The cultural norms in the Greco-Roman world in regards to letter writing may not seem like an exciting topic to some, but its value is undeniable in reconstructing the messages found in the NT. I, for one, have enjoyed learning more about it and what it brings to the conversation.

As someone who grew up reading the NT letters, I certainly felt like I was learning the formal language for a pattern that I had already come to recognize. Of course, Western letter writing has, in a sense, most of the same elements, so NT epistles aren’t entirely foreign. Understanding the cultural influences that are present in the letters, however, increase our recognition of the context and aid in interpretation.

Specifically standing out this week was a point in the lecture concerning the letter to the Galatians. The lack of a proem was a great example of how understanding the historical norms of letter writing tells us more than we could immediately interpret in the text. Not only does this fact of this omission have value, but it also gives us an incredible insight into how the church at Galatia would have received Paul’s words.

Hartman’s “On Reading Others’ Letters” was a great read as well, especially concerning his conclusions on Paul’s letter writing. As we approach the Word in our young Christian walk, we Westerners see through Western eyes, and so we envision a solo Paul penning yet another letter to another of his children churches. More study results in ideas about how letters were copied and distributed, and uncertain authorship and inspiration. Hartman, for me then, provides a new suggestion in that Paul understood his writings were useful to a much wider audience that his primary recipient, and so purposefully wrote them to accommodate such a fact. That the Holy Spirit provided inspirational guidance to that effect had certainly crossed my mind, but not that Paul himself would have considered it.

Furthermore, the idea that Paul kept copies of his letters in a local collection is striking enough to cause us to relook at his work under such a suggestion. “Paul writing to the Galatians” and “Paul writing to the wide Christian world by means of the Galatians” would be similar volumes, but the amplitude and specificity of ideas and suggestions would likely be noticeably different.

Finally, Hartman makes a comparison that I found compelling and will undoubtedly find a way to use in the future. Hartman references reading Scripture through a contemporary lens while disregarding the original intended meaning, using as an example a Lutheran reading of Paul that equates the Law with God’s will. (Hartman, 143). He then likens this to how Christian interpretations of the Tanakh must appear to the Jew. This is an excellent reminder that the Hebrew Bible has both always pointed to Jesus and simultaneously had a primary meaning separate from Jesus.

Man is often his own stumbling block as we interpret God’s Word, and one of the primary problems we face when interpreting Scripture is leaving our bias at the door. For the last two centuries, slavery has been a hotbed of conversation, and its social costs are still being paid today. However, in the course of utilizing Philemon in this conversation, I think we must consider how the institution of slavery and Christians’ perceptions of it gave Philemon a task it could not complete.

My reading of Philemon leaves me with the impression that Onesimus is in a very real fashion indebted to Philemon, but not specifically in the manner of slavery. I take the use of the word “slave” to be figurative in the context of the epistle and to confer a discrepancy of status or balance between the two men. So then I am subscribed to a real familial relationship between these two men.

The familial relationship takes it a foothold in verse 16, where Paul encourages Philemon to accept Onesimus as a “beloved brother… both in the flesh and in the Lord.” Two men cannot become brothers in the flesh if they did not originally possess that relationship, so, therefore, the brotherhood he wishes to Philemon to re-accept is likely one that has a familial aspect to it, as well as kinship in the Lord.

The interpretation that considers Onesimus a slave via the literal interpretation of verse 16 is often accompanied by the idea that he has run away from his slavery. I find verse 18 to be problematic in that interpretation, since Paul seems to be unsure if Philemon considers Onesimus to have wronged or owe anything to him. Had Onesimus run away, he would undoubtedly know so and Paul should therefore be aware that he indeed does owe Philemon something. I do not think Paul is being coy with his words, but is honest in his inquiry and willingness to have Onesimus’ debt on his account.

In this epistle, as well as with all others attributed to him, Paul is writing both to the named recipient(s) and a wider audience. While the recipient and his admonitions are set in the historical context of the letter, the wider audience is not necessarily privy to this context. Paul seems to be aware of this as he writes his epistles, and Philemon should be no exception, given its Pauline character. In the case of taking the text of Philemon and making what would have amounted to a counterculture argument about slavery, Paul seems to have failed if that were his specific goal.

We can take Paul’s words, however, and use them for what they are: an admonition to treat our fellow heirs with love and refresh each other’s hearts in Christ.