Our Brother Beloved
Purpose and Community in Paul's Letter to Philemon
Imprint: Baylor University Press
256 Pages, 6.00 x 9.00 x 0.00 in
- Published: August 2021
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.
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?
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