A Socio-Rhetorical Interpretation of the Letter to Philemon in Light of the New Institutional Economics

An Exhortion to Transform a Master-Slave Economic Relationship into a Brotherly-Love Relationship

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Alex Hon Ho Ip
  • Tübingen, Germany: 
    Mohr Siebeck
    , September
     246 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Alex Hon Ho Ip’s new monograph is a slightly revised version of his 2014 Chinese University of Hong Kong dissertation. In Philemon, Ip argues, Paul deliberately wants Onesimus to find a new, loving relationship with his master. This transformed relationship is based on Paul’s ethic of love despite the exploitive nature of a master/slave relationship. 

The longstanding problem for the study of Philemon is the unstated purpose of the letter. Most common is the runaway slave hypothesis. In this view, Onesimus ran away from his Christian master, Philemon, and ended up in Rome where he met the apostle Paul and converted to Christianity. Paul encouraged him to return to Philemon as a brother in Christ. The letter of Philemon functions as a letter of recommendation on the analogy of a first century AD letter written by Pliny the Younger to Sabinianus intervening on behalf of a freed slave. But what does Paul want Philemon to do after reading the letter? Is he to free Onesimus from slavery? Ip argues Paul wants Philemon to transform his relationship with his slave. But how can an economic relationship like slavery be transformed by Christian love? 

In this study Ip modifies Vernon Robbins’s socio-rhetorical method by proposing three “textures” for reading Philemon. First, the “inner texture” examines Paul’s rhetorical skill as a letter writer. Second, the “intertexture” reads Philemon against Paul’s theological and ethical teaching as found in the larger canon. The only access to this teaching is the undisputed letters of Paul. Since Philemon is a very short letter, Paul assumes his readers would recall what he has already taught them. Third, the “economic texture” reads Philemon with a proper understanding of Roman slavery. Ip offers a detailed analysis using the methods of New Institutional Economics [NIE]. 

In chapter 2, Ip begins his assessment of the “inner texture” of Philemon with a survey of the vocabulary of Philemon. He argues that the high concentration of relational words in the letter signals its purpose. Moving from the “inner texture” to the “intertexture,” Ip sketches the main contours of Pauline theology and ethics (chapter 3). Ip finds three main theological and ethical motifs in Paul: eschatological, theological, and christological. Eschatology is often considered a driving force for Paul’s theology. Paul believes God has already acted in the present age in in order to initiate a completely new relationship between humanity and its creator. From a theological perspective, how did God make this new relationship possible? Humans are completely dependent on the power of God and his radical creative and redemptive purposes (78). From this basis, Ip traces the general lines of Paul’s christology. People participate in this new relationship with God through the faithful act of Jesus Christ. 

The third texture is economics of slavery, using insights from NIE. “Economy” in this context does not simply refer to money, but also to the pursuit of honor and patron/client relationships which were ubiquitous in the Roman world. Ip’s fourth chapter describes slavery as integral to every aspect of Roman economy using three institutional models drawn from NIE. 

First, Ip describes informal institutions which constitute the basis of the Roman political order. Since the Punic Wars, Rome’s economy grew so fast there was pressure to provide a sufficient labor force. Ip points out several philosophical arguments which supplement these economic factors, including Aristotle’s belief that slaves were by nature morally and intellectually inferior. Second, he surveys formal institutions which set boundaries for players entering into contracts. Although Roman law described slaves as things to be owned, they were given some rights such as limited ownership of property. Yet if a slave was respected, it was for what they added to the wealth and power of the master and not for their status as humans. Third, Ip examines two contractual arrangements, manumission and peculium. Slaves could be set free by their masters and granted the status of freedmen but they remained in a patron/client relationship with their master. Peculium refers to some wealth given to the slave to manage on behalf of the master. As a slave accumulated more peculium, they would be more loyal to the master. The purpose of these arrangements was to reduce transaction costs of enforcing contracts for the masters. Although brute force was always a possibility, slaves generating income for a master were more likely to be treated well. 

With these three textures in mind, Ip returns to Philemon (chapter 5). The main issue for understanding Philemon is identifying the problem Paul addresses. As Ip has demonstrated, the exploitative nature of slavery was ingrained in Roman worldview at both the philosophical and economic levels. For Ip, the purpose of the letter is to encourage Philemon to accept Onesimus as a brother in Christ. But how does Paul convince both Philemon and the congregation to adopt an ethic of love with respect to master and slaves? Ip provides a socio-rhetorical commentary on Philemon using his three textures (192-218). Paul encourages Philemon to give up his own legal right to an exploitative master-slave relationship with Onesimus by following the model of both Jesus and Paul himself. Ip draws parallels between the arguments of the attitude of Jesus in his letter to the Philippians 2:6-8. Jesus set aside his own authority (“equal with God”) in order to be obedient to death on the cross. So too Paul sets aside his own authority as an apostle when he does not command Philemon to accept Onesimus (Philemon 8). For Paul, the solution to the problem of Onesimus’s return is to transform the exploitive master-slave relationship through the example of Christ and the new eschatological reality. 

The book concludes with a few conclusions which bridge the gap between the exploitative system of Roman slavery and contemporary capitalist society. Ip suggests, for example, that private enterprise objectifies the laborer and reduces them to a part of a machine (225). There are additional connections between Roman slavery and contemporary capitalist society which may be explored by applying the principles of NIE. 

Ip has succeeded in his goal of suggesting a look at the problem of Philemon. His observations of Roman economic realities open new possibilities for the interpretation of this important Pauline letter. He has indeed charted new territory for understanding the nature of Roman slavery which enables scholars to avoid anachronisms. The principles of NIE as described by Ip can be applied to other areas of the New Testament such as master/slave relationships in Ephesians and Colossians as well as the economy in the background of many of Jesus’s parables.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Phillip J. Long is Professor of New Testament at Grace Christian University in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Date of Review: 
May 31, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Alex Hon Ho Ip is assistant professor in New Testament, Chung Chi Divinity School, Chinese University of Hong Kong.


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