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Epistle to Philemon

Epistle to Philemon
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Fragments of the Epistle to Philemon verses 13-15 on Papyrus 87 (Gregory-Aland), from ca. AD 250. The earliest known fragment of Epistle to Philemon.
Book Epistle to Philemon
Bible part New Testament
Order in the Bible part 18
Category Pauline epistles

The Epistle of Paul to Philemon, known simply as Philemon, is one of the books of the Christian New Testament. It is a prison letter, co-authored by Paul the Apostle with Timothy, to Philemon, a leader in the Colossian church. It deals with the themes of forgiveness and reconciliation. Paul does not identify himself as an apostle with authority, but as "a prisoner of Jesus Christ", calling Timothy "our brother", and addressing Philemon as "fellowlabourer" and "brother".[1] Onesimus, a slave that had departed from his master Philemon, was returning with this epistle wherein Paul besought Philemon to receive him as a "brother beloved".[2]

Philemon was a wealthy Christian, possibly a bishop[3] of the house church that met in his home (Philemon 1:1–2) in Colosse. This letter is now generally regarded as one of the undisputed works of Paul. It is the shortest of Paul's extant letters, consisting of only 445 words and 25 verses in the Bible.[4]

Content and commentary

Paul, who was then a prisoner (in either Rome or Ephesus), and Timothy wrote to a fellow saint named Philemon and two of his associates: a woman named Apphia, sometimes assumed to be his wife, and a fellow worker named Archippus, who is assumed by some to have been Philemon's son[5] and who also appears to have had special standing in the church that met in Philemon's house (see Colossians 4:17). Since Onesimus was one of the Colossians (see Col.4:9 quote below), it can be assumed, though not expressly stated, that Philemon lived in Colossae. It is supposed that he was wealthy by the standards of the early church; this is supported by noting his house was large enough to accommodate the church that met in his house. Paul wrote on behalf of Onesimus, a former slave of Philemon who had left him. Beyond that, it is not self-evident what has transpired. Onesimus is described as having "departed" from Philemon, once having been "useless" to him (a pun on Onesimus's name, which means "useful"), and having done him wrong.

The traditional interpretation is that Onesimus was a runaway slave who became a Christian believer. Paul sent him back to face his aggrieved master, and sought in this letter to effect reconciliation between these two Christians. What is problematic is how Onesimus came to be with Paul. Various suggestions have been given: Onesimus being imprisoned with Paul; Onesimus being brought to Paul by others; Onesimus coming to Paul by chance (or in some Christian understandings, by divine providence); or Onesimus deliberately seeking Paul out, as a friend of his master's, in order to be reconciled.

However, Onesimus' status as a runaway slave was challenged by Allen Dwight Callahan in an article published in the Harvard Theological Review. In this article Callahan notes that the weight of proving Onesimus' servile identity falls on verse 16; beyond this "nothing in the text conclusively indicates that Onesimus was ever the chattel of the letter's chief addressee. Moreover, the expectations fostered by the traditional fugitive slave hypothesis go unrealized in the letter. Modern commentators, even those committed to the prevailing interpretation, have tacitly admitted as much."[6] Callahan points out that the earliest commentators on this work – the homily of Origen and the Anti-Marcion Preface – are silent about Onesimus' possible servile status, and traces the origins of this interpretation to its first documented advocate, John Chrysostom, who proposed it in his Homiliae in epistolam ad Philemonem, during his ministry in Antioch, circa 386–398.[7] In place of the traditional interpretation, Callahan suggests that Onesimus and Philemon are brothers both by blood and religion, but who have become estranged, and the intent of this letter was to reconcile the two men.[8]

The only extant information about Onesimus apart from this letter is found in Paul's epistle to the Colossians 4:7–9, where Onesimus is called "a faithful and beloved brother":

All my state shall Tychicus declare unto you, who is a beloved brother, and a faithful minister and fellowservant in the Lord: 8 Whom I have sent unto you for the same purpose, that he might know your estate, and comfort your hearts; 9 With Onesimus, a faithful and beloved brother, who is one of you. They shall make known unto you all things which are done here.


Paul uses slavery vs. freedom language often in his writings as a metaphor.[9] At this time slavery was common, and can be seen as a theme in the book of Philemon. Slavery was most commonly found in households. This letter, seemingly, provided alleviation of suffering of some slaves due to the fact that Paul placed pastoral focus on the issue.[10]

Although it is a main theme, Paul does not label slavery as negative or positive. Some scholars see it as unthinkable in the times to even question ending slavery. Because slavery was so ingrained into society that the “abolitionist would have been at the same time an insurrectionist, and the political effects of such a movement would have been unthinkable.[11] Paul doesn’t question it in this epistle. Paul may have envisioned slavery as a fixed institution. He was not questioning the “rightness or wrongness” of it. Paul did however view slavery as a human institution, and believed that all human institutions were about to fade away.[12] This may be because Paul had the perspective that Jesus would return soon. Paul viewed his present world as something that was swiftly passing away.[13] This is a part of Pauline Christianity and theology.

When it comes to Onesimus and his circumstance as a slave, Paul felt that Onesimus should return to Philemon but not as a slave, but under a bond of familial love. Paul also was not suggesting that Onesimus be punished, but Roman law allowed the owner of a runaway slave nearly unlimited privileges of punishment, even execution.[14] This is a concern of Paul and a reason he is writing to Philemon, asking that Philemon accept Onesimus back in a bond of friendship, forgiveness, and reconciliation. Paul is trying to break through the social barriers dividing people.[15] We see this in many of Paul’s other epistles, including his letters to the Corinthians, delivering the message of unity with others and unity with Christ - a change of identity. As written in Sacra Pagina Philippians and Philemon, the move from slave to freedman has to do with a shift in “standing under the lordship of Jesus Christ”. So in short, Onesimus’ honor and obedience is not claimed by Philemon, but by Christ.

Verses 13-14 suggest that Paul wants, not simply that Philemon free Onesimus, but that he send Onesimus back to Paul. Marshall, Travis and Paul write, "Paul hoped that it might be possible for [Onesimus] to spend some time with him as a missionary colleague.... If that is not a request for Onesimus to join Paul’s circle, I do not know what more would need to be said".[16]


Paul's tactful address to Philemon was labelled "holy flattery" by Martin Luther. He saw a parallel between Paul and Christ in their work of reconciliation, which is also contained within the concept of Christian grace. Still, Luther insisted that the letter upheld the social status quo: though not explicit, the text could be interpreted to indicate that Paul did nothing to change Onesimus's legal position as a servant and that Paul was complying with Roman law in returning him to Philemon. However, the text could also be interpreted as indicating that Paul was demanding the legal freedom of Onesimus and, as an act of both trust and reconciliation, holding Philemon accountable in the higher court of God to accomplish this change himself.

Sarah Ruden, in her Paul Among the People (2010), argues that in the letter to Philemon Paul created the Western conception of the individual human being, "unconditionally precious to God and therefore entitled to the consideration of other human beings." Before Paul, Ruden argues, a slave was considered subhuman, and entitled to no more consideration than an animal.[17]

Diarmaid MacCulloch, in his A History of Christianity, described the epistle as "a Christian foundation document in the justification of slavery".[18] Due to its ambiguity, the letter was a cause of debate during the British and later American struggles over the abolition of slavery. Both sides cited Philemon for support.

See also


  1. ^ Philemon 1:1;1:7;1:20
  2. ^ verse 1:16 in Philemon 1:9–17
  3. ^ Const. Apost. VII, 46
  4. ^ 445 words in Authorized Version text, including 7 italicized words, not counting words in the Title or subscription. – Note: Compound words like "fellowlabourer" (from a single Greek compound word), are counted as single words. Other editions, versions and counting methods may vary.
  5. ^ F. F. Bruce, "Philemon," The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians, (New International Commentary on the New Testament), Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1984, p.206, ISBN 978-0-8028-2510-0
  6. ^ Callahan, "Paul's Epistle to Philemon: Toward an Alternative Argumentum", The Harvard Theological Review, 86 (1993), p. 362
  7. ^ Callahan, "Paul's Epistle", p. 366
  8. ^ Callahan, "Paul's Epistle", pp. 369ff
  9. ^ Foster, Paul. "Philippians And Philemon: Sacra Pagina Commentary." p.174
  10. ^ Foster, Paul. "Philippians And Philemon: Sacra Pagina Commentary." p.176
  11. ^ Gaventa, Beverly Roberts, and David L. Petersen. The New Interpreter's Bible: One-Volume Commentary. Nashville: Abingdon, 2010. p.894
  12. ^ Gaventa, Beverly Roberts, and David L. Petersen. The New Interpreter's Bible: One-Volume Commentary. Nashville: Abingdon, 2010. p.894
  13. ^ Gaventa, Beverly Roberts, and David L. Petersen. The New Interpreter's Bible: One-Volume Commentary. Nashville: Abingdon, 2010. p.895
  14. ^ Gaventa, Beverly Roberts, and David L. Petersen. The New Interpreter's Bible: One-Volume Commentary. Nashville: Abingdon, 2010. p.895
  15. ^ Gaventa, Beverly Roberts, and David L. Petersen. The New Interpreter's Bible: One-Volume Commentary. Nashville: Abingdon, 2010. p.895
  16. ^ Marshall, I. Howard; Travis, Stephen; Paul, Ian (2011). Exploring the New Testament. Vol. 2: A Guide to the Letters and Revelation (2nd ed.). Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press. p. 155. ISBN 9780830869404. Retrieved 25 May 2015. 
  17. ^ Sarah Ruden, Paul Among the People (2010), p. xix.
  18. ^ Diarmaid MacCulloch, A History of Christianity, 2009 (Penguin 2010, p. 115), ISBN 978-0-14-102189-8


Further reading

External links

Epistle to Philemon
Preceded by
Pastoral Epistle
New Testament
Books of the Bible
Succeeded by
Epistle to