The Change from Within

With all the many differences in law, manners and customs, nevertheless the Romans, Greeks and Jews had one thing in common—a dependence on slave economy. However much the modern mind may admire any or all of these civilisations that fact must be admitted.

The difference between the Jews and everybody else on this question was that under their law no slave could be held longer than six years (in the Year of Jubilee all slaves had to be freed*) and there were regulations laid down for their protection. A young female slave, for example, on reaching a marriageable age had either to be married to her master or his son, and in the eventuality of neither wanting her she had to be freed. (Lev.25:6)

The Greeks treated their slaves, on the whole, better than the Romans though this is not saying a great deal. If a Greek slave was required to give evidence in a law court as a witness he could expect to be tortured, but on the other hand his master could not put him or her to death without the consent of the Court. If any slave was in danger of having their virtue assaulted, they could take refuge in a temple, and claim the right to be sold to a different master. Children born to slave women became slaves themselves.

With the Romans, however, the slave was not a person, he was a ‘thing’ and absolutely in the power of his master. This is not to say that every Roman slave owner was a callous brute; many of them treated their slaves well, but being convinced of the rightness of the course they were pursuing would probably have been horrified at the suggestion that slavery was wrong.

There had been attempts to bring about a change in conditions. The Romans and the Greeks, at the time Paul was writing his epistles, were conscious of the pressure put on the system less than a hundred years before by the Thracian ex‑gladiator Spartacus. The Romans particularly had cause to remember this revolt against slavery in 73‑71 B.C. It had cost too many lives and imbedded too many dangerous ideas about liberty. According to what is known of the leader of the slaves he was a humane man, and remembering that, though intended for the gladiatorial arena, unless he distinguished himself in his first fight and was subsequently freed, it meant winning every contest for three years when the doubtful mercy of two years’ slavery ending in freedom would be accorded him (at least that was the custom with prisoners of war and the Thracian had been a soldier). One can understand how a short cut to liberty would appeal to Spartacus.

Onesimus was a different proposition altogether. His name, by a stroke of irony, meant ‘profitable,’ but this apparently was the opposite of what he was in reality. After being more trouble than he was worth to his master he finally ran away, helping himself to some of Philemon’s money in the process. Philemon may very probably have been glad to see the back of him, and there is no account given of any attempt on his part to follow and recapture the young man. Perhaps this was an indication of the change in Philemon’s inner feelings for even the kindest pagan slave owner would have set out in indignant pursuit.

It has been agreed that Paul wrote this letter from prison. It has not been agreed where Paul was in prison. Some would argue for Ephesus and point out that it was not so far from Colosse where Philemon lived, whereas Rome, the traditionally held viewpoint, several hundred miles away, would be too far to be the objective of an escaped slave.

The answer or answers to that argument would be—

We do not know how Onesimus and Paul met. Onesimus may indeed have seen Paul at Philemon’s house, for the apostle seemed to be on friendly terms with him and his family.

"To Philemon our dearly beloved, and fellowlabourer, and to our beloved Apphia, and Archippus our fellow soldier..." (vv.1‑2) And Archippus has also been included in the farewell messages in the letter to the Colossians.

Onesimus may have been denounced as a runaway slave. Epaphras, whose position approximated to that of minister to the Church at Colosse, who was with Paul at that time may have recognised him and persuaded him to put his case to the apostle. It might be asked if anyone desperate enough to run away—and a thief into the bargain—would throw away his chance of freedom so easily. The penalties for runaway slaves were severe; the law would have upheld Philemon if he had put him to death. It is unlikely that any other fugitive slaves would have given Onesimus away, for they stood together. As one writer observed, their code was "love each other, love lies, love licentiousness" and so on. A possible explanation may have been that Onesimus learnt the apostle was in Rome—we know Paul had been allowed to rent a house there and to receive anyone who wanted to see him—and that the memory of the teaching he had half‑forgotten stirred up feelings of remorse. Perhaps Onesimus’s conscience, which hitherto had not had much opportunity of making itself heard, went into action. Perhaps he may have had a superstitious fear of the apostle which, bearing in mind Paul’s fiery preaching, is very possible.

Whatever reason finally prompted Onesimus to throw himself on the mercy of Paul, there is no cause to disbelieve that he presented the apostle with a very delicate problem. To give shelter to a runaway slave was the equivalent of being a receiver of stolen goods. Paul was quite capable of dealing with such a situation, however, and such was the influence he could exert over practically everybody that, probably overwhelmed with gratitude and relief from a remorseless conscience, Onesimus, for the first time perhaps, began to justify his name—

" Which in time past was to thee unprofitable, but now profitable to thee and to me." (v.11)

There is no reason to suppose that Paul approved of slavery, though he never preached directly against it for fear of its upsetting the real purpose of his life—the spreading of the Christian belief. His attitude seems to have been that if a man is free in Christ, the slavery he is enduring is a passing thing, besides which, believing in the imminent return of Christ there would have seemed little purpose in his eyes in campaigning for the freedom of slaves. Nevertheless Paul, whilst stressing the need for servants to be obedient to their masters, also emphasised the need for masters to treat their servants/slaves properly. The status of a slave was less than nothing. There were slaves who bought their freedom and some who received it as a reward, but the standard of behaviour was understandably low. What incentive had men and women to try to lead moral lives if they were the property of their masters and death was the only means by which they could obtain freedom. It is almost impossible for us to realise what the advent of Christianity meant to the slave community, or what a tremendous assertion Colossians 3:10‑11 is—

"And have put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him: where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Christ is all, and in all."

In other words, Christ is the master of all men.

The problem Paul faced was neither philosophical nor theological, but intensely practical. The apostle does not seem to have been a sentimental man, yet one can assume that there were some good qualities in Onesimus, and that he had been converted by Paul’s teaching, otherwise why should he stay there in the prison, and so we read—

"Whom I would have retained with me." (v.13)

It would appear Paul had developed an affection for Onesimus, referring to him as "my son." (v.10) As in other troublesome circumstances, and as it was impossible at that moment for obvious reasons to visit Colosse, Paul has to rely on his ability as a letter writer.

His letter to Philemon is unique among his writings. It is the shortest, and it is certainly the most cordial. No fiery teaching, no scathing denunciation; sweetness and light abound from the first verse. The Churches at Corinth and Galatia would scarcely recognise Paul as the writer, which proves that Paul could be all things to all men.

We do not know if Philemon was rich; the fact that Onesimus was his slave is not conclusive; even persons of modest incomes owned a slave or two, but the Church at Colosse met in his house so we can perhaps assume that he was reasonably prosperous. Paul does not rush into battle on Onesimus’s behalf. The first nine verses are given to personal greetings, and one can gauge Paul’s diplomacy by—

There are diplomatic references to Philemon’s faith, and the love which Paul is sure he has for his fellow Christians and for Paul also. This love, the apostle continues, has made him confident enough to ask a favour of a brother in Christ. He could use his authority and command Philemon, but he would rather ask him, as an old man, and a prisoner of Jesus Christ.

This is appealing enough to bring tears to the eyes of a graven image and by this time Philemon would be in the right mood to grant anybody’s request. Paul then lays the case before Philemon. He is making this request on behalf of his son, Onesimus. There is sympathy in the recognition of the slave’s uselessness in past days, but things are very different now. Paul manages to infuse the right note of regret in the information that he is sending Onesimus back to Colosse. If he could have kept Onesimus with him he knows he would have continued to care for Paul as Philemon would have done had he been in his place. He knows, however, that Philemon will receive "his son" as if he had been Paul himself. As if this is not enough, to cut short any protest Philemon may have made, Paul points out how well things have turned out—

"For perhaps he therefore departed for a season, that thou shouldest receive him for ever; not now as a servant, but above a servant, a brother beloved, specially to me, but how much more unto thee, both in the flesh, and in the Lord? If thou count me therefore a partner, receive him as myself." (vv.15‑17)

It probably occurred to the apostle at this point that some reference to the stolen money might be appreciated, and so, taking the pen from whoever was writing at his dictation, he adds the following—

"If he hath wronged thee, or oweth thee ought, put that on mine account." (v.18)

Paul makes it clear, immediately afterwards, that he has written this with his own hand, so will repay anything owing, but hastens to add that he would not dream of saying how much Philemon owes him, Paul, even his very soul. If any other than Paul had written this letter it might be said to be a gentle attempt at intimidation!

Paul then proceeds to assure Philemon that he knows he will do even more than he has asked, and ends by suggesting that perhaps Philemon will prepare a room for him as he hopes that through the prayers of the Church he may come to them at Colosse. He includes Epaphras in the list of farewells which is understandable since he was a minister of the Colossian Church. There may, however, be a subtle undertone. It is perhaps a way of intimating that there is a witness to his request for forgiveness on behalf of Onesimus. It would hardly do for Epaphras to return home to find Onesimus dead or sent to the mines!

Nevertheless Paul was depending upon the soundness of Philemon’s belief in Christ. It would have been no problem for him to behave in a benevolent way as long as his rights and privileges were not attacked. If it was a shallow faith, Onesimus would have cause to regret returning, but Paul, who knew from his own experience how belief in Christ can alter a man’s attitude, must have been sure of the genuineness of Philemon’s faith. It was not the kind of letter to send to a pagan slave owner, although its very audacity might have carried the day.

There are reasons for thinking that Paul did not go far wrong in assessing the character of Philemon. It may be stretching the long arm of coincidence, but unless Onesimus was an inheritance, or the child of a slave girl, why did Philemon not take advantage of the law that compelled slave dealers to take back slaves sold under false pretences (and any slave dealer in his right mind would hesitate to dwell on Onesimus’s unprofitableness) or pay compensation? Perhaps he had tried to give his slave every chance. But the strongest reason for believing that Philemon did as he was asked is that the letter is in existence, that we have it in the New Testament today. No‑one seems to doubt its genuineness, and there is no reason why anyone should forge such a personal letter. Slavery was not wiped out of existence by Paul’s words; perhaps Philemon did not free his other slaves. It took centuries of the influence of the Christian spirit, an essentially practical thing, to wipe out such an iniquitous economic system, which the undoubtedly sincere Spartacus thought he could batter down by sheer force.

Over forty years later, at the time Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, was being taken to Rome to die a martyr’s death in the arena, there was a Bishop of Ephesus called Onesimus. It would be interesting to think it was the same man—it would be a satisfactory ending, and in any case in a world which the Christians were turning upside down, there would be nothing incongruous in such a solution.




A Thracian who became a Roman slave and gladiator in Capua, and headed an insurrection in Italy in 73 BC. The slaves he raised routed several Roman armies, but he was eventually defeated by Crassus in 71 B.C. and slain.

Thrace, ancient name of terr. in S.E. Europe, part of which has been added to Greece; successively under Macedonian, Roman, Byzantine and Turkish rule before passing to Greece.

Pears Cyclopaedia