A Week in the Life of a Slave (A Week in the Life Series), John Byron. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019.
Summary: A creative re-telling of the story of runaway slave Onesimus that casts light on the institution of slavery in Greco-Roman society and the church’s response.
Onesimus. Philemon. These two names are associated with Paul’s shortest letter. One wonders at times why it was included. It seems to be a personal appeal for Onesimus, a runaway slave, who during his time with Paul became a follower of Jesus. He appeals for Onesimus to receive him back as a brother, and charge any debt or wrong to Paul. A beautiful appeal to reconcile a runaway slave to his master, a fellow Christian. Just a personal letter? Perhaps, but it is also addressed to the church that meets in Philemon’s home (v. 2). Is there a larger message for the church from the apostle who taught there is “neither slave nor free. . . but you are one in Christ” (Galatians 3:28).
These questions and many more John Byron explores in this newest contribution to the “A Week in the Life Series.” Through both a creative re-telling of story and the sidebars, Byron casts light on the institution of slavery in the Roman empire. We learn how people became slaves, how they were treated, their status, even when freed, and what a serious matter it was for a slave to run away. Beyond flogging, a slave could likely be sold, usually into inferior conditions with even less chance of obtaining his liberty.
Byron tells the story through the cast of characters we find in the letter, and a few others, including a prison superintendent who is a believer, who at risk to himself allows Paul to see Onesimus long enough that he can understand and believe the gospel. In doing so, he posits an Ephesian imprisonment, which makes sense with its proximity to Colossae. He includes Luke and Demas and Epaphras who shares his imprisonment. Demas hosts a church in his home and shelters Onesimus, who witnesses the mingling of slaves and free persons in worship.
Byron explores what it might have been like for churches to grapple with the question of the inclusion of believing slaves in their worship. He creates a contrast between Ephesus where all are brothers in Christ when they gather for worship, and Colossae and the church in Philemon’s home, where slaves are excluded–until Archippus (a kind of overseer or bishop of churches in the Lycus valley) challenges their practice, and their socially stratified worship. One begins to grasp how “neither slave nor free” in worship was itself an incredibly radical step.
Many who discuss the issue of slavery in the New Testament argue that an infant church couldn’t challenge this powerful institution. I appreciate that Byron doesn’t make this argument, which can ring hollow. Rather he shows what it was like for early house churches to take the first steps to press out their theological convictions about oneness in Christ into eating and worshiping together, steps that in themselves broke with established social convention.
We don’t know what Philemon did with regard to the legal offense of running away. Paul only appeals and doesn’t offer a specific course of action. But Byron picks up on the legend that the Bishop Onesimus mentioned in Ignatius’s letter to the Ephesians. If that were so, at some point Philemon granted this runaway his freedom. One wonders if the Philemon-Onesimus incident was something of a watershed moment with implications beyond their immediate relations. Was this perhaps the reason for the letter’s preservation. Did Bishop Onesimus, as Byron writes the story, have something to do with the letter’s preservation?
These are plausible speculations at best. What Byron’s book does so well for us is bring to life the Greco-Roman institution of slavery, perhaps different in treatment from American slavery, but nevertheless demeaning of the personhood of the enslaved. We grasp the risks Paul, and all who helped shelter Onesimus ran. We begin to understand the costly counter-cultural actions of a nascent church that shelters, welcomes at table, and worship, the slave, calling him “brother” and her “sister.” We only are left wondering why it took the church another eighteen centuries to follow the arc of their theology to its ultimate conclusion in practice and law.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.