The Letter to Philemon has been read by generations of interpreters, including towering figures such as John Chrysostom, as having to do with Paul returning the fugitive slave Onesimus to his master. Hence the letter, at best, was made complicit in the institution of slavery and, at worst, was foundational for the view that slavery was God ordained. This oppressive interpretation still holds sway in the academy and church alike.
In his interdisciplinary study, Stephen E. Young sets a new trajectory for understanding this unassuming epistle. Our Brother Beloved: Purpose and Community in Paul's Letter to Philemon opens with a case study on the use of the Letter to Philemon in the debates surrounding slavery and fugitive slaves in antebellum America. The book then analyzes the major background stories that have been used as keys to interpret the letter, showing that past and present oppressive uses of the Letter to Philemon are due not to the letter's contents but to the persistence of erroneous readings. Young provides a new interpretation that accounts for every element of the Letter to Philemon while also addressing many shortcomings of previous interpretations. In so doing he pioneers the use of Positioning Theory, from the field of social psychology, as an analytical approach, opening up a new avenue for the study of ancient texts.
That texts shape the identity of readers is widely recognized, but biblical scholars tend to disregard the process by which that influence unfolds. Young demonstrates how the Letter to Philemon sought to shape the identity of its readers within their sociocultural context by molding them into a community of deliverance, one that could receive Onesimus no longer as a slave but as a brother and fellow worker in the gospel. Such a fresh reading carries strong implications for the ongoing cause of social justice.
Introduction: Paul's Letter to Philemon and Slaveries Past and Present 1 The Need for a New Reading of Paul’s Letter to Philemon 2 Reading in Search of Social Impact: A New Approach to Paul’s Letter to Philemon 3 Rereading Paul’s Letter to Philemon: Positioning Brother Onesimus within the Christian Community 4 Welcoming Brother Onesimus: Becoming a Community of Deliverance
Excursus: Would It Have Been Too Problematic for Philemon to Manumit Onesimus?
Stephen E. Young serves as Senior Lecturer in Biblical Studies at Perth Bible College in Perth, Australia.
Paul’s letter to Philemon has long been a troublesome reminder of social inequities and yet the possibility of transformed relationships. With careful review of a text fraught with ambiguities and a long history of interpretation, Stephen E. Young weaves his way deftly through multiple and multivalent interpretations. In search of a responsible way to make the text meaningful in the contemporary context, he employs Positioning Theory to demonstrate anew the power of the text for the challenge of resetting relationships.
~Carolyn Osiek, Professor of New Testament Emerita, Brite Divinity School
I have read a number of books on Paul’s Letter to Philemon and even reviewed a few recent studies, which tended to restrain my expectations when I first began reading Stephen E. Young’s Our Brother Beloved. My assessment changed almost immediately, before I even finished the introductory chapter. It was clear to me that I had picked up a book that would provide a new and noteworthy rereading of Paul’s shortest letter and, perhaps, the most historically consequential of his letters in America. To be sure, this brief dispatch has been used oppressively to support and affirm slavery and the prerogatives of empire in both their ancient and modern manifestations. Young’s erudite study departs from previous offerings, on the one hand, by significantly widening the interpretive circle, inviting the voices and concerns of feminists and minoritized biblical interpreters. At the same time, he mines traditional methods and scholarship on the text. But he also, on the other hand, deftly weaves together these various methodological approaches, the most important of which for his study is Positioning Theory, into a fresh interpretive tour de force. In the final analysis, his interpretation presents Philemon as a countercultural source for change in response to systems of oppression, allowing this misused letter to speak powerfully to the church today.
~Demetrius K. Williams, Associate Professor, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
Stephen E. Young convincingly interprets Paul’s letter to Philemon as creating an alternative Christian moral order that challenges the very foundation of slavery. The book is characterized by a compelling combination of the fresh perspective of Positioning Theory and the most meticulous exegesis. It is a model of social-scientific interpretation and of its capacity to free Philemon from its pro-slavery misinterpretations in the past and to provoke liberative and inclusive understanding in the present.
~Philip Esler, Portland Chair in New Testament Studies, University of Gloucestershire
Young’s book is complex, but his lesson is masterful, more urgent and necessary than ever.
~Alvaro Silva, Mayeutica
Young’s work is thorough, well-argued, and hermeneutically and theologically perceptive. But perhaps most of all, it is timely. At this moment in the history of the United States when issues of race and racial justice are demanding attention by those who name Christ as Lord, Young has provided a fresh and convincing liberative reading of a text that offers a potential healing balm for the diseased social imagination that characterizes much of White American Christianity.
~Andy Johnson, Bulletin for Biblical Research
In Our Brother Beloved, Stephen Young offers a careful reading of Philemon that reckons with the complicated interpretive history of Paul’s letter, considers the text through an alternative methodological lens, and proposes that the letter offers a fresh way in which to view both first-century and twenty-first-century community construction.
~Jonathon Lookadoo, Reviews in Religion and Theology
Center for Biblical Studies’ Book Award- New Testament