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.
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.