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“Old Man” as Cipher: Humor and Honor-Shame Rhetoric for Reading Philemon in Mozambique

Author: Alan Howell
Published: 2020

MD 11

Article Type: Peer Reviewed Article

Among the Makua-Metto people of Mozambique, Africa, old age can be leveraged rhetorically by using the language of honor-shame, even humorously, to convince others to treat speakers with respect or follow their advice. Paul’s rhetoric to Philemon fits naturally into this mode of speech. This article investigates how the cipher (or rhetorical device) of “old man” highlights the elements of kinship and in light of both New Testament and African contexts.

“My Son, you can see that I’m suffering. . . . I’m an old man now, the age of your father. Don’t forget! And I need your assistance as a brother in Christ. . . . I know your heart is good and am confident that you will be sure to do all that you can to help me.”

His message was ringing in my ears as I stepped inside the house. I had known this man for over a decade, and as I considered his request, our relationship, and the way I should respond, my primary reaction was to smile and shake my head. His appeal was phrased in such a way that, while I was certainly happy to assist him, he had me “trapped.” He petitioned me with a smile, but that did not undermine the seriousness of what he was doing. My friend leveraged his age and the depth of our relationship to ensure my assistance. During my earlier years in Mozambique this conversation would have felt very manipulative, but now, after living in this region of Africa for so long, that sense has faded. I can now recognize and appreciate that his request was using the rhetorical device of an “old man,” or apwapwawe in Makua-Metto, which trades on aspects of honor and shame in order to elicit a favorable response.

My experience in Mozambique finds a compelling parallel in Paul’s letter to Philemon. John Barclay describes it as “the most intriguing and beguiling of all Paul’s letters, with its teasing historical allusions and its special rhetorical charms.”1 Paul’s “rhetorical charms” apply pressure in a variety of ways to convince Philemon to treat Onesimus, his slave, as a brother in Christ. Indeed, many Westerners “would find this letter highly manipulative,” but, as Ben Witherington reminds us, “what might . . . appear manipulative in one cultural setting might appear quite normal and appropriate in another.”2 When I read Philemon with my friends in Mozambique, for example, they could easily identify Paul as speaking like an apwapwawe, noticing the way he refers to himself as an old man (v. 9) and using humor, honor, and shame as part of his persuasion.3 In this essay I explore how reading in the context of Mozambique provides an interpretive perspective that helps decode Paul’s language.4 This aim entails that I first investigate the rhetoric of the letter to Philemon in its historical and cultural context, drawing helpful comparisons with two ancient sources, Pliny and Quintilian. Following that, two contemporary interpreters will help us appreciate Paul’s rhetorical approach and strategy by framing it in terms of game theory in an honor-shame and patron-client context. In the final section, I will consider how Mozambican cultural perceptions of honor-shame, humor, old age, intermediaries, and kinship are connected to Makua-Metto communication strategies. In many African contexts, as well as in other parts of the world today, honor-shame rhetoric is linked to kinship language and serves an important role in discourse and argumentation related to the good of the community. The overall argument will show how the Mozambican rhetorical cipher of “old man,” one that fits well within the communication strategies of Paul’s time, leads to a richer interpretation of Paul’s letter to Philemon. My hope is that bringing this reading from Mozambique into the conversation will enhance an understanding of the rhetorical cipher of “old man” and the sociological ciphers of kinship and koinonia in the letter to Philemon. I believe these ciphers are useful in helping us appreciate the way Paul’s complicated request can be interpreted in other contexts today.5

Pliny and Paul: Rhetoric in the New Testament Context

Pliny the Younger (61–113 AD), a Roman magistrate, corresponds with Sabinianus in a series of letters about a runaway worker.6 In the first letter, Pliny leverages his influence to act as a mediator on behalf of this man, encouraging Sabinianus to take him back. In the follow-up letter, Pliny states that while his first communication functioned sufficiently to mediate the dispute, in the future, Sabinianus should possess the proper virtues to be able to address issues like this without needing anyone to intercede. Pliny’s correspondences with Sabinianus provide an insightful point of comparison to Paul’s rhetoric in Philemon. In the following I note differences and similarities between Paul and Pliny in regard to the cultural and relational categories of mediation, honor/shame and patron/client.

Mediation in Pliny in comparison to Philemon

While some interpreters have suggested interesting theories regarding the backstory of Paul’s epistle, the most common reading is that a slave named Onesimus has run away and that this is an appeal for reconciliation.7 If that is the case, it seems reasonable that Onesimus may have enlisted a friend of his master to intercede for him.8 Since Onesimus is estranged from Philemon, Paul must first act as a mediator, asking Philemon not to treat Onesimus “as a disobedient and troublesome slave” deserves, but as “his Patron, Paul, deserves.”9 The apostle “intercedes but, contrary to the known case of Pliny the Younger . . . which makes its appeals to the exercise of the Stoic virtue of clemency, Paul appeals on the basis of Christian love and faith.”10 Paul’s strategy in the letter to Philemon seems to use both pressure and persuasion (elements Pliny mentions),11 but he leaves out mention of Onesimus’s contrition in relation to Philemon (elements Pliny mentions).12 He speaks only of Onesimus’s repentance and acceptance of the lordship of Christ. Paul’s main appeal is based on koinonia and kinship, elements absent from Pliny’s letter.13

The structure of the letter itself exhibits another major divergence from Pliny’s strategy.14 Paul frames his mediation in the context of the lordship of Jesus (vv. 1, 25) and the presence of Christ’s body, the church (vv. 2, 23–24),15 under whose “watchful eyes” this intercession is taking place.16 Paul’s “affectionate and authoritative claims” are made by means of his status as “apostolic paterfamilias.”17 This strategy places both Philemon and Onesimus in the category of his children (teknon) in order to take advantage of what Frilingos calls the “apostle’s τέκνο(ν)-ology of power.”18 In addition, some have suggested that Paul uses commercial, contractual language (for example, two terms in v. 18, “he owes” and “charge . . . to my account”) to reorient Philemon’s will.19 While the letters of Paul and Pliny have similar objectives and strategies, it is clear that they involve different premises and end goals. Paul’s mediation is aimed at Philemon receiving his runaway back not merely as a slave but as a brother in Christ.

Honor and Shame in Pliny in comparison to Philemon

Mediterranean society is “located at the crossroads of, on the one hand, honor and shame, and, on the other, patronage and clientage, each with both vertical and horizontal, human and divine dimensions.”20 Following these well-traveled paths, “the cultivation of patrons gave the client access to the goods, services, and protection necessary for a safe and fruitful life; the cultivation of clients gave the patron prestige and power.”21 The language of honor and shame was used in the Mediterranean world to define and “organize these values and motivate adherence to them.”22 Since considerations of honor and dishonor generally played a role in a given decision-making process during the time of the New Testament,23 we should be sensitive to how they and their connections to patronage would have shaped Philemon’s reception of the letter and our perceptions of it, as well.

Patron-client language peppers the epistle (vv. 1, 7, 13, 17, 22),24 and even Paul’s use of the word “grace” (v. 3, 25) is connected with patronage.25 While Pliny’s letter was sent to an individual, potentially keeping their interaction and juggling of status private,26 Paul’s epistle was to be read in front of the church; in effect, the public reading issued a challenge to Philemon’s honor (a challenge/riposte).27 In Greco-Roman culture, communication of this sort was something of a game wherein both parties had to consider the danger of losing face.28 The indirection in the epistle, thus, shows how Paul and Philemon “play the game” of not losing face in the interaction.29 Heard through the lens of honor-shame and patron-client, Philemon—who already owed Paul (v. 19)—is given “little room to refuse his request! If he is to keep his reputation for generosity and for acting nobly in his relations of reciprocity (the public reading of the letter creates a court of reputation that will make this evaluation), he can only respond to Paul’s request in the affirmative. Only then would his generosity bring him any credit at all in the community. If he refuses and Paul must command what he now asks, Philemon will either have to break with Paul or lose Onesimus anyway without gaining any honor as a benefactor and reliable friend.”30 In light of Pliny’s letters, given the dynamics of honor and shame, we can appreciate the ways that Paul was playing a more complicated communication “game” with higher stakes for all parties involved.

Quintilian and Paul: Rhetoric in the New Testament Context

While Pliny’s letters help us appreciate Paul’s larger rhetorical goal, Quintilian’s textbook on rhetoric adds two important perspectives on the micro-rhetoric of the letter to Philemon.31 First, Quintilian illustrates the connection between old age and authority. He comments on the way that good communicators will rely on stories, examples, and experience by saying, “It is this which gives old age so much authority, since the old are believed to have a larger store of knowledge and experience.”32 In a parallel fashion, Paul references his old age (v. 9) in the letter to Philemon to “induce respect and obedience,” an approach that resonated in that context as it still does in many cultures today.33 By designating himself as an old man,34 Paul hopes to leverage, in a positive, productive sense, both “shame” and “reverence” in his recipient.35 He is drawing on the pathos of an old, imprisoned, yet beloved apostle bearing a new child “born in chains.”36 The argument for a category change from slave to brother is “clearly a powerful gambit on Paul’s part, but one he could use once and only in special circumstances.”37 So he bases his appeal (v. 10) on his status as an old man who is now also in chains (v. 9), linked to their partnership in the gospel (koinonon, v. 17)—an important cipher for reading the letter to Philemon. The implied rhetorical question, then, looks something like this: “In comparison with the sacrifice I am making, is not the favor which I am asking you to grant a rather easy matter?”38

Second, Quintilian also addresses the use of humor and the stylistic value of irony.39 Irony, Quintilian suggests, makes things seem more trivial by framing them differently than expected.40 Orators “of good character and courtesy” can use the listener’s emotions, appropriating irony, to make their case.41 Quintilian notes that “all forms of argument afford equal opportunity for jests,” citing a few examples before asserting that “even the most severe irony is a kind of jest.”42 Even refutation, which “consists in denying, rebutting, defending or making light of a charge . . . each of these affords scope for humour.”43

Considering the serious subject matter at hand, it seems that Paul would agree with Quintilian, since the parallel clauses in v. 17 and 18 are “both full of rhetorical ruse.”44 The clauses question their partnership and Philemon’s material loss, playing with Philemon’s feelings, in order to poke and prod him sufficiently, propelling him to action.45 Witherington notes that “all this rhetorical finesse prepares for the final reiteration of the appeal in v. 20 with a further and even more transparent wordplay” on Onesimus’s name and the benefit or profit to be gained by Philemon.46 So, Paul, instead of wielding his authority like an iron fist, using humor, he opts for the subtlety of “a velvet glove,” crafting his request in a way that pushes Philemon to do what is right for the sake of the honor of all involved.47 The point of all Paul’s rhetorical art is to convince Philemon that for Philemon to maintain his position of partnership and koinonia with Paul, he will need to look through the lens of kinship and do what is right for Onesimus as a brother in Christ.48

Contemporary Approaches to Understanding Paul’s Rhetoric

In light of Paul’s use of honor-shame, patron-client relationship, and rhetorical strategies, two contemporary approaches add valuable insight into the interpretation of Philemon through the ciphers of kinship, koinonia, and “old man.” First, regarding the delicate balance of pressure and ambiguity in Paul’s letter, Joel White draws on game theory to show how the construction of Philemon advocates for mutual cooperation and allows both Paul and Philemon to walk away from the table with their honor intact.49 Instead of a “zero-sum game,” the “old man” Paul shrewdly sets up a game that is potentially a “win-win” proposition.50 White connects this to the idea of kinship: Paul creates the space for both Philemon and Onesimus to step into new roles as part of their family identity in Christ.51 Strategic politeness and indirectness cushion what must have been a sensitive issue in the church.52 In light of his situation and rhetorical strategy, much is dependent on Paul’s confidence that Philemon would “do even more” (v. 22) than was asked.

Second, Norman Petersen reminds us that Paul is not staging a direct assault against the system of slavery, but is limiting his aims to a contest he could win, attacking “only the participation in it of a believing master and his believing slave.”53 Paul asserts that Philemon cannot be both master and brother: the kinship system created by the cross trumps the master-slave and patron-client systems.54 The master-slave system is passing, and kinship is the new reality that defines both horizontal relations and vertical relationship with the divine.55 Petersen understands Paul as acting as the senior partner (koinonon) in relation to Philemon, using this letter to engineer “a crisis for his fellow worker in which he has to make a decision about which of two worlds are to be his.”56 His goal was to remind Philemon that “being in Christ is not just a good ‘game,’ it is the only ‘game,’ and one is either in it or out of it.”57 Paul has offered a move, a next play in the game, where everyone would win.

While many have wondered about the outcome of this letter, it seems reasonable to assume that Philemon did release Onesimus, since it is otherwise hard to imagine this letter being preserved.58 It may be appropriate, though, that this seemingly ambiguous letter is left with an ambiguous, “Did he, or didn’t he?” ending.59 In some ways, the letter to Philemon functions like the book of Jonah or Jesus’s parable of the prodigal son. Paul’s powerful petition lingers in the air, asking readers: How do you respond? Will you allow the current economic powers (e.g., master-slave or patron-client systems) to define our relationships? Or will koinonia and common kinship in Christ be the cipher for the life of the church? Will you open your eyes and see that the slave is your brother?

Hearing Paul’s Letter to Philemon in an African Context

In this section, we will explore how an African cultural context both strengthens the interpretative insights considered in the previous sections and, importantly, further hones the understanding of the way the Scriptures were initially received and understood. Specifically, we examine first how honor/shame is linked to the idea of kinship. Secondly, we note the important role of mediators and intermediaries. Finally, we will see how age plays a role in upholding community norms of behavior in Africa. Along the way, we will connect these aspects of Makua-Metto culture to the above reading of Philemon.

Andrew Mbuvi insists that honor and shame are foundational values that undergird both African cultures and the cultures referenced in Scripture.60 While shame can unfortunately stigmatize people at the margins, it also can profitably reinforce collective values, such as correcting stingy or greedy behavior.61 Shaming behavior, in both constructive and destructive expressions, is normally used to highlight the interconnectedness of society even if it is applied for personal gain, and in the African context, “honor and shame are group values underlining strong kinship ties and giving high value to ancestry.”62 Kinship provides an important connection point where “African Christians could build the concept of the Church as the Great Family.”63 In the letter to Philemon, for example, kinship and koinonia are presented as values that should trump the master-slave relationship and the spirit of greediness or selfishness. As Paul attempts to persuade Philemon to do what is right for his brother Onesimus, he wisely does not level a direct accusation, assuming negative motives. Rather, he concentrates on reminding Philemon of the overall lordship of Christ, which calls him to be generous and honorable in his dealings with all his kin in the family of God.

Further, intermediaries play an important role in African cultures—they serve to reconcile human beings with the divine and with each other, acting as important, formal or informal go-betweens, as direct reconciliation would risk potential dishonor and shame.64 Mediators often are necessary to resolve financial disagreements,65 and go-betweens are “used between the offender and the group to lighten the shame involved in confession.”66 Among the Makua-Metto people, this hunger for intermediaries is connected to their own patron-client system,67 but it shapes everyday life and interactions—even among equals. These kings, queens, chiefs, uncles, aunts, and counselors hold communities together. “With concepts of mediators so important in the African heritage, African Christians have naturally interpreted Jesus in relation to such notions.”68 It is interesting to note that while the reconciling story of Jesus’s death, burial, and resurrection are not mentioned in the letter to Philemon, Paul himself functions in this capacity as an intermediary, working on behalf of Onesimus like an older relative who is intent on reconciling his children. In addition to his age, the apostle’s positional authority and relational authority make him the obvious choice to argue for a settlement between these two men. Within the kinship-layered African context, members of one’s age-set play an important role as they share “the serious responsibility of looking out for and protecting each other’s name and property.”69 Laurenti Magesa notes how, “between the different age-sets, relations closely follow the kinship structure, with similar social attitudes. Senior age-sets are to be respected as elders.”70

In a traditional setting of Africa, old age is valued and “longevity is a prized aspect of life;”71 this is seen in a popular Makua-Metto blessing: “may you grow old enough to walk with a crutch/walking stick (nttontto).” This word has a second meaning: nttontto is also the word for a scepter that a king would carry. There is a linguistic link, then, between age and authority; one’s elders are worthy of honor, and it would be shameful to not appropriately respect them.72 Citing examples from the Ashanti and Akamba peoples, Leo Simmons notes, “The prestige of the aged in death has been frequently enhanced by the significance attributed to their ‘last words.’ These final statements have often dealt with disposition of property, choice of successors, impartation of special knowledge or counsel, pledge of special favors from the spirit realm, and pronouncement of blessings—sometimes curses—upon close relatives.”73 So, the words of the aged, especially their last words, are powerful and formative.74

Paul’s usage of his old age (owuuluvala) in v. 9 as part of his appeal is a rhetorical device that our Mozambican friends often explicitly use when speaking as an apwapwawe. Apwapwawe is a label normally attributed by others, but it is not a title people will necessarily claim for themselves. In my interviews about this rhetorical mode,75 I was told that the words apwapwawe (for men) and apwiyawe (for women) could refer to someone who is merely old, but they are normally terms of respect because this person “speaks what is right/true/just” (“anahimya isariya”) in their role as counselors.76 An apwapwawe is often distinguished by dressing in accordance with their status and specifically not wearing clothes that a young person would wear, and people in this category are described as those who are good at conversation and at using their experience to give good counsel. Their age is a tool to convince people to listen to them and obey but often in a funny or seemingly light-hearted way. Though they may be purposefully vague or indirect, making use of traditional stories, proverbs and puns, they expect their words to be taken seriously.

Another relevant aspect of African culture for our understanding of Philemon is joking relationships. In these friendships, “the intention is to diffuse conflict from the very beginning through an institution whose purpose is precisely not to take offense. Thus, the coarsest insults are traded, property is confiscated, and menial services are expected and given between the individuals or communities concerned but all in good humor.”77 This joking behavior serves a serious function, stressing solidarity and sharing of material possessions.78 Paul’s reference to his old age may then be an important clue to the kind of communication pattern he uses in this letter. The apostle asserts his ability to comment on Philemon’s “property”79 (Onesimus) and uses this joking relationship to encourage Philemon to live well.80 This reading allows us to take seriously the comedic and ironic pieces of Paul’s letter. The pun on Onesimus’s name, for example, plays an important role in his argument, a clue that Paul is using humor as one of his main weapons against the power of slavery in this fraternal relationship. Even Paul’s promise to pay Onesimus’s debt can be seen as being said with a wink. From an African perspective, debtors are often not expected to pay what is owed until the financial situation of the creditor is worse than their own.81 From this vantage point, when would Paul, who is currently in jail, ever be in a better financial position than Philemon? Since “Paul inhabited the lower end of the Roman economic scale,” would he realistically ever be able, or even need, to pay Philemon back?82

From the context of Mozambique, we find a cipher for reading the letter to Philemon: Paul is acting like an apwapwawe, invoking his age and authority to call Philemon to base his actions on partnership (koinonia) and common kinship in Christ. Paul gives an obvious wink, using joking, puns, and irony to deal with a very serious matter. He challenges Philemon’s honor in a reading of a letter in front of the church meeting in Philemon’s own house. As the other members of the church nervously look to Philemon for clues to how he could respond, they might catch a smile on Philemon’s lips as he shakes his head. Philemon has only one way to respond, “‘Of course, Paul, you are right!’ Any other response would shame him.”83 Paul has given Philemon only one way to respond with honor in this shameful situation, one life raft to escape on. He will need to listen to the old man’s advice and treat Philemon not as a slave but as a brother in Christ.


A few years ago, I rode in the back of a flatbed truck packed with passengers and their possessions. The driver’s assistant was collecting our fares as we bounced along the road when an older man suddenly realized that he had paid too much. He proceeded to speak like an apwapwawe, exhorting the attendant to make it right and give him back his change. All of us smiled as he noted all the reasons why this man should not mistreat him. “I’m an old man. You need to forgive my failings and do what is right for me.” Passengers smiled and laughed, and noted their approval when, smiling, the attendant gave him the money he was due. This simple example of the power of “old man,” honor-shame rhetoric, leveraged humorously, even in a context of minimal relationship with the addressee in the presence of a temporary community, points to how even more potent this mode of speech can be in a situation framed by depth of relationship between the speaker, the hearer, and the committed community.

A reading of Philemon from the margins can help us develop a greater appreciation for its meaning.84 It can help us find ciphers for understanding the letter to Philemon. I believe that one of the reasons the cipher of apwapwawe, “old man,” works for the Makua-Metto people is that it reminds people of the familial duties of kinship, even fictive kinship, and koinonia. Lloyd Lewis borrows the language of pseudo-families to describe this dynamic in the New Testament, noting that “the 112 times that Paul describes members of the church as ‘brothers’ . . . he hardly ever uses this language to speak of actual blood kinship, (so) we can come to the conclusion that Paul’s intention was that within the church of Jesus Christ the primary relationship would be a pseudo-familial relationship among peers. Paul’s Christians call one another ‘brother’ and ‘sister’ precisely because they are children of the same Father.”85 That “dizzying display of family language” in Paul’s letters gives hope to claim Philemon as a text for working towards right relationships in the church and the world today.86

Alan Howell, his wife Rachel, and their three daughters resided in Mozambique from 2003 to 2018 as part of a team working among the Makua-Metto people. Alan (MDiv) is currently serving as the Visiting Professor of Missions at Harding University (Searcy, AR).

1 John M. G. Barclay, Colossians and Philemon, New Testament Guides (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1997), 97.

2 Ben Witherington III, New Testament Rhetoric: An Introductory Guide to the Art of Persuasion in and of the New Testament (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2009), 223, 222.

3 Africa has important parallels to the Greco-Roman world, and reading the Classics and the New Testament through that lens can give us a richer and fuller perspective of that time. See Kwame Bediako, Christianity in Africa: The Renewal of a Non-Western Religion (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1995), 252–55. And certain aspects of the cultures of the Bible make them more easily grasped today by Africans than by Westerners. See Ernest A. McFall, Approaching the Nuer of Africa Through the Old Testament (Pasadena, CA: William B. Carey Library, 1970), 1–3, 90–93. An appreciation of similarities should not cause us to overlook differences, though.

4 I will use the language of “cipher” throughout the article, not in a technical sense, but as a placeholder for the idea of “interpretive key or code.”

5 At different points in this paper, I will use the terms kinship and koinonia as separate, although, interconnected ideas. Kinship language normally is used to describe familial, blood relationships but can also be used in a fictive sense to refer to those in close relationship—that sense appears often in Scripture and in the Mozambican context today. Koinonia is a transliteration of a Greek word used often in the New Testament to describe communion or fellowship.

6 Pliny, Letters and Panegyricus, vol. 2, trans. Betty Radice (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1969), 9.21 and 9.24.

7 Wendy J. Cotter, “‘Welcome Him As You Would Welcome Me’ (Philemon 17): Does Paul Call for Virtue or the Actualization of a Vision?” in From Judaism to Christianity: Tradition and Transition: A Festschrift for Thomas H. Tobin (Boston: Brill, 2010), 188–89. N. T. Wright, Colossians and Philemon, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, vol. 12 (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1986), 171–2, outlines reasons why the alternative theories are unlikely. John Knox mentions the possibility that Philemon sent Onesimus himself. See his Philemon among the Letters of Paul; A New View of Its Place and Importance (London: Abingdon Press, 1959), 15. Sara C. Winter develops this idea of Onesimus having been sent to Paul. See her “Paul’s Letter to Philemon,” New Testament Studies 33 (1987), 1–15. For a “playful” reading of the letter suggesting that Philemon sent Onesimus to Paul initially, see Scott S. Elliot, “‘Thanks, But No Thanks’: Tact, Persuasion, and the Negotiation of Power in Paul’s Letter to Philemon,” New Testament Studies 57, no. 1 (2011), 51–64. Allen D. Callahan discusses the idea that Onesimus is not a slave but Philemon’s brother. See his Embassy of Onesimus: The Letter of Paul to Philemon (Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1997), 44–54.

8 Elliott, 52. For reasons why we don’t hear about Onesimus’s wishes or feelings on this subject, see Tobias Nicklas, “The Letter to Philemon: A Discussion with J. Albert Harrill,” in Paul’s World, Pauline Studies 4, ed. Stanley Porter, (Boston: Brill 2008), 219.

9 David deSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 125.

10 G. J. Steyn, “Some Figures of Style in the Epistle to Philemon: Their Contribution towards the Persuasive Nature of the Epistle,” Ekklesiastikos Pharos 77, no. 1 (1995): 67.

11 “I’m afraid you will think I am using pressure, not persuasion, if I add my prayers to his” (Pliny, vol. 2, 9.21).

12 “He begged my help with many tears. . . . He convinced me of his genuine penitence” (Pliny, vol. 2, 9.21).

13 Thomas R. Blanton, “The Benefactor’s Account-book: The Rhetoric of Gift Reciprocation according to Seneca and Paul,” New Testament Studies 59, no. 3 (2013): 413. Also see Chris Frilingos, “ ‘For My Child, Onesimus’: Paul and Domestic Power in Philemon,” Journal of Biblical Literature 119, no. 1 (2000): 92.

14 For an impressive “all-embracing textual ring construction” of the outline of Philemon see Ernst Wendland, “‘You Will Do Even More Than I Say’: On the Rhetorical Function of Stylistic Form in the Letter to Philemon,” in Philemon in Perspective: Interpreting a Pauline Letter, ed. D. Francois Tolmie (New York: De Gruyter, 2010), 91.

15 Wendland, 95.

16 Norman R. Petersen, Rediscovering Paul: Philemon and the Sociology of Paul’s Narrative World (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1985), 288.

17 Frilingos, 103.

18 Frilingos, 93.

19 Clarice J. Martin, “The Rhetorical Function of Commercial Language in Paul’s Letter to Philemon (verse 18),” in Persuasive Artistry: Studies in New Testament Rhetoric in Honor of George A. Kennedy, ed. Duane Watson (Sheffield: JSOT, 1991), 321–37. For a summary and critique of sources that see Philemon in the context of journeyman apprentice contracts, see Nicklas, 201–20.

20 J. D. Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (San Fransisco: Harper, 1991), 73.

21 David deSilva, Despising Shame: Honor Discourse and Community Maintenance in the Epistle to the Hebrews (Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, 1995), 20.

22 DeSilva, Despising Shame, 18–19.

23 DeSilva, Despising Shame, 17.

24 Elliott, 52. This patronage framework is used by some of the first interpreters of Philemon. Chris L. deWet, “Honour Discourse in John Chrysostom’s Exegesis of the Letter to Philemon,” in Philemon in Perspective: Interpreting a Pauline Letter, ed. D. Francois Tolmie (New York: De Gruyter, 2010), 324—5, 329.

25 David deSilva, The Hope of Glory: Honor Discourse and New Testament Interpretation (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1999), 11.

26 In the midst of all the patron-client language of the letter to Philemon, the tone points to a central question: who is the patron and who is the client? Elliott, 52, 54—55.

27 For an important survey of the criticisms against Malina’s model of honor and shame, focusing on the challenge and riposte contest, and a proposal for updating the way we understand its impact, see Zeba Crook, “Honor, Shame, and Social Status Revisited,” Journal of Biblical Literature 128, no. 3 (2009): 591–611. In light of the shift from focusing on the individual to a deeper appreciation of the role of the public court of reputation in honor-shame dynamics, Crook suggests replacing Malina’s terms “ascribed honor” and “acquired honor” with new terms: attributed honor (honor given by the public court of reputation at birth based on “family name, ethnicity, and gender”) and distributed honor (honor distributed by the public court of reputation “whenever someone outwits another, when a benefaction is made, or after any kind of public challenge and riposte” (593). We can see Paul’s letter here, then, as a challenge/riposte, “a sort of constant tug of war, a game of social push and shove” communication technique (E. Mahlangu, “The Ancient Mediterranean Values of Honour and Shame as a Hermeneutical Procedure: A Social-Scientific Criticism in an African Perspective,” Verbum et Ecclesia 22, no. 1 [2001]: 94). Mahlangu describes how these competitions for acquired honor happen in Africa and notes examples in the New Testament (Jesus’s interactions with the Pharisees and Paul’s communication with the church in Corinth) (See Mahlangu, 85–101.). It seems that the letter to Philemon also fits this category as the response to the appeal has ramifications on the honor of each one, though the present argument will not consider it further.

28 “Graeco-roman society was to a great degree a shame culture. . . . The chief danger was that one would lose face” (J. E. Lendon, Empire of Honour: The Art of Government in the Roman World [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997], 41). Lendon not only comments briefly on the place of shame of slaves, the role of mediators, favors, clients, patrons (41, 66–67), but also includes a helpful appendix summarizing well “The Latin and Greek Lexicon of Honour” (272–79).

29 See Andrew Wilson, “The Pragmatics of Politeness and Pauline Epistolography: A Case Study of the Letter to Philemon,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 15, no. 48 (1992): 107–19. Relatedly, for the proper place of gift-giving and a discussion of whether Paul breaks the rules of etiquette, see Blanton, 396–414.

30 DeSilva, Honor, 125.

31 Witherington, New Testament Rhetoric, 10, calls Quintilian that “great summarizer and epitomizer of all things rhetorical both in the Greek and Roman traditions.” For a more general study on how Quintilian helps us understand the structure of Philemon see, F. Forrester Church, “Rhetorical Structure and Design in Paul’s Letter to Philemon,” Harvard Theological Review 71, nos. 1–2 (1978): 17–33.

32 Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria, vol. 4, trans. H. E. Butler. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1922), 12.4.2; 12.5.1—2.

33 Jeffrey A. D. Weima, “Paul’s Persuasive Prose: An Epistolary Analysis of the Letter to Philemon,” in Philemon in Perspective: Interpreting a Pauline Letter, ed. D. Francois Tolmie (New York: De Gruyter, 2010), 48–49.

34 While some have argued that this term means ambassador, a better translation is to read it as a reference to advanced age. For more on the debate over the translation of this term, examining lexical, rhetorical, and social conventions as solid reasons for translating this word as old man instead of ambassador, see Ronald F. Hock, “A Support for His Old Age: Paul’s Plea on Behalf of Onesimus,” in The Social World of the First Christians: Essays in Honor of Wayne Meeks, ed. L. Michael White and O. Larry Yarbrough (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995), 67–81.

35 John T. Fitzgerald, “Theodore of Mopsuestia on Paul’s Letter to Philemon,” in Philemon in Perspective: Interpreting a Pauline Letter, ed. D. Francois Tolmie (New York: De Gruyter, 2010), 361. While “shame” has both a positive and negative meaning, I believe that Paul here is using it as a positive force to stimulate proper ethical behavior.

36 Ben Witherington III, The Letters to Philemon, the Colossians and the Ephesians: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on the Captivity Epistles (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 67.

37 Barclay, 110.

38 William Hendriksen, Exposition of Colossians and Philemon, New Testament Commentary 9 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), 209.

39 Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria, vol. 3, trans. H. E. Butler. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1921), 8.6.54—57; 9.1.1—7.

40 Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria, vol. 2, trans. H. E. Butler. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1922), 4.1.39.

41 Ibid., 4.2.6—19.

42 Ibid., 6.3.65—68.

43 Ibid., 6.3.71—72.

44 Peter Lampe, “Affects and Emotions in the Rhetoric of Paul’s Letter to Philemon,” in Philemon in Perspective: Interpreting a Pauline Letter, ed. D. Francois Tolmie (New York: De Gruyter, 2010), 72.

45 Lampe, 72–73.We should appreciate, then, that “deciphering rhetorical tone is crucial to determining meaning” (Witherington, The Letters to Philemon, 33).

46 Witherington, The Letters to Philemon, 85.

47 Lampe, 70. Wright, 174: “Paul’s method is subtle . . . like the artist or poet, he does some of his finest work not by the obscure clarity of direct statement, but by veiled allusion and teasing suggestion.” Could even his request for Philemon to prepare the guest room (v. 22) be seen as joking, given Paul’s current circumstances? Probably, this was a mix of humor and real hope for release.

48 So, “despite the turns of phrase and efforts to be charming, Paul keeps showing he thinks he must alert Philemon that they are not equal partners and Philemon may not do what he wishes. Paul wants him to do his duty out of love, but in the end Paul tells him what that duty is” (Cotter, 188). Is it correct, though, to say that everyone understood clearly what should be done about slavery? In fact, while some may accuse Paul of manipulation, others argue that Paul was not strong enough. Barclay, for example, notes “disappointment with Paul’s letter from a moral and historical point of view,” commenting that “one can only weep on behalf of those millions of slaves whose lives might have been immeasurably better had Paul been just a little less “poetic.’” Barclay, 124–25. For those who critique Paul for not taking a stronger, more direct stance against slavery, we must wrestle with the question of what else he could realistically do. See Wright, 174; Witherington, The Letters to Philemon, 61.

49 Joel White, “Philemon, Game Theory and the Reconfiguration of Household Relationships,” European Journal of Theology 26, no. 1 (2017): 32–42.

50 Ibid., 34.

51 Ibid., 39.

52 Wilson, 118.

53 Petersen, 289.

54 Ibid., 76.

55 Ibid., 257.

56 Ibid., 269. See 104–05 on koinonon. Petersen follows a translation of “apostle” over “old man” in v. 9. I believe “old man” fits better with the kinship language (father, brother, child) he highlights, and with the notion of “senior partner” as well, and would have made his case stronger (128, 260).

57 Ibid., 302.

58 See Barclay, 118, 119, 123–25; Wright, 174; Witherington, The Letters to Philemon, 80, 85–86.

59 Petersen, 287.

60 Andrew Mbuvi, “African Theology from the Perspective of Honor and Shame,” in The Urban Face of Mission: Ministering the Gospel in a Diverse and Changing World, ed. Harvie M. Conn, Manuel Ortiz, Susan S. Baker (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2002), 281. While power-fear dynamics are rightly understood as important in shaping the Sub-Saharan African context, that should not “hinder us from seeing the significant presence and interrelationship” of honor-shame. Sandra Freeman, “Honor-Shame Dynamics in Sub-Saharan Africa,” Mission Frontiers 37, no. 1 (2015): 32–33. In addressing the topic of the atonement, for example among the Makua-Metto people it has been important to frame it in terms of both fear-power and honor-shame. For more on this see my “Through the Kaleidoscope: Animism, Contextualization and the Atonement,” International Journal of Frontier Missiology 26, no. 3 (2009), 135–42 and “From Mozambique to Millennials: Shame, Frontier Peoples, and the Search for Open Atonement Paths” with Logan T. Thompson, International Journal of Frontier Missiology 33, no. 4 (2016), 157–65. For more on honor and shame in Africa, see Ruth Lienhard, “A ‘Good Conscience’: Differences between Honor and Justice Orientation,” Missiology 29, no. 2 (2001): 131–41. Her descriptions of how Jesus “played the game” of honor and shame are especially interesting (138).

61 On stigma, see Elia Shabani Mligo, Jesus and the Stigmatized: Reading the Gospel of John in a Context of HIV/AIDS Related Stigmatization in Tanzania (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2011). On reinforcing values, see Laurenti Magesa, African Religion: The Moral Traditions of Abundant Life (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2001), 168–69.

62 Mbuvi, 287. Among the Makua-Metto people, for example, one of the worst insults is to call someone nlula (or “one who eats alone,” i.e. selfish).

63 Harry Sawyerr, Creative Evangelism (London: Lutterworth Press, 1968), 91.

64 John S. Mbiti, Concepts of God in Africa (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1970), 220.

65 David Maranz, African Friends and Money Matters, SIL International Publications in Ethnography 37 (Dallas, TX: SIL International, 2001), 83.

66 Lienhard, 135.

67 For more on the impact of patron-client system in Makua-Metto context see my article with Robert Andrew Montgomery, “God as Patron and Proprietor: God the Father and the Gospel of Matthew in an African Folk Islamic Context,” International Journal of Frontier Missiology 36, no. 3 (2019), 129–36.

68 Diane B. Stinton, Jesus of Africa: Voices of Contemporary African Christology (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2004), 111.

69 Magesa, 107.

70 Ibid., 109.

71 Ibid., 154–55.

72 Ibid., 167.

73 Leo William Simmons, The Role of the Aged in Primitive Society (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1945), 241–42.

74 For more on the rhetoric of the “last words” in the Makua-Metto context see Alan B. Howell and Sam Pflederer, “The Last Word in Rhetoric: Ithele Traditional Singers/Storytellers, Meaningful Communication, and a Reading of 2 Timothy in Mozambique” in Missio Dei: A Journal of Missional Theology and Practice 10, no. 2 (2019).

75 I did individual interviews (20 minutes) with five people and then discussed these findings with small groups or classes of mostly men (over 100 participants total at different stages in the development of these ideas).

76 If someone is old but acts shamefully (not acting like an older person should act), they would be called maciko. Other terms of shame related to proper behavior are luukhu and naathi—terms for a man and woman who has been initiated but acts like a child.

77 Magesa, 112.

78 Ibid., 112–13.

79 Ibid., 277–79.

80 Ibid., 271.

81 Maranz, 152. So, while Quintilian notes that oaths were not to be done trivially when advocating for someone else, the use of humor we noted earlier may help explain why Paul would do this under these circumstances. Quintilian, vol. 3, 9.2.98.

82 Blanton, 405.

83 Lampe, 73.

84 One example that uses a “postcolonial optic” to deconstruct the hierarchies in the story is Sung Uk Lim, “The otherness of Onesimus: Re-Reading Paul’s Letter to Philemon from the Margins,” Theology Today 73, no. 3 (2016): 215–29. Interpreting the end of Philemon in light of expectations surrounding African hospitality can open up windows of understanding. See, e.g., Batanayi I. Manyika and Kevin G. Smith, “Eschatology in Philemon: An Analysis of ‘ἅμα δὲ καὶ ἑτοίμαζέ μοι ξενίαν’ for a Southern African Context,” Conspectus 25 (Mar 2018): 92–105.

85 Lloyd A. Lewis, “An African American Appraisal of the Philemon-Paul-Onesimus Triangle” in Stony the Road We Trod: African American Biblical Interpretation, ed. Cain Hope Felder (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1991), 236.

86 Lewis, 246.

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