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‘Thanks, but no Thanks’: Tact, Persuasion, and the Negotiation of Power in Paul's Letter to Philemon*

  • Scott S. Elliott (a1)

Historical reconstructions concerning Philemon consistently illustrate an overwhelming tendency to see Paul as operating with the most innocuous and transparent of motives. In contrast, my (mildly playful) reading of Philemon posits a Paul engaged in power negotiations with his addressee. Though Philemon acts as Paul's would-be patron, Paul resists the gesture and opts instead to assign Philemon a carefully proscribed role vis-à-vis himself. Paul relies on rhetorical techniques of tact to coerce Philemon to adopt this role ‘voluntarily’. Onesimus emerges, then, as a pawn in a negotiation for power and status in the community.

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1 Chrysostom, Hom. Phlm. ‘Argument’, NPNF1 13: 545.

2 Remarks in vv. 11a and 12a are also frequently used to construct this reading. Some such reconstruction is assumed with some reservations by O'Brien P. (Colossians, Philemon [Waco: Word, 1982] 266–7); without reservations by Lohse E. (Colossians and Philemon [Minneapolis: Fortress, 1971] 186–7), Felder C. H. (‘The Letter to Philemon’, NIB 11 [Nashville: Abingdon, 2000] 885–6, 898), and Petersen N. (Rediscovering Paul: Philemon and the Sociology of Paul's Narrative World [Minneapolis: Fortress, 1985] 264); and strenuously, in the face of counter-evidence, by Barth M. and Blanke H. (The Letter to Philemon: A New Translation with Notes and Commentary [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000] 141, 227–8), who regard the traditional reading as self-evident; Nordling J. (‘Onesimus Fugitivus’, JSNT 41 [1991] 97119), whose thesis regarding Paul's ‘conciliatory’ purpose attempts to account for serious objections raised by Knox J. (Philemon Among the Letters of Paul: A New View of Its Place and Importance [Nashville: Abingdon, rev. ed. 1959]), and Winter S. (‘Methodological Observations on a New Interpretation of Paul's Letter to Philemon’, USQR 39 [1984] 203–12; ‘Paul's Letter to Philemon’, NTS 33 [1987] 1–15). The more recent amicus domini theory, championed by Lampe P. (‘Keine “Sklavenflucht” des Onesimus’, ZNW 76 [1985] 135–7; Lampe , ‘Paul, Patrons, and Clients’, Paul in the Greco-Roman World [ed. Sampley J. P.; New York: Trinity Press International, 2003] 501–2) and alluded to above, softens the tensions of the traditional reading by reducing the legal ramifications of Onesimus's separation from his master: he is not legally a ‘runaway’, and thus need not expect overly harsh treatment upon return, as the traditional reading had it. It does not yet resolve all of those tensions, however; see further below. See also Callahan A. D. (Embassy of Onesimus: The Letter of Paul to Philemon [Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1997] 512). For an overview of this recent theory in relationship to the older form of this reading (which I have somewhat telescoped here), see Fitzmyer J., The Letter to Philemon: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (AB 34C; New York: Doubleday, 2001) 1718; and Harrill J. A., Slaves in the New Testament: Literary, Social, and Moral Dimensions (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005) 614.

3 This alternate scenario was initially suggested to me by Winter's article, ‘Paul's Letter to Philemon’. Winter contends that the ‘Colossae church’ (particularly Archippus) sent the slave Onesimus to Paul. In this letter, Paul is requesting that Onesimus be released from his service to the Colossae church, so that he can remain with Paul and serve in some higher capacity. My reconstruction posits a different reason for the sending of Onesimus to Paul, as well as a far different ‘request’ from Paul. Winter, of course, draws part of her case from Knox.

4 Quint. fratr. 1.1.8 (LCL).

5 Harrill (Slaves, 11–14) challenges the proposal on the grounds of (1) Paul's pledge to repay Philemon for any wrongdoing on the part of Onesimus, and (2) more generally, on the ambiguity surrounding the nature of that pledge. I address both items below.

6 Winter, ‘Paul's Letter to Philemon’, 3. Winter also hints at other practical problems with the traditional explanation: Onesimus could not be with Paul as a fellow prisoner, nor could Paul under loose house arrest provide asylum for Onesimus (2); and ancient letters interceding on behalf of a runaway slave compare poorly with our letter (6). By contrast, Paul's imprisonment would lend itself to the need for a visitor to tend to the apostle (3). See too Callahan, Embassy of Onesimus, 5–12, who adds to Winter's observations that the status of Onesimus as a runaway is, uncharacteristically for an intercessory letter, never referred to in this letter (5); that the traditional reading uses stereotypes and the mythology of slaveholders uncritically (9); and that there is no explicit slave–master language apart from v. 16a, which is not self-evidently intended literally (10–12). Nordling (‘Onesimus Fugitivus’, 9–19) offers a critique of Knox and his ‘camp’, arguing that these explicit cues are missing due to Paul's tact. I argue here that Paul's ‘tact’ can be read in a very different way.

7 Harrill (Slaves, 14–16) foregoes further debate on the events leading up to the letter and instead seeks to ‘reconstruct what future Paul wants for Onesimus’ based on ancient ‘journeyman apprentice’ contracts. For a critique of Harrill's proposal, see Nicklas T., ‘The Letter to Philemon: A Discussion with J. Albert Harrill’, Paul's World (ed. Porter S. E.; Leiden: Brill, 2008) 201–19.

8 Harrill, Slaves, 13.

9 Lightfoot J. B., Saint Paul's Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon (London: Macmillan, 1886) 383.

10 Nordling, ‘Onesimus Fugitivus’, 281–3.

11 Wilson A., ‘The Pragmatics of Politeness and Pauline Epistolography: A Case Study of the Letter to Philemon’, JSNT 48 (1992) 107–19, repr. in New Testament Backgrounds (ed. C. A. Evans and S. E. Porter; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1997) 284–95.

12 To quote Elizabeth Castelli, this ‘spiritualizing gesture towards the text…assumes the transparency of textual reference while remaining silent on the question of the interestedness of the text’ (Imitating Paul: A Discourse of Power [Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1991] 23).

13 Cf. Lampe (‘Paul, Patrons, and Clients’, 495–7 and esp. 501), who argues that Paul's ambiguous relationship to Philemon is tied to Philemon's patronage of the assembly and (on one level) of Paul, and that this is why ambiguity emerges in the conflict between Paul's ‘appeal’ (vv. 9, 14) and his expectation of ‘obedience’ (v. 21).

14 Sampley J. P., ‘The Second Letter to the Corinthians’, NIB 11 (Nashville: Abingdon, 2000) 169.

15 See Lampe, ‘Paul, Patrons, and Clients’, 490, on the client's obligations in exchange for patronage.

16 The explicit reasons Paul gives for this policy, in his letters to the Corinthians (1 Cor 9; 2 Cor 11.7–12), mention this kind of status obligation only obliquely at most. However, Lampe's study of patronage demonstrates that this was an (implicit) element in the conversation (‘Paul, Patrons, and Clients’, 503–4; see also Sampley, ‘The Second Letter to the Corinthians’, 151).

17 Lampe, ‘Paul, Patrons, and Clients’, 503.

18 Every substantial statement in the letter's body is made to a singular you (σοῦ). Scholars have variously identified this addressee as Philemon (most) or Archippus (Knox, Philemon, 57–8; Winter, ‘Paul's Letter to Philemon’). Presumably, Paul and the letter's recipients knew who the addressee was. The fact that scholars do not know is another indication of how far outside the dialogue we are. See too Nordling's discussion on the addressee (Philemon, 14–15).

19 So Lohse, Colossians and Philemon, 199; Nordling (who translates exactly as above), ‘Onesimus Fugitivus’, 275–6; Nordling, Philemon, 13, 16 n. 87, 221; and O'Brien, Colossians, Philemon, 290. The translations are usually less free than this: ‘I am appealing to you for my child’ (nrsv; cf. rsv, njb). However, the sense of ‘for’ in these translations is rather clearly ‘on behalf of’. But see n. 21 below.

20 BAGD, πɛρί 1f; so too BDF §229.

21 The example BAGD offers (‘I asked God for this’), however, suggests that ‘for’ carries the different sense of introducing the content of the request; this would render the phrase ‘I ask you for my child’ (so Knox, Winter) which is quite different from ‘I appeal to you on behalf of my child’.

22 Bjerkelund C. J., Parakalô: Form, Funktion und Sinn der parakalô-Sätzen in den paulinischen Briefen (Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 1967) 120–1. Bjerkelund is especially critical of Knox's reading, ‘I appeal to you for…’, in the sense ‘I want’ (for myself) (see Knox, Philemon, 5). He passes over the traditional reading (‘on behalf of’) without a word, evidently finding no evidence for it. Cf. also Greeven H., ‘Prüfung der Thesen von J. Knox zum Philemonbrief’, Theologische Literaturzeitung 6 (1954) 374; Callahan, Embassy, 34.

23 If, as I read Philemon (with Lohse), Paul's direct request ‘concerning my child’ only emerges in v. 17, then the substance of Paul's request is also in an aorist imperative verbal construction.

24 On v. 17, see Lohse, Colossians and Philemon, 202. Cf. Bjerkelund, Parakalô, 122; Callahan, Embassy, 37; O'Brien, Colossians, Philemon, 267; Barth and Blanke, Letter to Philemon, 306.

25 Cf. Frilingos C. A., ‘‘For My Child, Onesimus’: Paul and Domestic Power in Philemon', JBL 119 (2000) 99.

26 Admittedly, it is quite possible, as the anonymous reviewer of this article rightly pointed out, that Paul's reference to his old age and captivity do not convey humility at all, but rather provide Paul with even greater leverage and clout (cf. 2 Cor 12.1–10 where Paul's weakness is said to be his strength). But here is a fine example of how the dynamics of tact, the ambiguities of tone, and the limitations of rhetorical analysis intersect.

27 Thus, as commentators frequently state, it plays on Onesimus' name (meaning ‘useful’), and (more explicitly) it parallels ɛὔχρηστος. The translation ‘useless’ aids the reading that Onesimus was a runaway slave, that is, he was useless due to his insolence and disobedience, as well as his absence from Philemon's house.

28 Winter argues that Paul does not send Onesimus with the letter (‘Paul's Letter to Philemon’, 7); her argument is unpersuasive and has simply been ignored in subsequent discussions.

29 Even in the traditional historical reconstruction, lingering questions about whether Paul wants Onesimus returned or kept, freed or still enslaved, given special duties in the church or not, all demonstrate this vagueness well. Cf. Frilingos, ‘For My Child’, 100. Callahan's treatment of the situation (conveniently summarized in Embassy, 69–70), which is persuasive on many points (frequently more so than the traditional hypothesis) though not on all, also illustrates well the vagueness of Paul's remarks.

30 See BAGD, γνώμη; LSJ, γνώμη; cf. Callahan, Embassy, 42: ‘Paul seeks consultation, not permission’. Lohse contends that v. 14 was intentionally vague (Colossians and Philemon, 202).

31 The phrase ‘watchful eye’ is Petersen's, who nicely emphasizes the public dynamic of the conversation as an element of its persuasive force (Rediscovering Paul, 288). Cf. Frilingos, ‘For My Child’, 99, 103–4.

32 Nordling takes Paul's use of χωρίζω (‘separate’) as an oblique reference to ἀναχωρίζω (‘abscond’), and thus an example of Paul's tact or discretion (Philemon, 12; cf. ‘Onesimus Fugitivus’, 273–4, where he cites Chrysostom).

33 Petersen also notices this shift (Rediscovering Paul, 75, 265), as does Lampe (‘Paul, Patrons, and Clients’, 501). The traditional reading tends to overlook or even reject this important shift in tone, an oversight that is symptomatic of a deeper agenda in that reading (I will return to this in my conclusion). See, e.g., Lohse, Colossians and Philemon, 206; O'Brien, Colossians, Philemon, 267–8; Wilson, ‘Pragmatics of Politeness’, 294–5; Felder, ‘The Letter to Philemon’, 902 (Paul mentions obedience ‘doubtless for Philemon's encouragement’!); and Nordling, Philemon, 17–18. I. H. Marshall, aware of this problem, tries to soften it by appealing to Paul's knowledge of the ‘Christian faith and love’ of Philemon (‘The Theology of Philemon’, The Theology of the Shorter Pauline Letters (by K. P. Donfried and I. H. Marshall; Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1993] 175–91, here 185).

34 So too Lampe (‘Paul, Patrons, and Clients’, 501), who argues that Paul turns traditional patron–client roles ‘upside down’ (499) in other epistles as well.

35 Frilingos, ‘For My Child’, 100–102.

36 Thus, Callahan plausibly regards Onesimus ‘as an extension of Paul's apostolic presence’ (Embassy, 40).

37 Callahan, Embassy, 55. Callhan's argument is based on Paul's use of προσλαμβάνω in Rom 14.1 and 15.7 when discussing interactions between ‘weak’ and ‘strong’ members of the assembly.

38 Cf. Frilingos, ‘For My Child’, 101–2. This is indeed how it has been understood traditionally, viz., that the broader audience (the community at Philemon's house) will here serve as witnesses. I have a different sense in mind. In my reading, the community bears witness to the fact that Paul is the one in charge.

39 Knox takes it that Paul is here, in effect, becoming Onesimus' master (Philemon, 8–9). Winter points out that Paul actually expresses ignorance whether there was any wrong done (‘Paul's Letter to Philemon’, 5); cf. Callahan, Embassy, 56. My claim is that the hypothetical nature of Paul's statement is designed to ensure that his words address equally both the public and private audience of the letter.

40 Cf. Frilingos, ‘For My Child’, 104. Callahan, Embassy, 64, refers to a ‘tacit threat’, which puts Philemon's ‘reputation’ at stake.

41 Callahan argues that Chrysostom may have invented what has since been the traditional reading; at least, it is not attested prior to him (Embassy, 12–19).

* I extend my sincerest thanks and heartfelt appreciation to Professor Jonathan D. Schwiebert for his invaluable contributions to an earlier version of this article.

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