Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

"For My Child, Onesimus": Paul and Domestic Power in Philemon

Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

"For My Child, Onesimus": Paul and Domestic Power in Philemon

Article excerpt

I. Philemon's Family Language

Early in the second century CE, the younger Pliny wrote a letter to his friend Sabinianus on behalf of an errant freedman:

I know you are angry with him, and I know, too, it is not without reason; but clemency can never exert itself more laudably than when there is more cause for resentment. You once had an affection for this man, and, I hope, will have again .... do not make himself uneasy any longer, and I will add too, do not make yourself so; for a man of your benevolence of heart cannot be angry without feeling great uneasiness. (Ep. 9.21)

Here a free Roman intervenes for another party as an amicus domini ("a friend of the master"). Paul's letter to Philemon also exemplifies this type of intercession. I Both epistles flatter and appeal to the emotions of the addressees, but the tone of the apostle's letter differs from Pliny's composition.2 Kinship imagery, which Pliny's letter lacks, imbues Paul's letter with a familial intimacy; these metaphors draw Philemon, Onesimus, and the apostle himself into a literary consanguinity.3

In this article I situate Paul's letter to Philemon within the ancient cultural fields that enlivened its contents. The methodology I employ attends to the complex ideologies informing the Pauline corpus and reveals the "conversational" character of these epistles.4 Just as "power is a quality that inheres in social relationships," so meaning is a product of communities of readers (and writers).5 Paul's symbolic universe, then, does not solely determine the significance of his epistolary language; by ascribing meaning to this language, his readers play a crucial role in the formation of Pauline discourse. Recent scholarship on Philemon disregards this audience factor, however.fi Here I seek to discover how the epistle's metaphors worked within the Greco-Roman context shared by Paul and Philemon's household. Specifically, I will investigate the myriad ways that this letter simultaneously expresses and counters claims to authority. Dale B. Martin's Slavery as Salvation, which examines Paul's selfdesignation as "a slave of Christ," models my approach to the epistle. His study demonstrates that the slave metaphor conveyed a variety of denotations for Paul's readers: "In some contexts it could carry meanings of humility; at other times it implied power."8 Martin concludes provocatively that Paul used the complex of meaning produced by the slave metaphor to privilege his position vis-a-vis his readers.9 Similarly, family imagery held potential for advancing Paul's concerns.

The present analysis focuses on the effects of family metaphors in the letter to Philemon.10 Within a first-century, Mediterranean environment, this household imagery signaled an assortment of notions-not only intimacy and affection but also economics and paternal authority.ll I suggest that the epistle's family language constructs a rhetorical household that rivals Philemon's actual household. In this new setting Onesimus becomes the apostle's mechanism, technology, or what I term Paul`sr :vo(v)-ology of power.

II. The Roman Domus

The study of metaphor and representation sharpens the difficulty of connecting language (i.e., linguistic signifiers) to social reality (i.e., actual signified things). 12 The case of the ancient family is particularly problematic, for "neither ancient Greek nor Hebrew nor Latin had words that directly translate what modern Western English means by 'family' or 'house."'13 The inexact correspondence between the English term and the ancient societal unit reflects the substantial differences that exist between modern and ancient family structures. It should also caution scholars against assuming a transcendent or "natural" status for family language. Just as kinship patterns vary according to time and place, so terms such as "child" evoke different sentiments in different contexts.14 To ascertain what family language may have connoted for the apostle and his readers, I begin with a survey of Roman household roles and discourse. …

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