The Letter to Philemon (Scot McKnight) - A Review

THE LETTER TO PHILEMON (The New International Commentary on the New Testament). By Scot McKnight. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2017. Xxxii + 127 pages.

                Slavery is America’s original sin. That is the verdict of our time. If slavery is America’s original sin, its perpetuation in this land for some three hundred years was abetted by readings of Scripture. In the modern age those interpretations have been contested. Many have argued that a passage like Galatians 3:28, which suggests that in Christ one is neither slave nor free is a signal that slavery did not align with the message of the Gospel. Indeed, Jesus is recorded as declaring that part of his own call to ministry included setting the oppressed free (Luke 4:18). Thus, while slavery was rampant in the first century, the seeds of its demise was embedded within the Gospel. Though one must admit that there are other messages, in places like Ephesians and 1 Peter that tell slaves to submit to their masters. What should we make of these words? As we ponder the issue of slavery in the Bible, the brief letter of Paul to Philemon stands out as a test case as to whether Paul embraced a truly liberating Gospel, not only for the life to come, but in this life as well.

                Philemon takes up one brief chapter—twenty-five verses in all. I was intrigued with the fact that Eerdmans would publish an entire commentary focused on these twenty-five verses. How does one devote so many pages to so few verses? The answer is found in Scot McKnight’s contribution to The New International Commentary of the New Testament. This is a venerable commentary series that has featured important Evangelical scholars including F.F. Bruce began its life in 1946, though few of the early commentaries remain in the series, with a substantial number having been replaced with newer volumes. I don’t remember there being a commentary on Philemon in the set I purchased in the 1980s, and there isn’t one listed in the bibliography, so this is not a replacement volume, but the first contribution on this letter to be published in this series.  

                The author of this commentary is Scot McKnight, an evangelical New Testament scholar who made a name for himself with his blog The Jesus Creed. He has continued to write widely on matters of the church and the Bible. He currently serves as the Julius R. Mantey Chair in New Testament at Northern Seminary (Illinois). He also contributed the commentary on James to this same series. McKnight writes from an evangelical position, taking the text as an expression of the Word of God. He also understands that the importance of this letter is its place in the church’s conversation about slavery, both in the long past and in the more recent past. He sees this letter as being “an important example of how Pauline circles sought to embody a new vision for humanity—the church.” He notes that Paul and his companions “struggled to break down boundaries and establish new creation kingdom realities for conduct and fellowship” (p. 1). One can see throughout the book signs of Scot’s commitment to the principle that church is its own polis, where kingdom values were being implemented (or at least attempted). We see this present in Paul’s principle espoused in Galatians 3:28, but how did this get put into practice? In this case, how did slavery fit into Paul’s vision of the kingdom of God?

Because this letter, along with other references in the Pauline corpus, were often utilized by defenders of slavery, including the American form, which enslaved predominately persons of African descent, opponents of slavery then and now have wanted to either distance themselves from Paul or re-envision his view of slavery. For nineteenth century apologists for slavery, the idea that God permitted Christians to enslave fellow human beings didn’t seem at all odd. Indeed, one could even enslave fellow Christians (for didn’t Philemon enslave Onesimus?). In the post-bellum period, questions were raised about how to interpret these passages. Perhaps Paul has been misunderstood (or he didn't actually write those offending passages). Some have even argued that perhaps Paul set in motion an abolitionist trajectory, though he did so with subtlety. Standing at the center of the debate has been this letter, which involves a slave being returned to his master by Paul. The questions centered around Paul's presentation of Onesimus as a brother in Christ. Might this change his status with Philemon? Could this be a request for manumission—Paul using the legal framework of the day to end Onesimus' present condition?

All of these questions emerge in McKnight’s commentary. He begins this brief commentary with an extended discussion of slavery in the first century, before turning to later versions, including modern slavery in the United States. The first half of the commentary (the introduction) essentially focuses on understanding slavery in the Roman Empire of the first century of the common era, and then how the letter fits into that context. He offers us a helpful introduction to first century slavery, including the question of manumission and the relationship of Christians to slavery—as Philemon is a Christian who owns slaves, it's clear that early Christians were not abolitionists. He also sets Philemon in the context of New World slavery and the continuing presence of slavery. The question has centered around whether first century slavery was of a different order than that practiced in antebellum America. 

The question of the day when reading Philemon is whether this small letter written from prison to a slave-owning house church leader in Colossae speaks to our own context. McKnight believes it does, even if he doesn’t' believe that Paul was taking an abolitionist position on slavery. For McKnight it appears that Paul is asking Philemon to liberate Onesimus in the context of the church, even if not arguing for complete manumission. In fact, Paul seems to be asking that Philemon give Onesimus to him to help in his ministry. The message McKnight seems to hear in this letter is a call for an "ecclesial liberation theology" in which the church opens its doors to the marginalized of the world so that within these bounds reconciliation can take place, but that might not change the person’s external situation (p. 33). One might be a brother or sister in Christ, but still be a slave to another Christian. Statuses may change within the community without them changing beyond the church.  

I appreciate the extent to which McKnight goes to lay out the varying positions on first century slavery and its place in the church. The situation is complicated, and the interpreter’s approach the issue of the church and slavery in a variety of ways. I admit to having been influenced by Scott Bartchy, one of my New Testament teachers in seminary, who argues that Paul was seeking the manumission of Onesimus. As I have read the letter, I have made the assumption that one cannot call another brother or sister and enslave them. Thus, in the end, to be true to the Gospel one would have to step away from slavery. That may not have involved a large-scale attempt to change the broader culture, but surely one could not enslave a fellow Christian. McKnight is not so sure that this is true. As he reads Philemon he does see a change of status, but an ecclesial one, not a social one. In fact, in McKnight’s reading (as I understand him), instead of sending Onesimus back to Philemon with the intent of seeking his manumission (freedom), he thinks Paul might be asking Philemon, as Onesimus’ master, to share his slave with Paul, so that Onesimus can serve Paul (how that would take place, McKnight is not sure).

One rarely reads a commentary from cover to cover, but the brevity of the commentary, along with its focus on the question of slavery in the first century Roman empire made it a worthwhile read.   While I’m not totally convinced of McKnight’s position, he does make sense of the text and other parallel readings in the New Testament. He is thorough in setting up the letter, and then examining the parts of the letter. He concludes his commentary by raising the unanswered question—what happened to Philemon and Onesimus? Could the very fact that the letter survived by a sign that Paul’s request was honored, and Onesimus was sent to serve with Paul as a brother in Christ? Could he have been, as Ignatius of Antioch suggested, the eventual bishop of Ephesus? There is no proof of that, but McKnight admits to hoping it was true.

All told, this is a very good commentary. It does what a commentary is supposed to do. McKnight writes from a conservative perspective, but there is little about the letter, besides its subject matter, that makes this letter controversial. But, just in case one wishes to pursue studies of the book, McKnight provides a lengthy bibliography. It’s good to see that work continues to be undertaken to strengthen the New International Commentary on the New Testament series, which once served me well. Thus, those seeking a fairly straightforward look at this letter, you will not disappointed with this commentary.


Scot McKnight said…
Thanks Bob, very well done and fair minded. The reason I don’t think Paul fought for manumission, and I was once convinced by Bartchy in many ways, is what we find elsewhere in Paul like 1 Cor 7 and Col 3-4, Eph 5-6, which I think are Pauline.
Anonymous said…
Bob, I'm rereading the NT in the order the books were written (as Borg proposes) and am in 1 For 11. One of the issues that Paul addresses is how Christians can get along reasonably well in public life, and he takes a prudential position that could be understood to mean that people have to learn to live with slavery. I puzzled over Philemon on my first trip through the NT in this sequence, and wasn't sure what I thought about it. When I get to the book a second time, I will refer to your synopsis of McKnight's commentary. Even when we give Paul an easy out, I am about ready to give him good marks for a nice try, but rely on the continuing presence of the Spirit in the church to lead us into a fuller understanding of the truth. Keith
Robert Cornwall said…
Scot, I am pleased that you found the review to your liking. I believe you are correct about Paul and Philemon, though I want to believe Scott Bartchy is correct. In any case, it is an excellent commentary.

Keith, I think you'll find Scot's commentary very interesting. I think many progressives/liberals give Paul a bad rap, but he was also a product of his time. Philemon offers some hope of future redemption, but he didn't overthrow the system.

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