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Bible Commentaries

Cambridge Greek Testament Commentary for Schools and CollegesCambridge Greek Testament Commentary

- Philemon

In philanthropy as in science there are three stages the prelude, the epoch, and the sequel. The prelude is a period of aspiration, and half-blind guesses. The epoch brings the expression of the truth to its highest point. In the sequel, the principle, once fixed in words, is extended and developed in practice. It would be no difficult task to apply the analogy to the influence of Christianity on slavery. As far as the Epistle to Philemon is concerned, the epoch has come.

Bp Alexander, in The Speaker’s Commentary .

We are all the Lord’s Onesimi.





authenticity of the epistle

The external evidence is ample, from the time of Tertullian onward. From him we gather ( Contra Marcion ., v. 21) that even Marcion’s Apostolicon 1 1 See above, p. 38, note . contained Philemon: “The shortness of this Epistle has favoured its escape from the tampering hands ( falsarias manus ) of Marcion;” that is to say (so Jerome, Preface to Philemon , explains), Marcion had more or less altered every other Epistle which he had admitted, but not this. Origen ( Homily xix. on Jeremiah ) quotes Philemon 1:14 almost verbatim, as what “Paul said, in the Epistle to Philemon, to Philemon about Onesimus.” He quotes ver. 7 in his Commentary on St Matthew, tractate 34: “As Paul says to Philemon;” and again, ver. 9: “By Paul it is said to Philemon, But now as Paul the aged ( senex ).” In the Ignatian Epistles there are some apparent allusions to the Epistle. The writer several times ( To the Ephesians , 2; To the Magnesians , 12; To Polycarp , 1, 6) uses the Greek phrase rendered in the A.V. of Philemon 1:20 , “ Let me have joy of thee .”

In the fourth century the authenticity was sometimes denied, and more often the Epistle was attacked 2 2 Lightfoot speaks of the “fierce” opposition to the Epistle. Is not this word too strong? as unworthy to be reckoned Scripture. This is inferred from defences of the Epistle made incidentally by e.g. Chrysostom and Jerome, in the Prefaces to their Expositions. Jerome says that “some will have it that it is not Paul’s, others that it has nothing in it for our edification;” “some will not receive it among Paul’s Epistles, and say that Paul did not always speak as the organ of Christ’s voice in him.” Chrysostom says that they are “worthy of countless accusations” who reject this Epistle, as “concerned about so small a matter, and on behalf of an individual only.” 1 1 See the quotations, Lightfoot, p. 383, notes . “The spirit of the age,” says Lightfoot, “had no sympathy with either the subject or the handling … Its maxim seemed to be, De minimis non curat evangelium ,” trifles are beneath the notice of the Gospel. Evidently the objections noticed by Chrysostom and Jerome have not only no moral but no critical value.

Baur, with an unhappy consistency, rejecting Ephesians and Colossians , rejected Philemon also, though with an almost apology, admitting that “this little letter” is penetrated “with the noblest Christian spirit,” and that his criticism may seem over-sceptical. On his curiously trivial objections (e.g. the frequent use of the word rendered “ bowels ” in the A.V., a word admittedly Pauline) Alford 2 2 Greek Testament , iii. 113. remarks: “I am persuaded that if his section on the Epistle to Philemon had been published separately and without the author’s name, the world might well have supposed it written by some defender of the Epistle, as a caricature on Baur’s general line of argument.”


testimonies to the epistle

St Chrysostom, in his Hypothesis , or Account of the Contents, introductory to his expository Sermons on Philemon , speaks of its value with eloquent simplicity. Not only, he says, ought Epistles to have been written about such small and homely matters, but we could long that some biographer had recorded for us the minutest details of the lives of the Apostles; what they ate, what their daily doings were, what their manner and their utterance. As to this Epistle, think of its many profitable lessons. We learn to neglect nothing, when a Paul can take such pains about a runaway thieving slave. We learn not to think the slave-kind below the reach of good, when this same slave and thief became so virtuous ( ἐνάρετος ) that Paul would fain have him for his companion and attendant. We learn that slaves ought not to be taken from their masters, when we see Paul refuse to keep Onesimus at his side. If a slave is of high character ( θαυμαστός ) he ought to remain as he is, to be an influence for good in the household. Say not that servile duties must hinder his devotion to higher things; Paul himself says, If thou mayest be made free, use it rather; that is, stay as you are, and glorify God 1 1 We give without comment this explanation of a difficult text. . Do not tempt the heathen to blaspheme, saying that Christianity ( Χριστιανισμός ) tends to the subversion of human relations. One more lesson from the Epistle; we ought not to be ashamed of our slaves when they are good, if this greatest of men could say such noble things about a slave. Now, will any one venture to call this Epistle superfluous?

Luther writes of the Epistle to Philemon with characteristic human tenderness and Christian insight: “This Epistle sheweth a right noble lovely example ( ein meisterlich lieblich Exempel ) of Christian love. Here we see how St Paul layeth himself out ( sich annimpt ) for poor Onesimus, and with all his means pleadeth his cause with his master; and so setteth himself as if he were Onesimus, and had himself done wrong to Philemon. Yet this he doth not with force nor constraint, as if he had full right. Nay, he putteth himself out of his rights; whereby he constraineth Philemon (to perceive) that he also must strip himself of his rights. Even as Christ did for us with God the Father, thus also doth St Paul for Onesimus with Philemon. For Christ also hath put Himself out of His rights, and with love and humbleness hath prevailed with His Father that He should lay aside His wrath and His rights, and receive us to grace, for Christ’s sake, who so earnestly intercedeth for us, and layeth Himself out so tenderly for us. For we are all His Onesimi, if we believe it ( so wirs gleuben )” 1 1 Quoted in part by Lightfoot, p. 383. We have used his translation of his extracts almost verbatim, and completed the quotation. It forms Luther’s Vorrede auff die Epistel S. Pauli an Philemon , in his German Bible (ed. Wittemberg, 1540). No one who knows Luther’s theology will unduly press one sentence of the above passage as if he meant to say that the Eternal Father, the Giver of the Son, was reluctant to pardon. It is his pictorial way of putting the work of atonement and intercession in view of the claims of eternal holiness. He has a supreme example in our Lord’s parables of the Friend at Midnight and the Judge and Widow. .

Erasmus, in a note on ver. 20, says: “This Epistle, short as it is, shews us how eminently humane 2 2 So I paraphrase Paulum hominem singulari quadam præditum humanitate . Paul was … What could even a Tully have said, in such a matter, more charming ( festivius ) than what we have here? Some indeed, in name Christians, in spirit entirely hostile to Christ, count nothing learned, nothing elegant, which is not also pagan ( ethnicum ). They think the bloom of style quite lost where any mention of Christ comes in, with any relish of His teaching; whereas the first requisite in eloquence is to suit style to subject. I can but wonder the more that any man should have doubted the authenticity of this Epistle; nothing could be more perfectly Pauline in method and manner of treatment.”

Bengel thus begins his brief commentary: “This familiar letter, wonderfully elegant, about a purely private matter, is inserted in the New Testament for the benefit of Christians as a specimen of consummate wisdom in the treatment of things of this life on higher principles. Frankius” (Franke, the saintly professor of Halle, 1653 1727) “says: ‘The Epistle to Philemon, taken alone, far surpasses ( longissimè superat ) all the wisdom of the world’ ” 3 3 Gnomon N. Testamenti, in loco . .

Renan 4 4 Quoted by Lightfoot, p. 384. , in words whose falsetto still leaves their praise significant, calls the Epistle, “A true little chef-d’œuvre of the art of letter-writing.”

There is a letter of the younger Pliny’s (a generation later than St Paul), the 21st in the ninth book of his Letters, written to his friend Sabinian, asking him to forgive an offending freedman 1 1 See below, p. 156. Sabinian might conceivably get the libertus condemned to slavery again. . Its subject is akin to that of our Epistle, and the two have often been compared. It reads as follows:

“Your freedman, who so greatly displeased you, as you told me, has come to me, fallen at my feet, and clung to them as if they were your own; he wept much, begged much, was much silent too, and in brief guaranteed to me his penitence. I think him really reformed, for he feels that he has sinnd. You are angry, as I know; justly angry, as I also know; but clemency wins its highest praise when the reasons for anger are most just. You have loved the man, and I hope you will yet love him again; in the interval ( interim ) you are only asked to let yourself be brought to forgive. You will be quite free to be angry again if he deserves it; and this will have the more excuse if now you yield. Allow something for his youth, something for his tears, something for your own indulgence (of him); do not put him to torture, or you may torture yourself too. For tortured you are when you, kindliest of men, are angry. I fear I may seem rather to insist than entreat, if I join my prayers to his. But I will join them, the more fully and without reserve as I chid him sharply and severely, adding a stern warning that I could never beg him off again. This for him , for I had to frighten him; but I take another tone with you! Perhaps I shall entreat again, and win again; so the case is one in which I may properly entreat, and you may properly bestow. Farewell.”

It is a graceful, kindly letter, written by a man whose character is the ideal of his age and class; the cultured and thoughtful Roman gentleman of the mildest period of the Empire. Yet the writer seems somewhat conscious of his own epistolary felicity, and his argument for the offender is much more condescending than sympathetic. His heart has not the depth of Paul’s, nor are his motives those of the Gospel, which taught Paul to clasp Onesimus in his arms, and to commend him to Philemon’s, as a friend in God for immortality. From the merely literary view-point, a perfect freedom of style, along with a delicate tact of manner, easily gives the letter to Philemon the palm over that to Sabinian 1 1 We find from a later letter (9 24) that Sabinian forgave the freedman. Pliny asks him to be ready in future to forgive without an intercessor . .


the chief persons of the epistle

The chief persons mentioned in the Epistle we know only from it and from Colossians . The chief (certain or probable) details of their lives and circumstances are given in our notes on the text.

Philemon appears as a well-to-do Colossian convert; the proof of his competency of means is not his possession of a slave, for he might have owned only one or two, but his power, well and widely used, to befriend his needing fellow-Christians. He thus appears as an illustration of the fact that primeval Christianity, while calling all Christians to a genuine surrender to Christ of both the self and the property, never condemned the right of property as between man and man, and left the individual perfectly free to ask whether or no his surrender of all to the Lord involved the surrender of his permanent stewardship for the Lord. Apphia, probably Philemon’s wife, is called “a deaconess” of the Colossian Church by M. Renan 2 2 Saint Paul , p. 360. , and by other writers, but without proof. In a letter dealing entirely with a domestic matter the mention of her name has no necessary or official significance. The mention of the name of Archippus here with Apphia’s makes it extremely likely that he was the son at home with his parents, whether or no his pastoral duties (Colossians 4:17 ) extended beyond Colossæ to the neighbouring Church or Churches. That he was in some sort of sacred office appears from Colossians 4:17 ; perhaps the solemnity of the message there was occasioned not, as usually suggested, by misgivings in St Paul’s mind, but by some development of Archippus’ duties consequent on Epaphras’ absence in Italy 3 3 Ramsay ( The Church in the R. Empire , p. 469) recites the legend of “The Miracle of Khonai,” in which St Michael protects a holy fountain from desecration by bidding the rocks cleave asunder and receive the waters which the pagans had dammed up to flood it. In this legend (probably of cent. 9, in its present form) the first guardian of the fountain is one Archippos , “born of pious parents at Hierapolis,” .

Onesimus, the runaway slave of this Christian household, stands almost visibly before us, as St Paul’s allusions trace the sketch of his degradation, his spiritual regeneration, his grateful love, and his transfiguration into the resolute doer of right at a possible heavy cost. Dr F. W. Farrar, in his powerful historical story, Darkness and Dawn , has imagined a possible history of Onesimus which assists our realization of the time and conditions. The youth appears there as a Thyatiran, free-born, but sold to pay family debts; accompanies Philemon, “a gentleman of Colossæ,” to Ephesus, on a visit which issues in the conversion of Philemon and his household through St Paul’s preaching; returns to find “dull and sleepy Colossæ” unbearable after brilliant Ephesus; steals money of his master’s that he may run away, first to Ephesus, and then to Rome; there is taken into the household of the Christian Pudens, and thence in time is transferred to Nero’s; finds his way through many adventures to the gladiators’ school, and to the arena; witnesses the massacre of the slaves of Pedanius; accompanies Octavia, Nero’s rejected wife, a secret Christian, to her exile in the island of Pandataria; thence, after her death, finds his way, an awakened penitent, to St Paul; whom ultimately, after emancipation, he attends through his last labours, and to his death.

Historically, we know nothing, outside these Epistles, of the later life of Onesimus. That Philemon granted St Paul’s requests, we may be sure; that he formally set free his slave, now his brother in Christ, we may be almost as sure. In Colossians (4:9), St Paul speaks of Onesimus in terms which would be impossible if he had felt any serious doubt of the reception Philemon would accord to the penitent. But beyond this point we lose all traces. In the Ignatian Epistles an Onesimus appears as bishop of Ephesus; but the date of these letters falls at earliest after a.d. 105, and the name was common; it is not very likely that we have our Onesimus there. He is otherwise variously said to have been bishop of Berea, in Macedonia, to have preached in Spain, to have been martyred at Rome, or at Puteoli. Lightfoot finds no shadow of historical evidence for any of these accounts.


slavery, and the attitude of christianity towards it

Slavery was universal among ancient nations, and is prominent in the picture of both Roman and Greek civilization. In the Greek cities of the fourth and fifth centuries before our Era the slave population was often relatively vast; at Athens, about 300 b.c., it is said that the slaves numbered 400,000, and the free citizens 21,000; but perhaps this means the total population of slaves as against the free adult males only. Even thus however the slaves would number four to one. In the later days of the Roman Republic, and under the Empire, the slaves of Roman masters were immensely numerous. It was not uncommon for one owner to possess some thousands; two hundred was a somewhat usual number; and to keep less than ten was hardly possible for a man who would pass muster in society.

Speaking generally, the slave of the Greek was in a better position than the slave of the Roman. Within limits, the law gave a certain protection to his person, and he could not be put to death without a legal sentence. If not a domestic proper, he was more commonly employed in handicrafts (in which he earned for the owner who fed and lodged him) than was the Roman slave, who was more commonly the mere tool of luxury, often of its most degraded kinds. The relation of Onesimus to Philemon, we may suppose, in quasi-Greek Colossæ, was practically governed by Greek law and usage, though this perhaps might be over-ridden for the worse, where the master was cruel, by the imperial law 1 1 But see further, Appendix M. .

But the mitigations of Greek slavery did not go very far. To a great extent the slave was entirely in his owner’s hands; he could always be severely punished corporally 1 1 Onesimus was probably a Phrygian slave; and there was a proverb, Phryx plagis emendatur, “You school a Phrygian with the whip .” ; his word was never taken in court but under torture. In general he was regarded by the law as the personal property of his owner, saleable at any time in the market; just as a horse is now its owner’s “thing,” though the law may interfere with his treatment of it in extreme cases. “The rights of possession with regard to slaves differed in no respect from any other property” 2 2 See at large Smith’s Dict, of Greek and Roman Antiquities , s. v. Servus ( Greek ) ; and Becker’s Charicles , Excursus on “ The Slaves .” .

And what the law enforced, philosophy supported. In the Politics of Aristotle, in the few opening chapters, in a discussion of the Family as the unit of society, several passages bearing on slavery occur. The great thinker regards the slave as the physical implement of the master’s mind; as being to his owner what the ox is to the man too poor to keep a slave (ch. 2); as distinguished from the master by a natural ( φύσει ) difference, not merely a legal; as a living tool, a living piece of property (chattel). Between master and slave there is no proper reciprocity; the master may be a hundred things besides the slave’s master, the slave is absolutely nothing but the master’s slave; all his actions and relations move within that fact; he is wholly his ( ὅλως ἐκείνου ). Defined exactly, he is a human being who naturally ( φύσει ) is another’s, not his own (ch. 4); whose function ( δύναμις ) is to be such, while yet he shares his master’s reason so far as to perceive it, without precisely having it (ch. 5). Such natural slavery, as distinguished from that of captivity by war, is good for both parties, just as the body and the limb are both benefited by their relation; the slave is as it were a portion ( μέρος ) of the master, as it were a living, while separated, portion of his body (ch. 6).

Such a theory strikes accidentally, so to speak, on some noble aspects of human relation, and wonderfully illustrates the relation of the redeemed and believing to their redeeming Lord; but its main bearing is all in the fatal direction of seeing in the slave a creature who has no rights; in short, a thing, not a person. The cool, pregnant sentences of Aristotle must have satisfied intellectually many a hard-hearted slave-master in the Greek society of St Paul’s time 1 1 There is another and brighter side to the slave-question in Greek literature. Euripides takes an evident pleasure in giving to slaves, in his Tragedies, characteristics of truth and honour, and makes his persons moralize much on the equal nobility of virtue in the slave and in the freeman. See F. A. Paley, Euripides ( Bibliotheca Classica ), 1. pp. xiii. xiv. Yet even Plato recommends a law for his ideal Commonwealth, by which a slave, if he kills a freeman, must be given up to the kinsmen and must be slain by them. The killer of his own slave is merely to go through a ceremonial purification. .

When we turn from the Greek slave of that time to his Roman fellow (and Onesimus, at Rome, would run all the risks of a Roman runaway), we come on a still darker picture. The Emperor Claudius (a.d. 41 a.d. 54) did something for him 2 2 Suetonius, Claudius , c. 25. , in ways which however shew how bad the general condition was. He set free certain sick slaves whom their masters had exposed to die , and decreed that if such slaves were killed, in lieu of death by exposure, it should be murder. Yet even Claudius, and at the same time, directed that a freedman, if giving his ex-master ( patronus ) cause of complaint, should be enslaved again. For disobedience, in short for anything which in the private court of the dominica potestas was a crime in his master’s eyes, the slave might be privately executed, with any and every cruelty. In the reign of Augustus, the noon of Roman culture, one Vedius Pollio, a friend of the Emperor’s, was used to throw offending slaves into his fish-pond, to feed his huge electric eels ( murœnœ ). He was one day entertaining Augustus at table, when the cupbearer broke a crystal goblet, and was forthwith sentenced to the eels. The poor fellow threw himself at the Prince’s feet, begging, not to be forgiven, but to be killed in some other way; and Augustus, shocked and angered, ordered the man’s emancipation ( mitti jussit ), and had Pollio’s crystals all broken before him, and his horrible pool filled up; but he did not discard his friend. “ ‘If,’ says Horace ( Satires , 1. iii. 80), ‘a man is thought mad who crucifies his slave for having filched something from … the table, how much more mad must he be who cuts his friend for a trifling offence!’ ” 1 1 Goldwin Smith, Does the Bible sanction American Slavery? (1863), p. 30. We quote largely below from this masterly discussion. The story about Vedius Pollio is told by Seneca, De Irâ , iii. 40, and by Dion Cassius, liv. 23. In brief, the slave in Roman law is a thing, not a person. He has no rights, not even of marriage. To seek his good is in no respect the duty of his master, any more than it is now the duty of an owner to improve his fields for their own sake .

The vast numbers of the slaves occasioned a tremendous sternness of repressive legislation 2 2 They were not assigned a distinctive dress, for fear they should realize their numbers. They usually wore the common dress of the poor, a dark serge tunic, and slippers. . By a law of the reign of Augustus, if a slave killed his master, not only he but every slave under the same roof was to be put to death. In the year 61, the year of St Paul’s arrival at Rome, perhaps after his arrival, this enactment was awfully illustrated. A senator, Pedanius Secundus, Prefect of the City, had been murdered by one of his slaves; and the law called for the death of four hundred persons. The Roman populace, wonderful to relate, was roused to horror, and attempted a rescue. The Senate, gravely debating the case, resolved that the execution must proceed; it was a matter of public safety. Then the roads were lined with troops, and the doom was carried out to the end 3 3 Tacitus, Annals , xiv. 42. .

“A runaway slave could not lawfully be received or harboured. The master was entitled to pursue him wherever he pleased, and it was the duty of all authorities to give him aid … A class of persons called fugitivarii made it their business to recover runaway slaves 4 4 Smith’s Dict. of Gr. and Rom. Antiquities , s. v. Servus ( Roman ). See in general also Becker’s Gallus , Excursus on “ The Slaves .” .”

It has been urged in defence of the principle of slavery that the Patriarchal and Mosaic institutions protected it, and that the Apostles do not denounce it. Mr Goldwin Smith has ably discussed this problem in his Essay, cited just above, Does the Bible sanction American Slavery? He points out that in the patriarchal stage of society a certain absolutism, lodged in the father-chief, was natural and necessary, but also by its nature limited and mitigated; and that the whole drift of the legislation of the Pentateuch is towards the protection not of slavery, but of the slave, who there has manifold rights, is never for a moment regarded as other than a person, and at the Paschal Meal, as well as in all the other functions of religion, takes his place beside his master and the rest of the household. As regards the attitude of the Apostles, Mr Goldwin Smith writes as follows (pp. 54 etc.):

“The New Testament is not concerned with any political or social institutions; for political and social institutions belong to particular nations, and particular phases of society … Whatever is done (by Christianity) will be done for the whole of mankind and for all time. If it be necessary for the eternal purpose of the Gospel, St Paul will submit to all the injustice of heathen governments … If it be necessary for the same purpose, the slave of a heathen master will patiently remain a slave.

“Nothing indeed marks the Divine character of the Gospel more than its perfect freedom from the spirit of political revolution. The Founder of Christianity and His Apostles were surrounded by everything which could tempt human reformers to enter on revolutionary courses … Everything, to all human apprehension, counselled an appeal to the strong hand; and strong hands and brave hearts were ready to obey the call … Nevertheless our Lord and His Apostles said not a word against the powers or institutions of that evil world. Their attitude towards them all was that of deep spiritual hostility and entire political submission … Had this submission … not been preached by them, and enforced by their example, the new religion must, humanly speaking, have been strangled in its birth. The religious movement would infallibly have become a political movement.… And then the Roman would have … crushed it with his power. To support it against the Roman legions with legions of angels was not a part of the plan of God … 1 1 See some admirable remarks in the same direction in the late Prof. H. Rogers’ suggestive Lectures (1874) on The Superhuman Origin of the Bible inferred from Itself (Lect. iii.). (Editor.)

“The passages in the New Testament relating to the established institutions of the time, inculcate on the disciples resignation to their earthly lot on spiritual grounds … (But) they do not inculcate social or political apathy; they do not pass … upon the Christian world a sentence of social or political despair …

“The relation of the Gospel to slavery is well stated in a passage quoted by Channing from Wayland’s Elements of Moral Science : ‘The very course which the Gospel takes on this subject seems to have been the only one which could have been taken in order to effect the universal abolition of slavery. The Gospel was designed … for all races and for all times. It looked not at the abolition of this form of evil for that age alone, but for its universal abolition. Hence the object of its Author was to gain it a lodgment in every part of the world, so that by its universal diffusion among all classes of society it might … peacefully modify and subdue the evil passions of men, and thus without violence work a revolution in the whole mass of mankind. In this manner alone could its object, a universal moral revolution, be accomplished. For if it had forbidden the evil instead of subverting the principle , if it had proclaimed the unlawfulness of slavery, and taught slaves to resist the oppression of their masters, it would instantly have arrayed the two parties in deadly hostility throughout the civilized world; … and the very name of the Christian religion would have been forgotten amidst universal bloodshed. The fact, under these circumstances, that the Gospel does not forbid slavery affords no reason to suppose that it does not mean to prohibit it; much less … that Jesus Christ intended to authorize it.’

“Not only did … the Apostles spread principles and ideas which were sure to work the destruction of slavery, and of the other political and social wrongs of which that corrupt and unjust world was full; but they embodied them in an Institution, founded by their Lord, of which it may be said that though so little revolutionary in appearance that the most jealous tyranny might have received it into its bosom without misgiving, it exceeded in revolutionary efficacy any political force which has ever been in action among men. At the Supper of the Lord the conqueror was required … to partake in the holy Meal with the conquered, the master with the slave, and this in memory of a Founder who had died the death of a slave upon the Cross, and who at the institution of the Rite had performed the servile office of washing His disciples’ feet … Nor has the Lord’s Supper failed to accomplish its object in this respect where it has been administered according to the intention of its Founder …

“No sooner did the new religion gain power … than the slave law and the slave system of the Empire began to be undermined by its influence … The right of life and death over the slave was transferred from his owner to the magistrate. The right of correction was placed under humane limitations, which the magistrate was directed to maintain. All the restrictions on the emancipation of slaves were swept away. The first Christian Emperor recognized enfranchisement as a religious act, and established the practice of performing it in the Church, before the Bishop, and in the presence of the congregation. The liberties of the freedman were at the same time cleared of all odious and injurious restrictions. This remained the policy of the Christian Empire. The Code of Justinian [cent. 6] is highly favourable to enfranchisement, and that on religious grounds …

“But the Roman world was doomed; and … partly because the character of the upper classes had been … incurably corrupted by the possession of a multitude of slaves. The feudal age succeeded; … and a new phase of slavery appeared. Immediately Christianity recommenced its work of alleviation and enfranchisement. The codes of laws framed for the new lords of Europe under the influence of the clergy shew the same desire as those of the Christian Emperors to … assure personal rights to the slave. The laws of the Lombards … protected the serf against an unjust or too rigorous master; they set free the husband of a female slave who had been seduced by her owner; they assured the protection of the churches to slaves who had taken refuge there, and regulated the penalties to be inflicted for their faults. In England the clergy secured for the slave rest on the Sunday, and liberty either to rest, or work for himself, on a number of holy-days. They exhorted their flocks to leave the savings and earnings of the prædial slave untouched. They constantly freed the slaves who came into their own possession. They exhorted the laity to do the same, and what living covetousness refused they often wrung from deathbed penitence …

“If then we look to the records of Christianity in the Bible, we find no sanction for American slavery there. If we look to the history of Christendom, we find the propagators and champions of the faith assailing slavery under different forms and in different ages, without concert, yet with a unanimity which would surely be strange if Christianity and slavery were not the natural enemies of each other.”

Mr Goldwin Smith alludes thus 1 1 Does the Bible, &c ., p. 64. to our Epistle: “In a religious community so bound together in life and death as that of the early Christians, the relation between master and slave, though it was not formally dissolved, must have been completely transfigured, and virtually exchanged for a relation between brethren in Christ. The clearest proof of this is found in that very Epistle … which those who defend slavery on Scriptural grounds regard as their sheet-anchor in the argument. St Paul sends back the fugitive slave Onesimus to his master Philemon. Therefore, we are told, slavery and fugitive slave laws have received the sanction of St Paul … It is very true that St Paul sends back a fugitive slave to his master. But does he send him back as a slave? The best answer to the argument drawn from the Epistle to Philemon is the simple repetition of the words of that Epistle [vv. 10 19] … Onesimus is not sent back as a slave, but as one above a servant, a brother beloved … Such a feeling as the writer of the Epistle supposes to exist in the hearts of Christians as to their relations with each other, though it would not prevent a Christian slave from remaining in the service of his master, would certainly prevent a Christian master from continuing to hold his fellow Christian as a slave.”

It may not be out of place to quote here two passages which will bring out another side of the matter:

“Our Lord’s miracles upon slaves must not be forgotten. He did not hesitate to set out for the house of the Centurion at Capernaum, at the request of the messengers, in order to heal a paralysed slave. His last act as a free man before His death was to heal the wounded ear of the slave Malchus. He Himself ‘took the form of a slave,’ both in ministering to others in His life, and also in the manner of His death. Thus He glorified the relation; and His Apostles were not ashamed to magnify it by styling themselves ‘the slaves or bondmen of Jesus Christ’ ” …

“If the abolition of slavery is to turn all servants into hirelings, and make cash payment the only tie between employers and employed, the change will not be an unmixed benefit … If there is to be no bond between servants and masters and mistresses except the contract that determines the time of labour and the rate of payment, then all that ennobles the relation will be lost. Better have the slavery of Onesimus than that. On both sides there ought to be some acknowledgement of a bond , that should not be degraded into bondage, but should make the servant of to-day what the slave of the Old Testament was, only not a son , and capable of filial relationship, if the need should arise. ‘If the Son shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed,’ not to depart but to abide in the house for ever, as sons and heirs of God through Christ.” 1 1 C. H. Waller, D.D., Handbook to the Epistles of St Paul , pp. 178 180.

To much the same purpose is the following extract, from the Preface to Philemon in the Berlenburg (or Berleburg) Bible (about 1727); a German translation of the Bible, with Commentary, emanating from a mystic school of Pietism:

“This Epistle is much the shortest of the Epistles of Paul which are contained in Scripture, but it is very nobly ( herrlich ) and lovingly written … It is really sad that beginners in the Christian life will not take it with a better grace when they have to be servants. Too commonly among the Anabaptists 1 1 The reference is to revival movements of the time, which, with many admirable results, had their aberrations. people want not to submit to the straits ( Elend ) of human life, but to be free. But this is mere self-love; as if we were already really capable of freedom. God helps us to freedom, in Christ, but He does not meanwhile take away from us the burthens of this life, which we must endure in the patience of Christ. The newly converted, even in the early Church, if servants, wanted no longer to do their duty by their Christian masters. The thought is ( man denckt ), ‘I am as pious as my master!’ But the self-spirit ( Ichheit ) must die. The Apostles were constrained to raise their admonition against such a state of things. Christianity is essentially submissive ( Das Christenthum ist was unterthäniges ). So we ought not to burst loose, but to shew that we have a broken spirit.”

In closing, we quote a few lines from the recently (1889) recovered Apology , or Defence of Christianity (the earliest extant writing of its kind), written by the philosopher Aristides, and addressed to Hadrian, or possibly to Antoninus Pius, about a.d. 130. The author speaks as in some sense an independent observer:

“Now the Christians, O King, by going about and seeking have found the truth … They know and believe in God, the Maker of heaven and earth, in whom are all things and from whom are all things … They do not commit adultery or fornication, they do not bear false witness, they do not deny a deposit, nor covet what is not theirs; they honour father and mother; they do good to those who are their neighbours, and when they are judges they judge uprightly; … and those who grieve them they comfort, and make them their friends; and they do good to their enemies; and their wives, O King, are pure as virgins, and their daughters modest; and their men abstain from all unlawful wedlock and from all impurity, in the hope of the recompense that is to come in another world; but as for their servants or handmaids, or their children, if they have any, they persuade them to become Christians for the love they have towards them; and when they have become so they call them without distinction brethren.” 1 1 Texts and Studies; the Apology of Aristides (Cambridge, 1891), p. 49. The translation here given is that of Mr J. Rendel Harris, from the Syriac Version of the Apology. See also an admirable little volume, The newly recovered Apology of Aristides , by Helen B. Harris (Mrs Rendel Harris).


argument of the epistle

1 3. Paul, a prisoner for Jesus Christ’s sake and by His will, with the Christian brother Timotheus, greets Philemon, that true fellow-worker for Christ [at Colossæ,] and the dear [Christian sister, Philemon’s wife,] Apphia, and [Philemon’s son] Archippus, true comrade in Christ’s missionary warfare. May all blessing be upon them from the Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ!

4 7. He thanks his God for Philemon by name, whenever his converts are present in his prayers, hearing, as he has heard [from Epaphras] of his faith reposed on the Lord Jesus and the love be so practically shews towards all his Christian neighbours; praying that the charitable bounty prompted by his faith may tell all around him, giving [the recipients and witnesses of it] a fuller view of all the graces Christians possess, to the glory of Christ. For indeed Paul has received great joy and encouragement on account of Philemon’s life of love [reported to him,] as he thinks how the hearts of the Christians have found rest [from the strain of poverty and care] by the aid of this his true brother.

8 21. So [writing to one who understands love ,] Paul, though he might claim an apostolic right to speak more freely and authoritatively to Philemon about duty, yet in view of their personal Christian affection rather comes as his suppliant; just in the character of Paul, the aged, and now not only old but helpless, in imprisonment for Christ. He is Philemon’s suppliant for a son of his (Paul’s), a son whom he has begotten [to a new life in Christ] in his Roman prison. It is Onesimus (“ Helpful ”), [Philemon’s domestic slave]; once anything but profitable to Philemon, [for he had pilfered from him, and absconded,] but profitable now to Philemon, aye and to Paul too, [to whom Onesimus has been devotedly serviceable.] He sends him back to his master [with this letter;] him , or let him rather be called a piece of Paul’s own heart! He could half have wished to keep Onesimus at his side, to be his loving attendant (as the substitute of loving Philemon) in this imprisonment endured for the Gospel’s sake. But he would not act so without Philemon’s decision, [which of course he could not get, at such a distance;] otherwise the kindness on Philemon’s part would at least have seemed to be a thing of compulsion, not of freewill. And perhaps it was on purpose for such a return to Philemon, in an indissoluble union, for time and for eternity, that Onesimus had been sent away from him for a little while; [to be given back now by the Lord] no more as a mere slave, but as a brother, a dear brother, dearest to Paul, dearer than dearest to Philemon, to whom he is now joined both by earthly and by spiritual ties. If Philemon, then, holds Paul for an associate [in faith and life], he must receive Onesimus just as he would receive Paul. If Onesimus had stolen, or was in debt, before his flight, let the amount be charged to Paul; here is his autograph note for the repayment. Meanwhile, he will not dwell on the thought that Philemon owes to Paul [not only the new-making of Onesimus but] himself besides, [as his son in the faith of Christ.] Ah, let Philemon give Paul joy, and rest his heart, by action worthy of a man in Christ. He has written thus with full confidence of his assent, and more than assent, to the request.

22. Meanwhile, will Philemon prepare lodgings for him [at Colossæ?] He expects to be restored to his beloved converts, in answer to their prayers.

23 24. He sends greetings to Philemon from [his old friend] Epaphras, who shares his prison; and from Marcus, Aristarchus, Demas, Lucas, who are working with Paul for Christ.

25. May the presence and power of Christ be with the inner life of Philemon and his family.

Grace makes the slave a freeman. ’Tis a change

That turns to ridicule the turgid speech

And stately tones of moralists, who boast,

As if, like him of fabulous renown,

They had indeed ability to smooth

The shag of savage nature, and were each

An Orpheus, and omnipotent in song:

But transformation of apostate man

From fool to wise, from earthly to Divine,

Is work for Him that made him. He alone,

And He, by means in philosophic eyes

Trivial and worthy of disdain, achieves

The wonder; humanizing what is brute

In the lost kind, extracting from the lips

Of asps their venom, overpowering strength

By weakness, and hostility by love.


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