Full Text for Philemon in the Context of Paul's Travels (Text)

erQ 74 (2010): 289-305 Philemon in the Context of Paul's Travels John G. Nordling II And at the same time also, prepare for me a guest room [hotlla~E 1l0L ~Evtav]; for I expect that through your prayers [£AJtt~(J) ya.p on bLa. nov JtPOOE1JXwv UIlWV] I will be graciously given to you [xapWe~Oollm uIlLV]" (Philemon 22).1 Here Paul expresses a confidence in Philemon and in those Christians who comprised Philemon's family and home congregation. He expects (£AJtL~(J) that through their repeated prayers at worship he will be graciously restored to them all as a gift (xapWe~Oollm).2 The passage presumes both that Paul would go to where Philemon and his congregation were located (Colossae, in southwest Asia Minor), and that Philemon and the congregation that assembled in his IIhouse" (olKov, 2b) would provide for the travelling apostle suitable IIhospitality" (i;Evta; Lat. hospitium)-a word that could mean a IIguest room" in Philemon's house,3 1 As translated by John G. Nordling in Philemon (Concordia Commentary; St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2004), 148, 281. An earlier version of this article was read at the Michigan District North and East Pastors' Conference (Bad Axe, Michigan, May 8, 2007). The article depends in large measure on ideas presented originally in Nordling, Philemon,20-25,36-38. 2 Nordling, Philemon, 285-286: "In the NT xap[~o!-tm usually means 'to give freely as a favor, give graciously' [F.W. Danker, W. Bauer, W.F. Arndt, and F.W. Gingrich, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3d ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 1078; henceforth BDAG]. The form here is the first person future passive. Its nuance here has been the topic of much debate. BDAG [1078] cites Acts 3:14, which refers to Barabbas being set free (xapLOO~vm) and explains, 'the one who is "given" escapes death or further imprisonment by being handed over to those who wish him freed.' The Testament of Joseph [1:6] has a similar verb, xaprto(J): '1 was in prison, and the Savior acted graciously in my behalf [Exaplt(J)OE !-tE]. I was in bonds, and he loosed me' [as translated by H.C. Kee in James H. Charlesworth, ed., The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha. Vol. 1, Apocalyptic Literature and Testaments (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1983), 819]. Thus Paul expects that in answer to the prayers of Philemon's congregation, God will grant that 'I will be graciously given to you.' The apostle had called himself a OEO!-tLO;, 'prisoner,' in verses 1 and 9. Now he anticipates that he will be released from prison and thus free to visit Philemon and his household in Colossae." 3 G. St1!hIin, "I;EVO; KtA," in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, 15 vols., ed. GJ. Botterweck, H. Ringgren, and H. Fabry, trans. J.T. Willis, G.W. Bromiley, and D.E. Green (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974--2006), 5:19, nn. 135-37, supposed the following terms John G. Nordling is Associate Professor of Exegetical Theology at Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, Indiana. 290 Concordia Theological Quarterly 74 (2010) or the more general "hospitable reception" shown to a traveler.4 Either way, the passage stands as a perfect illustration of the ubiquity of Paul's travel in general,s and of the pertinence of the Pauline travel itinerary for better understanding Paul's letter to Philemon in particular. In this article I shall first consider the likely location of Philemon's house-church in Colossae; second, I shall attempt to answer the question of how the gospel first reached Philemon and his congregation through the efforts of both Epaphras and Philemon; and third, r shall attempt to establish a more secure context for the letter by probing social relations Paul maintained between himself and Christians in the interior of Asia Minor, the precise numbers of whom cannot now be accurately determined. The likely scenario suggests that Paul's shortest letter was more than just a communique urging reconciliation between two feuding individuals-that is, between Philemon and Onesimus-as is all-too-often assumed by well-meaning interpreters of the letter who stress the forgiveness of sins in Christ Jesus, which is certainly an important emphasis of the letter.6 Nevertheless, there must have been an acknowledged "communal purpose" to the letter, besides the purely personal or theological purpose of "fixing up a broken relationship between an injured master and his slave."7 It bears stressing that Paul were virtually equivalent to SEVLU in Philemon 22a: "inn" (nuvl)oXELOV, Luke 10:34); "inn" or "lodging" (Ka1:UA1JI.w, Luke 2:7); "guest-room" (WtUA1JIlU, Mark 14:14; Luke 22:11). 4 Cf. "hospitality" (qJLAos£vLu, Rom 12:13; Heb 13:2 FSV). Stahlin himself preferred 1 "guest chamber" as an adequate rendering of sEvLu in Philemon 22a in English ("sEvo,; 'CtA," Theological Dictionary of the New Testament 5:20). 5 Based on likely travel itineraries put forward by Luke in the book of Acts alone, Ronald F. Hock estimated that Paul traveled nearly ten thousand miles during his reported career, which put him on roads swarming with "government officials, traders, pilgrims, the sick, letter-carriers, sightseers, runaway slaves, fugitives, prisoners, athletes, artisans, teachers, and students"; Ronald F. Hock, The Social Context of Paul's Ministry. Tentmaking and Apostleship (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980), 27. For ancient travel in general d. Wayne A. Meeks, The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul (New Haven, CT; London, UK: Yale University Press, 1983), 16-23; also d. Uonel Casson, Travel in the Ancient World (Reprint; Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994), 128-37. 6 Cf., e.g., Nordling, Philemon, 1-2, 300-301, 345-46, etc. Also d. John G. Nordling, "The Gospel in Philemon," CTQ 71 (2007): 71-83, especially 77, 78, 80, 81-82. 7 John G. Nordling, "Some Matters Favouring the Runaway Slave Hypothesis in Philemon," Neotestamentica 44.1 (2010): 114. Others who have stressed the communal, as opposed to the merely personal, nature of the letter are Sara C. Winter, "Methodological l Observations on a New Interpretation of Paul's Letter to Philemon," Union Seminaryr Quarterly Review 39 (1984): 206; Norman R. Petersen, Rediscovering Paul: Philemon and thef .~ Nordling: Philemon in the Context of Paul's Travels 291 would have been passionately concerned for the vitality of the larger congregation of which Philemon and Onesimus were a part, and doubtlessly also for the good of Christians still further removed from those assumed by the letter-that is, of Christians known to have existed in the Lycus river valley (where Colossae was located), and probably of Christians who were located in Galatia still further east. Thus, some awareness of ancient travel, the geographical location of Colossae in relation to other cities in Roman Asia, and social networks extending far beyond the leading dramatis personae of the letter do much to shed light on the quite complicated reasons for which Paul wrote to Philemon and the congregation in the first place. I. The Location of Philemon's House-Church Where would Philemon's house-church have been located? The answer to this question is provided not so much in Philemon itself as in the letter to which Philemon has most often been connected - that is, Colossians. Many suspect a close connection between Paul's letters to Philemon and the Colossians8 for reasons to which we cannot do full justice here;9 let us at least consider, however, one powerful proof for the close connection of the two letters. It happens that the epistolary conclusions of Philemon and Colossians share five of six names listed in the final greeting. So Philemon 23-24 records the final greetings of Epaphras, Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke; likewise, Colossians 4:10­ 14 records the final greetings of Aristarchus, Mark, Jesus "who is called Justus" (0 A€y6!!€vo~ 'Ioil(Jto~, Col 4:11a), Epaphras, Luke, and Demas.1° Despite the absence of "Jesus who is called Justus," the final greeting in Philemon shares five out of the six names listed in Colossians, a remarkable correspondence between the two letters. The shared names must indicate that the five individuals in the two epistolary conclusions were the same people, for there could not easily have been separate Epaphrases, Marks, Aristarchuses, Demases, and Lukes in both letters. Thus, the five identical names, together with still other names that connect Sociology of Paul's Narrative World (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985), 65-78; Larry J. Kreitzer, Philemon (Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2008), 13. 8 In addition to most commentaries, d. John Knox, "Philemon and the Authenticity of Colossians," Journal ofReligion 18 (1938): 144-160; and John Knox, Philemon among the Letters of Paul. A New View of its Place and Importance, Rev. ed. (New York: Abingdon, 1959), 34-55. 9 But d. Nordling, Philemon, 324-328. 10 Cf. fig. 11 in Nordling, Philemon, 320 ("A Comparison of Philemon 23-24 and Colossians 4:10-14"). 292 Concordia Theological Quarterly 74 (2010) the two letters,l1 forge an "inseparable connection" between Philemon and Colossians, the evidence of which"cannot lightly be swept aside./112 Paul apparently had not yet been to Colossae when he wrote that Philemon should "prepare a guest room [1;EvLav]" for him in Philemon's Ii house (Phlm 22a). That Paul had not yet been to Colossae is supported by two considerations. First, when Paul wrote the letter to the Colossians, he II stated that certain Christians at Colossae and Laodicea had not yet "seen I my [Paul's] face in the flesh [OVx Mpm:av to JtpoowJtov !lOll £v oapdr I (Col 2:1b). This small detail indicates to many13 that while Paul was certainly known to the saints at Colossae and Laodicea, a majority of f 1 Christians there had not actually seen Paul in the flesh, since the notion of seeing someone's "face" (to JtpoowJtov, Col 2:1) in the Pauline corpus expresses the immediacy of a personal encounter (d. 1 Cor 13:12; 2 Cor 10:1, 7; Gal 1:22; 2:11; 1 Thess 2:17; 3:10).14 Such instances may go back to the biblical idiom of seeing someone "face-to-face/' such as occurs, e.g., in Genesis 46:30: "Israel said to Joseph, 'Now let me die, since I have seen your face and know that you are still alivelll (ESV, emphasis added).15 Second, although Acts records that Paul had passed through other regions of Asia Minor on previous occasions,16 there is no evidence to suggest that he had passed through Colossae itself before writing the letter to Philemon. In Acts 16:6 Paul and his entourage were hindered by divine impulse from preaching the Word in Asia (i.e., in Ephesus), so Paul could not have passed through Colossae at that time. In Acts 19:1 Paul did indeed reach Ephesus, yet he did so by way of the so-called "upper regiOns" (tU UVWtEPLICU !lEPTJ), a phrase that probably refers to a route farther north that skirted Colossae by about twenty-five miles.!? Perhaps fatigue compelled Paul to traverse this northern route "over the hills"18 11 E.g., Timothy (Phlm 1; Col 1:1); Archippus (phlm 2; Col 4:17); Onesimus (phlm 10; Col 4:9). 12 Donald Guthrie, New Testament Itltroduction, 3d ed. (Downers Grove, IL: Inter­ Varsity Press, 1970), 554. 13 See the list of twelve scholars in Nordling, Philemon, 20 n. 2. 14 So James D,G. Dunn, The Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 129, on the basis of the passages provided in the parenthesis. 15 So Douglas J. Moo, The Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon (Pillar New Testament Commentary; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 20OS), 164. 16 Cf. Acts 13:13-14, 51; 14:20-21, 24-25; 15:41; 16:1, 4, 7-8; 18:23. 17 So F.F. Bruce, The Acts of the Apostles: TIle Greek Text with Introduction and Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1951), 353. 18 So A. Souter, "Roads and Travel," in Dictionary of the Apostolic Church, ed. James Hastings, John A. Selbie, and John C. Lambert (New York: Scribner, 1918), 2:3%-397; d. Nordling: Philemon in the Context of Paul's Travels 293 and thus avoid the more heavily congested road through Colossae farther south. Nevertheless, it seems quite possible that Philemon could have seen Paul "in the flesh" on some prior occasion (or occasions), even if the apostle had not yet passed through the exact part of Asia Minor where Philemon lived. Even if Paul had not seen Philemon in Colossae on an earlier occasion, Philemon could plausibly have seen Paul in the place where that apostle lived and taught for more than two years (Acts 19:10; d. 19:8)-namely, in Ephesus, the great metropolis of Roman Asia. Acts 19:10 does not mention Philemon by name but does state that during Paul's lengthy sojourn in Ephesus"all [n:aVta~] the residents of Asia heard the Word of the Lord [(u:oilom tOY A6yov toil ICUpLOU], both Jews and Greeks" (ESV; emphasis added). By his use of the word "all" here Luke may perhaps be engaging in overstatement,19 but his words need mean no more than that people from throughout the entire province of Roman Asia-and perhaps beyond-heard the gospel at Ephesus during the public lectures Paul himself delivered in the hall of Tyrannus (6LaAEy6I-lEVO~ EV tfi oxoAfi TUPLA~!lOVL to ayaJtl]t0 Kat auvEpy0 ~!lwv]," v.1) resembles other passages where Paul refers to trusted collaborators as "fellow-workers [auvEpyoL]," for example, Prisca and Aquila (Rom 16:3; d. Acts 18:2-3), Urbanus (Rom 16:9), Epaphroditus (Phil 2:25), and the mysterious "rest of my [Paul's] fellow-workers [twv AOLn:WV auvEpywV !lou]" (Phil 4:3). The afore­ mentioned Christians might well have been literal workers-craftsmen, artisans, handworkers, weavers, and the like-because so much of the Pauline paraenesis was intended for Christians who were working.46 There are yet other passages, however, where the term "fellow-worker" (auvEpyot;; d. auvEpyew) seems to refer more specifically to men known from supporting passages to have been pastors and evangelists, who­ together with Paul-were engaged in what we might refer to as the apostolic ministry. Thus, Timothy was a "fellow-worker" of Paul appellamus" = "he is called paterfamilias who holds lordship in the house, and he is correctly called by this name even if he does not have a son; for we refer not only to his person but also to his right. Indeed, we call even a little boy the paterfamilias/' Justinian Digest 50.16.195 (my translation). 45 N.H. Taylor, "Onesimus: A Case Study of Slave Conversion in Early Christianity:' Religion and Theology 3 (1996): 262. Taylor adds (ibid.): "This [conversion to the master's religion] would not have been a voluntary act but rather involuntary conformity, willing or unwilling, with the decision and action of the paterfamilias." 46 So Meeks, First Urban Christians, 64-65, on the basis of 1 Thess 4:11-12. For the work-related vocations of the first Christians in general d. Todd D. Still, "Did Paul Loathe Manual Labor? Revisiting the Work of Ronald F. Hock on the Apostle's Tentmaking and Social Class," Journal of Biblical Literature 125 (2006): 781-95; John G. Nordling, "Slavery and Vocation/, Lutheran Fon/m 42 (Summer 2008); and John G. Nordling, "A More Positive View of Slavery: Establishing Servile Identity in the Christian Assemblies," Bulletin for Biblical Research 19 (2009): 63-84, especially 80-84. Still other passages that suggest that literal work was important to Paul and to his epistolary audiences are Eph 4:28; 1 Thess 2:9; and 2 Thess 3:6-13. Nordling: Philemon in the Context of Paul's Travels 299 (TLlloOEOe; {) OUVEpYOe; Ilou, Rom 16:21);47 Paul and Apollos were "fellow­ workers" of God (Owu yap EOIlEV ouvEpyoL, 1 Cor 3:9); Silvanus, Timothy, and Paul were "fellow-workers" of the Corinthians' joy (ouvEpyoL EOIlEV tfje; xupa.e; ullwv, 2 Cor 1:24); Titus was a "partner" of Paul and a "fellow­ worker" of the Corinthians (TLtou, KOLVOOVOe; EIlOe; KUL de; UIla.e; ouvEpyoe;, 2 Cor 8:23), and so on.48 As the letter stands, however, there is no reason to suppose that Philemon was a pastor or a "preacher,"49 since Epaphras, not Philemon, seems to have occupied that role at Colossae (see the discussion on Epaphras above). Paul probably referred to Philemon as "our beloved fellow-worker" ( 'tfj~ dp~vTJ~, Eph 4:3).69 Of course, Paul was concerned about the forgiveness of sins that he hoped ultimately would reunite Philemon to Onesimus, and the Christians of Philemon's house congregation-whether named or un­ named - to all the other Christians who would ever live, and so still hear 68 Paul's description of Philemon resembles that of Titus, who was Paul's "partner and fellow-worker" (KOL\lW\lO;; fllO;; KaL ... oU\I£PYo;;) in service to the Corinthians (2 Cor 8:23). Indeed, Philemon must have been a highly regarded Christian in the Lycus Valley, especially when compared to the scarcely known Nympha (Col 4:15, no epithet) and to other unnamed Christians at Colossae. References to such unnamed Christians include "to the saints in Colossae" ('WL;; £\1 Kof..oooa1:;; aYLOL;;, Col 1:2a); "on behalf of you" (untp UIlW\I, Col 4:13); "on behalf of ... those in Laodicea" (untp ... 1:W\I EV AaooLKdq, Col 4:13a; d. nap' ulltv, 4:16a); and "on behalf of ... those in Hierapolis" (u:n:/::p ... twv EV 'IEpa:n:of..£L, CoI4:13b). 69 Peter T. O'Brien, The Letter to the Ephesians (Pillar New Testament Commentary; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 280: "[Als the readers heed the apostolic injunction to bend every effort 50 as to maintain their oneness in the local congregation(s) as well as in their wider relationships with other believers, the peace which Christ has won and which binds Jews and Gentiles together into the one people of God will be increasingly evident in their lives." 305 Nordling: Philemon in the Context of Paul's Travels the concluding blessing of grace at the Divine Service: "The grace ['H XaPLt;] of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit!" (25): Philemon, Onesimus, and the congregation gathered in Philemon's house faced obvious challenges-and opportunities-in Christ as they pondered their future together. But so did all the other Christians to whom Paul ever wrote, appending as he did his distinctive blessing of grace (~ XapL£) to each letter.7o Paul never attempted to cast different, more "relevant" or "utilitarian" blessings to his diverse epistolary audiences. Instead, the relatively static form of his final blessing trusts that the words themselves, which God the Holy Spirit had inspired through the apostle Paul, convey "the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ" ... to those who first heard, or all who would ever hear, the blessing.71 Even so-and for all his theological astuteness-Paul was a pragmatist who did not want the one crisis to undo all the work of his earlier missions. He therefore looked beyond the "ruckus" that had enveloped the one congregation, and realized the really catastrophic effect that the falling-out between Philemon and Onesimus could have upon Christians in the immediate area, and far beyond the immediate area.72 I submit, then, that it was out of a concern for the wider church in Asia Minor- and for the future of the entire Christian mission - that Paul undertook to write Philemon, both the man and the letter. 70 Obviously related forms of the greeting appear at Rom 16:20b; 1 Cor 16:23; 2 Cor 13:13; Gal 6:18; Eph 6:24; Phil 4:23; Col 4:18b; 1 Thess 5:28; 2 Thess 3:18; 1 Tim 6:21b; 2 Tim 4:22b; Titus 3:15b; Phlm 25. 71 Nordling, Philemon, 343. 72 Nordling, "Some Matters," 112: "A similar scenario between Onesimus and Philemon transpired, then, causing such a ruckus in Philemon's household that Paul, writing for Christians of a 'high-context' society, would hardly have had to drop the sort of details many assume must accompany crises of this type." Trainor maintains that the letters to Philemon and the Colossians presume information well-known to their audiences: "This presumption indicates that the letters were written in a 'high-context' society. High-context societies produce sketchy and impressionistic texts, leaving much to the reader's or hearer's imagination," Trainor, Epaphras, 5.