Philemon in Perspective: Interpreting a Pauline Letter

Written by D. Francois Tolmie, ed. Reviewed By David E. Briones

There has been a resurgence of recent interest in the book of Philemon. Given the fact that this letter is a mere 334 Greek words long and seems to deal with a mundane matter between a master and his slave, this is certainly surprising. One volume to add to the growing list of works on this tiny letter is D. Francois Tolmie’s Philemon in Perspective. Emerging out of the International Colloquium on the New Testament held in South Africa, where thirty-six scholars examined the interpretation of Philemon, this volume contains essays written from a wide variety of perspectives, significant exegetical and theological insights, and a rich engagement with the text and secondary literature.

D. Francois Tolmie begins this book with a very helpful essay on the tendencies in research on Philemon among English-speaking and Continental scholars since the 1980s. He highlights the contributions made through papyrological evidence, as well as epistolographic, rhetorical, sociological, hermeneutical, and theological approaches. Even though many contributions have been made in the past, diverging opinions on Philemon remain—a reminder, according to Tolmie, that “much still has to be done” (p. 27). This segues nicely into the essays of this volume, all of which critically interact with these previous contributions.

Jeffrey A. D. Weima’s epistolary analysis of Philemon, which centers on the form rather than the content of the text, demonstrates that Paul cleverly crafted every major unit of this letter to place much pressure on Philemon. The apostle wants Philemon to agree with his explicit and even implicit requests. One important contribution Weima makes in this essay is a critical response against those who accuse Paul of employing manipulation.

Peter Lampe analyzes the affects and emotions in Paul’s rhetoric through a rhetorical-psychological approach. He reconstructs the wide range of emotions felt by Paul, Onesimus, and Philemon, before determining how Paul’s rhetoric steers this messy situation toward an ordered resolution. Nevertheless, his reconstructive imagination, at times, reads too much into the text.

Ernst Wendland’s thorough (at certain points, complex!) discourse analysis of the letter attempts to explain the shocking nature of Paul’s request, “You will do even more than I say” (v. 21). He concludes that Paul’s persuasive argumentative thread throughout the letter would have convinced Philemon to free Onesimus by the time he reached the implicit request for manumission in verse 21. Against many scholars, Wendland argues that Paul wants Philemon to liberate Onesimus.

Peter Arzt-Grabner takes a close look at Onesimus’s status as a slave, as well as Paul’s practical solution to Philemon about Onesimus, through the framework of ancient legal and documentary sources. Artz-Grabner contends that Paul wanted Philemon to entrust Onesimus with responsible tasks as a business partner, perhaps even setting up a long-term plan of economic and social stability which culminated in manumission.

G. Francois Wessels deals with the nature of the ancient system of slavery presupposed in Philemon. After a very succinct overview of this much-debated topic and an informed interaction with major players in this discussion, he concludes that slaves were mere tools, socially dead people, and that manumission was not only theoretically possible and socially acceptable but, for Paul, absolutely necessary: “Paul wanted Philemon to set Onesimus free” (p. 164).

With only a few articles on the theology of Philemon, Michael Wolter seeks to relate this letter to “the theological contexts of justification . . . as they are expressed in his [Paul’s] other letters” (p. 170). In the end, Paul’s doctrine of justification, which was developed in the Galatian controversy and expanded in Romans, appears in Philemon as the ethical impact of theological thinking: “faith in Jesus Christ creates a new identity which supersedes every other given identity” (p. 177). One radical implication of applying his doctrine of justification to the social situation in Philemon is that Paul does not urge Philemon to manumit his slave. Instead, he calls on him to treat Onesimus as “a brother and friend” (p. 178).

Pieter G. R. de Villiers considers the way Philemon represents “an ethical application of Paul’s understanding of the gospel as God’s gracious and loving act of reconciliation” (p. 202). He primarily focuses on love; that is, love which springs from faith in Christ and has no regard for social status: “One deserves to be loved simply because of one’s status as brother or sister in the faith. Onesimsus’s ‘birth’ in Christ creates a new reality that overturns all existing realities” (p. 202). He, too, insists that Paul did not want Onesimus liberated. Rather, he wanted Philemon to receive him with loving arms as a brother in Christ.

Roberts Atkins recounts the ways Philemon was contextualized in the United States. By connecting public policy with biblical interpretation, he claims that Philemon was used “to support the Fugitive Slave Act and the connection to the continuation of new forms of slavery into the 20th century” (p. 221). But he also reminds his readers of the power of biblical exegesis and interpretation, as seen in the abolition of slavery.

Atkins’s essay serves as a transition into the postcolonial reading of Philemon by Jeremy Punt. He attempts to address the “disproportionate power relationships” between Paul, Philemon, and Onesimus (p. 225). According to Punt, Paul emerges from this situation with a stronger social position as an “authoritative yet compassionate apostle,” while Philemon’s status is lowered and Onesimus’s is raised (pp. 245–46). One glaring problem in this essay is that Punt acknowledges the presence of debt and obligation in Philemon without highlighting the reciprocity that occurs between all three parties (four if you include God in Christ). As such, he promotes a one-way relationship, with Paul powerfully and oppressively on top—a typical approach among modern interpreters examining debt and obligation in power relations.

In dealing with the question of whether Paul approved or disapproved of slavery, Pieter J. J. Botha asks the question: “Is it satisfactory—or even responsible—to say that slavery is a historical phenomenon and that Paul was a child of his times?” (p. 252). His answer is a resounding “no.” Botha claims that we can neither simply paraphrase Paul’s statements on slavery nor invoke social acceptance of ancient slavery in order to arrive at a conclusion. The violence of slavery, as well as its undergirding principle of hierarchy, must be considered.

The last four essays reach back to the early church to glean insights on Philemon. Paul B. Decock describes the reception of Philemon in Origen, Jerome, Chrysostom, and Augustine, while Alfred Friedl offers a systematized summary of Jerome’s exegesis, Chris L. de Wet examines the motif of honor in Chrysostom’s exegesis, and John T. Fitzgerald deals with Theodore Mopsuestia’s interpretative handling of two issues: (1) the particularity of Philemon as a letter; and (2) the proper interpretation of Paul’s request to accept Onesimus “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother” (v. 16). Tremendous insight is certainly gleaned from these church fathers.

This edited volume is certainly commendable. It presents a broad spectrum of ideas on Philemon, everything from pre-modern interpretations to post-colonial readings, from feminist hermeneutical approaches to theological reflections. All this affords the opportunity to respect and learn from those who differ from us but also to engage their arguments and arrive at truth—ideally together. That said, I would recommend this volume to students and scholars engaged in high level research, though Wolter’s and de Villiers’s essays would certainly be of interest to those with a theological yet discerning eye. I would add that one area of research in Philemon needs more attention—Paul’s theology of relationships—especially as it relates to his understanding of χάρις (“grace”). Surprisingly, no scholar has made the connection between his theology of grace and relationships in 2 Corinthians 8–9 with this little jewel of a letter. But the results, I think, would be illuminating.

David E. Briones

David E. Briones
Reformation Bible College,
Sanford, Florida, USA

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