Embassy of Onesimus: The Letter of Paul to Philemon

By Allen Dwight Callahan
Harrisburg, PA : Trinity (1998). 96 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Dennis Swanson
9.2 (Fall 1998) : 222-223

It is refreshing to see Paul’s small Epistle to Philemon dealt with in a stand-alone commentary, as too often this small book is relegated to a few pages of brief comments at the end of larger works. This commentary is part of “The New Testament in Context” series of NT commentaries.

The author, an Assistant Professor of New Testament at Harvard Divinity School, presents six full pages of bibliography and promises a fresh interpretation as he “put[s] his exegetical hand to the plow” (xi). This work is built on two articles previously published in the Harvard Theological Review (HTR 86/4 [1993]:357-76, and 88/1 [1985]:149-56). In this work the author spends the introduction defending his thesis that the traditional interpretation (Onesimus as a runaway slave being returned to Philemon with a letter from Paul under whose ministry Onesimus has become a Christian) is false.

The basis for this conclusion is, in brief, twofold: (1) nowhere in the text is this interpretative scheme presented clearly (5), and (2) the “fugitive slave hypothesis” is an invention of John Chrysostom, whom all others have simply followed without any critical thought (16). While the reevaluation of any “traditional” understanding can be helpful, the author’s reasoning seems to be both subjective and incomplete. A few examples will illustrate. One of the arguments presented is that Philemon could not be a slave holder at all because “Philemon appears throughout the letter as a good and generous man” (5) and that

Cruelty of a master towards his slave can never be ruled out in the Graeco-Roman world, where severity bordering on sadism was a common feature of the servile relationship. Mildness and forbearance in this respect would have made Philemon not only an exception but an oddity in his own world, so conditioned by violence against all purported inferiors (ibid).

This reasoning is patently unsound. Should not the results of becoming a Christian and living according to the Spirit suffice to make one “an oddity in his own world” (cf. Gal 5:22-25). Additionally, although the author seems to wish that Paul was neither condoning nor regulating slavery (xiv, 3, 5), he fails to interact with passages such as Eph 6:5-9 and Col 3:22–4:1 (passages never referenced in the book). He seeks to support his view by stating that “the entire fugitive slave hypothesis was cogently challenged by John Knox” (6). However, he fails to mention that Knox did not question the hypothesis, only that Archippus, not Philemon was the slave-owner (see Donald Guthrie, New Testament Introduction [InterVarsity, 1990] 661-64 for a thorough refutation of Knox’s view).

He states that the traditional interpretation originated as the “imaginative and ingenious hypothesis of John Chrysostom” (16). However, his interaction with the sources and other writings which predate Chrysostom, are superficial at best. The actual commentary on the text is slanted, often forced, to coincide with the author’s predetermination. He agrees that Onesimus and Philemon are certainly estranged and Paul is working to reconcile them, but concludes that he is not trying to reconcile slave and master, but two brothers (ix, 51-54).

Throughout the work the author equates the experiences and situation of NT-era slavery under the Roman system and the race-based slavery of 19th-century America. The results are an unsatisfactory commentary built upon a poorly devised theme for the book. This reviewer cannot recommend this work.