Complicating class in the letter to Philemon: A prolegomenon

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Recent efforts have been made to restore agency to the lives of slaves in Greco-Roman antiquity. Laudable as such an irenic (if not apologetic) corrective may be, the question of the degree to which slaves might express their own independent judgment and exert their own will becomes critical when the primary class binary of slave and free is acknowledged. This dualism is pervasive in the economic structure and ideological defence of the first century Empire. These two critical facets of the ancient mode of production establish and entrench the fundamentals of the social relations that are labeled “class”; they are also standard reference points in the interpretation of Paul’s letter to Philemon, though usually exposited in isolation from each other. Moreover, the dominance of the appeal to Roman jurisprudence and economic operations begs the primary question of whether Roman law and commercial practice is the most pertinent resource for understanding the class dynamics in Paul’s letter. This paper proposes to problematize not only the interpretation of the shortest member of the Pauline corpus, but also the ways in which class relations might be constructed in an ancient Greek polis, one constantly negotiating the ubiquity of the Roman presence but seeking to maintain a measure of reality within the fiction of city independence. The line of exploration suggests a greater complexity to the intersection of economics and law in the socio-political relationships and language frames related to slavery than has usually been admitted — with considerable consequences for how class might be recognized in Paul’s writing.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Struggle over Class
Subtitle of host publicationSocioeconomic Analysis of Ancient Jewish and Christian Texts
EditorsG. Anthony Keddie, Michael Flexsenhar III, Steven J. Friesen
Place of PublicationAtlanta, GA
PublisherSBL Press
Number of pages128
ISBN (Print)9781628374155
Publication statusPublished - 2021


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