New Testament Studies


‘Thanks, but no Thanks’: Tact, Persuasion, and the Negotiation of Power in Paul's Letter to Philemon*

Scott S. Elliotta1

a1 Adrian College, 110 Madison St., Adrian, MI 49221, USA. email:


Historical reconstructions concerning Philemon consistently illustrate an overwhelming tendency to see Paul as operating with the most innocuous and transparent of motives. In contrast, my (mildly playful) reading of Philemon posits a Paul engaged in power negotiations with his addressee. Though Philemon acts as Paul's would-be patron, Paul resists the gesture and opts instead to assign Philemon a carefully proscribed role vis-à-vis himself. Paul relies on rhetorical techniques of tact to coerce Philemon to adopt this role ‘voluntarily’. Onesimus emerges, then, as a pawn in a negotiation for power and status in the community.

(Online publication December 16 2010)


  • Patronage;
  • Paul;
  • Philemon;
  • rhetoric;
  • slaves


* I extend my sincerest thanks and heartfelt appreciation to Professor Jonathan D. Schwiebert for his invaluable contributions to an earlier version of this article.