Last year I did a fresh reading of the book of Philemon for a hermeneutics class at Bethlehem College & Seminary and was struck by how masterfully Paul orchestrated the situation in order to display the power of the gospel to transform the heart of a slave-owner such that he would free his former slave while his whole house-church and all of Paul’s companions looked on.
Or so I thought. Apparently, not everyone has read the book of Philemon this way.
R.L. Dabney, in his A Defense of Virginia and the South has a chapter on the “New Testament Argument” for slavery, and within it, a section on “Philemon and Onesimus” (176–185). For Dabney, “the Epistle of Philemon is peculiarly instructive and convincing as to the moral character of slavery. This Abolitionists betray, by the distressing wrigglings and contortions of logic to which they resort in the vain attempt to evade its inferences” (176). Indeed, “such are the wretched quibblings by which abolitionism seeks to pervert the plain meaning of God’s Word” (185).
To the contrary–I hope to demonstrate that it is Dabney who has cleverly wriggled out of the clear inferences of this epistle.
The main verses that I wish to highlight are 15–16:
For perhaps he departed for a while for this purpose, that you might receive him forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave—a beloved brother, especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.
Τάχα γὰρ διὰ τοῦτο ἐχωρίσθη πρὸς ὥραν, ἵνα αἰώνιον αὐτὸν ἀπέχῃς, οὐκέτι ὡς δοῦλον ἀλλʼ ὑπὲρ δοῦλον, ἀδελφὸν ἀγαπητόν, μάλιστα ἐμοί, πόσῳ δὲ μᾶλλον σοὶ καὶ ἐν σαρκὶ καὶ ἐν κυρίῳ.
In particular, note carefully the phrase in verse 16:
|no longer||as||a slave||but||more than||a slave||a brother||beloved|
When I read this verse in a “simple” “straightforward” manner this verse says that Paul is urging Philemon to liberate Onesimus: “no longer as a slave.”
So how does Dabney (and others) get around this verse? By adding some words to their translation and interpretation. He starts by quoting at length “the judicious Dr. Thomas Scott” who was himself “a declared enemy of slavery.” Scott commented on verse 16 with this:
“In this case he knew that Philemon would no longer consider Onesimus merely as a slave, but view him as ‘above a slave, even a brother beloved” (179).
Note the addition: the verse says “no longer as a slave”; Scott’s paraphrase is “no longer merely as a slave.” See how much hangs on even a single word. That one word–“merely”–is the difference between slavery and freedom!
Dabney knew that some had found in this epistle an argument against slavery. They “learn that he was manumitted by the letter of Paul; so that they find here, not a justification of the slaveholder [which Dabney has found], but an implied rebuke of slavery… The ground claimed for the latter position is, v. 16” (184).
After relying on Scott earlier, Dabney does the same thing. He adds words to text of Scripture in order to suit his favored interpretation:
“Now the obvious sense of these words is, that Philemon should now receive Onesimus back, not as a slave only, but as both a slave and Christian brother.”
I must confess, the sense is not “obvious” to me at all; in fact, precisely the opposite. Dabney’s reconstruction has no basis the original text of Scripture itself:
|no longer||as||a slave||but||more than||a slave||a brother||beloved|
|not||as||a slave||[only]||but||as||[both]||——||a slave||[and]||a brother||[Christian]|
You should know that Greek has a way of saying “not only X but also Y.” In fact, it does this pretty regularly. The phrase is Greek is “οὐ μόνον X ἀλλὰ καὶ Y.” It appears in a number of verses:
Matthew 21:21 So Jesus answered and said to them, “Assuredly, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what was done to the fig tree, but also if you say to this mountain, ‘Be removed and be cast into the sea,’ it will be done.
John 5:18 Therefore the Jews sought all the more to kill Him, because He not only broke the Sabbath, but also said that God was His Father, making Himself equal with God.
This combination appears dozens of times in the NT, and Paul uses it quite frequently:
Romans 1:32 who, knowing the righteous judgment of God, that those who practice such things are deserving of death, not only do the same but also approve of those who practice them.
2 Corinthians 7:7 and not only by his coming, but also by the [a]consolation with which he was comforted in you, when he told us of your earnest desire, your mourning, your zeal for me, so that I rejoiced even more.
Ephesians 1:21 far above all principality and power and might and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come.
Philippians 2:27 For indeed he was sick almost unto death; but God had mercy on him, and not only on him but on me also, lest I should have sorrow upon sorrow.
1 Thessalonians 1:5 For our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Spirit and in much assurance, as you know what kind of men we were among you for your sake.
(There are many more; see also: Rom 4:12, 4:16, 5:3, 5:11, 8:23, 9:10, 9:24, 13:5, 16:4; 2 Cor 8:10; 8:19; 8:21, 9:12; 1 Thess 1:8, 1 Thess 2:8; 1 Tim 5:13; 2 Tim 2:20; 4:8)
Clearly, Paul has resources in the Greek language for saying “not only X but also Y.” If he had wished to urge Philemon to receive Onesimus “not only as a slave but also as a beloved brother” he could easily have said that. He says it all the time elsewhere; but that is emphatically not what he says. He says–unambiguously–that Philemon is not to receive him as a slave any more — that relationship has been dissolved by the power of the gospel of King Jesus — but instead is to receive him as he would receive Paul himself (v. 17), as a beloved brother.
Paul uses this particular constructions two other places in his epistles (“οὐκέτι X ἀλλά Y” — “no longer X but Y”):
Galatians 4:6–7 And because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying out, “Abba, Father!” Therefore you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ.
Ephesians 2:19 Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God,
How ironic (and sad) that the two other places Paul uses the construction speak of our own deliverance from slavery (Gal 4) and our reconciliation with God and our fellow man which crosses ethnic barriers and walls of hostility (Eph 2). If we treated these passages the way Dabney (and others) treat Philemon 16, we would subvert the central message of the gospel itself.
Those who sought to defend slavery from the Bible did not simply read the text in a “straightforward manner.” In at least this case, they had to resort to adding to the words of scripture to make it mean precisely the opposite of what it actually says. Such Scripture-twisting, and the fruit that resulted from it, is abominable and deserves a verdict like this:
“the distressing wrigglings and contortions of logic to which he resorts in the vain attempt to evade its inferences; the wretched quibblings by which he seeks to pervert the plain meaning of God’s Word.”