Epistle of Paul to Philemon Dissertation

Excerpt from Dissertation :

The divisions were as such:

1. The highest class amongst the slave was of the slave minister; he was responsible for most of the slave transactions or trades and was also allowed to have posts on the government offices locally and on the provincial level.

2. This was followed by the class of temple slaves; this class of slaves was normally employed in the religious organizations usually as janitors and caretakers of priestesses in the organization.

3. The third class of slaves included a range of jobs for slaves i.e. slaves who were appointed as land/property etc. managers were included in this class as well as those slaves who were employed as merchants or hired to help around the pastures and agricultural grounds. A majority of this class included the ordinary household slaves.

4. The last class amongst the slaves also included a range of occupations of the slaves extending from those working in dangerous jobs like mining or oil rigging or those slaves working in disrespected occupations like prostitution, etc. (Cole, 1995).

The structure as well as the entire industry of slaves in the Roman Empire was a very extensive and intricate construction. The significance of the Roman Slave industry can be analyzed when focusing on the celebrations of the three-day event at the end of the year that has been referred to in history as Saturnalia. This event exists if a different form currently i.e. As the 'Sadie Hawkins Day', the only difference being that the event was designed for the comfort of the slaves. The entire structure and traditions of the Roman society were toppled over for these three days as the demands of the slaves and their happiness took centre stage. When considering the treatment and rights given to the slaves during the entire year, the festivities and structure of the Saturnalia was the happiest of times for the slaves. The three-day event was primarily designed so that all of the normal business activities of the slaves were adjourned or postponed and the masters were the ones serving the slaves and meeting their demands. The slaves were allowed three days of recluse out of their normal standard of life as slaves and were allowed to do and say whatever they felt like. Even the moral traditions and cultural barriers were lifted during these three days and the extent of food and gifts presented to the slaves were plentiful as well. There are many references on the history books where proof and assertions are provided to confirm that this particular pagan event was replaced by the Christmas festivities as they stand today (Cole, 1995).

"The Romans did experience slave rebellions from time to time. The agricultural slaves in Sicily well outnumbered their Roman citizen masters and were always rebelling or threatening to rebel. The most famous rebellion was led by Spartacus. Spartacus himself was not a slave. He had been an undesirably discharged Roman soldier who had volunteered to become a gladiator hoping to seek fame instead of being exiled. As a gladiator he still was inciting problems, killed the manager of the gladiator school, led the gladiators and their slave girls to Mt. Vesuvius for refuge. And it was there that many runaway slaves ran to Spartacus for refuge for awhile. He eventually was subdued and 6600 Spartacus followers were captured. Since it was 132 miles on the Via Appia from Rome to Capua (home of the gladiator school), a Roman slave was crucified every 100 feet along that road. They were tied on to the cross and their bones were not broken so that they would live and suffer longer. They hung there dying and rotting for 18 months. Many a Roman master brought a misbehaving slave out to view that sight" (Cole, 1995).

There is a lot of deviation in the significance and strength of the Roman slaves, i.e. In accordance to the laws that were made, over the entire Roman Reign. The deviations are even more obvious when the laws pertaining to slavery are analyzed alone and we can see the laws moving from extremely strict to lenient to non-existent across the years of the Roman Empire. For example, historians agree that the paramount moral height for the laws of slavery was attained during the Great Pandects of Justinian back in the year a.D. 533. The laws addressed the slaves as human beings and not an asset of a property thing. The extent of the moral standing was such that if and when a slave was abused or killed by their master either through torture or venom or even burned to countries of the world (Cole, 1995).

However, the moral standings were not always prevalent in the laws employed in Rome for the slaves. For instance, going back six centuries, in as early as 100 B.C. The masters had complete control over the lives and rights of the slaves that they employed. This was before the book to Philemon was written, published and distributed. The fact is that in this time the chief or leader of a Roman family or tribe (referred to in history as the paterfamilias) were not only in complete control of the slaves but were also masters of the activities of other family members as well ranging from their wives to their children to their managers and even their own parents. The will of the chief was determined and accepted as the law that needed to be followed by everyone in the family or tribe. The governing bodies including the Senate had no authority over the actions of the chiefs and there were no laws designed that could obstruct or limit the extent of partiality adopted by the chief of the family. The rights of the chief included killing or torturing members of his family based on their actions i.e. he could have his wife killed or tortured if she betrayed him or committed adultery; if his son stood against his laws or showed signs of cowardice, he too could be subjected to death till he learned his lesson or killed off. In fact, any form of misbehavior or disobedience against the chief of the family could result in harsh circumstances for the members of his family and even the possibility of death (Cole, 1995).

"It is difficult to determine exactly what the slave laws were when this book was written by Paul to Philemon. Just as our tax laws keep changing with whomever is in power at the time, so the Roman slavery laws kept changing with their political changes. There were many political changes between 100 B.C. And 60 a.D. The Roman Republic had died, replaced by the Empire. Julius Caesar had come and gone. Augustus Caesar ruled as emperor and sole ruler for 44 years and enacted many great social reforms. Next Tiberius ruled and tried to legislate morality to the point that most everyone was sick of him and his "righteousness," and were relieved when he died. He was followed by the Emperors Caligula and Claudius. Now Nero was Caesar and emperor. Since he didn't have any morals to speak of, the Senate and People's Assembly were back in charge of restricting rights if they could sneak them past Nero" (Cole, 1995).

The fact of the matter is that there has been much discussion done on the treatment of runaway slaves. Many historians doubt that the full restoration of the prior rights of the paterfamilias would have resulted in the recurrence of the death penalty of the runaway slave. They argue this for two reasons: one, the depletion rates of the slaves could have grown with such a line of action, and second, there were always other alternatives available in accordance to the laws stated by the governing body as well as the Bible. The Bible and other religious pamphlets served as constant reminders for the Romans that the slaves were a form of an asset for the masters and could serve the same purpose that money or other capitals served i.e. they could be exchanged off for the purchase for any other element the masters required. In other words, as Cole (1995) writes "Slaves were a commodity. They had value" (Cole, 1995).

Cole in her address asserts the above statement further by explaining that "just as most landowners don't go around burning down their own fields, few slave owners would kill their slave. It was not good economics. The going rate for a slave at this time was 30 pieces of silver - about a month's salary. If a runaway slave could be retrieved, he could be sold or he could be punished by a lashing. If someone had been discovered harboring…

Sources Used in Documents:

works cited at the end.

If I were to conclude the significance of Paul's letter to Philemon and his approach to demand Onesimus' hospitality and kinship status, I can say that it was clearly his approach towards his demands that has made the letter such a major topic of discussion with regards to slavery. If Paul had taken an aggressive approach and straight away demanded the release and freedom of Onesimus, the letter would not been preserved in the history books for the generations to follow; that is a surety. I say this because it was Paul's approach and choice of language structure that caused for a large amount of debate to follow. It has been this debate, whether it has been on slavery or the various interpretations of his language structure, that has allows this letter and the relevant history to live on through the centuries. Of course, it is important to understand Philemon's role here as well, because it was his choice to treat the letter with a certain amount of respect and dignity that contributed to the letter's longevity as well. If Philemon had chosen to disregard Paul's requests and thrown away the letter as one that was not worthy of consideration, nobody would've even had the chance to debate the letter's significance in history. This again takes me back to the language structure adopted by Paul as he was able to soften his approach of the numerous demands as well that helped Philemon play his part of respecting what was demanded. Interestingly enough, Onesimus did go on to take on the duties as a bishop! To think that this line of action came about with only a choice of softening one's demands is extra-ordinary and the credit goes solely to Paul!


JM.G. Barclay, Colossians and Philemon, Sheffield Academic Press, 1997

Bartchy, S.S. (1973). First-Century Slavery and the Interpretation of 1 Corinthians 7:21 (SBLDS 11; Atlanta: Scholars Press) 175.

Cite This Dissertation:

"Epistle Of Paul To Philemon" (2010, December 31) Retrieved February 27, 2021, from

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