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.
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.