Knowing the cultural background of a biblical text is essential to properly understanding the meaning of the text and how it relates to our current world. In an effort to bring as much meaning as possible to a previous series of blog posts I wrote about the apostle Paul and his leadership (see the links at the bottom of this post) I am sharing some crucial cultural background information about slavery in the book of Philemon.
Photo Credit: Tim Evanson
The focus of this background information is on slavery and the context of slavery in Paul’s time: the first century world of Rome. The biblical book of Philemon was an original letter written by the apostle Paul, to a man named Philemon. The short letter was designed to encourage Philemon to graciously accept Onesimus, a previous runaway slave, and to put Onesimus to work in God’s ministry.
Here are five essential cultural background information questions and answers that bring new leadership meaning to the biblical book (or the letter to) Philemon.
1. How were runaway slaves treated?
Punishment for a runaway slave was up to the sole discretion of the slave’s owner because slaves were considered the property of their owner. 1 Runaway slaves were considered “fugitives.” Because of the high incidence of runaway slaves in ancient Rome, Romans hired professional slave-catchers.
These slave-catchers would post information about runaway slaves in public places to advertise which slaves had run away and what the reward was for their capture. Common ways that runaway slaves were punished were beating, branding, and inscripting with metal collars as a way to prevent them from future escape. 2
2. How did Christianity affect slavery? (What changes in people or the system of slavery?)
According to the Tyndale Bible Dictionary, Christian doctrine was opposed to slavery, but the early church did not directly confront slavery nor did the early church emphasize the aspect of Christian doctrine that would be against it.
An example might be from the apostle Paul who never directly opposed slavery, but he attempted to have Onesimus (a slave) freed from his owner (Philemon). This might have been because the first century Christian church was primarily concerned with its own survival. 3 A direct confrontation to an essential and deeply entrenched economic activity in the Roman culture might have extinguished Christianity. One of the main changes that affected slavery was when the Roman Empire became fully Christianized.
3. Was it abolished? If not, did the early church have any impact on the practice of slavery? What impact?
Eventually, Christianity took steps to completely end slavery in the Roman Empire. 4 This was led by Christian leaders and writers who openly discouraged slave owners from continuing the practice of slavery.
Officially, the church did not issue a statement against slavery, but Jesus’ gospel and his new teachings of equality, justice, and love changed the way slave owners and slaves interacted. The fact that Jesus Christ’s life and his teachings were against Judaistic slavery, Roman slavery, and any form of human slavery led to the eventual decline and abolishment of slavery.
4. How does all of this information affect the situation of Philemon and Onesimus?
All of this information affects the situation between Philemon and Onesimus because Philemon had the ultimate authority to decide what punishment Onesimus would receive. Philemon and Onesimus needed to figure out how to live out their new found faith in a culture that did not match that faith.
Slavery had a long history of what it had done (both in Roman culture and Judaistic culture) and how it had treated runaway slaves. Now, Philemon and Onesimus were forced to figure out how to reconcile the tension that not only existed between the past criminal activity that caused Onesimus to run away, but they also had to wrestle with how to live out their faith in light of the new Christian teachings of the first century and the unique and counter cultural teachings of Jesus. The fact that Onesimus could have been useful to Philemon in the past as a worker in agriculture, a factory, or in a mine made the decision of what to do even more difficult. 5 Philemon’s release of Onesimus as a slave could mean the loss of a worker and the loss of money spent to purchase Onesimus as a slave.
5. What is significant or surprising about Paul’s request to Philemon?
Other slave owners in the region would have wanted Philemon to severely punish Onesimus for committing a criminal act and then running away. Philemon accepting Onesimus without any punishment and making Onesimus a free man would not be a favorable action in the eyes of Philemon’s fellow slave owners.
Another thing that is surprising is that Paul asked Onesimus to be allowed to be useful in the Lord’s work of spreading the gospel (vv. 14-16). It is also significant to note that Paul appealed to Philemon and everyone in Philemon’s house. Paul realized that this decision would be a model for others to follow, and because of that he addressed his letter to others so that Philemon would be accountable to others to make the right decision. Finally, Paul decided to use this difficult situation to cause Philemon to think through his faith as it related to not just the ownership of a slave, but to the status of a slave in a spiritual sense (as a brother in the faith) and in civil status (in the flesh).
To read the series of posts about the Apostle Paul’s leadership in the book of Philemon here:
- A Leader Extends His Influence for the Benefit of His Follower (part 1)
- A Leader Extends His Influence for the Benefit of His Follower (part 2)
- A Leader Extends His Influence for the Benefit of His Follower (part 3)
- A Leader Extends His Influence for the Benefit of His Follower (part 4)
Question: What other cultural background information do you believe is important to know about slavery in Rome as it relates to Paul’s letter to Philemon?