The Text is plural. This does not mean just that [it] has several meanings, bur rather that it achieves plurality of meaning, an irreducible plurality. The Text is not coexistence of meanings but passage, traversal; thus it answers not to the interpretation, liberal though it may be, but to an explosion, dissemination. The Text’s plurality does not depend on the ambiguity of its contents, but rather on what could be called the stereographic plurality of the signifiers that weave it (etymologically the text is a cloth; textus, for which text derives, means ‘woven’).
This commentary will explore the irreducible plurality of Colossians and Philemon. It will represent a liberative strategy of reading biblical text in culture. “Few things,” Krister Stendahl once wrote, “are more liberating than the distinction between the “original” and the “translation” in any age, our own included.” It will seek, however, another form of liberation located neither in the” original” nor in its “translation” but in the productive space between text and interpretation, amidst the flesh and blood of interpreters through the Common Era. The commentary will proceed from the assumption that since social, cultural, and historical location is the cradle where, for good or ill, interpretation is nurtured and grows, attending to such location in the interpretation of classic texts is a means toward a fuller understanding of the interpretive task in general and the privilege of the interpreter in giving living voices to texts in particular. The editors of the Blackwell Bible Commentary articulate the importance of this productive space between original meaning and interpretation when they comment, “[W] hat people believe a sacred text like the Bible means is often as interesting and historically important – theologically, politically, morally, and aesthetically – as what it originally meant.” The aim of a reception history commentary on Colossians and Philemon is to bring to voice an array of representative witnesses negotiating from their own locations readings of texts given to them then appropriated for their new contexts and passed along in turn to others.
From an early period interpreters have treated Colossians and Philemon together. This is of course due to their setting as “captivity epistles” (Col. 4.18; Phlm. 1,8,10), their overlapping geographical location (Col. 1.2; 4.4.13,15), and their shared names and personal greetings (Col. 1.7; 4.7,8,10,12,14,17; Phlm. 1,2,24). This also furnishes a warrant for taking up both letters in a single volume in the Blackwell Bible Commentary Series, even though each letter has, of course, given rise to differing histories of reception in the Christian tradition and in western culture generally. Of all the letters of the Pauline corpus perhaps none have generated so creative a locus for Pauline biography and narrative speculation as these two letters taken together (see, for example, the discussion of “The Reception of Philemon in Art and Litereature” below). However, the greatest warrant for treating these two letters in a single reception history volume is to signal ways in which either letter has influenced the reading of the other in interpretation. This will furnish an important complement to existing commentaries in registering both the inter-related and independent reception history of these texts. Since, for example, Philemon’s treatment of Onesimus, or the discussion whether and how Paul endorsed slavery was related directly to Philemon’s closest cousin, Colossians, a clear advantage of taking up both letters together is to notice the ways in which these texts united to create a result far in excess of their constituent parts. Further, already in the New Testament both Philemon and Colossians give rise to histories of effects within the canon itself. Philemon’s greetings can be read to lie behind the similar greetings of Colossians, as arguably its exhortations to Philemon concerning Onesimus has helped to shape Colossians’ development of the Household Code. More dramatically, the disputed letter to the Ephesians arguably represents the earliest deployment and reinterpretation of Colossians and as such is a token of the fascinating history of reception to come. Thus, one contribution of this Blackwell volume will be to chart the reception of Philemon and Colossians inter-canonically, a rare discussion in commentary literature.
The reception history of Philemon and Colossians is rich. The commentary will situate these riches in an introductory synthetic essay organized around chief themes and topics: Christology (Col. 1.15,19; 2.3,9), soteriology (Col. 1.13,21-22; 2.11-15; Phlm. 6,), models of sanctification (Col. 1.12,24,28; 2.19; 3.1-4,9; Phlm. 5), anthropology (Col. 3.9-10,12; Phlm. 23), ecclesiology (Col. 1.18; 2.19; Phlm. 2,4,7,16); hierarchical social relations (Col. 3.18-4.1; Phlm. 8-9,17-20,21), resistance to principalities and powers and the reinforcement of them (Col. 1.15; 2.15,20; Phlm. 8-9), slavery and the abolition of slavery (Col. 3.22-4.1; Phlm. 16), the economic critique or instantiation of power and domination (Col. 2.15; 3.11; Phlm. 19-22), and environmentalism (Col. 1.15-20). It will locate Colossians and Philemon within the broader horizon of Paul’s letters. This is especially critical since Colossians itself arguably represents a crucial moment in the history of reception of earlier Pauline tradition, including Philemon itself, from which, many agree, Colossians borrows. In the reception history Colossians and Philemon have been taken up together to furnish both letters with a historical setting and purpose. The commentary will offer a survey of representative approaches to the two letters in order to orient the reader to what follows.
If a recent interest in the literary world of biblical texts is, following Lloyd Bitzer, to identify “the rhetorical situation” they create before themselves in order to address, it also worthwhile to try to identify the rhetorical situation of the various interpreters and their audiences, their social location, and their implied readers and ideal situations. Commentary and interpretation are irreducibly social. While this commentary will function generally as an anthology of representative interpretive voices, critical in such anthologizing is the recognition of social location and identity in interpretation. A general orientation to histories of effects the commentary will trace will make the volume useful as a study in social exegesis even as it offers a rich polyphony of interpretative voices.
The commentary will unfold in a chapter-by-chapter sequence. Each chapter will begin with a brief overview of the narrative and rhetorical structure of the verses under consideration with a very brief historical critical treatment of them. It will then broaden out to a history of reception. The selection of materials will of course not be encyclopaedic but rather illustrative and representative of differing voices over time and space. I have found Jay Towney’s organization of his commentary on the Pastorals especially useful as a guide to follow. Like Towney I hope to gather representative interpretive voices under a sub-heading that identifies significant phrases of a given verse, or larger tropes the verse indicates more broadly. The advantage of this form of organization is to make the text readily available to modern readers and interpreters, and to chart the flow of the text from chapter to chapter or, in the case of Philemon, from verse to verse.
Colossians through the Centuries
Although numbered amongst the so-called “minor epistles” of Paul, Colossians has exerted a power in the history of biblical interpretation far in excess of its diminutive title. A number of features distinguish themselves for focus in a verse by verse reception history commentary because of the ways in which they have influenced and reflected theologies and understandings: an unambiguous three-stage cosmic Christology (Col. 1.15,17); the representation of the cosmos as created by and for Christ (1.16); the letter’s ecclesiocentrism in making the church the centre of God’s salvific action (1.17) in the context of an almost fully realised eschatology (2.12; 3.1); its uses of imperial imagery to interpret the crucifixion and atonement as victory over principalities and powers (2.14-15); the celebration of the territorial reach of Christ’s reign (3.11); its treatment and description of opponents (2.8-23); the development of the Pauline motif of putting on Christ (3.10-14) and, famously, the development of the Haustafel topos (3.18-4.1). These themes and motifs have had a profound influence. Accordingly the commentary discussion while working through the text line by line will be oriented primarily to five broad areas: (cosmic) Christology; uses of imperial imagery and vocabulary in atonement theology; ecclesiology; realised eschatology; and ethical teachings, especially as promoted in the Haustafel. Such an orientation will help to direct the attention of the reader to the larger thematic issues at play in the reception history of the text.
Colossians in Early Christian Reception
In addition to the arguable influences on the Letter to the Ephesians, preeminent amongst authors selected from the early Christian period will be Valentinian authors, Irenaeus, Origen, Athanasius, Arius, Christological polemics of the fourth and fifth centuries, as well as the sermons of Chrysostom, and the commentaries of Ambrosiaster, Theodoret of Cyrus, and Theodore of Mopsuestia, and the imperial orations and ecclesiastical histories of Eusebius of Caesarea. In the historical critical literature much debate has been engendered by speculation about the alleged Gnostic influences on Colossian Christology, but little attention has been given over to the influences of Colossians on emergent Gnostic systems of thought and exegesis, both in vocabulary (for example the use of the term “pleroma” – Col. 1.19; 2.10) and in conceptuality (for example, with reference to the generation and the disarming of “principalities and authorities” (archai eite exousiai; 1.16; 2.15). Elaine Pagels has argued that prior to Irenaeus it is chiefly in the literature modern interpreters have come to identify as “Gnostic” -- noting of course the breadth and fluidity such a term represents -- that Paul’s ideas were widely cited and deployed. Following Pagel’s lead, the commentary will draw particular attention to Valentinian exposition of Colossians. Similarly the creation-centred and ecclesiocentric theology of Irenaeus, together with his model of the atonement, finds much of its orientation in Colossians. Origen’s cosmic drama of creation can also be seen to be inspired in no small measure by the celebration of the so-called “Christ Hymn” as the “image of the invisible God through whom and for whom all things came into being” (1.15-16). Indeed, the Christ Hymn has been described as “virtually omnipresent in Origen’s work.” Colossians was also a chief battleground in christological disputes from the Nicene period onward and Athanasius and Arius eagerly contest the meaning of Colossian christological formulations. John Chrysostom’s twelve homilies on Colossians will furnish representative examples of the uses of Colossians in early Christian preaching, specifically as exhortation to follow the letter’s ethical teachings. For example, in Homily 7 he exhorts his listeners to renounce lives of luxury and contempt for the poor in favour of setting their “minds on the things above” (Col. 3.2). The commentaries of on the Minor Epistles by Thedoret of Cyrus, “Ambrosiaster,” and the fragments of Theodore of Mopsuestia offer a verse-by-verse explication of the text and offer insight into the treatment of the text in early Christian interpretation. Elsewhere, in monastic exhortation, particular interest can be found in the uses of Colossians to promote asceticism, invigilation of sexual purity (3.5-9), as well as exhortations to celibacy amongst clergy (for example by Jerome), despite the presence of the Haustafel! Also of note is the use of Colossians, for example in Eusebius’ of Caesarea’s Oration in Praise of Constantine, as well as his biography of the emperor, in celebrating the reach of Christian imperial rule and an imperial theology of victory (for example, with reference to Col. 2.15 and 3.11) -- itself a modulation of themes from the early imperial Latin poets and panegyrists. No treatment of the early Christian treatment of Colossians can be complete without reference to varying views on Col. 1.20 and 3.11 and their relation to the universal redemption of all things, a notion that was to continue through Medieval Scholasticism and Reformation treatments into modern study of the letter.
Colossians in Medieval and Reformation Reception
The Medieval and Reformation reception interpretation moves Colossians toward the uses of this letter in ecclesiastical and philosophical considerations of soteriology, ecclesiology, and christology. Thomas interprets the letter as Paul’s legacy to arm the Church with the sword to protect it from heresy, for example. However, it is with Medieval Franciscan treatment of Colossians that a breath-taking cosmic Christological scope opens in a way that anticipates modern treatments of the text. Whereas Thomas steadily relates the incarnation to the task of forgiveness of sins (Col. 2.13-15), Franciscan interpretation, steered by Duns Scotus and Bonaventure, and guided by the universalist themes of Colossians (Col. 1.20), speculates on the inevitability of the incarnation even had there not been the Fall as a full disclosure of God’s love amongst all creatures. Thus Bonaventure in his Sentences (e.g. I Sent. d. 12, a. 1, q. 2, conc.) confirms that the incarnation brings about an incarnational creation in the union of matter with spirit. In making these moves Franciscan interpretation anticipates some of their most dramatic applications in Teilhard de Chardin (see below). The German mystical tradition similarly sought a cosmic understanding of the Christian life of transformation. Thus Meister Ekhard’s sermon on Col 3.1 for example brings the realised eschatology of Christian baptism to bear on the ascent to things hidden above as well as the effusion of the divine below. Similarly contrary to the forensic soteriological emphases of Thomas, Robert of Melun, commenting on Col. 3.14, under the clear influence of Abelardian atonement theology, argues that the redemption was achieved through love and in doing so Christ has enflamed humans with the love of God.
Philip Melanchthon’s engagement with Erasmus’ teachings concerning Colossians is representative of the Reformation humanist debates concerning the teachings of Colossians in shaping the ethical life and the role of grace in completing salvation. Thus where Paul seeks to complete “what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions” (Col. 1.24) Erasmus in both his Paraphrases and the Annotations on Colossians discovers warrant for the correct uses of fasting and ascetical devotion. Melanchthon, in turn, published four treatments of Colossians in 1527, 1528, 1529, and 1534,. Again in 1559 he wrote his Enarratio on Colossians. In these he rejects the soteriological efficacy, indeed necessity, of mortification and argues instead that they manifest the arrogance of the heretics Paul opposes in Col. 2.20-21. These texts represent some of the most important and critical Reformation debate on topics of justification and the role of human freedom in salvation. Significantly, for later interpretation, it is in the Scholia of 1534 that Melanchthon, commenting on Col. 2.17-19, speaks of the “third use of the Law” as the means by which the justified keep the law through the righteousness imputed by faith on account of Christ. In addition to Melanchthon, the commentaries of Calvin, and Zwingli on Colossians will be considered.
Colossians in Early Modern and Nineteenth Century Reception
The post-Reformation period, especially through the evangelical awakenings, gave new impetus to the reading of the Colossians. I will be very interested in charting the influence of Colossians and its language of the atonement and of conversion (2.14; 3.12-17) on John Wesley’s sermons and Charles Wesley’s hymnody, for example. Charles Wesley’s sermon On the Education of Children typifies application of the Colossian Household Rule (3.18-4.1) in the governance of domestic affairs. Inspired by John Wesley’s teaching of “Total Perfection” the American Holiness Movement preachers found in Colossians’ realised eschatology that already one is raised with Christ (Col. 3.1) a warrant for a doctrine of “complete sanctification” – namely the perfection of the saved as a present reality. Thus Phoebe Palmer (1807-1874), a founder of the Holiness Movement, extrapolated from Wesley her teaching of “entire sanctification” which she outlined with the help of Colossians’ eschatological teachings in her treatises The Way of Holiness (1843) and Faith and its Effects (1848). On the other hand, the Second Evangelical Awakening revivalist Charles Finney in his sermons on Colossians took exception to a notion of “entire sanctification” while at the same time urging upon his listeners the moral life outlined in Colossians (for example, Col. 3.12-17). However, in the uses of Colossians to promote Anglo-American morals as the expression of salvation, pride of place belongs to a host of female expositors who published exegetical commentaries through the nineteenth century: Mary Cornwallis; Gracilla Boddington; Mrs. [sic] Trimmer; Florence Nightingale; and A.M. Hodgkin. Recent work on biblical commentaries on the New Testament by nineteenth century women invites further discussion, especially with their focus on the household rules.
While women and evangelists were invoking Colossians for ethical and conversionist ends, Colossians had become by the middle of nineteenth century German scholarship decidedly contested amongst the letters attributed to Paul in the New Testament. F.C Baur was the first to exclude it from the uncontested Pauline corpus – regarding it as a poor cousin to Romans. Others however were to come to different conclusions, Friedrich Schleiermacher, who defended Pauline authorship, dedicated 16 sermons to the letter which offer a close up look at the place of close exegetical observation in the task of theological expository preaching in emerging nineteenth century German liberal theology. In his sermons he contests a teaching of pre-existence to Christ in Colossians and, on the basis of grammatical features, argues that the Christ Hymn of 1.15-20 celebrates realities that are eschatologically oriented, and thereby anticipates the similarly grammatically grounded conclusions concerning Colossians by J.N.D. Dunn. Under the influence of the History of Religions School, Colossians received renewed attention by R. Rietzenstein and Martin Dibelius, both of whom also believed it was composed by Paul. In the 20th century Bultmann and his students, especially Ernst Käsemann, interpreted the letter under the influence of a Lutheran existential theology. In the English-speaking world the interpretation that occupied itself with questions of pseudonymity flowered in the work of Margaret MacDonald who deployed social-scientific study in the examination of a second century Paulinist. These studies will offer a representative sample of the historical critical approach to Colossians.
Colossians in Post-Modern and Global Reception
What we may broadly arrange as post-modern approaches to Colossians take up the letter with reference to politics, two-thirds-world cultural location, and liberationist concerns. With the post-9/11 formulation of the Bush Doctrine of pre-emptive strike and the War on Terror – themselves arguably traced at least in part to the reception history of an imperial theology of victory that undergirds Colossians’ teaching on the atonement (Col. 2.15) -- Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat engage Colossians in a post-modern vein. In a neo-Orthodox mode and a dialogical style of writing, Walsh and Keesmaat take up the challenge of Colossians as the Word of God’s address to Empire. Walsh and Keesmaat draw widely on popular culture in their examination of the text and discover its theology in media as diverse as Hollywood film (e.g. The Matrix), the internet, and popular music. To a large degree this way of mining Colossians for its political address had been pioneered in the 1980s and 1990s by Walter Wink in his three-volume treatment of the “the powers,” in this case with particular reference to Col. 1.16 and 2.15. In a related line of investigation, Charles Campbell draws on Colossians to speak of the call of contemporary preachers to speak their sermons in the presence of and before “the powers” -- that is “the powers” in Wink’s semi-Marxist sense of extra-human institutional arrangements that inflect human imagining and behaviour through ideological distortion and the enticements to a false consciousness. A series of commentaries and studies take up the importance of social and gender identity in the reading of Colossians. These include the Nigerian commentator, Teresa Okure as well as E. Elizabeth Johnson; the former takes up Colossians’ assault on the “principalities and powers” of a divinized cosmos in the context of a African missiological location and the latter from the perspective of a liberationist first world feminist tradition. Okure discovers in Colossians’ affirmation of the reconciliation of all things (Col. 1.20) a call to Nigerian Christians divided by colonial powers into tribal groups and economic rivalries to cooperation and unity. In a slightly different liberationist approach, Gordon Zerbe and Muriel Orevillo Montenegro offer commentary on Colossians from a post-colonial perspective to show how its teachings concerning the victory of Christ over all principalities and powers (Col. 2.15) and its vision of a transethnic unity of peoples folded into a single divine reign (3.11) furnished the biblical warrant for colonialism.
On the other side of the political divide – one might say, in the “red states” -- the twentieth century American Fundamentalist and Evangelical focus on the centrality of the nuclear family with divinely ordained roles for husbands, wives, and children invites a fascinating snapshot of the afterlife of Colossians in shaping the American civic imagination. Here I will focus my attention chiefly on inter-net applications and media uses of Colossians to promote “family values” in American society and politics. “The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood” mines Colossians, specifically the Haustafel (3.18-4.1), for its promotion of so-called “complementary” (i.e. not equal) general roles as a means of building a divinely instituted social order.
In an entirely different application, Colossians has also been an important resource for those championing ecological concerns and the stewardship of creation. Creation made through and for Christ (Col. 1.16) for example is cited as biblical warrant for the Au Sable Institute of Environmental Studies, an Evangelical think-tank dedicated to involvement in environmentalism, as they are by resources posted on the website of the Evangelical Environmental Network. These represent a long tradition of environmental/naturalist understanding derived either directly or indirectly from the wisdom Christology of Colossians. These treatments were anticipated early in the twentieth century by Joseph Sittler’s inaugural address to the New Delhi meeting of the World Council of Churches in 1961, where environmentalism and evolution were linked with Colossian cosmic Christology. They were given the most sustained development by Teilhard de Chardin in his models of theological cosmic evolution. Teilhard, drawing on Colossians, considered the telos of the evolutionary process the full unification of the cosmos with the cosmic Christ he saw celebrated in Col. 1.17. Ideals of social evolution similarly looked to Colossians as in the case of Salem Bland, (1858-1950) a key voice in the use of Colossians in the enterprises of the Social Gospel in Canada and the United States. Though far from Unitarianism, Drummond drew heavily on New England Transcendentalism to relate the moral progress of humankind to the spirit of Christ suffusing creation. Accordingly, a chief avenue of investigation will be to research the poetry and prose of the Transcendentalists and to notice uses of Colossian cosmic ideas in their celebrations of human ideals and the natural world.
The Reception of Colossians in Art and Literature
Influence of Colossians on the literary canon of western literature is somewhat difficult to chart with any certainty. David L. Jeffrey’s edited collection of essays on biblical motifs in English literature will furnish an excellent point of departure. I will be especially interested in tracing motifs such as putting on the new man, the head, even the head of the body politic, suffering for the ransom of others, and notions of a cosmic Christology in the literary tradition. However, in popular literature, the appearance of Onesimus in Colossians 4.9 taken together with Philemon and a shared dramatis personae have led to a variety of fictional appropriations of the letter. For example, Onesimus: The Church at Colossae, written by playwright Elsie Perry casts Apphia and Tychicus together with Philemon and Onesimus on Philemon’s estate in Colossae even as Paul is portrayed as a prisoner in Rome. In James Alex Robertsons’ The Hidden Romance of The New Testament, published in 1920, Philemon and Epaphras (Col. 4.12; Phlm 23) are introduced early in the novel as friends who are converted after listening to Paul preach and become fierce evangelists in Colossae. Colossae as well as characters named in the greetings of Col. 4.7-17 also appear in the feature length film, Onesimus: From Slavery to Freedom, released in 2006. In a more scholarly vein, a number of scholars have imagined differing characters writing from their social situation in Colossae to the imprisoned apostle. Thus, Bert Jan Peerbolte offers a fictional letter of the freedperson Onesimus in Colossae to Paul in Rome. In Colossians Remixed, Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmat imagine Nympha present when Paul’s letters to the Colossians and to Philemon were read aloud and they adopt the fictional narrative voice of Nympha (Col. 4.15) to offer hermeneutical reflection on Paul’s teaching to women to submit to their husbands (3.18). The relation of music and visual arts to Colossians is also difficult to trace outside of creative combinations of characters drawn from Colossians and Philemon in imagined settings. In addition to these, cosmic Christological motifs, such as the artistic representation of Christ Pantocrator, treatments of the death of Christ as a victory over enemies and hostile powers, and idealized representations of the family will be sites for research and potential application.
Philemon through the Centuries
“…at Rome the Apostle spread his net for him, and he was caught in its meshes. How he first came in contact with the imprisoned missionary we can only conjecture. Was it an accidental encounter with his fellow-countryman Epaphras in the streets of Rome which led to the interview? Was it the pressure of want which induced him to seek alms from one whose large-hearted charity must have been a household word in his master’s family? Or did the memory of solemn words, which he had chanced to overhear at those weekly gatherings in the upper chamber at Colossae, haunt him in his loneliness, till, yielding to the fascination, he was constrained to unburden himself to the one man who could soothe his terrors and satisfy his yearnings? Whatever motive may have drawn him to the Apostle’s side -- whether the pangs of hunger or the gnawings of conscience – when he was once within the range of attraction, he could not escape. He listened, was impressed, was convinced, and was baptized. The slave of Philemon became the freedman of Christ.”
The short letter of Paul to Philemon is a fascinating drama of exhortation, implied social situation, and expression of the uses of institutions and hierarchies of power to achieve certain results. Like Lightfoot’s account quoted above, many, from second century weavers of apocryphal legend onward, have not been able to resist furnishing the letter’s chief protagonists, Onesimus and Philemon, with colourful careers. According to one Orthodox hagiography , a compendium of several accounts of differing Onesimuses from the first and second centuries, Onesimus, a runaway slave of Philemon, having been restored by Paul to his master, was set free and accompanied the apostle on his journeys and served the other apostles, whence is derived his honorific title, “St Onesimus of the Seventy.” After Paul’s death he preached the Gospel in several lands and cities, from Spain in the West to the Black Sea in the East. Eventually he succeeded Paul’s travel companion and delegate, Timothy, as the second bishop of Ephesus, where he also visited Ignatius enroute to martyrdom in Rome. Arrested under the reign of Trajan he was imprisoned in Puteoli and was martyred on 15 February 109 CE. Lightfoot notes how this account – one amongst many – is a collation of stories that belong to several of Onesimus’s namesakes over several centuries. Despite Lightfoot’s untangling of Onesimuses, however, in 1937 John Knox attributed Ephesians to Onesimus, who – again on the basis of Ignatius’ address to an Ephesian Onesimus (Ign. Eph. 1.3; 2.1; 6.2) – became a bishop after receiving his freedom. Near the end of the twentieth century Norman R. Peterson entitled his masterful socio-historical and literary study of Philemon, Rediscovering Paul. In it he examines the multiple ways in which Paul casts himself, Philemon, and Onesimus in multiple roles in order to script social performance for the sake of communal and ethical solidarity. The rediscovery of Paul is here mediated through the disciplines of cultural anthropology and narrative criticism. It is but one in a series of “rediscoveries.” For, as Lightfoot’s narrative and his catalogue of legends surrounding Onesimus suggest, Philemon has been rediscovered repeatedly in the two millennia of its reception history. Indeed, Petersons’ book, at 308 pages, attests to the richness of a New Testament text of only 25 verses and just how productive it is of meaning and story! My aim in this verse-by-verse treatment of Philemon will be to show how this tiny letter to Philemon has been rediscovered repeatedly in reception history as well as in some of the most important historical ethical debates in western history.
Philemon in Early Christian Reception
From the early Christian tradition, the commentaries and sermons on Philemon by Jerome (and the strong traces of Origen’s treatment of Philemon in his commentary), Augustine, John Chrysostom and Theodore of Mopsuestia will be my chief reception history guides. In an excellent volume dedicated in large degree to the reception of Philemon in Christian tradition edited by Tolmie D. Francois Tolmie a number of essays take up the reception of Philemon in early Christian interpretation from Christian antiquity to modern appropriations. In the same volume, Paul B. Decock offers a study of the interpretation of Philemon in Origen, Jerome, Augustine, and John Chrysostom; Alfred Friedel, Chris De Wet and John Fitzgerald offer essays in the uses of Philemon by Jerome, Chrysostom, and Theodore of Mopsuestia, respectively. Most important, however, will be Allen D. Callahan’s proposal that it was first John Chrysostom who, on the basis of Phlm 15-18 proposed the thesis that Onesimus was a runaway slave who sought refuge from his master, Philemon, and that Chrysostom’s treatment has had a significant influence on subsequent exegesis. Callahan in fact represents lively scholarly debate that has unfolded for some twenty years over the legal and social likelihood of Onesimus as a fugitive slave seeking asylum with Paul. Callahan’s proposal was met with an energetic rebuttal by Margaret Mitchell that also included a fascinating account of the uses of Philemon in early Christian exhortation and especially in the ethical teachings of Chrysostom. The debate of Callahan and Mitchell in fact signal a debate over Philemon’s treatment of slavery and ethics that has accompanied interpretation of the letter for centuries. In the past 350 years Philemon the fugitive has been an unceasing topic of interest in debate over slavery as well imaginative reconstructions of the Philemon, Paul, Onesimus relationship in poetry, novels, plays, and film, that also of course include material from the Household Code and Paul’s list of greetings in Colossians (see below).
Philemon in Medieval and Reformation Reception
For Medieval reception I will confer with representative commentators. Chiefly, these will include Sedulius Scotus, a ninth century commentator on Paul’s letters, the tenth century commentators Atto of Vercelli and Haimo of Halberstadt, the eleventh century commentaries of Bruno and Lafranc of Bec, as well as the Scholastic commentaries of Thomas Aquinas and Peter Lombard. Reformation period interpretations will draw chiefly from Erasmus’ Paraphrases and Annotations and the commentaries by Luther and Calvin. In general, these follow in the tradition of Chrysostom and Ambrosiaster in treating the letter as exhortation to Philemon graciously to receive his runaway slave (Phlm. 15), or, as in the case of Luther and Calvin, to illustrate the nature of Christian love and forgiveness (17). The commentary by Matthew Henry (1662-1714) on Philemon provides the backdrop for those of the Evangelical Awakening influenced by his exegesis, as, for example, Charles Spurgeon’s sermons on Philemon. More intriguing are the treatments of Philemon amongst early Puritan exegetes. Cotton Mather, himself a slave owner, discusses Philemon and the conversion of Onesimus as part of an argument for the possession of souls by “Negroes,” and so furnishes an example of the Evangelical justification of slavery as a means of conversion.
Philemon in Debates Over Slavery and in Contemporary African-American Reception
As debates concerning the abolition of slavery increased through the 18-19th centuries, Philemon took a centre stage in the interpretation of Paul’s theology and its social implications. In A Scriptural, Ecclesiastical, and Historical View of Slavery: From the Days of the Patriarch Abraham to the Nineteenth Century (1864), J.H. Hopkins offered a compendium of alleged pro-slavery commentary on Philemon from the early church onward. Larry R. Morrison and Robert Atkins offer a survey of 19th Century abolitionist and anti-abolitionist pamphlets, newspaper, congressional debates, and books that make extensive use of Philemon, many of which the commentary will draw upon to illustrate the uses of the letter for both the abolitionist and anti-abolitionist cause. The uses of Paul to defend or attack slavery continue to exert a strong influence on modern African-American treatment of Philemon. Lloyd A. Lewis, for example, interprets Philemon in ways that intriguingly echo commonplace anti-abolitionist arguments of the 19th Century. Illustrative of African-American concerns with reference both to Philemon and the Colossian Haustafel, as well as feminist considerations, is the treatment by Clarice Martin. Still awaiting publication are critical essays edited by African American scholars who take up Philemon from diverse hermeneutical points of view.
Philemon in Nineteenth-Century German Reception
As debates concerning Philemon’s role in the endorsement of slavery raged on the western side of the Atlantic, in nineteenth century Germany debates over pseudonymity spilled over into argument concerning the authorship of Philemon. F.C. Baur, as part of his Hegelian reading of Paul, treated Philemon, together with the other Captivity Epistles, as a Pauline forgery written to endorse later theological expansions of Paul. Baur treated Philemon as an elaborate historical verisimilitude in the service of allegory. A similar point of view was taken up by Karl Weizsäcker. The studies of Baur and Weizsäcker will serve as examples of 19th Century historical-critical Protestant German scholarship in a strongly philosophical vein.
Philemon in Global and Post-Colonial Reception
African American treatments of Philemon and evaluations of its uses in the history of reception represent one voice in a polyphony of recent commentary which attends to place and social location in the interpretations of this letter. Jeremy Punt offers an excellent account of Philemon in postcolonial biblical interpretation. Exemplary of this postcolonial approach to Philemon is that of Jean Kim, a Korean New Testament scholar who comments on the letter in a context of colonizing influences of global capitalism. Allan Dwight Callahan in the Postcolonial Commentary on the New Testament offers an excellent treatment of Philemon from that perspective. Finally the recently published Peoples’ Bible presents glosses on the biblical text from a variety of interpretive locations, many of them from the two-thirds world.
The Reception of Philemon in Art and Literature
The place of Philemon in the visual arts and literature has been magnificently charted by Larry Kreizer. He takes up the over one dozen fictional treatments of Philemon that have appeared in the last 350 years. His study offers a thorough discussion of the letter in poetry, novels, film, and even Christian video games. Of particular interest are especially evidence of Philemon’s influence on fiction related to debates over slavery, as well as popular uses of the letter in fictional biographies of Paul as well as Philemon and Onesimus themselves. Onesimus the slave occupied nineteenth century abolitionist poets and novelists. At the end of the nineteenth century full-fledged novels dedicated to the lives and relationship of Philemon and Onesimus began to appear, often with a view to a hagiographically inspired reinforcement of moral values of love and compassion. From the 1950s a number of novels in the same genre of romantic historical-fiction also appeared. Several late twentieth-century playwrights also brought Philemon to the stage. Historical fiction also became the means of New Testament scholars to tease out social and cultural questions of communal identity the letter could well have presented to its audience and listeners. Stephen Barton has Philemon pose and Paul answer questions that arise as a result of Paul’s letter. Cinematic versions either dedicated to Philemon or in which the dramatis personae of Philemon and Colossians appear as part of a larger biographical treatment of Paul were produced in the 20th century as a means of religious education. In 2006 The Runaway, directed by Yassen Esmail Yassen, on behalf of the Arab Vision, an Arab Christian trust, offered a 120 minute dramatization of the Philemon which was later serialized into 12 episodes for television under the title, Onesimus: From Slavery to Freedom. Research will also explore its presence and influence on hymnody, specifically as it relates to celebrations of Christians as freed or as slaves of Christ. In visual represenation there are a number of interesting appearances of Philemon and its characters. Onesimus for example appears as a young man in a ninth-century fresco on the vault of the Yilanli “Snake” Church in Cappadocia. The depiction of imprisoned Paul writing a letter to Philemon in prison is a favoured topos. From the Medieval period onward another commonplace is the representation of Onesimus returning to Philemon with Paul’s letter, or the reconciliation of Onesimus with his master. “Bible Visuals International” offers a cartoon strip of Philemon to illustrate the many vices of Onesimus who, once converted, becomes a righteous Christian. Most recently, a Christian video game entitled Onesimus: A Quest for Freedom has been created that features Onesimus as a fugitive fleeing from Philemon. The player seeks to lead Onesimus through 30 levels and is rewarded by texts from Paul’s letter that appear on the screen as levels are successfully reached.
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Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre. Christianity and Evolution. (New York: Harcourt Brace Javanovich, 1969); Hymn of the Universe. (New York: Harper & Row, 1961), both of which regularly cite Col 1.17 for biblical support of a cosmic evolutionary point of view.
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A general overview is provided by Robert Paul Seesengood in “Philemon and the Debates over Slavery,” Paul: A Brief History (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 174-83; for fuller detail see, Larry J. Kreitzer, Philemon Readings: A New Biblical Commentary (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2008), 70-106.