Was Paul a Slave?

The surprising argument that Saul of Tarsus was born into bondage.

Of the many letters the apostle Paul wrote, few survived. We have a good deal of his communication to churches as a whole—letters to groups of believers in particular cities. This makes sense. Such letters were read publicly and often; they were copied and disseminated and celebrated as Scripture soon after the ink had dried.

Paul sent a number of letters to individuals as well. To read his biblical writings is to sense that you are glimpsing only a fraction of his relational network and influence. Almost all of those letters have been lost.

But there are exceptions.

It was a tall order for personal letters to ascend to the level of canon. It helped to be bound up with a great figure, a leader of a great community. Timothy, for instance, was a towering second-generation church leader; he was also the bishop of Ephesus, a major city of the Roman Empire and a major Christian center. Titus was a pillar of the Gentile mission and served as the bishop of Crete. Their eponymous letters had huge communities to champion their inclusion in Scripture.

A mystery for the ages, then, is why Paul’s letter to Philemon—the leader of a house church in the minor city of Colossae—survives at all. It’s the most personal letter we have from Paul. It runs only 25 verses.

The letter reveals a story. In it, a man named Onesimus has fled his master Philemon. Onesimus was most likely a household slave, a bondservant high in the pecking order.

To call him a runaway slave is true, though it is misleading for modern readers, who might imagine Onesimus attempting to escape through something like the Underground Railroad.

In fact, some scholars argue that Onesimus sought out Paul but planned to return to his master. Steven M. Baugh, …

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