Every summer I teach an exegetical course on Philemon. In this class we not only walk through the Greek text but I attempt to expose them to different aspects of studying the text. This includes thinking about biblical theology, outlining, diagramming, background, history of interpretation and application.
In the session on backgrounds I have them read quite a bit about slavery in the ancient world, and also about kinship and reciprocity structures. I usually copy some chapters out of an assortment of books and then we discuss how this impacts our reading of Philemon.
Recently the new NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible: Bringing Life to the Ancient World of Scripture came across my desk (edited by John Walton and Craig Keener). I was happy to see when I turned to Philemon that they not only had a nice summary within Philemon of the background to ancient slavery but in the introduction they discussed in brief fashion many of the things that I considered important for understanding Philemon.
Not only this, but the verse by verse notes do not stray into other subjects but stay focused on background issues. So for example in their comments on verse 11 which is as follows, “Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me” the notes said.
he was useless to you – Many slaveholders stereotyped slaves (among whom they sometimes name Phrygian slaves, as would be the case here) as lazy and ill-disciplined. he has become useful. Here Paul plays on Onesimus’s name, which means “useful.” It was a common slave name, for obvious reasons.
Sometimes study Bibles try to do too much. Are the notes for application, theology, and background information? Many times the focus depends upon the individual author. I was happy to see that the editors made a conscious decision to keep things concentrated in this study Bible. As the editors say at the beginning, “This study Bible has been purpose-built to do one thing: to increase your understanding of the cultural nuances behind the text of God’s Word so that your study experience, and your knowledge of the realities behind the ideas in the text, is enriched and expanded.” In addition, the structure and layout of the Bible is clean and well put together. There are nice maps, and images of ancient artifacts.
This is a very good resource that I will be returning to for quick reference to cultural issues.
Check out this page for more resources and information.