My master has gone insane! I realize that a slave has no call on his master. It’s not my place to argue or to take a position. But my master bought me, and he trained me as an expert in reading and writing — as a secretary.
And surely he understood that as someone skilled in language and not unintelligent — if I do flatter myself — I have opinions, but not just opinions, counsel. I mean, I’m well read, I care deeply about my master and his business, and I have training and expertise that might have been brought to bear on the question.
But, no, my master decided — without the least consultation with me — to become an atheist. He’s rejected the gods of his childhood, of his family, his guild, and his nation.
There are, of course, philosophers of unquestioned wisdom who’ve doubted the existence of the gods, but even they had the good sense to nonetheless offer the required sacrifices to — just in case — make certain that they didn’t incur the wrath of a deity.
I could have helped my master in countless ways. I could have introduced him to writings of the Platonists and Stoics and others that question the place of the gods in the cosmos. I could have counseled him on how to doubt but not anger the gods. After all, they don’t want faith. They want sacrifice and really don’t care why you choose to give them what they demand.
But to no longer sacrifice to the gods at all — well, this is hubris of the worst kind. I mean, if he’s wrong, the gods will surely destroy him and his household — and me. And if he’s right, well, he’ll still be ruined.
He can’t appear before the city officials without a sacrifice to Artemis. He can’t approach a Roman official without burning some incense to Caesar. His guild honors the gods and sacrifices to them for protection and good business. He’s going to lose his fortune — and I’d far rather be a slave of a rich man than a poor man.
Oh, and if he goes broke, I’ll be sold to who knows who to do who knows what. This is quite unacceptable, inconsiderate, and just plain wrong.
And he insists that all the food we buy from the market not be sacrificed in honor of a god — which makes shopping next to impossible. Nearly all the food in the market has been offered to a god. It’s like asking for rays of the sun that don’t come from the sky. Sometimes we have to miss a meal or two over this peculiar scruple compelled by his new religion — and I did not sign up to serve a master who won’t feed me!
There are rumors that his guild will expel him for not honoring their god. He already refuses to participate in their banquets — because he’s decided to never again become drunk on wine. But the banquets are where deals are made, orders taken, and clients are entertained by hetaerae.
He used to bring me to the banquets to write down the orders from clients too drunk to remember what they signed the next day, and when the deal making went well, he let me share in the food and the wine and the women.
But those days are gone, because my master has gone quite crazy.
I’m out of here. I may not be a citizen and may never be a citizen, but I’ve always been loyal to the gods, and I see no reason to turn my back on them in favor of a Jewish rabbi.
I mean, it was upsetting enough when my master chose to reject the gods of Rome and our city and guild and family, but to now learn that he’s converted to worship Yeshua, a dead Jewish rabbi — well, tell me when was the last time you saw a dead Jew on Mt. Olympus?!
It’s a confusing thing. At one point, I thought he worshiped the god of the Jews — the god who has no name or, I guess to be fair, the god whose name they are unwilling to speak. (Such a barbaric, superstitious lot they are.)
This god, at least, has some history about him. The Jews say he freed them from Egyptian slavery 1,500 years ago, parted the Red Sea, and gave them Palestine as their Promised Land.
Of course, the Roman gods showed their superiority to this unnamed god when Rome marched into Jerusalem and turned Judea into a Roman tributary. Any self-respecting god would have vanquished the Roman army, and so I figure I should stay on the winning team.
I mean, the Jews are well known to be a rebellious people who would overthrow Roman rule if only they had the means — and a god who could defeat the gods of Rome. They don’t appreciate the value of the Pax Romana and the trade and military defense that Rome and its gods offer. Ingrates, rebels, and atheists.
And yet my master chooses to worship a crucified rabbi. I mean, he was crucified by a Roman court! The man was clearly a criminal — and if he was any kind of a self-respecting god, why die on a cross? Why would a god allow that?
“Oh,” my master says, he was “resurrected.” Well, I’m going to resurrect my career and get out of here.
There are stores of incense here, and there are all sorts of other articles designed for the worship of the true gods in storage. My master’s wife has had the servants and slaves busy removing all censers, altars, icons … all things associated with the gods, valuable things.
She can’t quite decide what to do with them. If she sells them, the buyer will use them to honor the gods, which she now detests. If she keeps them, then these “idols” will be in her house.
And so, I’m going to help her out! I’ll take them to town, sell them, and go to Ephesus. Ephesus is a big enough city that surely someone will know how to help a runaway slave — a runaway with money! — and board a ship to some place where I can start over.
I have skills and I will surely have opportunities aplenty. I’m out of here!
It’s easy for a slave to live well in Ephesus on his master’s money. The Temple of Diana is an amazing edifice, clearly showing the blessings that come from honoring the city’s goddess.
And so what if I donated some of my master’s money to help make the Meander River valley a little more fertile by participating in a fertility ritual with a very pretty young priestess — who sure knew how to share a blessing!
But even when I had plenty of money, none of the sailors was willing to take me on board without papers from my master. It seems that the Roman authorities are cracking down on runaway slaves — and the sailors think that Neptune will punish them if they bring a runaway on board.
I tried to explain to them that my master is an atheist, who considers Neptune a demon — not even a demigod — but they are a superstitious lot.
I really need to find someone in need of a secretary — someone not too bright, someone who won’t ask too many questions.
Well, I’ve been hanging around the paper guild, next to the scroll sellers, figuring that anyone in need of a secretary likely needs paper as well. I’ve chatted up everyone who’s happened by. I do have a certain gift of gab, if I do flatter myself. Maybe someone will hire me. I just need a convenient lie to explain why a slave is looking for work from someone besides his master.
A young man happened by, we spoke, and he said his master was engaged in an extensive writing project but would likely not hire me. After all — and I kid you not! — his master was in prison, under house arrest, and had very little money to hire a secretary.
Well, I got out of that conversation as fast as I could. “House arrest” means “Romans soldiers,” and so I got myself as far from there as possible!
Hunger has a way of sharpening one’s focus. I’ve spent so much time avoiding the sight of the servant of the man under house arrest that I can’t find any work. A few men approached me, and were well impressed with my skills. But I’m a slave and no one would take my word for it that my master sent me into town to seek work.
I had it figured out, I thought. I’d explain that my master had fallen on hard times and had authorized me to work for others to help raise money for his finances. It wasn’t true but was close enough to true. And a few men were ready to hire me until they asked for a letter from my master affirming my story.
And so, I’m hungry. The Meander River valley may be very fertile thanks to my many offerings to the goddess, but my offerings have done nothing to fill my belly.
I was sitting, puzzling over what a starving runaway slave should so, when a man approached me. He said, “The master says, ‘Come.’” I recognized him as a servant of the man under house arrest, but it was either follow or go back to my own master — and face a flogging, if not a crucifixion.
In fact, what at first was a petulant flight of fancy, a lust for adventure and freedom, had become fiercely scary as I saw several runaway slaves had been gruesomely crucified near the city’s center.
I’d never felt much sympathy for criminals in the past, and never questioned Roman justice before, but the brutality and agony of the crosses seemed too much — an outrageous, over-reaching effort by the Romans to rule by fear. And never before had I thought about the Romans as governing through fear. And I was very, very afraid.
And so, we walked past these grisly crosses and the corpses of runaway slaves being picked at by buzzards and crows — some even before the men were entirely dead. And I wasn’t so hungry any more.
At last, I was led to a house where a Roman guard stood at attention at the door but allowed visitors to come and go at will. What a strange sort of prison this is, I thought.
Even more strangely, as I drew near, the guards changed shifts. Upon being dismissed, the original guard was met at the door by an older Jewish man, who hugged him and thanked him for his work.
The guard returned the embrace with a special fervor and asked whether he could bring anything to the prisoner with his next shift. The prisoner said, “No, but there is a man coming to serve me as a secretary. I would not ask questions that need not be asked.” The guard smiled, said he understood, and stood aside.
And then I was ushered in, right past the guard, who did not even look at me, and so I was introduced to Paul.
Paul was an ordinary looking man, ordinary except for his scars. His body looked like he’d been brutalized for years. I mean, I’ve never seen so many scars on a living man! But his eyes were filled with life — and he ran to embrace me, a slave and a stranger.
“‘Onesimus,’ is it? Well, we’ll see whether you’re really useful [in Greek, “Onesimus” means useful]. I don’t get out much, you see (I suppose he was referring to being a prisoner, but it was hard to tell. The man had a very dry sense of humor). And so I have to write down whatever I want to say to anyone.
“You take dictation, I presume? In Greek?”
Yes, I assured him that I’m a native Greek speaker, well trained in the classics, and fluent in Latin, but apologized that I know no Hebrew.
He raised an eyebrow at my reference to Hebrew. “How sad. If you knew Hebrew, you could read the scriptures in their original tongue — you could read the very words of God! But Greek and Latin will do well enough.
“You say you know the classics. I assume then that you’ve read the scriptures of the Jews in Greek? You know the Septuagint?”
I had to apologize. I explained that by “classics” I meant the works of Plato, Seneca, and the other great Greeks.
“Spoken like a true son of Greece! And your expertise may prove of great value to me. But first, I want you to read these draft letters over here, and each place I quote the ‘scriptures’ or the Holy Spirit, I want you to confirm that I’ve correctly quoted from the scriptures.”
“Yes, master,” I said, grateful for the work. “You have copies of the scriptures here?”
He winked at another man there and pointed to a pile of scrolls. A very large pile of scrolls.
I could hear one of the several young men waiting on Paul whisper to him, “But he’s a runaway slave! And you don’t really need …” But Paul turned away, smiled a grandfatherly smile, and went into the next room to attend to other business.
Paul’s eating habits were peculiar indeed — even stranger than my own master’s. Not only did he refuse meat sacrificed to the gods, he refused pork. And a long list of other things.
Fortunately, Paul was in touch with the community of the Jews in Ephesus, and they’d long ago made their own arrangements to have their own food bought at their own markets. Paul and his companions ate well, some being more concerned about pork and other Jewish peculiarities than others, but all refusing to eat anything dedicated to a Roman or Greek god.
And they shared with me, and I ate well.
However, work didn’t go nearly so well. Paul seemed to want to taunt me. He would off-handedly refer to a passage written by “Moses” or “the Spirit” or “Isaiah” but leave me with no clue as to which scroll to read to find the citation. Paul could not have made me more inefficient had he wanted to — and my previous masters had all understood the value of my time.
Eventually, I exclaimed, “The only way I’m going to get all these references checked is to start at the beginning and read the whole thing!”
To which Paul, quite nonplussed, said, “Then you should do that.” With his cane, he pointed to a scroll labelled “Beginning” [Genesis]. You could tell he thought himself to be quite hilarious, but I was not interested in his games.
Still, I prided myself as an expert reader, and so read is what I did.
First, I read the Torah scrolls and learned the story of the Jews. I began to see why they were so unhappy as part of the Roman Empire.
But Paul did not have all the scriptures. Fortunately, the local synagogue allowed him to borrow the Isaiah scroll, which I read and found very confusing.
It obviously came from a much later time than the Torah, but Isaiah constantly referred back to the Torah over and over.
And toward the end of the book, Isaiah wrote about the Suffering Servant, who would take on the sins of the world and die just as Yeshua had died.
I did not begin to understand all this. But I could see that the world was a very sinful place, that is, I could see that it was not the way it was supposed to be. Perhaps it was the crucifixions in the street and my own sin against my own master, but I knew that things were not right — not the way any self-respecting god would want things to be.
The gods of the Greeks and the Romans stood for the status quo, for the power of Rome, for the guilds, for the temples, for crucifixions, for everything being just the way they are.
And deep in my heart, I came to realize that things are broken — and that a proper god would do something — anything — to make things better.
And Paul’s god, the god of the Jews, had done just this by sending his own son to teach a better way.
I could not understand half of what Paul said about these things, but I was convicted that if things are broken, I should be part of the solution and not part of the problem. And so I confessed Jesus as my lord, was immersed, and became a Christian. Just like my master.
I awoke shaking in fear. I’d been celebrating my conversion to Christ with my friends at Paul’s house, had slept well, but when I awoke, I realized that I had to return to my master.
The thought of leaving Paul left me in tears. He was my father in Christ. He’d cared for me when the world was ready to throw me away, even to crucify me! And yet I could not, as a follower of Jesus, stay here — here where I most wanted to be.
I am a slave — a piece of property under Roman law — owned by my master. Worse yet, I’m a thief. My master is entitled to my services, the value of my lost services, and the value of what I stole. And I cannot pay any of this on my own. I’m penniless.
And so my master has the right to have me beaten or flogged, even crucified, and as much as it terrifies me to say this, that’s exactly what I deserve. I knew the risks and I knew the penalties. I stand without excuse.
But Paul is busy changing the world in ways that I can’t even imagine — but I can see the seeds being sown. I can see him making a difference. I can see the Kingdom spreading from village to village, town to town, and lives being transformed. And I want to be a part of what Paul is doing. I really wish I could stay.
Immediately after breakfast, I walked into Paul’s study to tell him that I needed to return to my master, tears pouring down my cheeks, and to my astonishment, Paul had already written a note, in his own hand, for me to take with me.
My hands shook as he handed the note to me. We said a prayer together, and then I walked back to my master’s house, dreading what might happen but knowing I was doing the right thing.
50 years later
“And so, we are agreed!” The chairman of the council of the elders of the church in Ephesus was plainly pleased with himself. “The first list of letters are genuine letters of Paul and should be included in our list of authentic texts. The second list should be excluded. We’ll raise funds from among our wealthier members to have copies made of all the genuine letters and distributed to congregations within our province.”
An elderly man stood, haltingly. The years had clearly worn him down, and he needed the help of a younger man to rise to his feet. Although his body was failing, his voice was clear.
“The chair recognizes Onesimus, the man who chaired this body for many years before your present chairman.”
The elderly man pulled from his sleeve a single sheet of papyrus, ancient, cracking, and yellowed. “I apologize for my lateness, but my health has kept me away from these meetings. But if it pleases those present, I wish to add this epistle to the list of genuine letters of Paul. This is a copy of a letter sent by Paul by my own hand to Philemon, who was a longtime member of this congregation before he passed away some 20 years ago.”
The older men nodded in reverential memory of his name.
“This is the letter by which I was freed to come here to Ephesus to serve the great apostle. It’s only a few words. It’s nothing like these other letters. It’s more of a personal letter. It’s not a great work of theology, but it means a lot to me. And something tells me it needs to be preserved.”