Reviews of

Peter M. Head, “Onesimus and the Letter of Philemon: New Light on the Role of the Letter Carrier”

In Cambridge, Epistolography, Letter-carriers, New Testament, Oxyrhynchus, Papyrology, Paul, Peter M. HEAD, Peter Malik, SEMINAR REPORTS on May 31, 2012 at 4:15 pm

This is a report on a paper presented by Dr. Peter M. Head, Sir Kirby Laing Senior Lecturer in New Testament at the Faculty of Divinity and Tyndale House, at the New Testament  Seminar, Cambridge, 15 May 2012.

Report by Peter Malik, University of Cambridge. The programme of the New Testament Seminar at Cambridge can be found here.

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The final seminar of this academical year hosted a paper by Dr. Peter M. Head, Sir Kirby Laing Senior Lecturer in New Testament at the Faculty of Divinity and Tyndale House. Besides his 1997 monograph on the Synoptic Problem, Dr. Head is mostly known for his wide array of publications in the field of NT textual criticism, with a special focus on Greek NT manuscripts. Recently, however, he also published on ancient epistolary communication, particularly on named letter-carriers in Oxyrhynchus papyri and in ancient Jewish epistolary material (both can be accessed through Dr. Head’s website here). These are actually precursors of his forthcoming monograph on the role of letter-carriers in the interpretation of Paul’s letters. In this paper, Peter Head focused on the role of Onesimus as the letter-carrier of the letter to Philemon, and potential interpretive outcomes thereby gleaned.

At the outset of the paper, Dr. Head ‘set the scene’ for the present study. The recent years have witnessed something of a revival of interest in Philemon. This letter didn’t always enjoy a great scholarly attention, particularly because of its brevity and apparent lack of theologically interesting data. With the rise of interest in social history and application of social sciences in biblical studies, the letter to Philemon – with its wealth of sociologically interesting overtones – attracted attention of scholars more than probably ever before. The main source of interpretative problems is, of course, Paul’s ambiguous and extremely brief message to Philemon. What specifically did Paul want to achieve? Did he want Philemon to set Onesimus free? If so, why wasn’t he more explicit? As it seems, Head argued, the role of the letter-carrier could perhaps sheds some light on this conundrum.

Before we proceeded any further, however, Dr. Head reminded us that in recent years several scholars have questioned the traditional view of the identity of the letter carrier (i.e. Onesimus), and postulated various alternative options. One of the alternative suggestions was Tychicus, who would have supposedly carried both the letter to Philemon and the letter to Colossians and Laodiceans. The main problem with this hypothesis, however, is that Tychicus is never named in the actual letter, and thus his status as the letter-carrier could only be inferred by way of conjecture. The second suggestion propounded in recent years (especially by P. L. Tite) is that the letter-carrier was Timothy, who is named in the opening of the letter, and is called ‘the brother’. In Head’s view, however, this simple ‘recommendation’ doesn’t in itself constitute sufficient evidence to identify him as the letter-carrier in this instance. The third counterposition that Head introduced was that the language of ἀναπέμπω (Phlm 12) doesn’t connote sending out as in a letter carrier, but some kind of ‘legal remission’, parallels for which can be found even in NT. If Paul wanted to denote that Onesimus was to be sent out as the letter-carrier, why didn’t he use the same, less legally flavoured language (πέμπω) as in, say, Phil 2.19? Dr. Head, however, insisted that this type of lexical study (propounded by Sara C. Winter) is very selective and the actual inherent semantic differences between the two lexemes in Phlm 12 and Phil 2.19 are of ‘little significance.’ All in all, Head thinks that the traditional identification of the letter carrier as Onesimus is still our best option. In the light of explicit reference to Onesimus as being sent by Paul in the context of Paul’s personal message that was to be delivered to Philemon we’ve got no better option. (Those who attended will recall professor Hooker’s remark during the Q & A time: ‘Of course it was Onesimus; it couldn’t have been anyone else!’)

In order to interpret the role of the letter-carrier in Philemon, Peter Head first of all presented relevant parallels found in three corpora of ancient epistolary material, namely the Oxyrhynchus papyri, the ancient Jewish epistolary material, and the letters of Cicero. The reason why these three were chosen is they all are in a sense ‘bounded’ groups of literature, and are diverse enough to extrapolate general characteristics applicable to the ancient epistolography. Head demonstrated that one can glean several common characteristics of the named letter-carriers in antiquity: (1) the letter-carriers were present at the composition of the letter; (2) they, obviously, delivered the letter; (3) and, finally, they were present at its reading. Many letters at Oxyrhynchus indicate that the named letter-carrier mediated to the recipient the fuller information that was only partly present in the letter, especially so in the letters of recommendation. Similarly, in Jewish epistolography, one often finds that the named letter-carrier was to reinforce and supplement the overall argument of the letter. The letter-carriers in Ciceronian texts display a wider array of functions, depending on Cicero’s purpose in a given letter, but the above mentioned characteristics are strongly present in his letters as well.

How does all of this come together in Philemon? Our presenter argued that it’s precisely the role of the letter-carrier, which plays a decisive role in the interpretation of this ambiguous, highly problematic little letter. Having established that Philemon is best categorised as ‘the letter of recommendation’, Head also alluded to John Barclay’s hypothesis that Paul’s ambiguity was probably occasioned by the difficulty Paul was facing in this precarious situation; indeed, Paul could do, by way of letter, little more, and thus the practical implications weren’t spelled out clearly in writing. This is precisely the point where Head’s research into the ancient letter-carrier makes a decisive move: Paul’s confidence in his letter-carrier implies that, in the light of the ancient parallels, Onesimus was entrusted to deliver and interpret the message addressed to Philemon. What would then Paul have Onesimus say to Philemon? In short, Dr. Head intimated that Paul would request Philemon that Onesimus be released, forgiven, and sent back to Paul. Firstly, Dr. Head pointed out that in 1 Cor 7, Paul intimates that the slaves who can become freedmen, should ‘avail themselves of the opportunity.’ This reflects the generally shared sentiment in antiquity–the slaves, above all, desired freedom. Therefore, there’s no reason to think that Onesimus would have felt otherwise. Thus, Onesimus’ role as the letter-carrier of Paul’s epistle to Philemon is of principal importance for resolving some of its, otherwise obscured, ambiguities.

The paper was followed by a rather lively discussion, which highlighted both the novelty of Head’s approach and some of the issues that still need clarification or further refinement. One of the reoccurring dilemmas in the Q & A was why Paul never stated such a crucial request as setting Onesimus free more explicitly in the letter itself. Another interesting issue that came up was that of adequate parallels, as Paul’s letters do not explicitly designate their named letter-carriers, even though they can generally be inferred (as, say, in the case of Philemon).

It goes without saying that Peter Head whetted our appetite for his upcoming monograph, which will not only present exegetical implications of the role of the letter-carriers, but also a developed method for dealing with the background epistolary material.

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  1. A good report Peter – Thank you! Looking forward to Peter Head’s new monograph … hope it will be in time for the next RAE… 🙂

  2. It is hard to conceive that Paul would have sent a new convert who was a fugitive under sentence of death on a 1500 mile trip by himself. So, although Philemon may technically have been the letter carrier, I think it is entirely relevant that Tychicus was with him the whole trip, of whom Paul writes, “Tychicus will tell you all the news about me. He is a dear brother, a faithful minister and fellow servant in the Lord. 8 I am sending him to you for the express purpose that you may know about our circumstances and that he may encourage your hearts. 9 He is coming with Onesimus, our faithful and dear brother, who is one of you. They will tell you everything that is happening here.” Note that Archippus who was referenced at the beginning of Philemon is also mentioned in Col 4:17.

    All in all, Onesimus no doubt had something to say to Philemon in terms of an appeal for forgiveness, but really, Tychicus was no doubt the one who would be doing most of the talking.

  3. Jim, I’m not sure that follows. First of all, you need to have a preconceived notion of Cololossians being sent at the same time as Philemon to argue for Tychicus, as he’s never mentioned in the letter itself. Though I’m not saying it’s impossible, the data of the letter doesn’t necessitate that. Second of all, I don’t really get why sending Onesimus on a 1500 mile would be irresponsible at all. Onesimus must have known where to go and how to take care of himself, when he fled Philemon all the way to where he met Paul. Furthermore, Paul’s letter of recommendation could serve as a protection of sorts. You raise a good point, I’m not sure I agree though. It’d be great if our presenter could raise his voice 🙂

  4. The fact that Colossians explicitly states that Tychicus is traveling together with Onesimus is what makes PMH’s discussion so strange. Of course Colossians and Philemon were written at the same time; indeed, I would suggest that it was Onesimus’ predicament that prompted the letter to Colossians: considering the interesting instructions about slaves and masters–one wonders if the peculiar sensitivity to both sides of the issues might reflect Onesimus’ own predicament.

    4:7-8
    “7 Tychicus will tell you all the news about me. He is a dear brother, a faithful minister and fellow servant in the Lord. 8 I am sending him to you for the express purpose that you may know about our circumstances and that he may encourage your hearts. 9 He is coming with Onesimus, our faithful and dear brother, who is one of you. They will tell you everything that is happening here.”

    And don’t forget that Archippus is cited a couple verses later. Obviously, Paul didn’t send Onesimus on courier service twice from Rome to Colosse!

    Again, Onesimus is a new convert by any definition. The notion of sending him back to the one who would most be responsible for executing him would be a daunting task for even the strongest of believers. But to send Onesimus back to face his executioner by himself would entail 1500 miles of temptation to head off somewhere else. This hardly seems like a wise thing for a seasoned apostle to do.

    I’m perplexed at PMH’s presentation.

  5. oh, I see what you’re saying. Does the fact that Tychicus was going with Onesimus necessarily mean that he must also fulfil the role that letter-carriers otherwise take in the interpretation of the message? Isn’t it more natural to suppose that Onesimus would expand to his former master what Paul was communicating?

  6. I can imagine Paul making Onesimus the official letter carrier to impress Philemon with Paul’s level of trust in Onesimus. But how much credibility would Onesimus have in explaining Paul when Onesimus had a profound conflict of interest. “Hey Philemon, what this means is that Paul wants you to cancel my death warrant and to restore me and give me a raise.” And this is where Tychcicus could give a more credible interpretation than Onesimus.

    • no, I think the credibility comes from Paul’s authority bestowed through the letter. Philemon respected Paul – at least that’s what Paul seems to count on.

  7. Tychicus went with Onesimus and Tychicus would have prepared himself to mediate between Philemon and Onesimus on Paul’s behalf. That much should be taken as fact and James M. Leonard is absolutely correct in at least this much, that the reference to Onesimus in Colossians should (if not must) be admitted as evidence for consideration by scholars of [the letter to] Philemon.

    What none of us can ascertain, however, and what would be nothing more than conjecture, is to imagine *if* Tychicus actually went in to Philemon once the travelers arrived, or whether Onesimus found courage and grace enough (or whether Philemon had become open enough) for the one one one meeting, which would perhaps be ideal.

    My own guess is that Tychicus went in to sit with the two-who-had-recently-been-at-odds, and perhaps Tychicus even opened the discussion, but by no means should that lead us to expect that Tychicus necessarily “did most of the talking”.

    Furthermore, the same basic point can be made for Pauline letter carriers in general.

    It’s not what they necessarily did, after arriving in town. It’s how much possible mediation they likely had to prepare for, before making the journey.

  8. Note that the letter was not a private letter, but a letter to Philemon, Apphia, Archippus, AND TO THE CHURCH THAT MEETS IN YOUR HOME. Hence, the letter would be read as part of a worship service. One wonders if Philemon would have read the letter prior to the public reading in the church service.

    Of course, pressure would have been on Philemon to give no mercy to Onesimus–the other slave owners would presume that mercy might create problems among their own slaves. Dealing with Onesimus was hardly a private matter–it was a very complex matter that could create considerable problems in the whole church–thus prompting the letter to have be written to the whole church.

    In light of the complexities, it seems very problematic to me that Onesimus would have been in any position to interpret the meaning of the letter to the church, which, in actuality, was nothing less than negotiating Onesimus’ fate.

  9. Paul’s tension relieving humor aside, it’s still basically a discipline situation, and therefore seems most likely that a private meeting of 2 or 3 would take place *before* the letter was then read to the entire church.

    If that smaller meeting did take place first, the letter would then have as many as three (and likely exactly three) interpreters at the larger corporate gathering.

  10. I’ll buy that, Bill.

  11. It’s all yours, James. Share it with Cambridge for me!

    Thanks to all the commenters here for caring so much about history in the NT.

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