The New Testament book of Philemon is the ancient brief letter by the apostle Paul concerning the welfare of Philemon’s slave, Onesimus. What did the institution of slavery mean in the Roman Empire? How does the Bible handle the issue of slavery? And what does it mean when Christians are exhorted to be slaves of Christ?
What is the first mention of slavery in the Bible?
John Byron: Mention of slaves is scattered throughout Genesis, as seen in the description of Abraham’s wealth in 12:16. But the very first mention of slavery is found in Genesis 9:25-27 which is part of a speech in which Noah condemns his son Canaan to be his brothers’ slave. Unfortunately this text was used by some as a biblical basis for the enslavement of Africans.
What is the evolution of the practice of slavery as recounted in the Bible, from Old Testament tribes to empires?
John Byron: In many ways, slavery has been a part of history from the beginning. Many different people groups throughout the Ancient Near East practiced slavery and the laws that regulated slaves in ancient Israel were very similar to those of their neighbors. A major difference between ancient slavery and that which was practiced in North America is that ancient slavery was not based on race or ethnicity. The color of someone’s skin or nationality was not a determining factor for who was or was not a slave.
During the Roman Empire, how (and why) did a person become a slave and what were the slave’s possible outcomes?
John Byron: Prior to the first century AD, prisoners of war provided the vast majority of slaves. By the first century, however, the primary source of slaves was through birth into the slave system. Yet, children born free were not necessarily guaranteed an escape from slavery. The exposure (throwing away) of newborn infants was a form of post-birth control. When these infants were found, they were able to be claimed and raised as slaves. Sometimes even older children were sold by their father under pressure of poverty or in an effort to improve the child’s situation or, as is more likely, to alleviate the family of another mouth to feed.
For many the outcome was likely being worked to death. Many slaves worked in mines, quarries, or other jobs where serious injury and/or death was not uncommon. However, some were able to gain their freedom and even went on to become wealthy and/or famous. In A Week in the Life of a Slave I mention Zoilos of Aphrodisias, a slave of Julius Caesar. When Julius died, Zoilos passed over to Augustus who eventually manumitted him. Zolios went on to become an important and respected benefactor in his hometown. But while his is a success story, most slaves did not experience such a change in fortunes.
Why doesn’t the Bible vigorously condemn slavery?
John Byron: In many ways, the Bible reflects the world and times in which it was written. Slavery was an accepted fact and slaves were visible in every aspect of life. Most people probably couldn’t imagine a world without slaves. While there were varying opinions as to how slaves should be treated, there’s little evidence suggesting abolition was ever seriously considered. However, the Bible does offer a critique of slavery at times. Paul’s letter to Philemon represents a subtle undermining of the institution in the way he requests for Philemon to treat Onesimus as a “beloved brother.”
Explain the biblical context and plot of your book.
John Byron: The Letter to Philemon is the shortest of Paul’s letters (335 words in the original Greek). On the face of it, Paul wrote an entreaty to a master to accept back a slave that has, for some reason, been separated from his owner. The slave had been with the imprisoned apostle and during this time was converted. The apostle asks the master to forgive the slave of any wrongdoing and to welcome him as a “beloved brother.”
The plot of A Week in the Life of a Slave centers on how the runaway slave, Onesimus, encountered Paul in prison, became converted, and returned home. In many ways the plot comes from the unanswered questions that arise while reading the letter:
- Where was Paul imprisoned?
- How did Onesimus meet Paul?
- Why did a slave in a prominent church remain unconverted prior to meeting Paul?
- What happened after the letter?
- What did Philemon do?
Paul’s letter to Philemon ends without resolution. What have Bible scholars suggested might have happened?
John Byron: Well, the suggestions have been all over the map. Many believe that Paul applied enough friendly pressure that Philemon freed Onesimus. Some suggest we’ve misunderstood the letter and that Onesimus was not a slave but a fellow brother who was being treated like a slave. Others suggest the letter is not about a runaway slave at all. They wonder if Onesimus had been sent to Paul by Philemon and the letter is Paul’s way of apologizing for detaining the slave longer than was appropriate.
In the book I maintain the runaway slave hypothesis which I think is still the most plausible.
What would Christians in the early church feel when they read letters from Paul (Phil. 1:1), James (James 1:1), Peter (2 Peter 1:1), Jude (Jude 1:1), and John (Rev. 1:1) describing themselves as slaves of Christ? And what should we feel today?
John Byron: This would not have been a common way of thinking for ancient readers. The division between slave and free meant that few would want to identify themselves as a slave, even if only metaphorically. Phrases like “slave of Christ” would have been curious to slaves and potentially offensive to the free. How, for instance, would a slave hear Paul’s words in Philippians 2:6-11 differently from free persons and how would it have affected the relationship between these two groups? Did they both endow it with the same meaning? Although Paul didn’t mean for Philippians 2:6-11 to be a commentary on the institution of slavery, it would still be heard within the context of a slave’s social reality. When reading these metaphors we should keep in mind that, in the context of slavery society like the Roman Empire or the antebellum United States, the words would have taken on significantly different meaning for those who were slaves.
What is the translation difficulty of 1 Cor. 7:21?
John Byron: The verse is difficult to translate because Paul seems to have left his thoughts incomplete:
“Were you a slave when called? Do not worry about it.
But if you are able to become free rather use . . . “
Translators and interpreters have asked the same question for centuries: use what? Did he mean slaves who become Christians should use their slavery? Should they refuse the chance to become free? Or, did he mean slaves should use their freedom? Needless to say, there’s been quite a debate over this verse and English translations reflect the divided opinions over how to complete Paul’s sentence. More recently, however, many have argued in favor of completing the sentence with “taking freedom.” This tendency can be credited to a better understanding of slavery in antiquity and the conventions of ancient rhetoric.
What do you want readers of your book to be left with?
John Byron: I attempted to construct a fictional account based on historical information. And by doing so, I wanted people to understand what slavery was really like in antiquity and to even highlight its grittiness. It’s not unusual for people to imagine slavery in the biblical period in a more sanitized manner and even a bit romantic. Somehow we assume that Philemon’s conversion to Christ suddenly changed the way he treated his slaves. But as we can see from hints in the letter and what we know about human nature, change is not always embraced and/or adapted quickly. So I wanted to give readers a peek at what it might have been like for early church members to encounter believing slaves among their numbers and highlight the challenges that would have arisen.
What is a favorite Bible passage of yours and why?
John Byron: Well, I’ve been quite taken with Philemon for some time, but I’m often attracted to the Psalms too. For the last couple of years I’ve been living with Psalm 62:1 “For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation.” It reminds me in difficult times to wait for God and not to try to find solutions on my own.
What are your thoughts about Bible Gateway and the Bible Gateway App and Bible Audio App?
John Byron:I use Bible Gateway just about every day. I think it’s a helpful tool that I recommend to my students, particularly because of all of the various translations and search engines that are included. I’m very grateful for it!
Is there anything else you’d like to say?
John Byron:This is the kind of book I’ve wanted to write for many years. It reflects my passion to make good historical and theological information available to a wider audience as they seek to understand the Bible. I’m thankful to IVP Academic for the opportunity and to Bible Gateway for hosting this interview.
Bio: John Byron (PhD, University of Durham) is Professor of New Testament at Ashland Theological Seminary. He is the author of A Week in the Life of a Slave, 1 & 2 Thessalonians: The Story of God Bible Commentary, and I (Still) Believe: Leading Bible Scholars Share Their Stories of Faith and Scholarship. He served as a translator for the Common English Bible and is a regular contributor to Biblical Archaeology Review. He has been married to Lori Byron since 1990.
Do you wish you understood the Bible better? Become a member of Bible Gateway Plus. Try it right now!