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.
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.