A couple of months ago I was feeling very guilty because I hadn’t written a short play for our church drama group to perform for ages, and I was scratching my head as what would be a suitable subject.
In the past I had been quite ambitious, producing one play which taught the whole history of the writing of the OT and a summary of its contents in 10 minutes or so, but generally I prefer to tackle actual stories- I have covered the life of Moses in 2 short plays and St Francis of Assisi in another for example but I just had a block- that is until Ruth said’ why not do one about the runaway slave Onesimus?. It’s a good story and its found in the shortest book in the whole Bible’- it is found in St Paul’s letter to Philemon which is only one chapter in length.
As I often find is the case- it took me a bit of time to concede the wisdom of her wifely advice, and then a couple of days later I sat down and started writing. But I immediately ran into a problem. One I run into quite frequently- as someone who studies the Bible a lot. The story of Onesimus was not as simple as I remembered it.
This is what I thought it was about. A well to do associate of St Paul, Philemon, had a slave Onesimus, who ran away and found his way to Paul, when Paul was in prison in Rome. Paul in his letter beseeches Philemon to forgive him for running away and accept him back without punishing him. The story has been taken usually in one of 2 ways, both possessing a strong dose of anachronism. Christians have seen it as a story about kindness and people not so keen on our faith, have seen it as a typical example of christianity’s illiberal conservatism with its uncritical acceptance of the institution of slavery.
The first thing I noticed is that it is not absolutely clear that Onesimus was ever a runaway slave. There is something highly unfeasible about the whole scenario as traditionally conceived. Philemon seems to live in what is now Turkey- Paul is in Rome. In those days a massively large distance to cover with hugely expensive travel costs. Onesimus would have had to pilfer a small fortune from Philemon to afford such a journey- and to visit someone in prison. That just does not seem likely.
My own favourite theory is that Onesimus who like many slaves might have been a well educated Greek, could have been a trusted messenger who Philemon sent to Paul, but simply overstayed. There is no hint in the letter that he had committed a capital offence, which in that culture, running away would have amounted too! We will never know exactly what he had done to merit Paul’s pleas on his behalf.
But whether he had run away or not there is something striking about the way Paul treated him and considered him. His letter is full of intimate and affectionate references to Onesimus. He writes, I am sending him, that is my own heart back to you.
He calls him his child and says he has become his father; which might be even more significant.
Just before I went away I went to hear a talk by a scholar who is not well known, but very well respected in his field, Larry Siedentop, who is a fellow of Keble College, where he has taught intellectual history and political thought for many years
His latest book, is called Inventing the Individual- The origins of Western Liberalism. And in it he proposes that toleration and respect for human rights and dignity, which have been the legacy of the Liberal Tradition, owe their existence to Christianity, particularly the way, to put it colloquially, it drove a coach and horses through the classical world’s assumptions about what mattered and who mattered.
His thesis is that in the ancient world the family was, literally a sacred institution. Each family unit was not only set up on a patriarchal model, as is well known, but was built around a cult focussed around the ancestors and the family gods. The male run family was the key economic and communal unit. Women and slaves were part of it, but of no intrinsic status. They were virtually property of the male line.
St Paul’s radical declaration that there were no slaves, or women, Jews or Gentiles in Christ, and his behaviour with regard to Onesimus seem to me to be 2 sides of this revolutionary coin. The latter shows that he meant what he said.
Some biblical scholars have argued that Paul is recommending to Philemon that he should free Onesimus from the status of slave, although I can’t quite see that, but there is no doubt that he sees Onesimus as a human being- equal to him in the sight of God- someone not at all boxed in by his social position, and he wants Philemon to do the same.
Siedentop argues that by such shifts of perspective the church chipped away at the assumptions of the classical world and directly led to many of the things we value most about the modern one. The institution of slavery eventually becoming obnoxious and the rights of the individual paramount for example.
That turns on its head the version of history that we so often hear. That the church has always been on the side of dogmatism and control and has fought tooth and nail to resist a more humanistic way of dealing with people.
The very short letter to Philemon is well worth reading as it reveals St Paul at his most tender and revolutionary in reflecting on the difference that a Christ and God centred life will make.