The Real Paul Series #3

Published May 5, 2015 by

What Did Paul Really Say about Slavery?

Roman rule was built on the back of slaves captured as a result of violent conquest. The Jewish hierarchy was built upon and sustained by the Jewish peasantry. Both Jesus and Paul emphasized social equality and justice for all.  Yet, with the help of the non-Pauline letters, Paul ends up looking and sounding like a poor copy of the Roman sociopolitical policies.

The Letter of Paul to Philemon clearly establishes Paul’s opposition to slavery among the followers of Jesus.  First, it is important to understand that  though the letter is written to an individual named Philemon, it is to be read to the church in your house.  So though it addresses a personal issue between Paul and Philemon, it is to be a public conversation so that Philemon is neatly backed into a corner on the subject of his runaway slave.

The letter is a masterpiece of manipulation–Paul uses their friendship to hook Philemon, referring to himself as an old man.

I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me. I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you.  I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel;  but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced.*

Paul fights dirty, but all in the name of Christ, for he has led the slave Onesimus to Christ and now calls him a brother in the gospel!  Given that conversion, it must be obvious to everyone that Onesimus is no longer slave, but free in Christ.

Paul’s radicality is not simply about slavery or even about patriarchy. It is about Paul’s radical repudiation–within Christianity–of the normal hierarchical presuppositions of Roman imperial society.**

Why the need to sanitize Paul’s message and make him more acceptable to the Romans?  Politics.

The first three centuries of the early church fluctuated between extreme persecution under Emperor Nero to benign neglect under someone like Trajan. But at the beginning of the 4th Century, Constantine converted to Christianity on his death bed and Christianity would be declared the official religion of the Empire within ten years.

Therefore, someone as important as Paul absolutely could not remain in such clear opposition to Roman policies, hence, the non-Pauline letters. Paul’s position is contradicted in Colossians 3:22, Ephesians 6:5 and in Titus 2:9, bringing him into alignment with Rome.

This is our first insight into how radical equality within Pauline Christian theology opposes and replaces the normal hierarchy within Roman imperial theology.  And the tragedy is that the Paul of the post-Pauline tradition is not only deradicalized; he is Romanized.**

Rev. Claudia Naylor

Philemon 1:10-14*
The First Paul, by Borg & Crossan**

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