in a way that runs against the grain of cultural assumptions.

But there isn’t an exhortation here.  Paul is, rather, building on the already-established and plainly obvious fact that Philemon and Onesimus are adelphoi en sarki.  He’s not trying to get Philemon to see this; he’s assuming that Philemon already knows it.

This is something that is plain to Philemon, Onesimus, and Paul.  Consider again the form of Paul’s statement in vv. 15-16:

For perhaps because of this he was separated from you for a time, that you might receive him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother, exceedingly to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.

The first realm in which Philemon and Onesimus are brothers is recognized and already established—that is, “in the flesh.”  It’s the second realm in which they’re brothers that is the new reality (“in the Lord”) and it is according to this reality that Paul is urging Philemon to act.

What has changed is that Philemon and Onesimus now participate in the “fellowship of faith” (v. 6), and Paul prays at the beginning of the letter that this reality may become effective for Philemon so that he will act in a way that is consistent with it.

Taking our first two considerations together makes it even more unlikely that Paul is indicating that Philemon and Onesimus are fellow humans.  If this were Paul’s intention, then the effect of his statement would be to shame Philemon before the community (keep in mind the letter is addressed to Philemon and the church community [vv. 1-2]).

If slaves were not considered as sharing the full humanity of their masters, then Paul would be assuming something highly embarrassing to Philemon, putting him on the defensive, and provoking him to react negatively to Paul’s request.  On the majority view, Paul would be subverting his own aims.

If everyone assumed that slaves and masters did not share the same humanity, Paul would not have worked from this notion as a starting point without risking the public shaming of Philemon.  Their common humanity is a notion that Paul would need to work toward.  It’s not something he could merely assume.

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.”

Philemon & Onesimus: The Consensus

Most commentators on Philemon work with the dominant understanding of the relationship of Philemon to Onesimus.  They are master and slave.  In some way Onesimus has brought harm to Philemon and has fled.  He has somehow found Paul, whom he has known to be a close friend of his master Philemon.  The extant letter is an appeal to Onesimus’s master to receive him back—to “accept him” in the same way that Philemon would welcome Paul (v. 17).

Paul informs Philemon that Onesimus has become a Christian disciple while with Paul and he reminds Philemon that he owes to Paul his very self, as well, presumably a reference to the fact that Philemon also has become a Christian convert through Paul’s ministry.

It appears that Onesimus is not incarcerated, for Paul the prisoner is able to send him back to Philemon along with his letter.  Not much else can be known about the situation lying behind our canonical letter, though variations of this consensus interpretation appear in commentaries and monographs.

Rembrandt, The Apostle Paul

Most commentaries also make reference to a minority interpretation of the relationship between Philemon and Onesimus.  Allen Dwight Callahan, in several articles and a monograph, has argued that they are not master and slave but actual brothers.  Callahan claims that the interpretive tradition of a master-slave relationship began in the late 4th century on the basis of the tentative speculation of John Chrysostom.

Though Callahan’s reconstruction can be found among interpreters seeking abolition of the slave trade in the 19th century, there are almost no current interpreters that share Callahan’s minority view.

Paul’s language in v. 16 remains a problem, however, for the consensus view.  This is what Paul says in vv. 15-16:

For perhaps for this reason he was separated from you for a time, that you might receive him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother, especially (“certainly, exceedingly”) to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.

Paul plainly indicates that they are brothers, “not only in the flesh but also in the Lord.”  Commentators, however, have found various ways of accommodating Paul’s language to the interpretive consensus.

For some, that Paul notes that the two are “brothers in the flesh” may mean that they are members of the same household.  Even if Philemon is the master and Onesimus the slave, their being of the same household means they have some level of solidarity.

For Barth and Blanke, Paul is calling for Philemon to love Onesimus “for the person he is.”  “A brother and a neighbor has the right to be loved in his own right, as a specific and unique person.”  Adelphon en sarki, then, means, “the person that he is.”

Another way that commentators handle Paul’s words here is to view them as an exhortation.  Paul is urging Philemon on the basis of his new relationship to Onesimus, to love and embrace Onesimus as a brother “both in the flesh and in the Lord.”  The solidarity enjoyed by all those in Christ trumps all other loyalties, so Philemon must now embrace Onesimus fully as a brother.  That is, because they are brothers in the Lord, they must embrace and function as brothers in the flesh.

Joseph Fitzmyer is typical of most commentators in treating Paul’s words here.  He translates the expression  as “fellow human being.”  Being brothers “in the flesh and in the Lord”:

does not mean that Onesimus was a brother of Philemon ‘in the consanguinary sense’ or as a ‘blood relative.’  It is merely Paul’s way of stressing Onesimus’ condition as a human being in contrast to his condition as a Christian.  Sarx denotes, as often in Paul, that aspect of human life that is bound by earth-oriented interests, limited in its capacities, and affected by its appetites, ambitions, and proneness to sin.  As used of Onesimus, the phrase en sarki expresses his basic human status apart from his condition as a slave; it is a status that Onesimus shares with Paul and Philemon, and Paul acknowledges that aspect of Onesimus’ existence (p. 116).

In this series of posts, I hope to demonstrate that those who take the consensus view of the relationship between Philemon and Onesimus have not reckoned adequately with Paul’s language in vv. 15-16.  Whether or not such a reconsideration of this passage leads to a reconfiguration of the imagined situation involving Paul, Philemon, and Onesimus, commentators on this epistle must take Paul’s language especially in v. 16 more seriously.

I think it is extremely unlikely that Paul’s words can be interpreted to mean that Philemon and Onesimus are both human beings or that they share the same social status.

I’ll elaborate some considerations in support of this in the next several posts.

Tiger Woods’s Major Quest

When major season on the golf calendar rolls around, golf commentators invariably weigh in on whether or not Tiger Woods will break Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18 professional majors.  Woods has set himself to this epic quest and it’s been fascinating to see him pursue it.  When he’s playing well, the talking heads say that the success of his quest seems inevitable.  When he’s off his game, it seems in doubt.

This week Woods will renew his quest to reach 19 majors at Muirfield.  He currently has 14 titles to Jack’s 18 (Woods also has three amateur USGA titles to Nicklaus’s two).

I’ve written a few times in the past (here and here) that I don’t believe that he’ll do it.  He may indeed win a few more, but I don’t think he’ll win the five needed to surpass Jack.

Here’s why I don’t think he’ll ever reach Jack’s record, let alone break it.

A few years ago, Lee Trevino remarked that most multiple majors winners claimed their titles in clusters.  That is, their titles all came within a few years when they were at the peak of their talents.

Considering the 11 golfers who won seven or more championships, Trevino’s comment is interesting.  The bulk of their victories came within a relatively brief amount of time.

Jack won most of his majors within 13 years (1962-1975), winning only three after that—two in 1980 and one in 1986.

Gary Player won seven of his nine titles within 13 years (1961-1974).

Arnold Palmer won all his majors within six years (1958-1964).

Walter Hagen won nine of his ten titles within the space of ten years (1919-1929).

Ben Hogan’s nine championships were won within seven years (1946-1953).

Tom Watson won eight within eight years (1975-1983).

Ten of Bobby Jones’s 11 titles came within ten years (1919-1929).

Six of Gene Sarazen’s seven championships were won within eleven years (1922-1933).

For Sam Snead, six of his seven titles came within eight years (1946-1954).

Harry Vardon won five of seven within seven years (1986-1903).

Here’s why this is significant.  It’s been over five years since Woods last won a major—the U.S. Open in 2008.  And it’s been 16 years since his first—The Masters in 1997.

Of the ten golfers not named Tiger Woods who have won seven or more majors, only three of them have claimed a major more than 16 years after their first—Nicklaus (3), Player (1), and Vardon (1).

This is one reason why I think that even if Woods wins one or two more, it’s unlikely that he’ll win five.

A second factor is age.  Woods is now 37 years old.  Of these ten other golfers, only five won a major after the age of 37.

Snead won most of his majors in his mid to late thirties, winning three after turning 37.

Hogan is a very unusual case, winning his titles late in his career.  He claimed six of his nine titles between the ages of 37 and 40.

The others who won after they were 37 are Nicklaus (3), Player (3), and Vardon (2).

Many more factors could be considered, but taking just these two together, I don’t think that Woods will catch and overtake Nicklaus, and I think that the period in which Woods will have won his major titles is largely over.

Philemon & Onesimus

Last week I read a paper at the International SBL in which I argued that it is more likely than not that Philemon and Onesimus are actual brothers.  This isn’t, of course, the consensus view, according to which Onesimus is the slave of Philemon.

Before I read my paper I gave a brief account of my reconsideration of their relationship.

Onesimus Mosaic

Several years ago I was teaching Bible study methods to undergrads and we were doing an exercise with the text of Paul’s letter to Philemon.  A student raised his hand and noted that according to the text it appeared that Onesimus was the brother of Philemon.

This sounded outrageous and obviously wrong, so I asked how he could possibly have arrived at that notion.  He directed my attention to vv. 15-16.  We were looking at the NASB:

For perhaps he was for this reason separated from you for a while, that you would have him back forever, no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother, especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.

I hadn’t studied this letter all that closely previously, so I assumed that Paul’s indication that they were brothers “both in the flesh and in the Lord” must mean something else.  Other translations make this very assumption:

Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever—no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord (NIV).

Maybe this is the reason that Onesimus was separated from you for a while so that you might have him back forever— 16 no longer as a slave but more than a slave—that is, as a dearly loved brother. He is especially a dearly loved brother to me. How much more can he become a brother to you, personally and spiritually in the Lord (CEB)!

I told him that I’d need to look at that a bit more closely and get back to him at a later point (one of those unfortunate classroom moments when you don’t have a ready answer–ugh!).

As I dipped into commentaries over the subsequent weeks and months, I was increasingly disappointed by how commentators treated Paul’s expression.  The NIV’s and CEB’s renderings represent how nearly every major commentary I’ve looked at handles Paul’s expression.  The NASB, on the other hand, is a pretty good literal translation of the Greek text.

My paper questions this consensus and I’ll discuss some of the aspects of my argument in the next few weeks.

The Open Championship

One of my favorite weeks of the year is here–the week of The Open Championship.  Most Americans know it as “the British Open,” but when it began it had nothing else from which to distinguish it.  So it’s just “The Open Championship.”

This year it’s being played at Muirfield, home to the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, near Edinburgh. It’s one of the more well-known and distinguished sites on the Open rota, and it’s produced some of the greatest champions and championships.  Jack Nicklaus won it there in 1966 and named the golf course he developed in Ohio after it.


I was there in 2002 when Ernie Els won it in a playoff.  Els returns as the defending champion, having won it last year at Royal Lytham & St. Anne’s, and as the last one to win it at Muirfield.

There are five Scottish courses in the rota but it’s most regularly played at the Old Course in St. Andrews, to which it returns every five years.

I love the Open for many reasons. It’s held in mid-July, right in the heart of summer, usually when we’re on vacation or visiting family.  A few sporting events epitomize the joy of summer for me–the baseball All-Star game and the Open are two of them.

The Open has a truly international field. It’s known as “the world’s championship” because players from the Asian tours and other parts of the world join those from Europe and the States.

The 18th at Carnoustie, one of the toughest courses in the world.

The Open is always played on links courses.  “Links” is an old Scottish word referring to the rough sea-side turf that isn’t suited for farming or for anything else.  Golf courses laid out on links ground tend to be quite firm.  Drives get lots of roll and sometimes even good shots can roll into unfortunate spots, such as pot bunkers.

The firm fairways also demand crisp iron play, and firm greens mean you have to land the ball in the right spot.  Royal Portrush was the first links course I played when my family spent two summers in Northern Ireland doing ministry in the late 1990’s.

I grew to love links golf during our four years in St. Andrews.  The Links Trust charged one hundred pounds for a year’s pass to play the six courses on the St. Andrews Links.  I was able to play the three championship courses (the Old, the New, and the Jubilee) dozens of times at an amazing price.  If you had the pass you could also play Kingsbarns for a tiny fraction of the normal cost.  It opened in 2000 and is already regarded as one of the world’s top courses.  It’s right on the sea and is breathtakingly beautiful.

Kingsbarns Golf Links

I love this week!  And I’m looking forward to enjoying the drama that plays out through the course of the championship.  A few more links, if you’re interested:

Check out Iain Lowe’s beautiful links course photography.

You can follow the Open at the Royal & Ancient’s website.

Returning, Rested & Renewed

I’m back from International SBL, which was held in St. Andrews. It was good to be in such a lovely place, to catch up with old friends and make some new ones.

It’s always a highlight to play a few rounds of golf on the St. Andrews Links. The summer’s been very dry and warm in Scotland and it’ll be interesting to see how that affects play at The Open Championship at Miurfield, near Edinburgh, this week.

I gave my paper on Philemon last Thursday, arguing that the consensus view of the relationship between Philemon and Onesimus doesn’t handle v. 16 very well, and that Philemon and Onesimus are more likely brothers than not. I was happy to get a good response–mostly positive, and nothing that was fatal to my argument.

I’ll be touching that paper up for publication over the next month or so and may trot out aspects of the argument in several posts over the next few weeks.

After a nice long break from blogging, I’m happy to get back to it. I’ve got some thoughts on a number of things and I usually find out what I think when I write. Even if I’m the only one, I’m eager to find out what I think about the things I think about.