The Standards for Measuring Bondage and Freedom:
duty and usefulness
Group 4 Presentation - March 12, 1999
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To understand standards of measuring bondage and freedom in Paul, Group
IV examined three associated concepts:
1) Onesimon/onaimen (useful/be beneficial), 2) achreston/euchreston
(not-useful/well-useful), and 3) to anevkonto/
kathekon (what is proper/fitting; duty).
Four key questions drove research on Onesimon/onaimen : 1) Is the
Onesimus referenced in Philemon the same Onesimus mentioned in
Colossians? 2) Does the authorship of Colossians affect the
interpretation of the Philemon Onesimus connection? 3) Are there other
strategic "word plays" in Philemon? 4) What is Paul saying to Philemon
in verse 20?
Onesimon (Onesimus or the feminine Onesime) was a very common name
generally, but not necessarily, associated with slaves. The name, which
means useful, could belong to a former slave who had gained freedman
status. Also, it was not uncommon for a child of a former slave to carry
the name, although never having been a slave him/herself. The name is
also used in fictional writings of the period to refer to a slave. This
type of usage anticipates an audience readily familiar with the name and
who by it cold quickly identify the character's role in the story. The
same holds true for the characterization of the name in plays of the
time and later. Although the original use of the name carries with it
negative connotations, it was later used by prominent church officials,
probably because of the positive place of the epistle in the Church.
Among them is a bishop of Ephesus who Ignatius refers to in a letter
written early in the 2nd century. Knox contends that the Onesimus
mentioned in Philemon and Colossians later became Bishop of Ephesus,
which explains why a seemingly obscure letter such as Philemon would be
preserved (Dunn 328; Freedman 22). But if Philemon and/or Colossians
were written in the late 50s and Ignatius' letter around 115 CE, the
time difference means Onesimus would have had to have lived a very long
life, which makes it a matter of speculation. It seems more likely,
given the popularity of the name and its association with Paul, that it
was selected by the Bishop of Ephesus and by later bishops. Later in the
2nd century a bishop of Beroea took the name as did two other bishops in
the 4th century. In addition, a coin from the early 3rd century bears
the inscription "grammaeus M. On
Onesimus appears once in Philemon (v. 10) and once in Colossians (4: 9).
To those who assume Colossians was written by Paul or in the same time
period, the Colossians reference suggests that Onesimus is
geographically from Colossae and has the status of a Christian brother.
Because Onesimus is referenced with such regard and given the task of
"telling," it is speculated that Onesimus has already been freed by
Philemon (Freedman 22). The assumption that Colossians refers to the
same Onesimus also accounts for Onesimus' identification as a Phrygian
(Freedman 22). Onesimus is mentioned by Ignatius in a letter to the
Ephesians. When Bishop Onesimus from Ephesus visited Ignatius in Smyrna,
Ignatius regarded him highly and described him as "unspeakable in love"
(Lightfoot 15-16). In his Letter to the Ephesians, Ignatius referred to
Onesimus by name and used the verb onaimhn in the same sentence, similar
to their use in Philemon 20.
The question of authorship of Colossians is problematic for any
definitive connection between the two citations of Onesimus. Those who
believe Paul did not write Colossians cite the different writing styles,
theology concerning believer participation in the resurrection of Christ
prior to his second coming (Rom. 6:4 and Col. 2:12), and the Colossian
concern with social relationships (Dunn 35; Ehrman 328; Meeks 125). The
author of Colossians might have referenced Onesimus to strengthen the
letter's Pauline credibility, though one wonders why Philemon was not
mentioned; other inconsistencies also exist (Dunn 37; Koenig 186-187;
Lohse 175-77). There are many theories, but there is not a consensus
among scholars (Dunn 35-41).
The use of another derivative of oninemi in v. 20 again seems to be a
play on Onesimus' name (as in v. 11). In fact, the entire verse is
filled with double or triple meaning. First, Paul refers to Timothy as
brother in v. 1, Philemon as brother in v. 7, Onesimus as brother in v.
16, and Philemon as brother again in v. 20. Second, Paul uses onaimhn,
an unusual word derived from the same word as Onesimus (oninemi). Paul
uses the middle optative form, which either indicates a contrary to fact
situation or the emphatic sense of the verb. This is the only use of the
verb and the only first person optative of any verb in the NT. It may be
translated "May I have the benefit." Third, the combination of onaimhn
en kuriw can be translated as an invocation. Thus, Paul seems to be
praying that God will have some benefit of Philemon. Whereas some might
have thought Paul uses Onesimus' name derivative to suggest Paul wants
Onesimus in his own service, Paul may be focusing on the change he
desires in Philemon, a change instigated by the Onesimus situation.
Fourth, the verb anapauson, which means refresh or rest, was used in v.
7 with respect to Paul commending Philemon for his providing refreshment
for saints who came to him. this could be translated as to make fit.
Paul is asking Philemon to refresh Paul's compassions or heart. Fifth,
heart/compassions (splagchna) has been used twice previously. In v. 7
Paul commends Philemon for refreshing the compassions or hearts of the
saints. In v. 12 Paul refers to Onesimus as Paul's compassion or heart.
Now Paul is asking Philemon to refresh Paul's heart/compassions. Once
again, interrelationships are emphasized: Philemon and the saints;
Philemon and Paul; Paul and Onesimus.
A comparison of translations of these terms is the most instructive
place to begin. Alsup translates them not-useful/well-useful.
Bauer/Arndt/Gingrich translates them useless or worthless/useful or
serviceable. Liddell/Scott translates as useless or unprofitable/ useful
or serviceable. It is important to note that BAG and Kittle offer
"useful" for chrestos. Thus, Alsup's not-useful/well-useful pairing takes
into account the prefixes a and eu.
Philemon 11 is the only occurrence of achreston in the entire NT.
Euchreston also appears in 2 Tim. 2:21 (in reference to honorable
household utensils after being cleaned) and 4:11 (in reference to Mark ,
who is described as well-useful for the ministry. The questions that
arise by the use of these terms in light of 1 Cor. 7:22-23 are a)Is
Paul is saying that Onesimus is a household utensil to Philemon that has
been sanctified or cleaned and was before not-useful and is now
well-useful? b) Is Paul saying that Onesimus was not-useful as a slave
but is well-useful as a brother in the ministry? c) Or is Paul saying
both? It is noteworthy that closely associated with 1 Cor. 7 is the
question of who can inherit. In Greco-Roman times, slaves and children
could not inherit; but now (nuni de!) as teknon and doulos they have
come of age and are legitimate heirs to the Kingdom of God.
Understanding of how achreston was used in the Hellenistic world comes
from Epictetus. "Epaphroditus owned a certain cobler whom he sold
because he was useless; then by some chance the fellow was bought by a
member of Caesar's household and became cobbler to Caesar. You should
have seen how Epaphroditus honored him" (Epictetus I, Oldfather, p.
132-3). Thus, it seems the worth of the slave was seen to be directly
related to the worth of the master (in addition to the salve's
usefulness to his or her master)! Thus, although the servant status of
Onesimus might or might not remain constant, his value as a bound-one to
Christ Jesus is radically different from his status as one bound to
Philemon. It seems the play on words in Phlm. 11 not only tells but also
shows the situation of Onesimus.
Ultimately, three questions are raised by this examination: 1) Was
Onesimus useless because he could not do the work of Philemon or because
he could not do the work of the Lord? 2) Does Paul write this letter
because he desires Philemon to be made like Onesimus? Is a free man
being called to release a servant or is a free man being called to
become a servant? 3) Could the eu-prefix in euchreston be a Pauline
ploy to evoke an eschatological understanding via its association with
euangellion? Could this apparent word-innovation be Paul's not so subtle
way of reminding Philemon that now in the eschaton a bound-one to
Christ (such as is Onesimus) is WELL/GOOD-useful for the gospel
Six questions drove research on to anekon/kathekon: 1) What is the
fitting/proper thing/duty that Paul is bold enough in Christ to command
of Philemon, but does not for the sake of love? 2) Is the fact that
Paul uses to anekon, a PA Part. neuter singular, of significance? 3)
What is the difference between what is fitting/proper and what is one's
duty? Are these differences pertinent to understanding to anhkon in
Philemon 8? How is to ankon more correctly translated? 4) Is there a
difference between the Greco-Roman word for duty, kathekon, and the New
Testament to anekon? Did Paul intentionally avoid the use of kathekon?
Is Paul's use of to anekon meant to be christological and/or
eschatological? 5) Is Paul's use of to anekon related to the
"common-cause bond "understanding of koinonia? 6) Is Paul's use of to
anekon as well as koinonia related to Paul's trying to communicate
what it means to be an apostle or simply anyone who is caught up in the
common-cause bond? How much is this language being shaped
At first glance, New Testament references to to anevkon (from the verb
aneko), found in Eph. 5:4, Col. 3:18 and Phlm. 8 , seem to have a
meaning of what is proper, fitting. Excursus into definitions associated
with what is proper and fitting raised the question of whether Philemon,
as a bound-one to the common cause bond in Christ, could be duty-bound
to return Onesimus in order for the ekklesia that meets in his oikos to
live into its eschatological reality.
The concept of duty is expressed in Greco-Roman society by means of the
terms kathekw (PAI 1s), kathekei (PAI 3s), and kathekon (PA Ptcp). The
participial form, to kathekon, was used by Stoic writers since Zeno and
seems to turn what is proper/fitting into a field of study. Because
Stoic writers are so essential to our understanding of the general
meaning of duty in the Greco-Roman world, Epictetus was examined. His
use of the term indicates that duty in the Stoic sense had to do with
carrying out one's relations in whatever roles one found oneself such as
son, brother, father and/or citizen. One's duty should always be
approached with a view toward the whole of society. It is noteworthy
that his language to describe the connectional/relational nature of the
person to the whole is strikingly similar to Paul's Body of Christ
language in 1 Cor. 12:12-31. New Testament use of to kathekon is seen in
Ro. 1:28 and Acts 22:22; Clement also used the term in 1 Cl. 3:4; 41:3.
The concept of duty or obligation in Judaism is primarily associated
with the term hovah. It is used interchangeably with mitzvah, meaning
simultaneously law, commandment, duty and merit. Mitzvah is law and
duty; it is the law originating in God and the sense of duty in man. In
Jewish thought, man is to take upon himself, of his own free will, the
"yoke of commandments." This raises the question of whether this be
the image of a bound-one that Paul is evoking in the Philemon text?
Also, duty in Judaism is the incentive to moral action, and a
morality-based duty is evidently different from one that is based on
pleasure. According to a Talmudic dictum "Greater is he who performs an
action because he is commanded than he who performs the same action
without being commanded." This raises the question of whether this could
be the mindset of Paul. Finally, in Judaism, the morality of an action
is determined more by the motivation of the one who performs it than by
its consequences. Again, such a mindset may be operational behind the
douloß language in Philemon.
The Stoic duty codes do not address the issue of slavery directly.
Slaves are not considered as persons with responsibility. For example,
Epictetus 1.13.4. lays out the proper relationship between master and
slave. He does not advocate the freeing of the slave, but instead urge
the master to be patient with the slave, even when does not do as told.
He advises the slave to keep his gaze on the laws of the gods, rather
than the wretched earthy laws.
The only one truly enslaved is one who forgoes freedom, i.e., who does
not live as a wise person. Thus, anyone who lives as a wise person, is
not a slave, regardless of his legal status.
Ultimately, it seems that to anekon means duty according to a
christological interpolation of Stoic (and perhaps Jewish) understanding
of duty. This seems particularly likely in view of the image of being
BOUND that Paul seems to intentionally evoke by his use of to anekon in
such a close relationship to koinonos-- one(s) in a "common-cause bond.
If this is the case, Paul probably means for to anhkon to be understood
as meaning "what one is bound to do as is required (or is the natural
thankful response) by one who has been incorporated into the saving,
life-giving Body of Christ--a fellowship of brethren who share a
common-bond in the death and resurrection of the One who bring oneness
to the koinonia!
This is interesting to consider in light of Galatians 3:28. Paul seems
to view the Stoic ideal through christological glasses. Consequently, in
reference to masters and slaves, he might be saying, "YES! Anyone who is
living into the reality of our freedom in Christ is no longer a slave,
not really. For all social and cultural barriers and constraints no
longer have the power to break us apart. We are all brothers and sisters
in Christ. So there is no more master (kurios) and slave (doulos) in the
oikos. We are all one with one Lord and it is our duty in Christ to Act
Thus, there are social/cultural consequences for the christological
understanding, but Paul is careful to first have the Christian community
put on the christological lens prior to reasoning with them about how it
is they are to behave. He urges Philemon and the congregation who meet
in his house to do this by connecting duty (what one is bound to do, in
this case as a Christian) to the koinonos-- one(s) in a "common-cause
In his letter to the Romans, Paul establishes an intimate relationship
between gratitude and duty. "Paul's acknowledgment of indebtedness is
immediately translated into a sense of gratitude. The debt or obligation
he feels does not represent a burden which inhibits him; rather,
recognition of debt is synonymous with giving thanks." (Bosch, p. 138)
Thus, in Christ, all (slave and master) are free, but also slaves to
God. This same theme is echoed in Phillipians 2: 3-13 and in Christ's
washing of the disciple's feet. It is in these passages we get a
stunning image of what it means to be a doulos. Similarly, Goppelt's
commentary on I Peter helps us to see that the key to understanding
Paul's use of to anhkon is to understand the directive in the context of
a kerygmatic development, which is very much eschatological. As Goppelt
told John Alsup, "Eschatological existence in history is when we live
out our existence in the vitality of the resurrection." Ultimately,
this is what it is to be a slave in Christ, because it is out of the
resurrection that God's new creation comes into being.
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