Review by Dr. Jason Loo
John Byron’s A Week in the Life of a Slave takes a very interesting approach to Paul’s letter to Philemon. Narrated from a third-person omniscient perspective, his book is almost ready as a screenplay for an episode of Season 2 of the popular TV show Paul, Apostle of Christ, and if it were to be aired, it would likely win an award or two. As fascinating as it may be, the major drawback of this kind of approach is that all the details would have to be filled even when the text does not provide enough to link the dots. Byron nevertheless has done an excellent job of keeping faithful to Scripture while accounting well for the facts of life in the first-century Greco-Roman world.
In particular, Byron has successfully woven into the fabric of his narrative some interesting facts of history. These include the story of Epictetus, a former slave from Hierapolis who turned Stoic, to provide the background to how Onesimus had his awakening moment (67-70) and the reference to Bishop Onesimus of Ephesus in Ignatius’s letter to the Ephesians to create an imaginative epilogue to the open ending of Paul’s letter to Philemon (157-160). Of course, their connections to the actual biblical figures are somewhat speculative. But, as they have only been employed as theatrical devices to furnish the plot and maximize its dramatic effects, the purpose is well served.
Notwithstanding the genius of Byron’s theatrical re-creation, some scholars might disagree on the details that Byron has put together. For example, Byron views that, perhaps based on Col 4:16-17, the churches in the Lycus Valley, that is, in Laodicea, Colossae, and Hierapolis, were missing something out in their ministry (21), while these verses could just as well mean a general encouragement to Archippus as a fellow soldier of Paul and his cohort’s (cf. Phm 1). Further, building on this assumption, together with the fact that Onesimus was a runaway slave and was not a Christian until he met Paul, Byron creatively portrays Philemon as a mean slave-owner, who treated his slaves cruelly (59-60) and did not extend Christian fellowship to them (23), and Onesimus as a fugitive slave on the run for freedom to Rome (70, 74). Also, in Byron’s narrative constructed as such, I cannot help but notice that this Onesimus reacts to the reality of slavery in the contemporary world more like a twenty first-century Westerner who challenges and rebels against social injustice than a first-century slave to whom the fact of slavery would have been more than natural (70-74, 89, 116-117). Rather, it is reported to the contrary that slavery was so integral to the Greco-Roman world that there were very few incidents of protests or rebellions against it. So, these lead me to wonder whether it could really have been possible for Onesimus to question so critically of the injustice of slavery. Also, had it really been the case that Philemon was actually abusive towards Onesimus as well as his other slaves, would Paul not have been more straightforward as he did in Eph 6:5-9? We know for sure that, whenever needed, Paul seldom shied away from expressing disapprovals and even strong censures (cf. Phil 4:2-3; 2 Cor 13:1-3; 1 Tim 1:20).
That said, we should not forget that this book is not a commentary on Philemon but a fiction based on fact. Clearly, there is more to appreciate in Byron’s many years of studious research on Paul and the historical context in which his letters were written than to criticize. Whether or not one agrees with the details, this is a must-read book for the students of Paul as well as those who are interested in the life situation of early Christianity.