The World on its Head

The Apostle Paul once sent a slave back to his master. Paul had converted both the slave and the master to the Christian faith. 

In the passage below, Paul cautiously urges (he does not command) the slave’s manumission while respecting the master’s right to his fellow human–his fellow Christian. 

The introduction of an inhuman institution like slavery gives rise to monstrous accommodations. And monstrous situations like this one will happen, to borrow Hannah Arendt’s words, “when men decide to stand the world on its head” (“Auschwitz on Trial”).    

Paul, Letter to Philemon, 10-19.

I am appealing to you concerning my child, Onesimos, to whom I gave birth while I was in chains. He was useless to you at the time, but now he is useful to both you and me. I have sent him back to you, this man who is my own heart.    

I hoped to keep him with me, to be of service to me, in your place, while I’m in chains for the gospel. But I did not wish to do anything without your approval. The good you do should not be compelled; it should be a willing act. 

Perhaps he was separated from you for a period of time so that you would have him for all time–not as a slave any longer, but as more than a slave: a beloved brother (to me especially but even more so to you), a brother in the flesh and in the Lord.

If you regard me as a comrade, welcome him as you would me. If he has wronged you or owes you anything, charge me for it. I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it. I do not mention that you owe me even your very self. 

παρακαλῶ σε περὶ τοῦ ἐμοῦ τέκνου, ὃν ἐγέννησα ἐν τοῖς δεσμοῖς, Ὀνήσιμον, τόν ποτέ σοι ἄχρηστον νυνὶ δὲ σοὶ καὶ ἐμοὶ εὔχρηστον, ὃν ἀνέπεμψα σοι, αὐτόν, τοῦτ’ ἔστιν τὰ ἐμὰ σπλάγχνα· ὃν ἐγὼ ἐβουλόμην πρὸς ἐμαυτὸν κατέχειν, ἵνα ὑπὲρ σοῦ μοι διακονῇ ἐν τοῖς δεσμοῖς τοῦ εὐαγγελίου, χωρὶς δὲ τῆς σῆς γνώμης οὐδὲν ἠθέλησα ποιῆσαι, ἵνα μὴ ὡς κατὰ ἀνάγκην τὸ ἀγαθόν σου ᾖ ἀλλὰ κατὰ ἑκούσιον.

τάχα γὰρ διὰ τοῦτο ἐχωρίσθη πρὸς ὤραν, ἵνα αἰώνιον αὐτὸν ἀπέχῃς, οὐκέτι ὡς δοῦλον ἀλλ’ ὑπὲρ δοῦλον, ἀδελφὸν ἀγαπητόν, μάλιστα ἐμοί, πόσῳ δὲ μᾶλλον σοὶ καὶ ἐν σαρκὶ καὶ ἐν κυρίῳ.  Εἰ οὖν με ἔχεις κοινωνόν, προσλαβοῦ αὐτὸν ὡς ἐμέ. εἰ δέ τι ἠδίκησεν σε ἢ ὀφείλει, τοῦτο ἐμοὶ ἐλλόγα. ἐγὼ Παῦλος ἔγραψα τῇ ἐμῇ χειρί, ἐγὼ ἀποτίσω· ἵνα μὴ λέγω σοι ὅτι καὶ σεαυτόν μοι προσοφείλεις.

Some explanations:

  • “my child, Onesimus, to whom I gave birth”: Paul converted the slave. In that sense Paul gave him life. 
  • “while I was in chains”: At the time of writing Paul is in prison. 
  • “He was useless”: An unfunny pun on the slave’s name, Onesimos (Ὀνήσιμος), which means “useful.” 
  • “You owe me even your very self”: Paul is responsible for converting the master, Philemon, to Christianity. 


color photograph of shackles from the Smithsonian Museum of African American History. Warning: this image might be illegal in Florida
Iron leg shackles.
Smithsonian Museum of African American History.

Larry Benn has a B.A. in English Literature from Harvard College, an M.Phil in English Literature from Oxford University, and a J.D. from Yale Law School. Making amends for a working life misspent in finance, he’s now a hobbyist in ancient languages and blogs at


Leave a Reply