Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Philemon 1: What Does Paul Want?

You don't tug on Superman's cape. You do not tell Dirty Harry that you're feeling lucky. You don't challenge Biff to a fight ... at least not until the second half of Back to the Future. And you most certainly don't mess around with Paul, the epistolary genius of first-century Christianity.

You wanna know what a badass Paul is? He's so money, they put one of his kitchen table notes in the Bible. It's the book of Philemon. Look it up.

Philemon is a Bible-blogger's dream. (That might be the first time anyone has uttered that sentence.) At just 25 verses, it's quick and digestible. If I want to blog about Psalms, I might have to slog through 150 chapters. With Philemon, I'm done in five minutes.

Philemon is the shortest of the genuine Pauline letters. The apostle writes it from prison, and it takes its name from its recipient. The subject of the letter is one Onesimus, a slave of Philemon's who has found his way into Paul's company. Paul is sending Onesimus back home, and his note is an "appeal" to Philemon regarding his slave: "I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment" (v. 10).

But the funny thing about the letter is that in it, Paul never explains the nature of his "appeal." This is some extremely vague prose--so vague, indeed, that I can paraphrase it in 25 words: "Hey Philemon. Paul. Yup, still in prison. You remember that thing I asked you to do with Onesimus? Can you do that? You're the best."

It's a quick note. It's a hasty email. It's a Twitter post. But it's also in the Bible. Do your grocery lists become scripture? Didn't think so.

Because Philemon is so laconic, scholars have spent a lot of time trying to reconstruct both its message and its historical context. Many argue that its appeal is simple: Paul requests that Philemon free Onesimus. But the letter's language is never so explicit, so the mystery of Paul's request remains.

For me, however, there is a more interesting question: why did Philemon make it into the New Testament? Here, we can only speculate. Clearly, this brief message had great meaning for the early church. Perhaps it was canonized because it was associated with Paul--a Christian leader whose charisma rivaled that of Jesus. Or perhaps Onesimus himself went on to become a significant figure, and Philemon marks the beginning of his ministry. Or maybe we're way off; Philemon may commemorate an unknown event that is lost to us--and whose nature may be indecipherable from the narrative content of the letter.

But there's one thing we do know. Don't challenge Paul to a writing contest. He'll kick your ass. His imprisoned jottings get turned into holy writ.

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