Tim Gombis, a professor of New Testament studies at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary who blogs over at Faith Improvised, has recently completed a series of posts on Philemon. This letter, tucked in towards the very end of Paul’s epistles, is less than a page in most Bibles and can easily be read in one sitting. It is a letter from Paul to Philemon, a wealthy and influential member of one of the Christian communities which Paul regularly visited, on behalf of Onesimus, a runaway slave who left Philemon’s household on less than pleasant terms but has since come to Christ through Paul’s ministry.
Gombis keys in on the phrase “both in the flesh and in the Lord”, tucked away at the end of verse 16. The full passage reads as follows in the New King James: “For perhaps he departed for a while for this purpose, that you might receive him forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave—a beloved brother, especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.”
The conventional wisdom regarding this phrase is that “in the Lord” refers to Christian fellowship while “in the flesh” refers to the general “brotherhood” that we all share by virtue of being human. This bias shows up in many of today’s translations; the NIV renders it “both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord”, the New Living Translation has “both as a man and as a brother in the Lord”, the Contemporary English Version has “both as a person and as a follower of the Lord”.
Gombis argues that Philemon and Onesimus were actual brothers. Two possible scenarios: First, they were both from the same mother and father. Onesimus was the younger brother; he received a smaller inheritance which he squandered and wound up selling himself into slavery, like the prodigal son of Luke 15. A more likely scenario is that both were from the same father, but Philemon was the legitimate son while Onesimus was the product of a union between Philemon’s father and some slave girl. That sort of thing was common in Greek/Roman households of that historical era, and in such situations the child shared the slave status of his mother and had no claim on his father’s estate.
Gombis argues against the viewpoint that “brothers in the flesh” referred to a common humanity because that view was revolutionary in the Roman culture of that era. Slaves were not considered human at all; they were merely property. The idea that masters and slaves shared a common humanity was completely and totally foreign to the thinking of that era. It was advocated by the philosopher Seneca, but he was a minority voice and there is no evidence that his views gained any widespread traction.
Read “Philemon & Onesimus: Brothers in the Flesh“, the capstone piece which summarizes all the big ideas of Gombis’ series.