The otherness of Onesimus: Re-reading Paul's Letter to Philemon from the margins

Sung Uk Lim

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Onesimus has so far remained a colonized or marginalized other in the text and history of reception across historical and cultural constraints. In contrast to this colonizing strategy of reading, the thesis of this paper is that Onesimus, as a minor character, plays a major role in liberating himself from the bondage of slavery's hierarchical structures within the context of Roman imperial rule. There is a commonly held consensus among most, though not all, Western interpreters that Philemon is the letter to Philemon written by Paul on behalf of Onesimus as the other who is marginalized. That is, a "reading for" Onesimus as the other is ultimately doomed to a reading of marginalizing Onesimus as the colonized other. Ironically, such a "reading for" Onesimus has looked down on his agency in the process of interpretation in the fullest sense. Rather, my reading leans towards a "reading with" Onesimus as a subversive character to regain his long-suppressed voice. Toward this end, I propose reading the letter to Philemon from the marginalized perspective of Onesimus rather than from the central perspective of Paul or Philemon. To do so, I first foreground a postcolonial reading strategy as a critical angle of inquiry alongside narrative and deconstructive criticisms. I then reconstruct Onesimus in terms of plot and characterization through a postcolonial lens. Finally, I deconstruct the hierarchy of social structures inherent in the story of Philemon through a postcolonial optic.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)215-229
Number of pages15
JournalTheology Today
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2016 Oct 1

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© The Author(s) 2016.

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Religious studies


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