A review of Our Beloved Brother
“The Letter to Philemon is in my opinion the most intriguing and seductive of all of Paul’s letters, with its teasing historical allusions and peculiar rhetorical charms,” John Barclay wrote in his 1997 study guide to Philemon. Indeed, Philemon is a text in search of context. There is, of course, some things we know about the situation. Paul was in jail. Philemon was a key leader in a house church somewhere in the Valley of Lycus in Asia Minor. Onesimus, who was sent home after visiting Paul, was Philemon’s slave, returning with a new Christian faith. And it is clear that Paul’s letter is a call to Philemon and his community to embrace Onesimus warmly, as if welcoming Paul himself. (In fact, Paul was planning a visit himself after his release.) Beyond these meager details, our knowledge rests on educated guesswork. The scholarly tendency is to fill in the gaps by reconstructing the historical situation.
You may be thinking: Wasn’t Onesimus a delinquent slave who became a fugitive and managed to be straightened out by Paul? Many readers of Philemon carry this assumption into the text. But you will search in vain if you look for these details in Paul’s letter. It’s common for an error to creep into popular understanding and overwrite the original, or for a detail of an image that was never there to become fixed in shared memory. It’s called the Mandela effect, and it seems to be what happened with Philemon.
The fugitive slave scenario is a situational theory that was introduced during the patristic period, took hold (partly through the support of Chrysostom), was legitimized by modern commentaries (especially JB Lightfoot) and. ..there it is!– is now taken by many as fact.
Stephen E. Young bursts that bubble by Our beloved brother, a monograph based on his doctoral thesis. Young’s goal is to inspire a new reading of Philemon, and that can only happen when the fugitive slave theory is debunked, or at least demoted. Nowhere does the text say that Onesime fled or committed a crime. Too many scholars throughout history, according to Young, have painted Onesimus in the portrait of a thieving slave, further reinforcing cultural stereotypes of noble masters and conniving slaves. If the fugitive slave theory were correct, Young points out, Paul would send Onesimus away at the realistic risk of severe corporal punishment or even execution.
Young examines other situational theories (for example, Philemon sent Onesimus to Paul), but in each case he worries that the mold of the theory limits the reading of the actual text. His research suggests that we do the opposite: let the text speak for itself and carefully consider the context in light of that.
To carry out this delicate reading, Young draws on the theory of positioning, a tool from the field of social psychology. This perspective examines how a text positions characters to establish or reconfigure relationships of power, status, resources, and rights through socially constructed scenarios. This approach encourages the reader of Philemon to ask themselves:
How does Paul progressively position himself through the letter in relation to all the other participants in the discursive event? How does this in turn position them in relation to him and to each other? In general, what are the normative assumptions expressed in the letter regarding authority, power, rights, obligations, and other social expectations that inform and limit what each participant can say or do?
Our beloved brother is an extended exercise in asking these questions in the text.
According to Young, Paul’s letter strategically challenges the Roman status quo of power dynamics – which would be natural for the slave master – and tells ecclesiocentric stories that allow Philemon to treat Onesimus as a true member of the family instead. than an expendable subordinate. The honor of Apphia (a woman) and Paul’s humble self-description as a prisoner, for example, destabilize Philemon’s default orientation to social status. You would think that this approach breaks the rules of the chessboard by giving pawns more agility and power and less rooks. Paul’s ultimate goal is to change Philemon’s relationship with Onesimus from one of dominance to one of mutual love and generous partnership.
Young offers a commentary-like reading of Philemon’s 25 verses that yields many new insights. He succeeds in demonstrating that the reader need not begin with a situational container to derive such insights from Philemon.
Young does not, however, completely dismiss any speculation about the historical situation. In fact, he strongly promotes the idea that Paul was encouraging Philemon to set Onesimus free as a Christian duty. This freedom would not work simply as an end in itself but for a new beginning between the two beloved brothers.
I find Young’s call to free Philemon’s text from the fugitive slave theory salutary. Contextual study should enhance textual interpretation, not control or constrain it. Some will find Young’s positioning theory approach a bit confusing to understand, but the patient reader will gain much from his sociopsychological and rhetorical approach. The academic literature on Philemon has grown considerably in recent decades; Our beloved brother should be one of the best books on the reading list.
A version of this article appears in the print edition as “Was Onesimus a fugitive slave?”