Chapter 1. Challenging the Slave Flight Interpretation of Philemon

An important first step in offering a new interpretation of this New Testament text is to examine the dominant and prevailing interpretation and attempt to illumine its limitations and problems. It is only after this that one can see the need to reimagine this letter’s message. The slave flight interpretation is the dominant theory of the letter’s historical occasion and has been utilized by prominent figures in the Christian tradition, such as John Chrysostom, Jerome, Ambrosiaster, Theodore of Mopsuesta, and Thomas Aquinas. Reformation figures, such as Martin Luther and John Calvin, also held to the slave flight hypothesis. This interpretation has dominated the church since the fourth century. Most New Testament introductions, as well as English, French, German, and even African commentaries, use the slave flight hypothesis as the basis of their interpretations.

The slave flight hypothesis is an interpretation of the letter to Philemon arguing the following: Philemon was a Christian leader and likely an owner of slaves and one of his slaves was named Onesimus. Onesimus was not a good slave. Scholars suggest that he was a useless and unprofitable slave (v. 11) who wronged Philemon, most likely by robbing his master (v. 18) and fleeing his house (v. 15a). Afterwards, Onesimus found his way to Paul who was in prison in Rome, became a Christian (v. 10), and proved to be very useful to Paul (vv. 11–12), who sent the slave back to his master. In the letter, Paul requests that Philemon forgive Onesimus instead of punishing him and accept him as a brother in the Lord now that he was a believer (v. 16). He even promises to repay Philemon for whatever Onesimus took from Philemon (v. 18), and he was confident that Philemon would heed Paul’s request (vv. 16, 21). He promised to visit the church after his release and follow up on the matter (v. 22).

There are many scholars who believe this story line makes the most sense, mainly because it fits the common narrative of runaway slaves seeking freedom. Scholars such as John G. Nordling argue that there is evidence in the ancient world of “uniform pattern of runaway slave behavior, which Onesimus may well have adopted before he met Paul and departed from his former manner of life.” Nordling and many other scholars often refer to a letter from Pliny the Younger to Sabinianus. In this letter, Pliny tried to reconcile a runaway slave with his master.

Your freedman, whom you had mentioned as having displeased you, has come to me; he threw himself at my feet and clung to them as he could have to yours. He cried much, begged constantly, even with much silence; in short, he has convinced me that he repents of what he did. I truly believe that he is reformed, because he recognizes that he has been delinquent. You are angry, I know, and rightly so, as I also recognize; but clemency wins the highest praise when the reason for anger is most righteous. You once had affection for (this) human being, and, I hope, you will have it again. Meanwhile it suffices that you let me prevail upon you. Should he again incur your displeasure, you will have so much more reason to be angry, as you give in now. Allow somewhat for his youth, for his tears, and for your own indulgent conduct. Do not antagonize him, lest you antagonize yourself at the same time; for when a man of your mildness is angry, you will be antagonizing yourself. I fear that, in joining my entreaties to his, I may seem rather to compel than to request (you to forgive him). Nevertheless, I shall join them so much more fully and unreservedly, because I have sharply and severely reproved him, positively threatening never to entreat again on his behalf. Although I said this to him, who should become more fearful (of offending), I do not say it to you. I may perhaps have occasion to entreat you again and obtain your forgiveness, but may it be such that it will be proper for me to intercede and you to pardon. Farewell.

Pliny’s letter resembles the situation of the letter to Philemon. It provides a historical point of contact between the situation in Philemon’s house to situations others faced with slaves. Using Pliny’s letter to interpret Paul’s letter provides viable answers to issues like the exact nature of the relationship between Philemon and Onesimus and the reason for Onesimus’s departure. If the two letters are seen as parallel, this would mean that Paul, like Pliny, was writing the letter to smooth things over with Philemon, now that Onesimus has changed his ways. Paul not only wanted Philemon to forgive his wayward slave but also to do something radical that reflected the depth of Christian bonds. Paul wanted Philemon to accept him back, no longer as a slave but as a brother, and he promised to pay for the damage caused by Onesimus’s theft.

This interpretation provides answers for three of the four pressing questions: (1) What was the exact nature of the relationship between Philemon and Onesimus? (2) Why was Onesimus with Paul, who was in prison? (3) Why was Onesimus converted to the faith in prison by Paul and not in the household of Philemon? and (4) What was Paul asking Philemon to do about Onesimus? This standard interpretation maintains that Philemon was the master of his slave Onesimus, who was in prison with Paul because he fled the house of his master. It also asserts that Paul was asking Philemon to forgive his slave’s theft and flight and also was asking Philemon to receive his slave back as a brother in the flesh and in the Lord. However, this interpretation does not address the issue of Onesimus’s conversion outside of the house of Philemon. The slave flight hypothesis offers a compelling backstory that fits the first century practice of some slaves running away from their masters, but there are some gaps and problems with this hypothesis. Slave flight interpretation has a web of exegetical, historical, cultural, and theological problems that should cause both scholars and Christian readers to reevaluate its use for the church today.

Exegetical Problems with the Slave Flight Interpretation

The first exegetical problem with this interpretation is inferred. Paul did not state that Onesimus ran away from the house of Philemon in any of the twenty-five verses of this letter. Why do scholars and interpreters believe Onesimus ran away? They make three arguments to defend the slave flight hypothesis. First, some interpret the phrase “he was separated” in v. 15 as a euphemism for flight. Second, when scholars account for the absence of any reference to flight in the letter, they reason that Paul intended to divert attention from the fault of the slave. In this case, the failure to refer to any fault improved Paul’s chances of effecting forgiveness and reconciliation. Third, scholars turn to Greco-Roman culture and argue that slaves often ran away from masters. For example, John Nordling examined extrabiblical texts that mention runaway slaves and Roman law, which gave precedent and context for what was allegedly being reported in the letter. In varying ways, these arguments were deployed to support the slave flight hypothesis. While the flight of Onesimus provides a story that makes some sense of statements in Philemon, it is a stretch to conclude Onesimus robbed his master and ran away based on statements made by Paul in vv. 10–18. As Callahan rightly comments, there are no verbs for flight in the letter, no rationale offered for his flight, nor motive for his flight in the letter. Scholars have inferred flight based on evidence outside the letter itself and understandings of the behavior of slaves that are more cultural than exegetical.

There is a second exegetical problem with the slave flight interpretation. It is clear that Paul is being careful in the letter, but neither the reason for this nor the inference of flight are convincing. For example, in the following two lengthy quotes, John Barclay and John Nordling offer their explanations for Paul’s care in how he wrote to Philemon.

There seem to be good reasons for holding to the usual understanding of events. The fact that the letter makes no explicit reference to Onesimus running away is not conclusive evidence that he did not do so. A tactful letter of appeal written on behalf of a runaway might well avoid referring directly to the offending facts, and in this light it is easy to see why Paul should use the vague expression . . . in v. 15, especially as the passive carries possible connotations of the divine will. Indeed, the extraordinarily tactful approach that Paul adopts throughout this letter is a clear indication that he recognizes that he is dealing with a delicate situation in which Philemon could well react awkwardly. . . . It is almost inconceivable that Paul should mention such negative details concerning his protégé unless they were a major obstacle in the relationship between Philemon and Onesimus.

Paul’s purposes in writing to Philemon prevented him from describing Onesimus in the usual terms. The runaway slave hypothesis seems quite plausible if Paul described Onesimus’s past crimes against his master in an oblique and euphemistic manner. Even if Paul were fully aware of the runaway slave racket and of the financial loss Philemon suffered as a result of Onesimus’s flight, we should not expect him to badger Philemon with painful reminders of details already known too well. Paul’s purpose here is primarily conciliatory: to persuade Onesimus’s angry owner to welcome back his previously disobedient slave: προσλαβοῡαὐτὸνὡςἐμέ [“Receive him as me”] (v. 17b). To accomplish this Paul strives to present Onesimus in the best possible light, recalls Philemon’s past services to Paul and other saints (vv. 5, 7), and even engages in a mild form of flattery . . . to induce Philemon to comply with the apostle’s radical request.

For Barclay and Nordling, Paul was being tactful because Philemon was upset. He was offended and dishonored. His slave, who was believed to be useless, had wronged him and in an indirect way had embarrassed Philemon in front of the church. Paul wanted to take attention away from this and focus on reconciling master and slave. So his careful and euphemistic language, as well as compliments given about Philemon and Onesimus, reflected attempts to assuage Philemon’s anger and encourage him to forgive. However, this reason does not really make sense. Why does Paul need to be careful or “tactful” if flight was common among slaves? Nordling and others spend a great amount of time building a case for the widespread practice of slave flight, a practice he documents from the first to fourth century CE. For slave flight interpreters, slaves offended their masters by not doing their assigned tasks, stealing, and running away. That is what slaves do. If that’s the case, there really is no reason to tip-toe around such a common issue with euphemisms and loaded statements. Philemon would have no reason to be embarrassed by the flight of a “useless” slave who robbed him and was being returned. Furthermore, with Onesimus’s recent conversion, which entailed the confession of his sins in some way, why would Onesimus have had a problem acknowledging his fault in the matter? There really was no reason for Paul to protect Onesimus from embarrassment, if he caused it. After all, this would have been a helpful first step in his understanding of contrition, repentance, and community, all ideas Paul taught the church at Corinth (2 Cor 2:5–11; 7:2–16).

Paul’s careful use of language may have reflected a central issue that the slave flight hypothesis does not even address, which is the conversion of Onesimus outside of Philemon’s house. There may be reasons Onesimus was not a Christian in Philemon’s house and these reasons may be related to his departure and stay with Paul. Onesimus may not have been a Christian because of the poor example of the Christian faith he observed in Philemon, who welcomed others but mistreated and excluded him, a slave. I suspect that Paul was being careful and shrewd because Philemon has some fault in this. Onesimus was in a vulnerable position delivering this letter, because if he embarrassed or humiliated Philemon in front of the church, he would suffer for it, not Paul.

There are other exegetically related problems with this interpretation of Philemon among scholars who still use it. Douglas Moo’s careful work on Philemon in the Pillar New Testament Series is one example of this. He is an advocate of the slave flight hypothesis in spite of the lack of any actual reference to flight in the letter. I include this because it provides further evidence of the abundance of problems one encounters trying to defend this interpretation exegetically. He identifies three problems one encounters when defending the belief in Onesimus’s flight. First, if Onesimus was indeed a runaway slave, then he had legally “wronged” Philemon. Yet Paul discussed Onesimus’s wrongdoing of Philemon only as a possibility (v. 18). Second, and related to the first point, we would have expected a runaway slave returning to his master for reconciliation to express remorse. Yet, Paul never discussed Onesimus’s repentance or remorse in the letter. The third and most serious objection to the runaway slave view is the difficulty imagining how Paul and Onesimus ever would have met one another.A slave running away and coincidentally meeting up with Paul in prison, rather than hiding, does not make much sense. These issues notwithstanding, Moo leans slightly in favor of the slave flight hypothesis and focuses on v. 17, “Welcome him [Onesimus] as you would welcome me.” In other words, the central issue of the letter is Paul’s request for Philemon to welcome a slave as a brother in Christ, a common theme found in Philemon studies. We almost automatically think it is about a runaway slave, the dominate narrative we heard in Sunday school and learned in seminary. Paul, knowing the law regarding runaway slaves, wrote a letter to the master Philemon to accept his runaway slave back as a Christian brother. We then think of this letter as modeling Christian practices such as forgiveness, reconciliation, and familial bonds that Christians share (we are all brothers and sisters in Christ regardless of social location). Is the letter to Philemon really about forgiveness and reconciliation or even that Christians are sisters and brothers? This question underscores my concerns with this interpretation, which are deeper theological problems.

Historical Problems with the Slave Flight Interpretation

The second set of problems is historical in nature. This interpretation of Philemon has a deeply problematic history that most New Testament scholars avoid or ignore altogether, as if one can divorce exegesis from history. A study of the history of the interpretation of Philemon will show that major Christian interpreters used this letter and the slave flight interpretation to implicitly support slavery by arguing that Christianity makes slaves better fit to serve their masters. And the implicit “proslavery” hermeneutic that undergirds the slave flight interpretation paved the way for the church in later periods to defend slavery explicitly.

The implicit “proslavery” hermeneutic began with John Chrysostom, the fifth century bishop of Antioch. In many respects, his commentary on Philemon became the standard for many others in the church. He valued this letter because Paul showed concern for Onesimus, whom he referred to as “a runaway, a thief, and a robber.” He asserted that the letter directed the church not to abandon slaves, even if they were wicked. More importantly, he insisted that Paul’s actions in the letter seemed to instruct the church not to remove slaves from their masters. What is even more revealing are his comments on v. 16 in which he concluded that by becoming a Christian, Onesimus would become a “more honorable slave,” one that is “more well-disposed than a brother,” and one that “will not run away.” The image of the gospel making a “well disposed” slave who would not run away was striking and sadly paradigmatic for later interpreters.

Others followed Chrysostom, including the medieval Catholic theologian, Thomas Aquinas. He also used the slave flight hypothesis to interpret this letter. Through that lens, he taught on the master-slave relationship in the prologue of his commentary on Philemon. First, he quoted Eccl 33:31 that states, “If thou have a faithful servant, let him be to thee as thy own soul; treat him as a brother.” This verse was important to him because it disclosed what was required for slaves, what ought to have been the feeling of masters toward slaves, and how masters should have used slaves. For Aquinas, slaves should be faithful and masters should be friendly, treating slaves as brothers. Second, similar to Chrysostom’s interpretive reasoning, Aquinas contended that the letter “shows how temporal masters ought to relate to their temporal slaves and how the faithful servant ought to relate to his master.”

Martin Luther and John Calvin, to varying degrees, illustrated this same interpretive tendency in their respective commentaries on Philemon. For Luther, the book of Philemon expounds upon the doctrines of Christ as it relates to the situation between Philemon and Onesimus. It also demonstrates how to handle a breach of the faith. Regarding v. 10, on the conversion of Onesimus, Luther explained that his new condition as a Christian would not lead to his release. He argued, rather, that Paul “indeed confirms his servitude.” Onesimus was at that point both a slave of Philemon and a son of Paul. Luther concluded from v. 12 that Paul sent Onesimus back, not asking for freedom, but to return to a more effective servitude. He also interpreted v. 16 to mean that Onesimus would “serve with spontaneous obedience” and steadfast service. Luther believed the gospel taught “that this ought to be done.” Luther’s interpretation of Philemon was clearly sympathetic to slavery.

Paul’s letter to Philemon was valuable to Calvin because the apostle condescended or demeaned himself to address both a subject that he considered “low and mean” and to address a “man of lowest condition.” He marveled that an apostle condescended to take up the matter of a slave. Calvin reinforced this theme again in v. 10, noting how deeply Paul condescended to elevate Onesimus, calling a runaway slave and thief “son.” Furthermore, he asserted that Onesimus’s flight was a benefit because of his conversion, and also that he would thus become a “useful slave and brother.” There was nothing in Philemon that Calvin drew on to challenge slavery. What stood out for him was Paul addressing the issue in the first place. Calvin’s underlying assumption that slaves are socially inferior was the lens through which he interpreted Paul’s condescension.

The slave flight hypothesis, with centuries of theological development, influenced chattel slavery in the United States and served a major role in the explicit defense of slavery from the Bible. Millions of Africans were enslaved in the Americas. The sanction of the church and the interpretation of the Bible were all sad parts of this history. The slave flight interpretation of Philemon was instrumental in the nineteenth century debates over the biblical sanction for slavery and the defense of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 in the antebellum era. In his book Slaveholding Not Sinful, written in 1855, Samuel B. How argued that Philemon, though a slaveholder, was commended for his love and faith. In particular, How asserted that Paul’s response in this letter established a “precedent to guide the church in all future similar cases.” The precedent that Paul appears to have established was Philemon’s full and explicit right to have slaves and to have fugitive slaves returned. In a similar manner, George Junkin interpreted Philemon as proof of God’s acceptance of slavery. In fact, he ardently contended “that there is not a sentence in the New Testament which gives ground for the logical inference that the simple holding of a slave, or slaves, was inconsistent with Christian profession and Christian character.” Another example of interpreting Philemon in this vein comes from a Presbyterian minister, George Armstrong. In his proslavery tract written in 1857, The Christian Doctrine of Slavery, he used the letter of Philemon as proof of God’s approval of slavery since Paul sent a fugitive slave back to his Christian master after the slave’s conversion. He understood this act to signify the master’s right to the services of his slave. This is a very problematic history.

The Fugitive Slave Act was passed in Congress on September 18, 1850, and it declared that all runaway slaves be brought back to their masters. The law forced authorities in northern states to return slaves to their owners in southern states. This law sparked a debate between abolitionists and apologists of slavery, and the church in America was divided on this issue. For example, Luther Lee, a Methodist pastor in New York, criticized the law and refused to obey it on the grounds that it was unjust, whereas Moses Stuart, a Baptist minister and professor at Andover Theological Seminary, defended the law on moral and legal grounds. For ministers like Stuart and others who defended the Fugitive Slave Act, the letter to Philemon and the slave flight hypothesis was particularly helpful. It established the government’s precedent to return slaves to their masters. They used this interpretation of Philemon to support the capture and return of enslaved Africans from the north to the south. US Marshals and other slave catchers with dogs hunted enslaved Africans who sought freedom and returned them to bondage.

This interpretation was also used to indoctrinate enslaved Africans, pushing them to accept slavery as God’s will and to commit themselves to being good slaves. In 1833, Charles Colcock Jones, a white Presbyterian minister, was commissioned to preach to enslaved Africans, and he testified how his interpretation of Philemon was received. He stated,

I was preaching to a large congregation on the Epistle to Philemon and when I insisted upon fidelity and obedience as Christian virtues in servants and upon the authority of Paul, condemned the practice of running away, one half of my audience deliberately rose up and walked off with themselves and those that remained looked anything but satisfied either with the preacher or his doctrine. After dismissal, there was no small stir among them; some solemnly declared that “there was no such epistle in the Bible,” others, “that they did not care if they ever heard me preach again!”

This incident shows the enslaved Africans’ dissatisfaction with the proslavery interpretation of Philemon.

There is no escaping the fact that this history is linked to the slave flight interpretation. For over a century, Christian interpreters failed to challenge the practice of slavery and to apply a different and more liberating hermeneutic. In some instances, interpreters explicitly endorsed the continuation of this practice, and some even argued that Christianity makes better slaves. For over a century, the letter’s theological value was inextricably linked to the practice of Christianized slavery, especially the explicit proslavery interpretations of Philemon during the antebellum era. The worst part of this history is the link between the slave flight interpretation and the suffering of enslaved Africans in America. These given reasons make this interpretation extremely problematic for the church to use today.

Cultural Problems with the Slave Flight Interpretation

The third set of problems with the slave flight interpretation is cultural. The slave flight argument not only has a problematic history, but it is also culturally offensive. Only a few scholars have picked up on the problematic assumptions undergirding this interpretation. For example, John Knox rightly characterizes it as a stereotype. Barth and Blanke’s commentary on Philemon also questioned whether there are prejudices against Onesimus.

Ancient and later, including modern commentators on PHM, also monographs on Pauline ethics, appear to have a tacit understanding: it is the slave who had been guilty, not the master. . . . The common prejudice against the slave is not supported by solid evidence drawn from PHM; rather it may be the result of a bias on the side of interpreters. . . . PHM was almost exclusively expounded by men who were scholarly monks, priests, or pastors, established church leaders or academic lights, living in relatively safe positions, with better or worse domestics at hand. With very few exceptions, professional theologians are among the last to shed class prejudices.

They have identified a much deeper problem that goes beyond the text. It challenges the assumptions interpreters bring to the text and exposes the influence of social location on interpretation. The letter to Philemon has been a victim of an entire class of interpreters who are biased and prejudiced.

Allen D. Callahan has provided the most insight into this aspect of the slave flight interpretation. He claims that the slave flight hypothesis “buys into the stereotype of the thieving, indolent slave which is a part of all slave-holding societies.” Callahan provides an assessment of what he believes is actually influencing interpreters in a response to the New Testament scholar Margaret Mitchell after her critique of his interpretation that Philemon and Onesimus were estranged brothers. He says,

[T]he fugitive slave hypothesis put forward by Chrysostom and others reflects the interests of a class of interpreters as opposed to a historically defensible reconstruction of the original Sitz im Leben of the letter. . . . The traditional interpretation of Philemon is still eisegetical, and has been propped up with a reconstructed narrative that, as I have shown, is saturated with the kind of hostile stereotypes of the slave purveyed by the master class in all slave regimes. The degree to which John Chrysostom or any other commentator accepted this aspect of master class ideology is an important issue, but is necessarily secondary to the recognition of the ideology itself and the interests it serves.

Callahan uncovers deeper cultural problems with this interpretation in the plethora of unjustified inferences and prejudices about slaves, which were imposed on the historical occasion by mostly white scholars. These scholars began with the belief that since flight was a common practice among slaves in the Greco-Roman world, Onesimus, the slave, must have been doing the same. That assumption has a cultural component to it, because for Callahan, “nowhere does the epistle explicitly state that Onesimus has run away, and the motive for the action is equally obscure.” In their attempt to identify the one guilty of wrongdoing, scholars who hold to the slave flight hypothesis assume that the malefactor must have been Onesimus. Foundational to this assumption lies the historic or traditional argument that Onesimus was a slave and worse yet, a pilfering slave.

Nowhere are biases and prejudices more evident than in how scholars study and view slavery. I find many to be sympathetic to owning slaves. In the provocative text, Slavery as Salvation, Dale Martin contends that despite recent advances in knowledge regarding Greco-Roman slavery by classicists and historians, biblical scholars often present a monolithic picture of slavery. One reason for this picture of slavery has been the biblical scholar’s privileged choice of sources. These scholars look to the high literature of Greco-Roman culture and therefore tend to view slavery and slaves in a manner similar to the social elites of the Greco-Roman world, who were responsible for most of the written record from that era. Martin’s reference to a monolithic picture of slavery is important because it reinforces my point about the allegiance of scholars to the master class. They assume that if any wrong is done it was the fault of the slave, and so they bring that assumption to both their study of slavery in the ancient world and to the letter of Philemon.

Cultural bias runs even deeper than the historical occasion. It influences how exegetes view Philemon and Onesimus. I realized this when I compared references to Philemon and Onesimus made by Paul to comments made about Philemon and Onesimus by interpreters. This comparative study highlighted the tendency to reflect master class interests and to use stereotypes about enslaved persons. I will begin by presenting first what is said of these two figures in the letter, and then examine how interpreters elaborate on these references in ways that reveal their cultural biases and level of comfort with the master.

Paul’s description of Philemon in the letter can be drawn from a few key verses. He describes Philemon as a beloved fellow worker and a man with love and faith toward Jesus and all the saints (vv. 1, 5). He was also known for “refreshing the hearts of the saints,” and his reputation was such that Paul was confident of Philemon’s compliance with his request (vv. 7, 21). Chrysostom described Philemon as a man of “admirable and noble character,” as evidenced by his Christian household and the fact that his house served as a lodging for saints. Even Aquinas claimed that he was a “noteworthy Christian.” Martin Luther referred to Philemon as a bishop and “leader in the word.” In Luther’s day, the title of bishop carried a different understanding than a bishop in the ancient world. In the church of Luther’s day, the title bishop was a hierarchical designation that added even more weight to this claim. Calvin asserted that “Philemon belonged to the order of pastors” and later in v. 5, Paul “bestows on (him) . . . the whole perfection of a Christian man.” Antebellum proslavery exegetes reveled in the fact that Philemon, “though a slaveholder,” was commended for his love and faith. Prominent figures in the proslavery movement generally concluded from Paul’s short letter that Philemon was a good Christian master to his slaves. In his commentary published in 1875, J. B. Lightfoot characterized Philemon as one who “proved worthy of his spiritual heritage,” and further, that the title “fellow worker” in v. 1 “is a noble testimony to his evangelical zeal.” Contemporary descriptions of Philemon resemble those previously mentioned. Interpreters hold a flattering and overwhelmingly positive estimation of Philemon. These inferences about Philemon exceed the evidence in the text.

Paul’s description of Onesimus, drawn from vv. 10–13, 15–16, and 18, was equally complimentary. Onesimus was affectionately referred to as the child begotten of the apostle, as the apostle’s heart, as one useful and desired for the work of ministry. Paul even alluded to God’s providential work in the separation by writing that upon his return Onesimus would be received as beloved brother and no longer as a slave. But despite those favorable references to Onesimus in the epistle, the dominant orientation and prejudice toward Philemon as a benevolent slave master was situated against the backdrop of the constant demonization of Onesimus as a slave. Despite Paul’s positive characterization of Onesimus, scholars used uncomplimentary and, at times, pejorative descriptions of him.

Among the church fathers, Chrysostom called him “a runaway, a thief, and a robber.” Thomas Aquinas added that, upon stealing, Onesimus secretly fled to Rome. Within the Reformation period, Calvin followed this trajectory by calling Onesimus a “runaway slave and thief . . . a man of the lowest condition.” Worse yet, nineteenth century characterizations degraded Onesimus, and slaves in general, ascribing to them the tendency for stealing and flight. One notable example comes not from a southern proslavery theologian, but a prominent scholar, J. B. Lightfoot:

Onesimus represented the least respectable class in the social scale. He was regarded by philosophers as live chattel, a living implement. . . . He was now also a thief and a runaway. Rome was the natural cesspool for these offscourgings of humanity. In the dregs of the city rabble was his best hope for secrecy. . . . This is none other than Onesimus whom Philemon will only remember as a worthless creature, altogether untrue to his name, but who now is a reformed man.

His language clearly reflected class bias because these characterizations were not based on textual references to Philemon and Onesimus. Culture is a determining influence in interpretation. The treatments of Philemon as master and Onesimus as slave support this influence and betray the naiveté of interpreters who believe they are allowing the text to speak for itself. Referring to Philemon as a perfect Christian man or a bishop, while portraying Onesimus as a pilfering slave or worse yet a worthless creature, reveal influences outside of the text that were shaping the interpretative process. This is just one of the problematic ways scholars can align themselves with the master class and hold stereotypical beliefs about slaves.

One of the principal aims of anyone working in the field of African-American biblical interpretation is to challenge Eurocentrism by exposing the assumptions and underlying beliefs Euro-scholars impose on the text. Some white scholars impose their cultural perspectives and values onto the text of Scripture and assume their cultural vantage point is universal and normative for everyone. Scholars in African-American hermeneutics show that Eurocentric interpretations reflect their own cultural context and ignore the effect of these interpretations on minority cultures and scholars. Because the European context is the dominant interpretative influence on reading Philemon, this cultural lens has transmitted perspectives that are culturally incompatible for an African American and others reading from the margins. The slave flight hypothesis utilizes master-slave ideology in inappropriate and deeply problematic ways. For this reason, Mitzi J. Smith argues, “African Americans must equally reject a master-slave mentality toward traditional scholarship that ignores the oppressive existential impact of such texts and repressive hermeneutics extracted from these texts.” Not only must African Americans reject the master-slave ideology undergirding the slave flight hypothesis, all scholars need to do so. But to do this, careful attention must be given to the pervasive influence of master-slave ideology undergirding the slave flight reading of Philemon.

Theological Problems with the Slave Flight Interpretation

The fourth and greatest exegetical set of problems with the slave flight interpretation is theological. The slave flight interpretation severely limits the theological horizons of this text and results in a troubling tendency among interpreters in Christianizing slavery and slaveholding. Careful exegesis and the interpretation of Scripture are foundational to Christian theology. The kind of exegesis and interpretation that undergirds the slave flight interpretation poses significant theological challenges for the church, especially in light of associated historical and cultural problems. There are two real problems with theology based on the slave flight hypothesis. First, scholars draw very little from the theological well of this letter. Marion Soards’s study on the theological dimensions of the letter brought attention to the limited ways the letter can be used. He writes, “Few ideas in New Testament studies produce higher levels of agreement than the notion that Paul’s letter to Philemon has little or no theological substance.” He chronicles a sixteen-hundred-year history of theological neglect that goes back to John Chrysostom, Theodore of Mopsuestia, and Jerome, and to modern scholars like John Knox and Norman Peterson. What Soards found is interesting. The letter to Philemon was read and studied for moral lessons that could be drawn from it and not for its theological teachings. In addition, he provides an insightful survey of theological statements in the letter. While Soards does not explore reasons for this pervasive belief about the letter to Philemon, I believe part of the neglect is the slave flight interpretation. It is both theologically limiting and problematic, which is the deeper and more pervasive problem with this way of interpretating.

The second problem with the slave flight interpretation is the refusal to problematize the master-slave relationship in any manner. This decision leaves scholars doing what I call “slave-master” theology. Slave-master theology is the kind of theology that uses stereotypes of enslaved and marginalized peoples, aligns itself with the master class, and tries to Christianize enslavement and other forms of oppression. Post-colonial, liberation, feminist, and womanist theologies all find such moves to be very problematic and, in many respects, wrong. Because of this recognition, some scholars have begun to challenge the underlying beliefs and assumptions upon which the slave flight hypothesis rests, especially its historical and social implications for marginalized groups.

Feminist scholar Sabine Bieberstein’s important work on this subject maintains that “history is no longer related as the story of the rulers, but is told anew as the story of the victims.” She believes there should be a perspective shift in the interpretation of texts like Philemon. In her essay, the primary issue is the recognition of the victim, which is why she views Onesimus as the victim within a larger system of oppression. This perspective challenges and changes the interpretive orientation of the letter, shifting the focus from a preoccupation with the master to the difficult realities of the slave. Her essay further exposes the deeper problem with the slave flight hypothesis, its link to systemic oppression, and a long history of guilt. Bieberstein’s work shows that the theological legacy of this interpretation is not only limiting, it is unsound. Historically, Christian interpreters of Philemon were clearly on the side of the master and sought both to sterilize and Christianize slavery. Culturally, slave stereotypes provided justification for centuries of western colonialism and slavery. They also provided theological ammunition for Christian masters in America to use against enslaved Africans.

The theological problem begins with the tendency of some scholars to Christianize slavery and by Christianizing slavery they implicitly legitimize it. Scholars tend to make two arguments, both providing a complimentary portrait of slavery. First, they argue that ancient slavery was different than modern slavery, and, in some respects, that it was not as bad as modern slavery. Second, they argue Christian faith improves master-slave relations. Some scholars go to great lengths to argue there is marked difference between slavery in ancient world and modern times. One of the implicit, if not explicit, assumptions in the study of New Testament slavery is that modern forms of slavery and modern understandings of slavery should not be used in interpretation. Raymond Brown’s New Testament introduction states, “The slavery many English speaking readers of the Bible are most familiar with is that of the blacks in America, but the Roman situation was more complicated.” In a more recent critical commentary, R. Wilson charges, “Our modern attitude is inevitably coloured by recollection of the slave trade, the transportation of black slaves from Africa to America to labour in the plantations.” He even adds that ancient slavery is not entirely comparable, and, as a result, we should not “transpose our legitimate condemnation of the trade to the Americas back into ancient world, where the factors which forced people into slavery could have been entirely different.” Scholars argue that any interpretation of Philemon should not draw on African enslavement in America.

Even though scholars are correct in insisting there were differences between Greco-Roman and American slavery, they overstate the differences between the two and greatly underestimate similarities. David Brion Davis’s study of slavery is a helpful resource here. In The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture, he discusses the issue of continuity in the history of servitude. He admits that slavery in North America possessed distinctive characteristics, such as its racial basis and legal barriers against manumission. He even writes that it is necessary to make a distinction between slavery as an abstract legal status and as an actual institution with economic functions and interpersonal relationships. Many New Testament scholars would agree with him. However, he makes a third point that they fail to identify. He claims that there is more institutional continuity between ancient and modern slavery than has been supposed. Even though slavery in America has marked differences in comparison with ancient slavery, “previous forms of servitude bore enough resemblance to the South’s peculiar institution.”

There is a slight tendency for slave flight scholars to argue that ancient slavery was not as inhumane as American chattel slavery. There are even a few scholars who portray ancient slavery in complimentary terms. They admit that there were oppressive elements to ancient slavery but give considerable attention to positive aspects of slavery that ignore and soften its overall brutality. This does nothing more than legitimize the practice of slavery. For example, in The Social Context of the New Testament, Derek Tidball’s comments about slavery are startling, and yet they reflect the opinion of too many New Testament scholars:

In the first place, the institution of slavery was such an integral part of the social fabric in Paul’s day that it would have been difficult for Paul or others to conceive of social organization without it. . . . By the time of Paul it was not a severe and cruel institution. Of course there were exceptions . . . but the experience of most slaves was different. In Carcopino’s memorable phrase, “with few exceptions slavery in Rome was neither eternal, nor, while it lasted . . . intolerable.” . . . There was no widespread discontent about slavery. So, to the early church the question of the abolition of slavery was probably insignificant. . . . What Paul offers to Christian slaves is a totally new appreciation of their value as persons. They are no longer “things” but people who have standing and status before God (1 Cor 7:20). In Christ the slave is a free man. . . . If only, Paul argues, they grasp this greater fact, slavery becomes inconsequential. A slave can remain happily a slave and still serve the Lord in spite of his social limitations.

Tidball’s picture of slavery in the ancient world is deeply problematic for three reasons: his claims that slavery was not a cruel institution, that it was not intolerable, and that slaves were content and could even be happy with their condition. This is clearly an attempt to soften and sterilize the practice of slavery.

Another example comes from Lutheran scholar John G. Nordling, who scrutinizes the contemporary tendency among scholars who give too much attention to the brutality of Greco-Roman slavery. Nordling thus sets out to provide a more “objective historical view of slavery” based on “evidence that . . . ancient slavery was not quite uniformly horrible.” Garland consents that slavery’s essential nature corrodes the human spirit and yet also argues that ancient slavery was less beastly than new world slavery. These scholars argue that there really is no need to be morally repulsed by ancient slavery, negative elements notwithstanding. This is clearly problematic. It is important to understand some of the differences between ancient and modern slavery so as not to project modern ideas of race onto the slavery of the first century, but it is wrong to try to minimize ancient slavery. It may have offered limited benefit to a few but it left the majority disenfranchised, unprotected, vulnerable, and oppressed.

However, not all scholars subscribe to this belief. Scholars such as Clarice Martin, Allen Callahan, Brad Braxton, Mitzi J. Smith, and Jennifer Glancy strongly disagree with the idea that Greco-Roman slavery was not as oppressive as modern forms of slavery. Martin states, “The pervasive perception of ancient slavery as moderately stressful for the slave is historically naïve and ideologically presumptive.” This belief is naïve because, as Braxton argues, even though “geographical location and ethnic and cultural factors might change from society to society, there are certain enduring sociological factors that are necessary and sufficient conditions for genuine slave societies such as ancient Rome.” Some scholars such as Smith want to go beyond the mere suggestion of similarities between ancient and modern slavery. She believes they are the same. She writes, “Slavery under the Roman Empire was no different from other slave societies in the cruel and inhumane treatment of slaves.” For example, she names the issue of violence and domination. The problem of violence, for “though (some) slaves could move upward socially, and thereby escape the violence at the lower levels of slavery, this was the exception. Often in the imperial world slaves lived with the perpetual threat, as well as reality, of violence against which there was no legal recourse.” And, as Braxton found, “In the face of this violence, the slave had little legal recourse because in the eyes of Roman law slaves had no legal standing.” This is a qualitatively different picture than the one painted by scholars like Tidball, Garland, and Nordling.

Additionally, the personal domination of slaves by their masters is characteristic of slavery. Slaves were completely under the control of masters and lacked basic human and civil rights, such as dignity and honor. In her work on ancient slavery, Jennifer Glancy documented various accounts of violence, including rampant sexual abuse perpetrated against the bodies of slaves, and found that the law even permitted the casual abuse of slaves by freeborn persons who crossed their paths. According to Glancy, “slaves’ ambivalent legal status” opened the door for abuse. Seneca, the Stoic philosopher, provided an account of slavery that seems to greatly support Glancy’s contention. He remarks on the common belief that wealthy Romans thought it was degrading to dine with slaves. And as a result, Seneca offers this revealing portrait of Greco-Roman enslavement.

It is only because purse-proud etiquette surrounds a house-holder at his dinner with a mob of standing slaves. The master eats more than he can hold . . . All this time the poor slaves may not move their lips, even to speak. The slightest murmur is repressed by the rod, even a chance sound . . . a cough, a sneeze, or a hiccup . . . is visited with the lash. There is a grievous penalty for the slightest breach of silence. All night long they must stand about, hungry and dumb.

This startling scene is a poignant reminder of the powerlessness, domination, and humiliation characterizing all forms of human enslavement, spanning the breadth of human history.

Scholars like Martin, Braxton, and Smith were influenced by Orlando Patterson’s work on slavery. His seminal study on slavery proves that, although there are substantive differences between Greco-Roman slavery and American slavery, there are also substantive similarities. Patterson defines slavery as, “the permanent, violent domination of natally alienated and generally dishonored persons.” According to Patterson’s study of slavery in Greece, Rome, medieval Europe, China, Korea, the Islamic kingdoms, Africa, the Caribbean Islands, and the American south, slavery has five common elements: the permanence of slavery; the violence of slavery; the personal domination of slaves; the natal alienation of slaves; and the dishonor of slaves. For Patterson, slavery in every era has been characterized by violence, humiliation, and control. Patterson’s understanding of the common features of slavery is not accepted by many biblical scholars, especially interpreters of Philemon, who tend to focus on the complimentary aspects of slavery and the differences between ancient and modern slavery. This practice must be challenged and abandoned by New Testament scholars. Only then can we imagine anew the interpretation of this letter.


The web of exegetical, historical, cultural, and theological problems with the slave flight interpretation are deeply problematic and reflect a perspective that modern theology has long abandoned. The exclusive identification and alignment with the master class and not the enslaved goes against theological movements such as the Social Gospel, Catholic Social Teaching, and Liberation Theologies that privileges the position and perspective of the poor and marginalized. This kind of “slave-master” theology keeps the church blind to the realities and perspectives that come from the underside or other side of history. That is why theologians and more biblical scholars have long recognized the need to reorient its starting place and move away from perspectives rooted in Eurocentrism and colonialism.

The real problem with this interpretation is where it leaves the church. The exegetical, historical, cultural, and theological refusal to problematize the master-slave relationship hurts the witness of the church. Instead of using the letter to Philemon to wrestle earnestly with the challenges, promises, and complexities of living this faith in contexts where slavery and other forms of oppression are the norm, too many scholars are content to sanctify this norm and begin and end the theological task rationalizing the place and perspectives of the master class. This produces theology that rarely challenges the church to realign its witness among those who experience oppression and marginalization and reimagine a witness that moves the world closer to the reality of the kingdom of God. After all, the story and teachings in the text do not have to present a perfect picture of divine human relationality nor solve all the problems the text presents (slavery in the world). Rather, this story extends an invitation to wrestle anew with what they wrestled with in the first century. The interpretation of the letter to Philemon should reflect a theology that is honest about ways we fall short of giving witness of the kingdom of God. It challenges us to be courageous enough to envision how to live into the things that Christ’s death and resurrection have made possible for the church and world. All of this and more are the kinds of theological musings that should preoccupy scholars of Philemon. As Philemon scholars, we must practice and embody a theology that upsets the social order instead of accommodating the Gospel to it. This is the kind of interpretive theology that represents the future of a church that is increasingly becoming more culturally and theologically diverse. And, more importantly, the absence of this kind of interpretation and theological reflection is a major reason the letter to Philemon is so often ignored by the church.

In the end, a real need to reimagine the interpretation of Philemon is clear. The church needs an interpretative orientation that does not Christianize or seek to legitimize slavery in any form, and more importantly, does not privilege the master class. Challenging the slave flight hypothesis will pave the way for scholars and the church to turn to Onesimus for an alternate interpretation of the letter to Philemon, imagining new possibilities and enlivening the witness of the church.

Questions for Reflection

  1. What is the connection between the slave-flight interpretation and the problematic history of support for slavery by Christians for hundreds of years? Why it is an important part of the interpretation of Philemon?
  2. The shadow of slavery hangs over the letter to Philemon. Why is it important to address problematic texts in the Bible with both critical honesty and humility while attempting to discern an interpretation that is faithful to the Gospel of Jesus Christ?
  3. How should Christians respond to attempts by scholars and pastors to Christianize slavery using Philemon?