Wednesday, September 17, 2008
Philemon and Onesimus
Everyone knows that Onesimus was a fugitive slave who had ran away from his master Philemon and Paul seeks to return Onesimus, who sought refuge with him, to Philemon on amicable terms. Or is it? The main options according to Joseph Fitzmyer are:
(a) Onesimus was a run away slave. But Paul nowhere says this in the letter (there is no use of the terms phygas or drapetes) and it is only after Chrysostom that this view really gains popularity.
(b) Onesimus was sent by Philemon to Paul to bring food and aid and Paul pleads that Onesimus be released to his service. But this does not explain the apparent tension between Philemon and Onesimus in the letter.
(c) Onesimus did not run away from Philemon, but is only in some domestic trouble with his master, and seeks the intervention of an amicus domini (friend of the master) to mediate for him. This view is held by John Knox and Bruce Winter and would comport with an Ephesian provenance.
(d) Onesimus was not a slave at all, but only the estranged younger brother of Philemon. This view is associated with A.D. Callahan and is provocative, though I fear, unlikely (this was also the argument of the pro-slavery camp during the abolitionist controversy).