Review: A Week in the Life of a Slave

a week in the life of a slave

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.

Would the Apostle Paul Have Written a Blog?

blogging-blur-communication-261662I’m working out some ideas here, so I’d love to hear what others think about this. I recently was appointed the director of a national effort of the collegiate ministry I work with that we describe as a “digital first” effort to encourage and engage aspiring scholars who want to link their faith and academic life. It has me thinking about the place of online media in forming communities around similar interests; in this case around faithful Christian presence in the university world and what that looks like.

Much has been made of the movement of people from “on-the-ground” communities in particular places to online, or what some would call, virtual communities. Many think these online communities are poor substitutes for “on the ground” community, which for some is real community. Church attendance dwindling? Blame it on the internet. That sort of thing. Inevitably, online forms are opposed to “on the ground” forms, and labelled inferior.

A book I’ve been reading recently, Ecologies of Faith in a Digital Age has me re-examining assumptions. One of the most startling insights for me came from their attention to the letters of the Apostle Paul. Paul, like all of us, could only be in one place at a time. Over the course of his life, his travels took him from modern day Syria through Asia Minor and Greece, to Rome, and perhaps onward to Spain. He wrote to groups of believers where he had started churches (in Galatia, Corinth, Ephesus, Thesalonica, and Philippi, and to groups he had never visited (in Colossae and Rome). Twenty-eight percent of the New Testament consists of Paul’s letters and he wasn’t the only letter writer! What is striking is that Paul both seeks to communicate spiritual truth and instruction with those he is not with, but also assumes deep friendships and collaboration. He describes the Philippians as “partners with” him (synkoinonia) and the Romans as people he “longs to see.”

I wonder if Paul would have been a blogger today. Or would he have used podcasts to stay in touch with and instruct those he was away from for whom he cared? Maybe they would have used video conferencing or Facebook groups (I’m not sure he would have used Twitter–have you seen some of his sentences, particularly in Greek!). Then Paul would come visit, or perhaps gather leaders from many places at a single location for a conference

I wonder if a better way to think about these things is to see face to face and remote communication as complementary means of sustaining community and maintaining the values and mission we are engaged in together. Rather than either-or, there is a both-and engagement that is rich and substantive and two-way or even networked, whether we are together or not.

There are educators I know who have taught both in the classroom and online, and often have found the online interactions superior in terms of thoughtfulness of responses, and the engagement of quieter students who may not speak up in classes. Much hinges in how you set up what the book I mentioned earlier calls the “ecology” of a given context. While social media is justly vilified for echo chambers, bullying, and toxic discourse, I’ve also seen online contexts where differing perspectives are aired with both candor and mutual respect, and where people extend genuine and deep care for each other on and offline.

Finally, I’m struck that what makes this work, for Paul, and for us, is genuine affection and deep regard, even love. for those one is interacting remotely with. I’ve received many warm and thoughtful online messages. I remember those messages when I see the people who have written them, and it strengthens the bonds we share.

It is true that all forms of communication with those remote from us cannot easily convey all that we would be able to express verbally and non-verbally face to face. Actually, it makes me more intentional, more thoughtful. It makes me think and work harder, and read and listen more carefully. To write a response, particularly if it is not a tweet, requires more deliberation than off-the-cuff statements.

Yes, my hunch is that Paul would have written a blog. What do you think?

Review: Paul


Paul: A Biography, N. T. Wright. New York: Harper One, 2018.

Summary: Wright translates his scholarship that gives a “new account” of Paul’s life into a popular biography, tracing the life and thought of the apostle through the letters he wrote and narrative of his journeys.

Over the last thirty years, perhaps no one has written more on the life and thought of the Apostle Paul than N. T. Wright, most notably his two volume Paul and the Faithfulness of God. Wright is associated with what is called “the New Perspective” on Paul. What he has done in this volume is distill his scholarship into a highly readable account of the life and thought of this apostle. Reading this, you will see some of the ways Wright casts the life of Paul in new perspective.

We see this in his portrayal of Paul’s Damascus road experience. He imagines Paul possibly reflecting on the vision of Ezekiel, perhaps praying the Shema, when suddenly he gazes upward…into the face of Jesus, whose followers he has been persecuting. Wright challenges us to see that this was not a conversion to a new religion, but the shattering and transforming realization that Jesus was the fulfillment of the scriptures Paul had studied so long–that he “had been absolutely right in his devotion to Israel and the Torah, but absolutely wrong in his view of Israel’s vocation and identity and even in the meaning of the Torah.”

He then traces the travels of Paul from the formative years in the wilderness and Tarsus where he rethought everything in the light of Christ, and then his successive journeys taking the message of Christ into Asia Minor, then later into Europe in Philippi, Athens, and Corinth. In the Galatian controversy with Peter and his subsequent letter, we catch the first glimpse of Paul’s transformed vision, where he sees both Jew and Gentile incorporated and included into a new people enjoying the blessing of Abraham’s faith. It is this that explains his methodology of teaching in synagogues, and then to Gentiles who will hear him and seeking to form new communities made up of those who give allegiance to Christ, and share table fellowship.

The biography offers some of Wright’s distinctive judgments on matters scholars have debated, southern versus northern theories of Galatians (he opts for south), and the origin of the prison letters, neither from Caesarea or Rome, but during an imprisonment in the latter part of his time in Ephesus. Wright explores this as a nadir of Paul’s ministry, both in the experience of prison, but also in the receipt of disturbing news from Corinth from those questioning his reputation. He proposes that this accounts for the somewhat disjointed style of 2 Corinthians, written after his release. He also believes that after writing this, he penned his magnum opus to the Romans, spelling out to a church where tensions existed separating Jew and Gentile, the purpose of God to include Gentiles with Jews as heirs of the promise of the covenant to make one new people.

Throughout, Wright explores the character of this apostle, who he describes as “bossy” on the voyage to Rome, and often troublesome in jumping into the fray. Paul did not let sleeping dogs lie. But Wright also argues, that like many “angular” entrepreneurs, it was these very qualities that, on a human level accounted for the success of this apostle in establishing these new communities across the Roman empire.

The work was a delight to read on many levels, as a reflection on the career of Paul and as an exploration of the relationship of Jesus and the hope of Israel revealed in Torah and the prophets. I savored his insights into each of Paul’s letters, and the vision of the church Paul articulated, that would sustain a movement long after his martyrdom, even as it continues to do so to this day.

Paul has often been maligned as a misogynist, as a heretic from his Jewish origins, and more. For others, we read him through Reformation glasses. Wright may or may not convince you otherwise, but this marvelous distillation of his scholarship will make you both think about, and hopefully rejoice in, what this apostle accomplished. And perhaps it will help you read his letters with new eyes.

Review: Paul Behaving Badly

paul behaving badly

Paul Behaving BadlyE. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2016.

Summary: Takes on the charge that there are many problems with Paul, among which that he is racist, pro-slavery, anti-woman, homophobic, and hypocritical, and suggests that while he behaves badly, it may be in different ways than we might think.

This is the third in a series of “behaving badly” books, the previous titles of which are God Behaving Badly (reviewed here), and Jesus Behaving Badly (reviewed here). As in the previous works, the authors take some of the common objections raised about Paul in a way that both takes the objections seriously, and shows through careful study of the biblical text and cultural context what may and may not be warranted in these objections.

The authors show that Paul indeed behaves badly, but not in the way one might think. While not coming out against slavery, his affirmation of slaves as brothers and sisters and his instructions to masters were quite counter-cultural and would have raised great objections. While he seems at points to make racist comments, he in fact made ground-breaking strides to build bridges to the Gentile world, and that any apparent anti-Semitism was really directed to a very specific group of Judeans (“Jews” in the narrowest sense) who tried to impose circumcision and legal observance on the Gentile churches Paul and his team had planted.

Their treatment of women and homosexuality are perhaps the chapters to which many will first turn. While I would have liked to see more of a treatment of 1 Timothy 2:9-15, which the authors leave open to differing interpretations on the matter of women teaching, they observe the radical ways in which Paul elevated women as ministry partners, in how they were to be treated by husbands, and the very fact that they were permitted to learn. Likewise, while the authors clearly see Paul speaking against same sex relationships, they are careful to point out that Paul recognizes that persons who have been involved in these relationships are in the church, and contrary to Jewish practice, neither requires their expulsion nor execution. They also observe the difference between contemporary focus on orientation to focus on specific acts between people, and in some passages, between those who penetrate, and are penetrated, which may often be the case in master-slave relationships, particularly between masters and boy slaves in the Roman context. In summary, they write:

“When Paul denounced homosexual practice both for the active as well as the passive partner, he was behaving badly in Roman eyes. But when he welcomed both into the church as sinners in need of a savior (like the rest of us), he was behaving badly in Jewish eyes. Paul did indeed behave badly in the eyes of his culture and sometimes in the eyes of other Christians” (p. 195).

The book also addresses criticisms that Paul was a killjoy, eliminating pleasure wherever he found it. They take on the charge that Paul was a hypocrite, as in the example of circumcision, where he takes a strong stand against it, and then circumcises Timothy (in this case the answer seems to be Timothy’s partially Jewish heritage, where to not be circumcised would be a repudiation of that heritage, and an obstacle to mission in Jewish circles).

Finally, the authors deal with how Paul handles scripture, which to modern eyes often seems to be a twisting of scripture. They show, rather, that Paul was using the accepted interpretive approaches of his time–literal, midrash, allegory, and pesher among them, that would not have raised the eyebrows of his Jewish listeners.

What I most appreciated is that this is not a whitewash on Paul. The authors observe how he could be stubborn, as when he resisted prophetic counsel that he not go to Jerusalem. We should not put him on a pedestal, though we may learn from him, such as how he avoided financial entanglements, and for his courage in “behaving badly” by going counter to culture in the cause of Christ, sometimes at great personal and physical cost.

This can be a helpful book if you have a hard time reading the Pauline works, or know friends who object to Paul. We tend to see Paul through our own cultural lenses and this work helps us see Paul in his own context, and goes beyond particular verses to the whole character of Paul’s work. No alabaster saint here, but rather a very human person, whose indeed “behaved badly” at times, but in ways that we may end up admiring rather than censuring.

Review: An Anomalous Jew

An Anomalous Jew

An Anomalous JewMichael F. Bird. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016.

Summary: A collection of studies on the life and ministry of Paul that explores this unusual Jew who is comfortable moving among Greeks and Romans as he proclaims the Christ he encountered on the way to Damascus.

About the only thing scholars can agree upon concerning the Apostle Paul is that he was born a Jew. In an introductory chapter, Michael F. Bird surveys the options most commonly chosen to explain this apostle who claims on one hand that everything from his former life as a Jew is “crap” compared to the surpassing worth of Christ, and yet “becomes a Jew, in order to win the Jews.” Is he really a former Jew who has abandoned Judaism? A transformed Jew, an Israelite in Christ? A faithful Jew? Or a radical Jew? There is something to be said for each of these views and significant scholars associated with each one. Bird proposes an alternative–Paul is an anomalous Jew because he tries “to create a social space for a unified body of Jewish and Gentile Christ-believers worshiping God” (p. 28).

In succeeding chapters, Bird presents five “studies” (most individually published elsewhere) that underscore the anomalous character of Paul’s Jewishness, shaped by his mission to Gentiles and Jews. He begins by exploring Paul’s ideas of salvation, which both comes from the Jews and is for the Jews, but is also for the Gentiles and found in Christ, and not Torah. Chapter 2 shows how Paul is indeed apostle both to Gentiles and to Jews and how much the latter occupied his attention. Chapter 3 addresses the debate between apocalypticism and salvation history in Paul through a study of Galatians showing both elements reaching their height in the revelation of Christ to the Gentiles. Chapter 4 focuses in on the incident at Antioch described in Galatians 2:11-14 as the beginning of Paulinism “understood as the antithesis between Christ and Torah when the salvation and equal status of Gentiles is on the line” (p. 203). It also marks a parting in the ways between Paul and the Jerusalem church, not absolute as evident in Paul’s efforts for the relief of that church. Finally, chapter 5 explores the “anti-imperial” undertones of Paul’s letter to the Romans. On its face it presents no civil or military challenge to Roman order. Yet its assertions of the kingdom of the Messiah and the new sociopolitical entity of the church in fact was a profound challenge to Rome which would ultimately supplant empire.

Bird writes:

    “In sum, Paul was a religious anomaly. He appeared on the scene of the Greco-Roman world like a sudden yet small ripple moving upon the waters of a still river. He goes mostly unnoticed in his own time, and yet by the time the ripple reaches the shore of the modern age, it has become a tsunami. Paul’s anomaly, offensive as it was to the Jews and odd as it was to Greeks, became the Gentile Christianity that eventually swallowed up the Roman Empire and that, even to this day, two millenia later, casts its shadow upon the religious landscape of the world. Not bad for a Jewish tentmaker from Tarsus!” (p. 30)

Of the writing of books on Paul, there seems no end! What makes this one distinctive is that it provides a reading of Paul’s life and mission that reconciles seemingly disparate threads of scripture and explains them by Paul’s vision of the new people, Jew and Gentile together, formed by Messiah Jesus. It explains both the consonant and dissonant elements in his Jewishness, his reaction at Antioch, and the content of his letter to the Roman church.

Michael Bird represents a younger generation of theological scholars from “down under” who are beginning to make their mark in biblical and theological studies. I look forward to hearing more from him and others like him!


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.


Review: The Gospel in the Marketplace of Ideas: Paul’s Mars Hill Experience for Our Pluralistic World

The Gospel in the Marketplace of Ideas: Paul's Mars Hill Experience for Our Pluralistic World
The Gospel in the Marketplace of Ideas: Paul’s Mars Hill Experience for Our Pluralistic World by Paul Copan and Kenneth D. Litwak
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Relevance and faithfulness. Any teacher of any religious tradition is faced with this tension as they move from one cultural context to the next. One has to connect both with the thought world and life experiences of one’s hearers in terms they readily grasp, and one needs to faithfully communicate the substance of one’s religious beliefs without compromising their essence.

The authors of this book believe the Apostle Paul’s Mars Hill discourse provides a very helpful model for how one may do this in the case of Christianity. Athens represented the intellectual center of the Roman empire and was a crossroads of the various beliefs commonly held in Paul’s day from the worship of a pantheon of deities to the more refined philosophies of Epicureanism and Stoicism. The authors observe how this is not unlike our own context which they see steeped in both post-modernist assumptions about truth and materialistic naturalism. (I am surprised that they did not give more attention to Eastern influences in our society and the pantheistic monism that characterizes many discussions of “spirituality.”)

One of the first questions the authors answer is whether Paul succeeded in this task. Some commentators have argued that Athens represented a failed strategy of “contextualized preaching” from which Paul retreated when he went on to Corinth and decided to preach nothing but “Jesus Christ and him crucified.” They show how Paul’s message, while using the language and letters of the Greeks, actually reflected ideas rooted both in the Hebrew scriptures and the preaching of Christ elsewhere. And, like elsewhere, some believed while others did not. There were many other cities, like Philippi that Paul left with just handfuls of believers.

Through a detailed study of the content and rhetoric of Paul’s message, the authors show that Paul knew his audience, knew their leading thinkers, and framed the gospel in terms they could grasp, yet without shrinking away from controversial contentions, most notably, the idea of the resurrection. They conclude that we may also pay attention to the instances of “unknown gods” in our culture, the signals of awareness of the transcendent in our hearers, the process people undergo in their journey to faith, and the important work we may need to do in challenging the idolatries of our day. Ultimately we must also point to Jesus as the climax of history and the one who fulfills in his life, death, and resurrection our highest ideals.

This is a helpful contribution to the discussion of Paul’s Mars Hill message and whether it may serve as a model for contemporary Christian witness. The authors not only defend this contention but show in very practical terms how this might work out in a twenty-first century context.

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Review: The Living Paul: An Introduction to the Apostle’s Life and Thought

The Living Paul: An Introduction to the Apostle's Life and Thought
The Living Paul: An Introduction to the Apostle’s Life and Thought by Anthony C. Thiselton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The apostle Paul is alternately portrayed as the true founder of Christianity and the control-freak who destroyed the beautiful thing Jesus began and hated women. Anthony Thiselton, in this succinct portrait, gives us a much more nuanced picture of Paul.

One of the first things Thiselton does is deal with two of the “deal-breakers” that would keep many from paying any further attention to Paul. The first is that he shows the continuity between Paul and Jesus in the grace he proclaimed that is also evident in both the parables and the gracious works of Jesus. This is also the key place where he deals with Paul’s treatment of women, pointing to his close associations with women throughout his ministry and the active ministry roles they shared with him. Secondly he deals with the stark divide many perceive between old and new creation in Paul, setting alongside this Paul’s theology of progress and growth toward maturity in Christ.

His next two chapters give us a narrative of Paul’s life covering his conversion, the “hidden years” and his missionary journeys. He suggests probable dates for different events and the provenance of different letters, while acknowledging scholarly difference on these issues.

In subsequent chapters, Thiselton gives concise overviews of Paul’s contribution to our theology of the Trinity, of the nature of fallen and redeemed humanity, the work of Christ and the crucial Pauline insight of our union with Christ, his development of a theology of the church, the sacraments, Christian ethics, and the last things. He considers the present question of justification and the views of Luther, Dunn, and Wright, coming down with a synthesis of Luther and Wright.

The final chapter was probably of greatest interest as Thiselton considers the major figures of post-modernism in relation to Paul. A key insight not often discussed are the parallels between our time and Paul’s in confronting pluralism, power, and meta-narratives.

Throughout, Thiselton is a model of concision, which may be frustrating for those looking for a more exhaustive treatment but just right for those struggling with their view of Paul and willing to consider a more nuanced view.

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