6.18 Useful

The eighteenth episode of the sixth season of the Retelling the Bible Podcast is posted today (September 7, 2022). It tells the story of Onesimus, the escaped slave who inspired the Letter to Philemon.

You can listen to the story right now and subscribe to the podcast by following one of these links or by searching for the podcast on your favourite platform:

Show Notes about the Story

This is based on the Letter to Philemon, a very short epistle written by the Apostle Paul. Click on the link to read it. Direct biblical quotations in the episode are taken from the New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition.

Here is a dramatic reading of the letter:

I also drew from a few passages in the other letters of Paul:

Paul’s Most Personal Letter

The letter of Paul to Philemon is generally accepted by scholars to be a genuine letter of Paul. Very few have found reason to doubt it.

Debate about the letter tends to centre around questions about the events that prompted the letter to be written. The most common interpretation is that Onesimus, a slave who belonged to Philemon, a Christian leader in Colossae, escaped from his master and somehow came under the influence of Paul of Tarsus while he was in prison for some unknown reason. The two formed a bond and Onesimus became a convert to the message of Christ that Paul preached.

The occasion of the letter is generally taken to be that Paul is sending the escaped slave back to his master, but he writes this letter to persuade Philemon to grant Onesimus his freedom.

I have adopted this common interpretation of the letter in order to create this story. But, if you are interested in an alternative approach, I would suggest Allen Dwight Callahan’s 1993 article in the Harvard Theological Review: “Paul’s Epistle to Philemon: Toward an Alternative Argumentum.”

What Onesimus Owes

Given that the story of Onesimus has so few details which need to be gleaned from the references in the letter, a great deal has often been made of passing comments. This line seems to be of particular importance. Near the end, Paul writes:

If he [Onesimus] has wronged you in any way or owes you anything, charge that to me. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it.

Philemon 18-19

This has, of course, raised the question of what Onesimus might have owed to his master, leading some to suggest that perhaps he had stolen some valuable items from Philemon and that that had been the thing that prompted him to escape in the first place.

But I am not so sure that that makes sense. Paul does not refer to theft but rather to debt. There would have been many ways in which slaves might have become indebted to their masters and these debts would have normally needed to be paid before manumission could be granted. Paul is merely keen here to remove any barriers to Philemon doing as he wishes.

Paul also clearly does not expect Philemon to take him up on his offer when he adds, “I say nothing about your owing me even your own self.”

Onesimus’ Name

In the course of his letter, Paul makes several references to the meaning of Onesimus’ name. The name means “useful,” “profitable” or “beneficial.” Paul plays around with all of these meanings throughout the letter so we know he found the meaning of the name to be significant.

Onesimus was a name commonly given to slaves and it is not too hard to imagine why. I took my cue from Paul to make Onesimus’ name a key part in the story of his life.

The Ancient Institution of Slavery

The one place where I expect to get pushback from this episode is on its portrayal of ancient Greco-Roman slavery. Modern commentators often insist that the slavery of the ancient world was much more benevolent and kind than the kind of slavery we tend to think of — the race-based chattel slavery that was practiced in the American slave states.

It is true that there are differences between American and Greco-Roman slavery. The ancient version did not have any significant racial dimensions — people were not dehumanized on the basis of the colour of their skin — and the economic dimensions were somewhat different.

But it cannot really be said that the ancient practice was lacking in the kinds cruelty and dehumanization that have been common to slavery throughout the ages.

I suspect that one of the reasons why some want to paint ancient slavery in a kinder and gentler light has to do with an embarasment concerning the fact that early Christian leaders and other heroes of the Old Testament did not have problems with owning slaves. This seems a little easier to accept if ancient slavery wasn’t quite so bad.

But wishful thinking is not an acceptable way to deal with biblical concepts that we find uncomfortable, so I felt i had to be straightforward in my story telling. I will always endeavour to do so.

Here, for those who may have questions about what ancient slavery was really like, is any excellent summary by Dr. Christy Cobb, Assistant Professor of Religion at Wingate University in North Carolina: https://urbsandpolis.com/greco-roman-slavery/

Media in this Episode

The following music was used for this media project:

Music: AhDah by Kevin MacLeod
Free download: https://filmmusic.io/song/3345-ahdah
License (CC BY 4.0): https://filmmusic.io/standard-license
Artist website: https://incompetech.com

Music: For The Last Time by Alexander Nakarada
Free download: https://filmmusic.io/song/4879-for-the-last-time
License (CC BY 4.0): https://filmmusic.io/standard-license
Artist website: https://www.serpentsoundstudios.com/

Support Retelling the Bible

If you would like to support the work that I do creating these stories, go to patreon.com/retellingthebible and choose a level of support!

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