Pliny vs. Paul

Pompei House

N.T. Wright launches Paul and the Faithfulness of God in surprising fashion: by examining the NT story of Philemon in its context.

He thinks that Philemon reveals that “something very different, different from the way the rest of the world behaved” was taking place through the early Christians. Wright suggests that this account is not just an example of extraordinary kindness, but rather represents something truly new in the world, something related to the message of Christos that is woven throughout the epistle.

Wright compares Philemon with a letter from a Roman senator named Pliny the Younger. Pliny wrote to a friend named Sabinianus about a freed slave who had angered him and had come to Pliny for help, fearing his former master’s wrath. Pliny, persuaded that the freedman was penitent, gave the refugee a stern lecture and then wrote to Sabinianus on his behalf.

The way Pliny reasoned with his friend reveals the social rules of the day. Pliny is in a power position, Sabinianus in the middle, and the freed slave at the bottom of the social pile. The freed slave needs and seeks out a friend in high places. The senator uses his position and attempts to convince his friend to take the penitent one back. Using a bit of ancient psychology, Pliny assures Sabinianus that he was right to be angry, but reminds him that anger might be counterproductive for his gentle personality. He lets him know that he has scolded and warned the offender and won’t give him another chance if he fails Sabinianus again.

The letter worked, and Sabinianus took the man back. As Wright notes, the freed slave was lucky that he could return and not face serious reprisals. In the end, the social order was restored, and the offender had received a strong enough lesson and warning that he dare not step out of line again. Sabinianus restored him on the basis of his repentance and the promise of better behavior, as well as a measure of self-interest in showing himself properly submissive to a superior.

How does this compare with Paul’s letter to Philemon about a situation regarding one Onesimus?

First of all, Wright notes a striking dissimilarity right at the start: Paul, the author, rather than holding a high position in society like Pliny, is in prison! Yet there is an air of strange authority in his words, as though being a prisoner were a noble calling.

PFGBut the main impression, once we study the two letters side by side, is that they breathe a different air. They are a world apart. Indeed — and this is part of the point of beginning the present book at this somewhat unlikely spot — this letter, the shortest of all Paul’s writings that we possess, gives us a clear sharp little window onto a phenomenon that demands a historical explanation, which in turn, as we shall see, demands a theological explanation. It is stretching the point only a little to suggest that, if we had no other first-century evidence for the movement that came to be called Christianity, this letter ought to make us think: Something is going on here. Something is different. People don’t say this sort of thing. This isn’t how the world works. A new way of life is being attempted — by no means entirely discontinuous with what was there already, but looking at things in a new way, trying out a new path.

– p. 6

House_of_Julia_Felix_still_life_wine_and_fruitN.T. Wright suggests that the story behind this letter is likely that which the majority of commentators have surmised: that Onesimus was a slave of Philemon who had run away. Wright thinks Paul was in prison in Ephesus at this time, which makes the slave’s journey from nearby Colossae to see him entirely plausible. There had been some sort of trouble between Onesimus and his master and he came to Paul to appeal for help in the situation.

Paul’s answer takes a much different tack than Pliny the Younger’s did in similar circumstances. Pliny’s counsel was, “The offender has said he’s sorry and you should take him back and give him another chance.” The senator’s intervention in this dispute did nothing to challenge the social conventions, rules, and roles of the day. It simply restored things to the status quo and kept all accepted identities and distinctions in place.

Wright discusses various parts of the letter and shows how Paul likely had certain Exodus themes in his mind as he appealed to Philemon, and how he uses different evocative terms of Christian fellowship to describe his relationships with both Philemon and Onesimus. But the nature of Paul’s appeal is most specifically highlighted in two important passages from the epistle that Wright analyzes.

  • Paul’s prayer in v. 6 — Wright renders it: “that the partnership which goes with your faith may have its powerful effect, in realizing every good thing that is [at work] in us [to lead us] into the Messiah.” In particular, he wants us to see the final phrase: “into the Messiah.” Paul is praying that the dynamic gift of fellowship (koinonia) which accompanies Philemon’s faith will have the powerful effect of “bringing about Christos, Messiah-family, in Colossae.” As in Ephesians 4, where Paul envisions the church “growing up into Messiah,” so here he longs for the church in Colossae to know the full unity of life together in Christ.
  • Paul’s request in v. 17“So, if you count me as your partner, receive him as you would me.” Philemon is not just to welcome Onesimus back as a penitent slave. He is to welcome him on the same level as if it were Paul himself! Furthermore, Paul offers to pay any damages the slave may have incurred: “If he has wronged you or owes you anything, put it down on my account.” Far from acting as a superior ordering an inferior to do something, Paul is willing to become personally, actively, even sacrificially involved to promote reconciliation.

N.T. Wright summarizes:

Here, too, is the most outstanding contrast between Pliny’s worldview and Paul’s. Paul is not only urging and requesting but actually embodying what he elsewhere calls “the ministry of reconciliation.” God was in the Messiah, reconciling the world to himself, he says in 2 Corinthians 5:19; now, we dare to say, God was in Paul reconciling Onesimus and Philemon.

…The major difference between Pliny and Paul is that the heart of Paul’s argument is both a gently implicit Jewish story, the story of the exodus which we know from elsewhere to have been central in his thinking, and, still more importantly, the story of the Messiah who came to reconcile humans and God, Jews and gentiles and now slaves and masters. Paul’s worldview, and his theology, have been rethought around this centre. Hence the world of difference.

Pliny was concerned about resolving a problem in a way that maintained social order. Said social order was based on social distinctions and rules of propriety, as well as the rewards and punishments that kept it intact. Second chances were allowed up to a point; kindness and mercy had room to operate within limits. In the end, Pliny remained on top, Sabinianus was beholden to him, and the freedman was on the bottom of the pile.

Paul was concerned about two entirely different matters: reconciliation and unity in the Messiah. Paul was in prison because he advanced this agenda. From there he continued to promote these concerns to people like Philemon, by not only writing about them but also by offering to be the very bridge by which two parties at odds could become one again.

For Paul it was all about Jesus the Messiah, and this is what Jesus was all about.

31 thoughts on “Pliny vs. Paul

  1. “Oikos” is just fun to say. Just saying. But thanks. I’ve worked from the assumption that he sounded differently to the people of that time and place than he does to us today, particularly in some translations.


  2. JPL wrote;

    “But I often see Paul engaging in tactics in his epistles which sure feel like bullying, bragging, and threatening.”

    From our cultural perspective Paul seems to come across as you describe. However, in his context Paul would come across as a beneficent steward of the oikos exercising the oikonomia delegated to him by the “head of the house.”


  3. I’m afraid that given examples like Warren Jeffs, the reality is that many sufficiently charismatic religious figures can exert exactly that kind of influence from prison. Once people decide that you have the keys to heaven and hell, you don’t need the kind of power that gang leaders can bring forward to control people.

    Obviously, it’s all academic. Beyond what we’ve got in Scripture, we can’t know any behind the figures in this particular tale. But I often see Paul engaging in tactics in his epistles which sure feel like bullying, bragging, and threatening.


  4. I think we are saying almost the same thing. Paul understood that the implications of the Gospel meant that slavery was morally wrong. His writings such as Philemon, there is no slave or free, there is no partiality with God, etc. pretty clearly lay out his feelings on the matter. The fact that he delivers his point in an implicit manner and not an explicit one doesn’t mean he thought slavery was OK.

    As far as Christian slave owners of the past using the Bible as an excuse to keep people in slavery, well that just shows how imperfect the Church is, and how much in need of grace we all are.


  5. There is no doubt he is clever and I think some of his statements may be taken with a wink of good humor, but I don’t think I would be that cynical, JPL. Whatever “authority and power” Paul had was somewhat mitigated by the fact that he was writing from a jail cell. It’s not like he any real world position requiring obedience or could enforce any of his own will by force or threat.


  6. I’m afraid I’m too cynical to buy into this. Philemon always seemed to me like Paul just subtly leveraging his authority and power on behalf of Philemon. The whole “treat him as you would me” thing just seemed like the colloquial way to say treat him well, and the whole “I’ll pay whatever he owes” also just seems perfunctory. As in, “obviously, you’re not going to hit me up with any fee, given my position, but I’ll say it to appear generous.”

    Sometimes i think we read Biblical authors too literally, in that we take their turns of expression as literal statements. Or maybe I’m just too cynical. Or maybe I don’t like Paul.

    Sorry to be the downer. I hope Wright’s right, and I’m wrong.


  7. I may have to disagree with you, TDP. Whereas Peter and Paul may well have believed that slavery was morally reprehensible, they had no “Biblical” (which for them at that time meant Old Testament law) basis on which to forbid it. As evidence of this neither they nor any other NT writer ever mandated a slave owner to free their slaves, only to treat them in a “Christ-like” manner. An example of such admonition to slave owners is found in Ephesians 6.9, “Masters, do the same to them, and stop your threatening, knowing that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with him.” Paul’s Letter to Philemon is about as good as it gets with regards an argument against slavery. And as has been stated already, it was used by both folks on both sides of the fence.

    I reiterate, therefore, that we need to look to Creation and to seek God’s heart as our best argument against slavery (and marriage, and defense for the unborn, etc.). I wish there were a verse somewhere in Scripture which said “Thou shalt free thy slaves.” Unfortunately, it simply isn’t there. I would also argue that Paul’s admonition to Philemon to accept Onesimus as a brother and no longer as his slave speaks volumes with regards Paul’s idealist views that slavery is not in God’s heart.

    Jonathan Edwards, considered by many, both Christians and otherwise, to have been the greatest mind produced this side of the Atlantic, owned slaves (four, I believe). He was confronted about this on at least one occasion and defended the institution of slavery as long as the master treated his slaves respectfully and kindly. Likewise, Charles Hodge, Presbyterian theologian and Principal of Princeton Theological Seminary between 1851 and 1878, was opposed to the secession of the South from the Union but was not opposed to the institution of slavery on grounds that Scripture did not prohibit the practice. Both these men were great theologians and I would not question their love for Christ and His Church, just their “higher hermeneutics” in this respect.

    Regardless, I vehemently disagree with their views on slavery. What I see as their error in this respect is that perhaps their strong cessationist views (i.e., the Spirit speaks to us exclusively through Scripture) held them back from considering ideals in God’s Word which although not explicitly stated in Scripture are true all the same.

    I hope I’m making sense.


  8. “…the story of the Messiah who came to reconcile humans and God, Jews and gentiles and now slaves and masters. Paul’s worldview, and his theology, have been rethought around this centre. Hence the world of difference.”



  9. Calvin- I don’t believe that Paul (or Peter for that matter) thought “that slave owners have a right to own slaves.” I think they both understood that the implications of Christ’s work meant an eventual end to slavery. However, in keeping with the gospel, the means to that end would not be accomplished in a John Brownesque revolt but rather in changed hearts as even Christian slaves won their masters over to the Gospel through loving service. It is a crazy thought that powerless people can win freedom by submitting and loving. I personally don’t think that if I were a slave I would have the moral strength for that sort of thing. But it does go right along with a God who makes Himself helpless and dies in order to usher in His Kingdom. This post fits very well with the previous one on Bonheoffer.


  10. Please note that this all from the book “Philemon’s Problem” and not my own thoughts. I read this book in freshman theology 35 years ago, and again a few years ago!!


  11. Great point, Pattie! Paul realized the radical implications of the Gospel. But he also understood the strange way authority works in the Church and so instead of demanding something of Philemon (like so many church leaders today) he laid out the truth and relied on the Holy Spirit to do the “enforcing.”


  12. Richard – +1. The UK and some of the colonies were very, very different to the US South.

    I sometimes wonder what might have happened with slavery here if we hadn’t broken away. Of course, one painfully ironic thing is that British merchants were deeply involved in trade with the Confederate states.


  13. I am not familiar with all of the arguments made in Parliament for the abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire in 1833. I am, however, somewhat familiar with pro-slavery arguments in the US South.

    A few years back I read arguments made in some of the Southern legislatures in 1861 when they were debating secession. I remember the argument in Virginia focusing on states rights, freedom from tyranny, and such. I also distinctly remember a legislator in Mississippi saying something to the effect that “we need them folks to pick our cotton!” Something like that.

    Having lived in Louisiana from 1963 to 1980 (high school through graduate school) I remember arguments made by some churches in support the institution of slavery in the past and in support of segregation during the time I lived there. The rationale for such things focused primarily on Genesis 9 along with OT laws permitting and regulating slavery.

    The story from Genesis 9.18-29 is that after Noah, et al. got off the ark Noah planted a vineyard, made wine, got drunk, and laid naked in his tent (not all in one day, presumably). Ham saw his father naked and went and told Shem and Japheth, his brothers (I gather that he also added a joke or two, but Scripture is silent on that). Shem and Japheth respectfully and honorably take a sheet, walk backwards so as not to shame Noah by seeing him naked, and cover him up. Somehow Noah found out what his three sons had done and blessed Shem and Japheth but cursed Canaan, Ham’s son. Included in Shem and Japheth’s blessing was that Canaan would be their servant (vv. 25-27). No expiration date provided.

    So here’s where these Southern “Biblical scholars” connected the dots (dots which were either non-existent or not numbered, whichever). Canaan became the ancestor of black Africans (no anthropological sources referenced); Shem and Japheth became the ancestors of the white folks (again, no references provided); therefore, black Africans are, by the will of God, to be subservient to the white folks. QED.



  14. This is only sort of true. Slavery in England goes back to before it was England, but it died out as an economic system in the late Middle Ages. After it revived in the colonies there was a trickle of slaves brought into Britain. In the 18th century, as abolitionist sentiment arose, there was a series of court challenges brought on behalf of these slaves. Finally in 1772 they won in the Somersett decision. What exactly this precedent meant is still argued by legal historians, but as a matter of social history it clearly was a tipping point. The Wikipedia article “Somersett’s Case” seems to be pretty good, to the limits of my knowledge on the subject.

    The deeper point is that slavery was incidental to the economy within Britain (as contrasted with the slave trade or slavery in some British colonies). This was the antecedent–likely necessary–to the Somersett decision. This in turn set the stage for public opinion leading to abolition throughout the Empire.

    Compare this with the situation in America. There were slaves in the northern colonies all along. Benjamin Franklin, for example owned a handful of domestic slaves, though he moved later in life to an abolitionist stance. But like in Britain, they were incidental to the overall northern economy, which favored freehold family farms. This was the antecedent to slavery being outlawed voluntarily by the various northern legislatures.

    The economy of the southern colonies was based on large plantations growing cash crops (most famously tobacco, but also rice and indigo in some regions). This system was in decline by the end of the 18th century. This is why Washington and Jefferson (who were queasy about slavery, but not so queasy as to abandon their personal fortunes) could plausibly foresee slavery fading in the South as it had in the North (thus giving them a way to have their cake and eat it). In the late 18th century South it was a perfectly acceptable–even mainstream–position to decry slavery and look forward to its gradual demise, so long as this demise didn’t overturn the social order.

    The rise of cotton as a cash crop changed this, following the invention of the cotton gin. This turned cotton from a marginal crop into the driving force of the southern economy, with a revived system of plantation slavery. This occurred simultaneously with the rise of northern abolitionism, which in turn hardened southern attitudes. That mainstream late 18th century decrial of slavery was completely unacceptable–literally “fighting words”–in the mid-19th century South.

    None of this exonerates the South of the Confederacy. It is unreasonable to criticize a historical figure for not holding 21st century opinions. But it is reasonable to observe that at any given time in history there is a range of opinion, and some turn out to be right and some wrong. The South of the Confederacy was not merely backwards: it had actively regressed from the South of their grandfathers.


  15. Hadn’t thought about that; makes sense.

    And then there were John Newton, William Wilberforce, et al…

    BTW, an interesting historical point… In Cuba slavery was not abolished until 1888. There was a movement to abolish slavery in Cuba prior to the US Civil War as was the case in other Latin American countries. However, the movement stopped as a result of pressure from the US, and Southern states in particular, in fear that the abolition of slavery in Cuba would spread to Florida and thought the US South. By the end of the Civil War and the passage of the 13th – 15th amendments the abolitionist momentum in Cuba lost steam. Another casualty of US interference in foreign affairs.


  16. I agree with you completely. Defining boundaries is an endless and futile task best suited for civil matters than matters in the church.

    But my point is that we need to be diligent to discover God’s ideal for His kingdom (“on earth as it is in heaven”), which is to say, to discern what’s in His heart. And for this I like to begin–not end, mind you–with the Garden, that is, the ideal state before the Fall. For instance, on the question of Moses’ command with regards divorce and remarriage Jesus said that, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’” He then continues to say why divorce is a bad thing.

    I would argue that this ideal way of thinking can be applied to other matters to include same-sex marriage, polygamy, or any other arrangement other than singular “male and female.” Yes, Moses allowed for polygamy, with some regulations, but is that God’s ideal for His kingdom?

    The more we love God. the more we’ll know what’s in His heart, the more we will want to please Him, the less regulations, boundaries, and explanations we will need. As Augustine put it, “Love God and do as you please.”


  17. Probably a good reason the English were able to bring about a peaceful end to slavery was that the nation of England and Wales didn’t allow chattel slavery within its borders. It was only allowed in the colonies.


  18. > that “a more excellent way” is to not hold men & women
    > in forced servitude.

    Beyond slavery is not this a better way to approach moral issues? Or a more mature way.

    In youth and in my first church there was a constant low level debate of defining boundaries – how far is to far, at what point does something become “sin”, even down to splitting hairs about if a word was profane or not. Lots of referencing Romans about weaker brothers as well as not allowing what you believe to be good to be spoken of as evil, and and meat sacrificed to idols [which then and now still makes me groan – suburbanites talking about idol worship]. This is a topic that can never conclude.

    But if I choose to drive the train in the other direction. – Is this the best choice? Does this action edify or dignify my neighbor? Does it encourage? Does this choice make my neighborhood, parish, or city a more comfortable place? Does this choice include or exclude? If I ask that way then so many ‘gray areas’ evaporate, many choices are much clearer.

    A positive ethical statement it more useful than a negative one. It also shines a brighter light on my fallen nature.


  19. As I understand it, during the debates in England and the United States on the issue of slavery both sides often referred to the Epistle to Philemon as justification for the continuance or abolition of slavery. The British managed to bring a peaceful end to slavery while in the US the issue resulted in a Civil War with total casualties (dead & wounded) over 600K.

    From the perspective of philosophical traditions Paul is regarded as an idealist, much like Plato. My impression is that he was saying to Philemon something similar to what Pliny said to Sabinianus , namely that slavery, as an institution, is legal and that slave owners have a right to own slaves and that slaves have an obligation to submit to their masters (he also stated this in Ephesians 6.5-9 as did Peter in 1 Peter 2.18).

    But the “ideal” he conveyed to Philemon is that he should receive Onesimus “no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother…both in the flesh and in the Lord.” (v. 16) I see this as emphatically stating that “a more excellent way” is to not hold men & women in forced servitude.


  20. > So, Paul is telling him to take a hit in the pocketbook, one that is sure to spread,
    > ignore social conventions and “property” laws, and reward this man for running
    > away by granting him freedom without consequences. Wow….that is turning the
    > world upside-down.

    This explains why pastors urgently work to moderate this message; we must be “reasonable”. This is not going to be popular, especially amoung those with something to lose.


  21. Philemon has another problem or two to deal with….he just lost a valuable “asset” vital to his wealth and the running of his home….AND….if all the other slaves see this, they will figure out fast that “all” they need to do to become free men is get baptized and become their Master’s new Brothers!!

    So, Paul is telling him to take a hit in the pocketbook, one that is sure to spread, ignore social conventions and “property” laws, and reward this man for running away by granting him freedom without consequences. Wow….that is turning the world upside-down.

    Seems that when Jesus and His ideas of forgiveness and grace show up in our lives, it can be a very sharp two sided sword…..and then nothing in us or in our world is EVER the same again…..


  22. Thanks, Mike, for sharing this. I have wondered if Wright’s latest work could contain anything that he hasn’t already published before, but this seems genuinely new. It makes me want to get the book(s).


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