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Paul's letter to Philemon is generally read as a plea to forgive and accept back a runaway slave named Onesimus. Starting with John Chrysostom in the fourth century AD, commentators have invariably maintained that the apostle was interceding on behalf of a thieving slave in flight from his rightfully angry master. But Chrysostom's interpretation had more to do with his own situation in the 300's, in a day when a serious anti-slavery movement had been challenging Roman hegemony. Chrysostom repsonded to this situation with a theological interpretation that was "humane while conservative", enjoining masters to treat their slaves fairly, slaves to obey their masters and eschew rebellion. Paul's letter to Philemon, for the first time, was interpreted as a moral commending "genteel despotism and servile obedience".
Virtually all modern commentaries on Philemon agree with the interpretation from late antiquity that the letter treats the case of Onesimus, a pilfering runaway slave, who Paul is attempting to rehabilitate in the eyes of Philemon, his rightfully angry master. In this commentary, however, Allen Callahan tells another story. His reading of the rhetorical situation and reconstruction of the historical context provides a new narrative for the letter. He interpretation for which he argues is that of several nineteenth-century American abolitionist interpreters. Here, then, is not the story of a runaway slave but a story of the estrangement of two Christina brothers, Onesimus and Philemon. Professor Callahan proposes that his alternative reading of the letter offers a paradigm for Christian reconciliation that necessarily includes diplomacy, persuasion, forbearance, and reparations for injured parties. In other words, the letter speaks of the challenging implications of Christian love and the imperative of Christian justice. If there is an interpretation of great moment to be offered for this otherwise unremarkable piece of correspondence, then the treatment of these themes holds the promise of such an interpretation. Allen Dwight Callahan teaches New Testament at Harvard Divinity School.
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