Wednesday, May 30, 2018

There's something about Onesimus

In his letter to the Colossians, the apostle Paul mentions Tychicus and Onesimus, whom he sent to the Colossians specifically to convey information (and presumably also to deliver the letter). In his letter to Philemon, Paul discusses Onesimus and his abscondence as slave from his master and subsequently contrition, conversion and return. But as casual and friendly as all this may seem, there is something quit suspicious about the whole affair.

Most forms of early Christianity were illegal in the Roman empire (on account of them being "atheistic", that is without idols, and their objections to the obligatory worship of the state and emperor) and Paul would have been very careful with using his friends' real names. When a fugitive slave got caught he was severely punished, and by harboring a runaway, Paul himself was violating Roman law (whilst in prison). Paul would also have been very careful to not openly discuss politics, or refer to certain military events, lest he be taken for a revolutionary rather than a theologian (Acts 21:38).

Escaped slaves were punished severely and Paul would not have sent one half way through the empire carrying a self-incriminating letter.

Paul wrote Colossians and Philemon mere years before the Great Jewish Revolt would culminate into general Titus' destruction of the temple of YHWH, which in turn meant the end of Judaism as it had existed for a millennium. The magnitude of this disaster can not possibly be overstated, but what might help is to imagine that on 9/11 not just the World Trade Center was destroyed but also the heart of Washington DC, and that millions of Americans had been hanged in the streets and the rest deported to Afghanistan.

Paul saw the holocaust of 70 AD coming, and his writings largely dealt with trying to prevent it, namely by hammering on the importance of unarmed resistance and respectful dialogue. The temple was finally destroyed simply because certain Jewish factions (known as Zealots) foolishly decided to raise up arms against the Roman army. The evangelists, who wrote after the destruction, largely dealt with the question of what was to become of the Jewish mission to be a blessing to all people (Genesis 12:3).

It seems unlikely that Paul would invest his precious resources into a note that was both violently incriminating and theologically rather flimsy, and more so that this flimsy letter went viral in the early Christian world. In those days, correspondence was colossal, and it's an enigma why Paul's letter to Philemon became one of the most popular texts in human history.

The obvious answer is that we moderns have this work pegged entirely different from how the original audience viewed it.

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