Thoughts on Paul's Letter to Philemon

It's been (quite) awhile since I have made a post about anything other than my DIY projects (and those mostly about my car). So, I'll change it up a bit here with a (way-too-lengthy) post about more important things.

Introduction (warning: nerd stuff)

In a few weeks, I will trek from our home in Burlington, ON, to Denver, CO, for the annual conferences of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) and the Society of Biblical Literature. I'll be presenting a paper at SBL as part of the Biblical Greek Language and Linguistics unit's themed session. This year's theme is "the linguistics of social identity formation in the New Testament." It's a topic on which I've written before, but in this case rather than offering a general model for investigating social identity (re-)formation in the New Testament as I did in the article, the point of the conference session is to demonstrate models and methods in action. In other words, it's intended to demonstrate the "exegetical payoff" of linguistic criticism and discourse analysis of the Greek New Testament. I will be investigating the linguistic features in Paul's letter to Philemon, that short, 335-word (in Greek) letter that packs an "interpersonal punch" beyond what one might expect of such a short letter.
In this post, I wanted to share some thoughts about Philemon that I won't be covering in that conference paper because they are tangential to the paper's purpose and I wouldn't have time to talk about it anyway (each presenter only has 25 mins. to present). My thoughts here are related to another article I wrote not too long ago in a Festschrift to Dr. Lynn McMillon, long-time professor and dean of Bible at Oklahoma Christian University. In that article, I took up van Leeuwen's model of legitimation and applied it to a study of 2 Peter. Admittedly, the model needs to be more fully researched and probably adjusted for application to the sociocultural and sociolinguistic context of the New Testament world before using it any deeper than I did. Nevertheless, even as it is, it does point out a few interesting things in Philemon.
Before going any further, let me define what is meant by "legitimation." This term refers to the process of arguing that something is legitimate or "legit" as the young people sometimes say—it's a way to refer to the justification particularly of ideologies and their attendant values, typically in contexts where conflicts of interest exist. In van Leeuwen's model, there are four basic categories of legitimation. They are (see my 2 Peter article, pp. 59–60):
  • AUTHORITY LEGITIMATION: Authorization is legitimation by reference to the authority of tradition, custom, or law and of persons in whom institutional authority is vested. Authorization answers the "why?" question with "because I/so-and-so said so," "because this is what we always do," or "because this is what everybody else does."
  • MORAL LEGITIMATION: Moral legitimation occurs through references to value systems. Moral evaluation answers the "why?" question with "because it is the right/appropriate thing to do. in light of the values we (i.e., the group) live by"
  • RATIONAL LEGITIMATION: Rationalization is legitimation by reference to the goals and uses of institutionalized action and to the knowledge that groups (or society at large) have constructed and endowed with cognitive validity. Rationalization answers the "why?" question with "in order to do, be/come, promote, or effect what is good or appropriate" or "because that’s the way it is" or "because it’s necessary."
  • MYTHOPOETIC LEGITIMATION: Mythopoesis is legitimation through rehearsing the myths/narratives that embody a group’s (or society’s) deepest truths and concerns. Please note that "myth" does NOT automatically mean "fake"; rather, the term refers to the significant stories, without an evaluation as to truth or falsity or degree of embellishment, that have been passed down from generation to generation as a means of establishing and perpetuating general rules of conduct and the sentiments that control social behaviour and religious belief" (cf. E.O. James, "The Nature and Function of Myth," Folklore 68 [1957]: 477). Mythopoesis answers the "why?" question symbolically via the outcomes of these stories: legitimate actions are rewarded and non-legitimate actions are punished.
The model is actually more delicate than this; that is, there are subcategories (sometimes multiple levels of subcategories) to each one of these main categories. I won't delve into those here; I don't need to for the basic observations about the letter to Philemon that I want to make (see my 2 Peter article for a few examples where I did need to dive a bit deeper). Also, the model allows overlap in categories. That is, sometimes a particular clause or clause complex encodes and expresses more than one type of legitimation meanings simultaneously. Something to keep in mind.

Thoughts based on van Leeuwen's model (warning: even more nerd stuff)

Here are a few thoughts based on initial observations from the text that result from reading the letter to Philemon through van Leeuwen's model (note that my use of van Leeuwen's model is informed by my own model of "Appraisal Theory" as well as insights from cultural anthropology, which you will likely recognize in what follows). Bear in mind that I'm not offering a fully-orbed interpretation of Philemon here. I'll do that at another time, not in a blog post. 🙂
I want to focus on vv. 8–14 (my translation):
8 Διὸ πολλὴν ἐν Χριστῷ παρρησίαν ἔχων ἐπιτάσσειν σοι τὸ ἀνῆκον 9 διὰ τὴν ἀγάπην μᾶλλον παρακαλῶ, τοιοῦτος ὢν ὡς Παῦλος πρεσβύτης νυνὶ δὲ καὶ δέσμιος Χριστοῦ Ἰησοῦ· 10 παρακαλῶ σε περὶ τοῦ ἐμοῦ τέκνου, ὃν ἐγέννησα ἐν τοῖς δεσμοῖς, Ὀνήσιμον, 11 τόν ποτέ σοι ἄχρηστον νυνὶ δὲ [καὶ] σοὶ καὶ ἐμοὶ εὔχρηστον, 12 ὃν ἀνέπεμψά σοι, αὐτόν, τοῦτ’ ἔστιν τὰ ἐμὰ σπλάγχνα· 13 ὃν ἐγὼ ἐβουλόμην πρὸς ἐμαυτὸν κατέχειν, ἵνα ὑπὲρ σοῦ μοι διακονῇ ἐν τοῖς δεσμοῖς τοῦ εὐαγγελίου, 14 χωρὶς δὲ τῆς σῆς γνώμης οὐδὲν ἠθέλησα ποιῆσαι, ἵνα μὴ ὡς κατὰ ἀνάγκην τὸ ἀγαθόν σου ᾖ ἀλλὰ κατὰ ἑκούσιον.
8 Therefore, despite having considerable frankness of speech in the Messiah to command you [to do] what is proper, 9 instead I make an appeal because of love, despite being none other than Paul the elder yet now also a prisoner of the Messiah Jesus; 10 I appeal to you regarding my child, whom I fathered in these chains, Onesimus, 11 the one who was useless to you but now is useful both to you and to me, 12 whom I send to you, him, that is, my heart; 13 whom I want to keep for myself, so that he might serve me on your behalf in these chains as a result of the gospel, 14 but I wanted to do nothing without agreement from you, so that your good deed would not be in accordance with compulsion but in accordance with willingness.
This particular stretch of text tends to capture the attention of Bible readers, but throughout the years that I have taught the letter to Philemon to undergraduate and graduate students, as well as in various church contexts, what Paul is doing here is often merely intuited and eludes clear articulation. van Leeuwen's model, I think, can help us describe in a more principled way the extremely important and clearly counter-cultural move that Paul makes here.
Nearly everyone to whom I have taught this text senses that what Paul writes here has something to do with "authority," i.e., "the socially acknowledged right to oblige another" (Bruce J. Malina, Christian Origins and Cultural Anthropology [Louisville: John Knox, 1986; reprint, Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2010], 116) or "power" ("the ability to effect conformity" [ibid., 71]). That's true. But many of these same readers assume that Paul is skillfully utilizing his rhetorical prowess in order to, in some ironic way, "flex his apostolic muscle" and exert "power" over Philemon—even to "manipulate" him, as a lady once verbalized it at a church where I taught Philemon [As a side note, I responded to the lady who made this statement in the class at church by saying, "'Manipulate' is not inappropriate, if by the term you simply mean that Paul is trying to reposition/shift Philemon's perspective on Onesimus, but 'manipulate' is probably not the appropriate term, if you intend the more negative sense of term as it's commonly used in our social and cultural context as a synonym of 'coerce,' which is an illegitimate and/or inappropriate use of power to force someone into compliance."] However, it's likely not true that Paul is "exerting power" or forcing/coercing Philemon to think of Onesimus in a new and different way, "or else." So what's going on here? Look at how he engages Philemon.
Paul opens this unit conceding the point ("although..." or "despite...") that "in the Messiah/Christ" (i.e., within the in-group, the group of Jesus followers), he has considerable frankness of speech/openness/boldness—note carefully that he does not use a term for power/authority here such as ἐξουσία [exousia]—to command or order (ἐπιτάσσειν) Philemon to do "what is proper" (τὸ ἀνῆκον) (v. 8a). But then he immediately supplants or replaces that point with, "instead I make an appeal because of love" (v. 9a). This is one of Paul's most-used ways of, if I may use a bit of linguistic speak, contracting the dialogue; he takes the whole notion of "wielding power" off the table from the get-go (see my Interpersonal Metafunction in 1 Corinthians 1–4, 69–75, esp. "DISCLAIM: COUNTER" on pp. 74–75). It may even be that some of the letter's hearers (Apphia, Archippus, and the others comprising the group of Jesus followers that meets in his house) may have thought he could or should have commanded Philemon or even expected him to, which may be why he adds a further concession, "despite being none other than Paul the elder yet now also a prisoner of the Messiah Jesus" (v. 9b). Here, Paul seems to account for the fact that some see him as a significant leader in the Jesus movement, which would feed the notion that he could/should/ought to wield power over Philemon. Although Paul does not as clearly/overtly supplant this idea, he does add an important phase "yet now a prisoner of the Messiah Jesus." At the time of writing this letter, Paul was in prison on account of his preaching the gospel message. Prison and being a prisoner in his day was one way to shame someone publicly. Seemingly ironically, Paul readily accepts this shame because what the world judged to be negative shame was judged to be meaningless or even positive by the Jesus group, because such "shame" kept resulting in the further spread of the gospel and ultimately bringing honour to God rather than to Paul (or any other "leader"). In short, Paul immediately shuts any notion that he as a leader in in the Jesus group should or is expected to wield power, and he replaces that notion with something he deems more appropriate (making an appeal because of love). That's classic dialogic contraction by means of concession and counter.
To put this in the language of van Leeuwen's scheme, Paul eschews tapping into the "because-I-said-so" type of AUTHORITY LEGITIMATION. Instead, by means of the causal adjunct "because of love," he shifts the discussion into the "it's-the-right-thing-to-do-based-on-the-values-of-the-group" realm of MORAL LEGITIMATION. Now, to grasp the weightiness of this and to avoid interpreting "love" as some sort of purely subjective, indefinable, "messy" emotion as tends to be the case in the modern Western world, a little sociocultural background is necessary. The inhabitants of the circum-Mediterranean world in New Testament times (and to an extent even today) were collectivists (group oriented) and not individualists. In terms of identity, this means that, as Kuhn (Insights from Cultural Anthropology [Minneapolis: Fortress, 2018], 39) puts it, "The group defined the self and the self was only intelligible as part of the group." Or, to put it differently, it means that social identity took strong precedence over individual identity. "Who are we?" would be the primary identity question, while "Who am I?" would be secondary, and typically answering this latter question would only be done in light of the response to the former.
One attendant circumstance of this is the foregrounding of the social value of belonging (a.k.a., affinity or solidarity). Belonging implies a shared set of values, beliefs, language, feelings, and ideals (Malina, Christian Origins, 70) on the basis of which group boundaries are staked out and maintained. In this sort of context, "love" is the value of group attachment and group bonding (note: love in this sense is not necessarily coupled with feelings of affection) (this is not to be confused with "steadfast love," which aligns with the notion of "grace") (Malina, "Love" in Handbook of Biblical Social Values). Of course, each use of the Greek terms for love must be interpreted in their specific context of use, but often the noun agapē (ἀγάπη) and the verb agapaō (ἀγαπάω), and especially philadelphia (φιλαδελφία), bespeak the notion of belongingness/solidarity as a social value. There could be many groups to which a person living in NT times could belong, including everything from workers guilds to the ekklēsia (ἐκκλησία). It's worth noting that pretty much every group was painted over with a sort of "kinship glaze" (that's why they are sometimes called "fictive kin" groups, "fictive" as opposed to blood). This highlights the fact that the (blood) kin group was foundational and the most important group to which a person could belong. This "glaze" is noticeable all through the NT in relation to talking about those who were embedded in the ekklēsia (ἐκκλησία, probably better glossed to English as "assembly" than "church"), hence the common terminology of "brother" and "sister."
There were certain expectations in that context with regard to the ethos of kin groups (families) and, by extension, fictive kin groups, too. David deSilva (Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity [Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2000], 165–73) outlines these as follows:
  • cooperation, not competition
  • trust
  • harmony (sharing ideals and sharing possessions)
  • hiding the negative shame (disgrace/dishonour) of kin (put positively, maintaining positive shame [protecting the family name])
  • forgiveness, reconciliation, patience
"Co-belongers" (fellow members), whether in a blood kin or fictive kin group, were expected to live by and perpetuate this ethos, and this ethos may be referred to as "loving your brother/sister or neighbour," where "neighbour" refers to fellow group members.
Now, all of that said, note carefully the text in Phlm 4–7, just prior to the verses that I've focused on in this post. Pay attention to what Paul is grateful to God for: he offers up gratitude to God because he has heard about Philemon's love (ἀγάπη) and faithfulness, which he has toward the Lord Jesus and toward all the saints (i.e., his fellows in the fictive family of Jesus followers). His fellowship (= sharing) that stemmed from his faith(fulness) (subjective genitive, for you Greek grammar nerds) became operative in the knowledge of every good thing that was shared in the Messiah Jesus. Further, Paul attributes his "great joy and encouragement" to Philemon's love, which Philemon demonstrated by refreshing the hearts of the saints (again, his fellows in the fictive family of Jesus followers). To cut to the chase, Paul thanks God for Philemon because Philemon lived by the value of love (group solidarity) as defined by Jesus, and it apparently manifested itself in the various features of family ethos.
Here is where Paul now fully shifts from what van Leeuwen's model calls AUTHORITY LEGITIMATION to MORAL LEGITIMATION. And, this is where Philemon must make a choice in regard to Onesimus (remember, Paul wanted Philemon's "good deed" to be done in accordance with "willingness" not "compulsion" [v. 14]). It's interesting that Paul redefines Onesimus's identity so that he is Paul's "heart." If Philemon is known to his fellows in the faith as a "refresher of hearts," and if he is to maintain his honourable status as such in the group in the eyes of Apphia, Archippus, and the others comprising the assembly of Jesus followers in his household (a lot more could be said about how this worked in honour/shame cultures, but I've already gone on too long), then would be grant Paul's wish to have his heart (= Onesimus) refreshed (v. 20)? Will he do the morally right thing of reifying love—group solidarity on the basis of the primary group value of love—by welcoming Onesimus "no longer as a slave but more than a slave—as a beloved brother"?
I'd be remiss if I failed to mention that there's fair bit of RATIONAL LEGITIMATION in this letter, too, but much of it is "between the lines." For example, at one point, Paul argues using a first class condition (if, for the sake of argument, the condition entails, then the consequence ought also entail): "If you have me as a fellow [in the group of Jesus followers], then [you ought to] welcome Onesimus as though he were me [after all, he is my heart (= me)]" (v.17).
More could be said, but I've gone on long enough—probably longer than a blog post should be. Nevertheless, I hope these observations were helpful and not too "rambly."