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The literary technique of “delay”–not a technique to which I’ve ever given much thought as a writer–figures in to this letter prominently. I understand that Shakespeare did it with Hamlet, and this excerpt from a commentary on Revelation finds the technique employed by John in Rev. 11:1-13. In Philemon, delay is seen, first, as Paul gives some details and background information before making his formal Request. One reads a full third of the letter, for example, and Onesimus has not yet been mentioned! The Request itself doesn’t come until verse 17.
Moreover, identifiable elements of the Request are actually separated by quite a few words, and even by verses/paragraphs—a fact that doesn’t often surface in English renderings. As Greg Fay has proposed, this “delay” gives Paul time “to prepare Philemon’s heart and soften his reaction.”
The delay in the wording of verse 10—as significant, it seems to me, as the larger-scale delay mentioned above—is rarely seen. Note, for instance, the inadequate RSV:
I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become in my imprisonment.
And the equally inadequate, although more verbose, NLT:
My plea is that you show kindness to Onesimus. I think of him as my own son because he became a believer as a result of my ministry here in prison.
Neither is the original delay technique seen in the more refined, but no more true, NIV:
I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains.
Delay does, however, come across in Young’s Literal Translation and in the 1901 American Standard Version. These are more true to the original Greek:
I entreat thee concerning my child—whom I did beget in my bonds—Onesimus (YLT)
I beseech thee for my child, whom I have begotten in my bonds, Onesimus (ASV)
Being a fan of the dash in English writing, I’m partial to Young’s translation. The dash effectively sets up the eventual mention of Onesimus’s name. This delay in mentioning his name might seem to be a minor point, but when one considers the psychological and spiritual significance of the moment—that first moment—when Philemon read the sentence in Greek, it would be difficult to overestimate the impact of the wording.
The phrase “every good thing” in v. 6 is not insignificant. Since an important textual relationship is not immediately seen, I would draw attention to the connection between “good thing” in v. 6 and the same phrase in v. 14. The latter instance, as will be seen in tomorrow’s post, is smack-dab in the center of the letter’s chiastic structure, which makes it a key hermeneutical point.
Is there knowledge of some new good thing (“every” in v. 6 seems to imply that there might be something still lacking in Philemon’s knowledge) in Christ that might help or motivate Philemon’s fellowship of faith to become active? Paul has yet to explain what the specific good thing is, remember. But he soon does share: it is the knowledge of a new child of God—one who formerly was useless, but not anymore. It’s good for the community of Christ. It’s good for Philemon. It has been very good for Paul.
A wonderful pun–again, not seen in English–jumps out of the Greek text of v. 20: ONAIMEN is the word for “benefit,” and the spelling of Onesimus’s name is ONESIMON–a sort of etymological 1st cousin! The meaning of the man’s name, by the way, is “useful”–see v. 11, and perhaps begin to consider the chiasm formed by verses 10-12, which has both “useless” and “useful” in the center.
Tomorrow’s blogpost, which is already in progress, should be my final one on Philemon. Eight posts on a short letter matches the number of small-group sessions we enjoyed in studying it communally! The final installment will present the text with respect to the chiastic arrangement: not in “verse” order, but with the related sections shown in immediate succession . . . and with a few more comments that I hope will help to exegete and elucidate.