…and then the apostle Paul sent the slave back to his master

Paul writing from prison

Image credit: Dr. Jeffrey and Angie Goh

During the struggle for the abolition of slavery and the slave trade in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the New Testament letter to Philemon was used by slaveholders and slave traders to justify their wicked practices (Thompson).

Sometime in the middle of the first century, the apostle Paul sent the letter to Philemon, a wealthy Christian slaveholder who hosted a church at his house in Colossae. The occasion for the letter was Paul’s encounter with Philemon’s slave, Onesimus, who had run away from Philemon, found Paul in prison, and become a Christian under Paul’s influence. Paul sent both Onesimus and the letter to Philemon to persuade him to welcome Onesimus generously and not harshly: “welcome him as you would welcome me,” Paul writes in verse 17.

The “Traditional” Reading

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, those who claimed to be Christians and favored slavery saw in the letter scriptural evidence that Paul did not object to slavery, and thus justification for their continued practice of it. On this “traditional” reading, Paul is concerned that he has been harboring a slave who has done something illegal according to Roman law (running away), and thus Paul is motivated by a legal obligation to send Onesimus back.

If this account is correct, then Paul felt some obligation to uphold the institution of slavery, indicating that he did not see it as wrong. Continue reading

Was Roman Slavery Kinder and Gentler than American Slavery?

I’m writing a historical novel that tells the backstory of Paul’s little New Testament letter to Philemon. The letter is written to a Christian slaveholder in Colossae (Philemon), and it asks the slaveholder to forgive and welcome back his runaway slave, Onesimus, who has been attending to Paul while he is in prison.

The letter is rarely taught these days, probably owing in part to the difficult questions it raises about slavery. For example, what is a Christian doing owning slaves? And why would Paul blithely encourage Onesimus to return to his bondage rather than keep running? The letter also has the dubious reputation of being used by antebellum American slaveholders and their sympathizers to justify the practice of slavery in the American South. After all, it can seem that by sending Onesimus back to Philemon, Paul implicitly accepts (endorses?) the institution of slavery. These are just a few of the issues I plan to tackle in the novel.

In researching interpretations of Philemon and the institution of slavery in the First-century Roman Empire, I have noticed that part of the contemporary Christian defense of Paul’s actions in Philemon often includes the claim that First-century Roman slavery was generally kinder and gentler than antebellum American slavery. Continue reading