Bibliology bits 3: context, instructions, and design

biblicalbooksThis post continues from prior ones in which I briefly discussed books and literature types, and then canons and versions.

On contextS
A couple of weeks ago, a friend shared that the primary teaching pastor at his church had recently committed what I consider a major instructional infraction:

While delivering a message on how to study the Bible, historical and cultural contexts were treated at some length, but no attention at all was given to a book-level, paragraph-level, or even “verse”-level look at the literary context.  

What passed for “literary context” was really only a nod to the historical setting in which the document was originally penned.

Whoa!

Let it be noted here that the friend referenced above has a terminal degree in NT biblical studies, and the teaching pastor, of approximately the same age, is well down the road toward his own doctorate in Hebrew and OT.  What the one knows and understands about overall emphasis in text study should also be what other knows and understands.  And the latter very well may know and understand it.  The problem is that he missed a golden opportunity as a public teacher to emphasize literary context!

It makes sense that literary context should be considered primary in biblical studies.  Historical, cultural, sociological, and theological studies may undergird and will be of great interest, but what is actually in the text is more fundamental—and almost always a more objective enterprise.  Pursuit of the literary context should therefore be considered ahead of the pursuit of other contexts.  I might put rhetorical and discourse analysis methods in a tool bucket (along with selected reference tools) to be used as part of contextually aware studies.  Knowledge of the syntax of the original language is indispensable.  (Personally, I have only enough grasp of Greek syntax to know how important it is.)  There is always more to learn about the words and sentences and “paragraphs.”  The point here is that intensified contextual awareness is fundamental when seeking to understand a document.

On instructionS
The number of instructions (reputedly 613) in the Hebrew Torah is daunting.  The number of superimposed rabbinic teachings (Talmud, etc.) is positively dizzying.

It doesn’t surprise me that Christians would fall into the habit of looking at the “New Law” in the same legal terms, but it does surprise me that any of us would defend that habit explicitly.  In the words of Danny Gamble, a neighborhood boy from my childhood, “What are ya—dumb or sump’n?”  (He was talking about my family’s habit of praying before meals.  His rude-yet-innocent comment speaks much better to stupid human tricks such as creating a new legalism.)

There are matters on which God has spoken, of course.

There are also matters about which people wish God had instructed.

And there are quite a few matters about which people claim God instructed us—but the supposed instruction sometimes turns out to be trumped-up, or even bogus.

I won’t specify things I think fall into any of these three categories, because I might get in trouble with some people I respect.  🙂

On design
The structure and design of biblical documents is typically overlooked.  This post (from a year and a half ago) laments the tendency of very good, otherwise spiritually minded people to ignore text design in favor of what turns out to be a faux devotional vantage point.

Even when structure is to some extent in view, it is rarely understood and applied very thoroughly in local churches.  We may affirm that (literary) context is king, but even those public teachers who pay lip service to context will rarely spend appropriate time dealing with its significance.

Here are a few examples/comments:

The structure of Psalm 119 famously involves an acrostic design (based on Hebrew letters).  The literary structure is obvious, aiding understanding of this piece’s origin and possible its intent.

The structure of Paul’s brief letter to Philemon is clear, making the thrust of the message quite impossible to ignore in Greek, although it rarely if ever shows itself in English Bibles or in Bible classes.  Although richly provocative clues reside in the Greek, if more disciples would merely take more time with the English, truly studying this document instead of dismissing it as a nice story about a former slave, the document would speak volumes.  Loudly.

I’m somewhat acquainted with the structure of both Matthew’s and Mark’s gospels, but I would have to say that it’s required many years and great opportunities to come to understand only a little of their design.  In other words, the structure of a more lengthy document requires deeper, more extended experience.  I am currently engaged in Matthew studies.  Every step of the way, I learn something that enhances my understanding of this text.

Knowing how these documents are put together—how they are designed—is key in coming to understand their emphases.

There is so much more.  The Bible is a lifelong pursuit but must not be seen as an end in itself.  To conclude this series on perhaps a lighter note, I think I’ll soon post a survey about word frequency, i.e., “how many times is X word found in the NT?”

Philemon — personal translations

In the course of this month’s focus on scripture, I have not been very balanced.  I have treated one relatively unimportant topic with far too many words, have treated a very important set of topics with even more words, and haven’t gotten to some other aspects of scripture at all.  One of the beauties of blogging is that I can set the timetable, so this scripture focus doesn’t have to be over with the passing of February.  On the other hand, it’s probably time to move into other areas.  I appreciate any attention readers have been able to give to these thoughts about scripture, Bibles, context, translations, and more.

I have shared some of my own translation work in 1Corinthians.  I am finding that the exercise (drill? work? practice?) of translation carries with it more power to get me closer to the text than any other activity I have experienced to date.  Therein lies the primary value, I suspect — it is very personal for me.  There’s probably no better way to bring this blogmonth to a close than to share such a personal translation of a very personal letter.

One or more questions might come up. . . .

Q:  Why translate this yourself when dozens of English versions are available at the click of a mouse? 
A:  Because this process has been one important part of my learning what Paul was saying in this letter.  Translating has gotten me in touch with the original and has helped me comprehend not only the text, but also the subtext.

Q:  Why are there no “verse” numbers below? 
A:  That is no inadvertent omission.  I simply didn’t want to insert any unnecessary distractions from the flow of this marvelous letter; and after all, there were no verse numbers in the original letter.

Q:  I don’t see my favorite verse in here!  You wouldn’t have left something out of the translation, would you?
A:  Of course I wouldn’t have intentionally left anything out.  It just might not look the same as you’ve heard or read it before.  My translation certainly isn’t the only possible one, but it is better than many, and I hope you’ll consider my renderings, asking questions if you have any.

Q:  Why did you choose Philemon?  Is this like choosing “Jesus wept” when asked to memorize a verse, because it’s short?
A:  Yes!  (Also, I have come to love this letter.  I feel a great attachment to it and its exegesis.)

Q:  Why are there two versions?  Do you disagree with yourself?  🙂
A:  In the first case, I followed more of a word-for-word approach, although no one-to-one correspondence is possible, and I still allowed myself latitude.  I prefer the second — the “Expansive Paraphrase” — in most cases.  Please don’t view the first as the better or more “literal” translation.  The second is also a translation, and it is a deeper representation of the original, in my estimation.

Q:  You included a lot of commentary and notes under your translations of 1Cor 4:1-5.  Not that I read all that, but I wonder why you don’t have that sort of material here.
A:  Good question.  The answer is that my process was much different with Philemon.  Although I was often working with the Greek during the past several years of contact with Philemon, I did not research lexicons or other Greek resource materials in the same way.  Given that Philemon is so short, I felt I had a good sense of the overall message, and I worked with the shape and structure of the text more than the tenses, moods, and declensions, etc., of individual words and phrases.  I acknowledge that another type of translation — more informed by the types of work I did with 1Cor 4:1-5 — would be different and possibly “better.”  I don’t imagine my own expansive paraphrase would change much, and all the general senses would remain intact.

Q:  I notice some interesting links in your translations.  Where do they come from?
A:  Philemon is indisputably structured as a chiasm — which means “reverse parallelism” is built in to the language and the flow of thought.  I have tried to reflect some of these parallel constructions in my translations.  For more detail, see this really poorly formatted, but chock-full blog from a few years ago, or this nice-looking layout on another site.

The translations below are works-in-progress and were last revised about three months ago.

I. Relatively LiteralFrom:   Paul prisoner of Christ Jesus and Timothy the brotherTo:      Our co-worker Philemon, whom I truly love, Apphia the sister, Archippus our fellow-soldier, and the church at your house

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

 

 

I always thank my God when I remember you in my prayers, because I hear of your love and your faith toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints.  I pray that your faith-partnership may become activated as you perceive your every good thing for Christ.  I have truly come to have a great deal of joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother.

 

 

Therefore, although I am bold enough in Christ to give you an imperative, I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love.  This is I, Paul—an old man, and now also Jesus Christ’s prisoner.

I’m now appealing to you for my child—whom I produced, in a manner of speaking, while in prison-bonds—Onesimus . . . the one formerly useless to you, but now indeed full of use, both to you and to me.

 

 

I am sending this one, who is my own heart, back to you (although I was wanting to keep him with me) — so that he, figuratively in your place, might be of service to me during my imprisonment for the gospel.  However, I chose to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good thing might not be something in which you felt forced, but rather did by your own decision.

 

Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave—as a brother whom you truly love—very much loved by me, but how much more can he now be loved by you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.

 

 

 

If, then, you consider me your partner, let him come to you as if it were I coming to you.

 

And if he has wronged you in any way or owes you anything, charge it to my account.  I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it . . . ignoring that you owe me even your own self! Yes, brother, let me benefit from you in the Lord!   Refresh my heart in Christ.

 

Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.

One thing more—prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping through your prayers to be given to you.

Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers.  The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.

II. Expansive Paraphrase (Dynamic Equivalent)To our co-worker Philemon, whom I truly love, sister Apphia; Archippus the soldier we’ve “fought” with, and the church at your house; from Paul—a prisoner—and Timothy.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

 

I perpetually thank my God when I remember you in my prayers, because I hear of both your love and your faith toward both the Lord Jesus and all the saints.  I pray that your faith-partnership gets up and acts on its convictions, as you come to perceive your every good thing (remember those words!) for Christ.  I speak genuinely when I say that I’ve experienced a lot of joy and encouragement because of your love, and the saints’ hearts have been refreshed through you, my brother.

 

 

Therefore, although I have the Christ-given authority to obligate you, I would much rather speak to you out of love, out of relationship.  To set the stage, if you’ll allow me a little leeway here to sound “pathetic” as I describe my side of our relationship . . . I’m self-identifying now as an old man—and now also Jesus Christ’s prisoner, don’t forget. . . .

 

I’m now appealing to you for my child—the one I spiritually fathered while in prison-chains . . . the one who was obviously not beneficial to you, but who is now positively beneficial, to you and to me.  Yes, you’ve assumed correctly—I’m talking about none other than Onesimus.

 

I’m sending this man—and please understand that he’s so close to me now that I consider him my very heart—back to you (although I was wanting to keep him with me).  And why was I of two minds, wishing he could stay?  So that he—taking your place, as it were—might serve me during my imprisonment for the gospel’s sake.  I’m consciously avoiding taking any unilateral action, though, and this is why:  so that any choice you make for a good thing would be something you did because you chose to do it—not out of a sense of obligation.

 

Maybe, just maybe, you could think of Onesimus’s escape as having a more important purpose, ending in a new, overall reality.  Why, then, might all this have happened? So that you might have him back in a lasting sense, no longer as a slave but more than a slave—as a brother you sincerely love.  Of course I love him dearly, but how much more can you now love him as a dear brother, both in terms of the human relationship and in the Christian sense.

 

So, if you consider me your partner, and I know you do, the obvious baseline here is that you welcome Onesimus in the same way you would welcome me if I walked up to your house.

And if he has wronged you in any way or owes you anything, put it on my account.   I, Paul, am writing this myself:   I’ll take care of the bill (and may I remind you that you owe me everything). 🙂   I’m going a step further than the obvious here, and I know that you know that.  Philemon, let me experience “beneficial” from you in the Lord!  Refresh “my heart” in Christ. (Get me?)

I’m sure you will not only defer to the obvious message; you’ll also see the rationale and the love involved in taking the subsequent step.

One thing more—prepare a guest room for me, because I’m hoping through your prayers to be “given” to you. (See how “paybacks” work?)

Epaphras, my co-prisoner in Christ Jesus, says hello, and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my co-workers.  May the Lord Jesus Christ’s grace be with your spirit.

 

© 2010-2014 Brian Casey.  All rights reserved.  Any sincere, reasonable request to use one or both of these translations, in whole or in part, is hereby granted!

More than I ask

Just a quick post for tonight–thinking not so much of the volume of blogwritings recently, and the need for respite from that, but of what’s on the heart.

Just checking in online after a couple of days of break from this kind of activity, I somehow got to the Common English Bible site, which I’d bookmarked before but never come back to.  I’d recommend a look at this translation.  I checked out a couple of “pet” passages, including Romans 12:1-2. (The translation of “logikan latreian” often provides a clue into the work of the rest of the translation, in my estimation, and this one does the best job I’ve ever seen!)

I also checked out Philemon, which I’d spent quite a  bit of time in last year.  The phrase that jumped out at me from that book was “more than I ask.”  Paul expects Philemon to do “more than I ask.”  In that context, the “more” was probably an anticipated releasing of Philemon back to Paul.

I’m in an amazing house/home tonight (that, incidentally, reminds me of another one dear to us in Colorado).  These sweet Christian folks don’t know me from Adam’s 71st cousin, 522 times removed, but they opened their home to another guy and me.  You can’t imagine the hospitality.  Incredible.  So many food options laid out before us.  Fridge stocked, all for our enjoyment.  Spacious, luxuriously furnished rooms.  More than I ever would have known to ask!   This couple clearly uses their ample income for God’s purposes, as they see fit.

My students, too, are doing “more than I ask” on this trip.  What a great group.  What a great blessing these few days are starting out to be.

Philemon wrap-up (8)

This post brings to a conclusion one of the more ostensibly imbalanced treatments of my 2.5-year blogging history.  By that I mean I’m not sure I’ve ever given anywhere near eight posts–more than 4,000 words–on any subject that originally amounted to only 335 words in its entirety.

Because it is impossible, as far as I know, to paste into WordPress a fully formatted, word-processor document, I’ll not be able to share my friend Greg Fay’s chiastic Philemon layout in all its clear, color-coded glory.  Instead, I’ll paste in each section in proximity with the other section to which it relates, adding my own comments in italics. In other words, instead of trying to show that vs. 4-5 relate to vs. 20-22 by formatting, I’ll simply put them next to each other, so the syntax will be “all messed up”–but in reality, it may be clarified!

~ ~ ~

§

1-3 Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus and Timothy the brother, To Philemon the beloved and our fellow-worker, and Aphia the sister, and Archippus our fellow-soldier, and to the church at your house.  Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

23 Epaphras, my fellow-prisoner in Christ Jesus greets you.  [And so do] Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow-workers. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.

Above, note the personal greetings, of course, and the bookends:  the repeated use of the words “grace” and “Lord Jesus Christ.”  In addition, a clue is found in the word “fellow.”  The Gk. here is not koinonia and does not even use the same prefix, yet the notion of “together” is seen in both these words.

§

4-7

I thank [euxaristo] my God always
  making mention of you in my prayers, hearing
    of the love
      and the faith
        which you have
      toward the Lord Jesus
    and for all the saints,
  [praying] that the fellowship of your faith might become active through the knowledge of every good [thing] which is in you for Christ.
For I had much joy and comfort in your love, because the hearts of the saints are refreshed by you, brother.

20-22

Yes, brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord.
Refresh my heart in Christ.
    Confident of your obedience, I have written to you, knowing that you will do even more than what I say.
And, at the same time, also prepare for me the guest room.
For I hope that through your prayers, I will be freely given [xaristhasomai] to you.

The emboldened words show the bookends here: xaristhasomai and eucharisto.  Precise, literal translation is often difficult, and these words are no exceptions, which is why English-readers almost never perceive this connection.

Looking at v. 5 now, in the first indented set, the (implied) praying is a connection.  As mentioned in a prior post, the construction of this mini-chiasm in v. 5 introduces ambiguity:  love is typically thought of as horizontal, i.e., toward other saints/Christians, while faith is held in the Lord Jesus. Here, the converse may also be a possibility.

The “benefit” Paul desires in 20 relates to the refreshing of hearts in 7; further on this point, the hearts of the saints become connected to the refreshing of Paul’s heart in 20.  Also, note the connection to v. 12–Onesimus is Paul’s heart.

§

8-9

Therefore, having much boldness in Christ to order you to do what is proper,
   on account of love,
   I rather appeal to you,
being as I am, Paul, an old man, and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus.

17-19

If, therefore, you consider [have] me as a partner, receive him as [if he were] me.

   And if he’s done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me.
   I, Paul, am writing with my own hand, “I will pay it back”—
lest I remind you that you owe me your very self

These parallel sections begin with “therefore” (Gk. “inferential particles” –G.F.).  Here, Paul has emphasized personal aspects—his age, his captivity, his own hand, and his name.  There also seems to be a sort of financial connection—“on account of love” (8) being related structurally to what Onesimus may or may not owe to Philemon, and what Philemon “owes” to Paul (18-19).

The nature of the appeal Paul makes is in evidence here, as well:  it is based primarily on relationship and not on authority, although an apostolic “authority clause” is also present (8).

§

10-12

I appeal to you for my child
who was born to me while I was in chains, Onesimus—
      the one formerly useless to you
      but now useful to you and to me—
   whom I am sending to you,
this one, he is my heart,

16

no longer as a slave, but above a slave,
      a beloved brother,
especially to me, but how much more to you,
both in the flesh and in the Lord.

These passages are exceedingly significant!  As I’ve indicated previously, the delay tactic is clearly seen in v. 10 as Paul “waits” before finally mentioning Onesimus’s name.  The connection between 10 and 12 is clear:  Onesimus is Paul’s spiritual child and is also his “heart,” both depictions pointing up a rather extreme personal attachment.  The attachment is further borne out in the last phrase of 16:  both physical/human and spiritual relationship are referenced.

Back to 10-12 now . . . moving inward, the next sections show a kind of physical direction—Onesimus’s having come to Paul, so he could be spiritually begotten, and then his being sent away from Paul to Philemon.  This travel appears to me to foreshadow the overall thrust of the letter, which will be seen even more clearly in the next section.

The pun on Onesimus’s name (11) is more than a play on words; it hints at a spiritual directive, which, again, will hence be seen.  That Onesimus would to this point be seen as useless to Philemon is no surprise; after all, the slave Onesimus ran away and probably stole.  Yet despite his earlier wrongs, Onesimus has a new identity and is now useful, which is the meaning of his name.  This new identity is seen in the related passage (center of 16):  put plainly, he is now a brother.  The expression “beloved brother” seems to cap the commendation of the “new” Onesimus to Philemon, in case there could be any doubt at this point.

One more item in this marvelous pairing . . . note the chiastic relationship of the concept of chains, both for Paul (10) and in Onesimus’s former slave relationship (16a).

And now we move to the final section.  Considered in a western, linear fashion, this whole presentation would be assumed to be messed up; I’m ending with the center.  But seen as Paul (and the Spirit of God!) intended, this coming “center” is really the end of the line. . . .

§

13-15

whom I would like to have kept [to have] for myself,
so that he might minister to me for you in the chains of the gospel.
But without your consent, I did not want to do anything,
      so that not according to constraint your good thing might be but according to free-will.
For perhaps for this reason he was separated from you for an hour, 
so that you might have him back forever,

There is more than one way to delineate and organize these verses, but the differences are not ultimately all that significant, in my estimation.  I have chosen 14b as the center of the letter’s overall structure; one other possibility has vss. 13-14 forming a longer center.

In the outer phrasings of 13-15 there is a sense of ownership of Onesimus–first, Paul’s desire to have “kept” the new brother (hold that thought).  Then in 15, first there is the lack of ownership that resulted from Onesimus’s having run away . . . followed closely by a new proposition from Paul:  that Philemon could now newly, more deeply, possess relationship with Onesimus, their new brother.

Note also in 13-15 that there are three “so that” (Gk. ‘ina) clauses.  What seems apparent—and this is based as much on the whole of the letter’s message as on verses 13-15a in particular—is that the middle instance (the “so that” expression in 14b) stands at the epicenter of the letter’s single, overall chiastic structure.

Paul is asking not only for Philemon to accept Onesimus as a brother, but he is asking more.  He is asking that Philemon do the previously unthinkable.  He is asking that Philemon enable Onesimus to continue ministering to Paul for the sake of evangelization.[1]

Paul is asking, in 14b, that Philemon willingly (operative word!), lovingly release Onesimus back to Paul.  Onesimus is now a personified “good thing,” and Philemon’s “good thing” will be to release, of his own will, Onesimus to return to Paul.

~ ~ ~

At the time he wrote this letter, Paul could have been captive in such a city as Ephesus (not in Rome until his second imprisonment)[2].  A few years down the road, someone named Onesimus was a leader in the church in Ephesus.  I like to think that this was the case, and that Onesimus had in fact been released to live in Ephesus with Paul for a time, remaining there for the rest of his life.  Having come across the theory that Onesimus might have been influential in having the letter to Philemon included in subsequent collections of scripture, I might further theorize that if Onesimus lived out his days in just such a central city, where he clearly would have first- and second-hand knowledge of the letter to the Ephesians and the both letters to Timothy, not to mention the ones to Philemon, Colossians (and Laodiceans), it would be easy to believe that Onesimus was uniquely used by the Lord in the process of collection an ultimate canonization of many of Paul’s writings.

To close this study of Philemon, I will share a quotation from Greg Fay’s book-in-progress on reading scripture.  In the following, Greg does what I believe he has the right to do, having exegetically, soundly interpreted the scripture:  he applies it to current day.  I hope that I, together with all those I contact in the Kingdom, will be true to God’s scriptures–not applying them carelessly, but seeking earnestly to uncover their original contexts and intended messages.  Then we may apply the scripture to our current-day situations!

I want extreme community.  I want to participate in it, which means I want to know, respond to, and share the grace of God in Christ.  I want to have faith in the Lord Jesus and be a lover of all saints, regardless of skin-color, social-status, or savings account.  I want to treat those who have wronged me with the depth of refreshing faith and love that Paul asks of Philemon—an active sharing of my faith that will help them find real the extreme community of Christ that begins to share in Christ’s own love and com­munity with the Father.  I won’t always feel like it, and I will sometimes fail miserably.  But God’s word spoken to us through the book of Philemon envisions and calls for no less.

. . .

From Philemon—among other things—the word of God is

love beyond boundaries,

forgiveness beyond hurts,

community beyond differences, and

purpose beyond failures.

Now, read Philemon again, and seek to live it as you follow Christ.

– Gregory L. Fay, PhD, Inkblotitis:  How To Read the Bible to Miss Get God’s Point (manuscript)


[1] The only ambiguity for me in this choice resides in 15a, where the expression “might have him back forever” might be interpreted in more than one way.  My current choice is that this means “Philemon, even though you won’t have him physically forever, you now have a lasting, eternal relationship with Onesimus, and this will enable you to do, in good conscience and in love for me, what I am asking.”

[2] The likes of F.F. Bruce have written about such possibilities.  Caesarea has also been considered an option for the place of Paul’s captivity.  Scholars are divided on this question.

Philemon wrap-up (7)

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(continued)

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.

Philemon wrap-up (6)

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. . . continued . . .

Because I don’t have much time today, but because I want to stay on track with this wrap-up study, I’m going to offer here only a few words and questions (not intended as an exhaustive list) that I/we find to merit further inquiry.  The following words seem to be especially significant:

  • saint
  • koinonia
  • adelphon, agapeton
  • heart and bowels opposite love (consider the implications of 1) Philemon’s having refreshed Paul’s heart, and 2) Onesimus’s now being now Paul’s heart
  • the historical (Greek) textual variant—“in you” vs. “in us” v. 6

And now, a few questions, in addition to the ones posed in previous blogposts:

  • Who is said to be a “beloved brother”?
  • Do you think this is more an individual or community letter?  Of whom does Paul expect something?
  • How does Paul’s captivity affect relate to purpose of letter?  (And, as a side note, where do you think Paul was held or imprisoned at this time?  Quite a few scholars do not assume this was one of the Roman imprisonments at the time of this writing.)
  • What is the relationship of Philemon’s faith and the Request Paul makes?
  • Would implicit elements of this letter have been as implicit to the first reader(s)?

To be continued . . . in two more installments, I think! . . .

Philemon wrap-up (5)

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. . . continued . . .

Here are more textual discoveries, notables, and inquiries into the fascinating text of Philemon.

Note the use of the word “brother” in both v. 7 and v. 20.  Further on the relationship between these two verses:  the joy, comfort, and refreshing of the hearts (all in 7) may be related to the benefit Paul desires from Philemon and the refreshing of his heart (20).

The relationship between Paul and Philemon, whom he refers to as “beloved one,” is the basis for Paul’s logic, his request, and his expectation.  Philemon is beloved (1) and Onesimus is beloved (16), too.  Remember how shocking this would all be to Philemon as he read the letter.  The very idea that a runaway slave who had likely stolen was deemed “beloved”!

Note further the “love” theme:

  1. Philemon loves the saints (5).
  2. Paul has experienced Philemon’s love (7).
  3. As Paul is now “elderly” and a prisoner, he is in a position to receive love—“ images that amplify the application of love and present Paul as someone who should be respected, listened to, and perhaps ministered to or helped” (G. Fay).

We might ask why the latter portion of v. 9? Why might Paul express himself & describe himself in this way? As Greg has suggested, “Perhaps there’s more to the intentions of the letter than meets the eye at this point.”

The thanksgiving and petition in 4 and 9, respectively, are common Pauline markers, delineating text sections and/or showing points of emphasis.

Referring again to yesterday’s sermonette on v. 6–could the expression “fellowship of faith” be intentionally ambiguous?  Remember the possible, subtextual ambiguity in the the chiasm of v. 5 (love for others and faith toward Jesus / faith toward others and love of Jesus).  Might one of the thrusts here be that the community of Philemon’s faith and love must become energized/activated toward Onesimus?  Must koinonia extend to Onesimus as it does to Paul, since Onesimus is Paul’s “heart” (12)?

What a rich, inspired letter!  More to come. . . .

Philemon wrap-up (4)

. . . continued

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Anyone who doubts that a small group could spend eight weekly sessions studying Philemon would also logically doubt that someone could “wrap up” this study in more than a few paragraphs.  Believe it or not, the fourth installment of this “wrap-up” will not be the last!  I’m only calling this whole thing “wrap-up” because for me, it is wrapping up a more personal series of studies with friends.  In the blogosphere, this is becoming more of a bona fide (although largely by proxy) exegetical study than a wrap-up, I suppose.

In the following textual discoveries and notables in the text of Philemon–for which I am again indebted, almost entirely, to my friend Dr. Greg Fay–chiastic structural relationships are assumed.  Let anyone who doubts the significance of the presence of such structures be convinced!

  1. In v. 4 — “thank” is eucharisto.  In v. 22 — “freely given” is “charisthasomai.”  This connection is not often evident in English renderings.  This pairing of verses also both employs the word “prayers.”
  2. I haven’t yet seen a clear, chiastic connection between v. 5 and v. 21 or anything down there toward the end of the letter.  However, v. 5 itself may involve implicit concepts as well as what’s on the surface:  love is structurally tied to “all the saints,” and faith is tied to “the Lord Jesus.”  Yet, note Greg’s inquiry related to the possible ambiguity in the ordering of the words:  “So could the circular shape intentionally blur the lines?  Either way, the implication is telling.”  By this he means that we may also consider that we have love toward the Lord Jesus and, in a sense, faith in our fellow saints. This latter possibility may be seen to connect to the overall message of the letter, as Paul is expressing an implicit faith in Philemon and, by extension, in the house-church community–faith that they will do what he asks with regard to Onesimus.
  3. Further etymological connections include the expression “in Christ,” found both in v. 6 and v. 20.

Verse 6 merits special consideration since it has often been misused and poorly translated.  Let it be clear that this verse has nothing directly to do with evangelistic efforts.  Paul is not here suggesting that Philemon, or anyone else among the Colossian saints, “share his faith” with an unbeliever.  The intended import of this passage becomes more clear as the reader becomes more familiar with the thrusts of the letter; it seems to me that Paul is hinting here at what he will later suggest more strongly, if not explicitly:  that Philemon’s faith-partnership with Paul would become active in a very specific way regarding Onesimus.  I have wondered, then, whether this “activeness” (root word is energes, and the expression in v. 6 might well be rendered “that your faith-partnership will become energized …”) relates to the strong, influential request for active response in v. 21:  ” . . . knowing that you will do even more than I what I say.”

“Every good thing” in v. 6 appears to be a direct reference to Onesimus, as it is in v. 14.  Previously, Onesimus was a bad thing; now, in Christ, is not to be considered a good one!

To be continued. . . .

Philemon wrap-up (3)

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. . . continued from yesterday . . .

This beautiful letter is of course about Philemon and Onesimus, but it is about more than the two of them. It is about grace, about Christian togetherness, about relationship and identity in Jesus, and more.  Its inclusion in the canon appears to be no accident!

Looking at the opening greeting can give us some important, initial clues as to the meaning and intent.  Paul does not just say “Paul to you, greetings.”  Adjectives and expansions of the basic form give us clues into the situation and purposes of the letter.  Paul’s letters are, by the way, not “epistles” in the truest sense.  They are letters, and by that I mean they were 1) occasional and 2) non-formal-literary in nature.  They were intended for a specific audience and not for broad publication.  The structure of the writing tends to indicate that they were personal letters and not carefully crafted orations that Paul thought would be widely read.  The occasional aspect, when phrased that way, may get some of our backs up, because the word seems to downplay the significance of the writing.  In using the word “occasional,” though, I in no way intend to denigrate the purpose–me gonoito! Rather, I am attempting to help myself and others to hone in on the specific situation–the historical context–that gave rise to, or occasioned, the letter.

The community dimension is implied in the address to Philemon, (his wife) Apphia, (his son) Archippus,¹ and their house church.

Greg Fay has pointed out these things regarding the introduction to the letter, which is found in verses 1-7.

  1. “A clear, repetitive emphasis on community and partnership in the cause of Christ thus fills the Address.”
  2. “Close scrutiny of the language of Philemon as a whole reveals the concept of Christian relationship or community to be the pivotal idea on which the theology of the letter depends.  Paul clearly and forcefully identifies Onesimus as having a new, spiritual son-like, useful, emotional, vital, beloved, serving relationship with himself—in other words, Onesimus is now a devoted Christian.  Paul shares a similar relationship with Philemon.”
  3. “As Paul will explain, Onesimus has been reborn and has become a child of Paul and, more importantly, a child of Christ—he is now a “saint.”  If Philemon loves all the saints, he will now also love Onesimus, necessarily.  The argument turns on Onesimus’s change of identity (“. . . my child Onesimus, whose father I became . . .  Formerly, he was useless to you, but now . . .”)  There is a then and a now, and they are not the same.  The implication is unassailable and unyielding.  But notice that Paul doesn’t draw the implication here; he simply builds the literary and theological context for the purposes of his letter. 

To be continued . . .

—————————————

¹ That Apphia and Archippus had some special standing in the household is clear.  That they were wife and son, respectively, to Philemon is not explicit.  Archippus is also mentioned in the letter to the Colossians.

Philemon wrap-up (2)

(. . . continued)

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Step Two in investigating a NC letter is to divide the Middle into sections.  As I tried to show yesterday, the Middle or Body of this short letter to Philemon is found in verses 8-20.

We may note that verses 8-9 and 20 appear to be transitional—moving into, and out of, the Middle.

V. 10 begins the official Request with introduction to the background information:

I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment.

The background information is found in 11-14, and the Request (there is almost always a Request in letters of this type) is completed in v. 17:

So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.

The Body is bolstered by what Greg Fay calls “Paul’s personal voucher” in 18-19:

If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account.  I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it.  I say nothing about your owing me even your own self.

The transitional v. 20, then, summarizes and transitions to a rather cryptic (to our eyes, anyway) bit of persuasion in v. 21: Summarizing Conclusion

Yes, brother, let me have this benefit from you in the Lord!  Refresh my heart in Christ.

Note that there is no formal Disclosure in Philemon, although this literary element is found in other letters.

The Petition verb is found in 10:  “appeal”

The Addressee is “you” (8) . . . although we will mention later that there may be additional understood addressees

The Background is given in 10-16.

“Divine authority” phrases are found in 8 and 9:  “bold enough in Christ to command you”; “as an old man and now a prisoner of Christ”

The explicit, desired action is a bit oddly syntactically separated by intervening material:

a.       “for Onesimus”  in 10

b.      “. . . welcome him as you would welcome me” in 17

This separation, I suspect, is quite intentional, and I’ll attempt to show the reason soon.

( to be continued . . .)