ISSUE: 2011, Volume 8, Issue 4
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Many parts of the Bible are dramatic stories, including Ruth, Jonah, Esther, and the Gospel narratives. Indeed, W. G. Scroggie sees the complete biblical canon as an ‘unfolding drama of redemption’. Sometimes in our Bible study we can lose sight of the plot by focusing on technicalities like tenses and emphatic personal pronouns. I remember an English literature teacher once advising me that if I could summarise a Shakespearean play on a postcard, sketching the main characters and the plot, then I would have mastered the play. In this article, we attempt to do something similar for a New Testament Epistle.
We aim to uncover some of the letter’s background, using ‘sanctified detective work’. We want to engage with the spiritual circumstances that motivated the author to write the letter, and consider the potential reaction of the recipient. As we examine the text in this manner, the letter will come to life. Indeed, all scripture is living,1 but we often fail to appreciate this in our routine reading methods. What follows is an attempt to apply the dramatic interpretation technique to the shortest Pauline Epistle, namely Philemon.
F. F. Bruce states that we can use the letter to ‘reconstruct a good part of [Onesimus’] romantic story’.2 H. C. G. Moule refers to the letter as Onesimus’ ‘own passport to . . . his master’s welcome and to his love in Christ’.3 J. M. Davies describes it as full of ‘the aromatic spice of Christian courtesy’.4
Paul: Now an older man, v. 9, Paul is experiencing his first imprisonment at Rome, v. 1, as described in Acts chapter 28. He is given some privileges, as he resides in a hired house, Acts 28. 30. His apostolic commission and his evangelistic zeal are not diminished by his incarceration. He preaches to all who visit him, and fires off letters to the churches he has seen established across the Roman Empire.
Philemon: A family man, v. 2, who lives at Colosse, Col. 4. 12, 17. He is wealthy and of some social standing5 since he owns a large house which is used as an assembly meeting place. He has a great reputation for hospitality, vv. 3, 22. He is known personally to Paul, even though the apostle has never visited Colosse, Col. 2. 1.
Onesimus: A runaway slave from Philemon’s house, who has caused loss to Philemon, vv. 11, 18. Although he was perhaps written off by his master, now Onesimus has been saved, vv. 10, 16, and become ‘useful by name and useful by nature’, F. F. Bruce.6
Onesimus the slave gets into trouble. Perhaps he steals something, or damages something valuable, v. 18, or brings dishonour on Philemon’s reputation. Rather than facing up to the circumstances at home, he runs away hastily like the Prodigal Son. ‘Because of this he did depart for an hour’, v. 15 YLT. Presumably, Onesimus gets transport out of town, and, in the ancient world, all roads led to Rome.
Onesimus tramps the streets of Rome. Somehow, he comes across Paul in his prison house. Perhaps Onesimus encountered one of Paul’s companions, vv. 23-24, and through them was introduced to Paul? Anyway, the full story emerges and Onesimus confesses his wrongdoing to Paul. Paul gently brings him the gospel, and Onesimus is wonderfully saved in the prison house, v. 10. Just like Jonah’s repentance in the whale’s belly, Onesimus knows he can’t stay where he is. He has to go back and ‘face the music’ in Colosse, v. 12. Paul encourages him, and writes a letter of explanation to Philemon. Then he hands the letter to Onesimus, who will be the postman to take the letter back to Colosse. (Note: at this point, the letter ends. Therefore any further events can be nothing more than imaginative reconstruction.)
‘So we watch him in at the courtyard door in the Colossian street’.7 Did Paul relate the story of the Prodigal Son to Onesimus? Was Luke drafting that particular parable while he stayed in Rome with Paul? Anyway, Onesimus was uncertain whether the head of the household would welcome him back with an embrace and a fatted calf. F. F. Bruce speculates on the outcome of the meeting, and decides on reconciliation.8 After all, Bruce reasons, Philemon would not want to preserve the letter if he had not acted on its contents. Indeed, the description we have of Philemon’s gracious, noble, Christian character leads us to conclude that he must have forgiven Onesimus, and received him back as a servant, but more, as a fellow-saint, v. 16. It is likely that Onesimus would have taken his place at the breaking of bread meeting in Philemon’s atrium on the subsequent Lord’s Day morning, ‘a faithful and beloved brother’, Col. 4. 9.