Philemon Archeology

    Paul's authorship of this letter is virtually unquestioned. The apostle was apparently in prison in Rome when he wrote to Philemon (v. 9), and a composition of this letter around the same time as Colossians, about A.D. 60, seems reasonable. 

    Paul wrote this letter primarily to Philemon, a believer in Colosse, but it is also addressed to Apphia (possibly Philemon's wife), Archip-pus (see Col 4:17) and the members of the church in Colosse (Phm 2). 

    This is a personal letter, in that Paul wrote to Philemon to plead with him to be lenient with his runaway slave, Onesimus. Under Roman law Philemon could have punished Onesimus with almost any degree of severity, including death, but Paul wanted Philemon not only to forgive Onesimus but to grant him manumission (vv. 14-16; see also "Slavery in the Greco-Roman World" on p. 1979). Paul had not visited Colosse but seems to have been responsible for Philemon's conversion (v. 19). Onesimus had apparently robbed Philemon and made his way to Paul in Rome, where he had confessed his crime and himself been converted. 

    Look for glimpses into Paul's relationships with Onesimus and Philemon. Note the way Paul described the transformation that occurs in a person's relationships when he or she becomes a believer (v. 16-17). Examine Paul's view of Onesimus, and consider how radical it must have seemed in Paul's day (see v. 16).

  • Approximately one-third of the first-century Roman population was made up of slaves (v. 12). 
  • Slaves had no legal status, and a runaway could be severely whipped, branded on the face, chained, forced to wear an iron neck collar or restrained by having his or her legs broken. Slaves could also be sold to the mines or sentenced to death (v. 14). 
  • The aristocratic historian Sallust described the Rome of Paul's day as "the common cesspool of the world" (v. 24). 

    Philemon includes the following themes: 

1. Forgiveness. Paul asked Philemon to accept his formerly troublesome slave as he would accept Paul himself, extending the same for-giving love to Onesimus that he himself had received from God (see Col 3:13). Their reconciliation was so important that it took precedence over Paul's desire to have Onesimus remain with himself (v. 13). This brief letter speaks of failure, intercession, repentance. forgiveness and restoration. 

2. Equality in Christ. Paul did not overtly challenge the slavery system, but neither did he sanctify it as part of God's design. Instead, he focused on how conversion fundamentally transforms personal relationships with others and with God. He laid down universal principles that, when taken seriously, ultimately topple the foundations of injustice in any form. 


 I. Greetings (1-3) 
II. Thanksgiving and Prayer (4-7) 
       Ill. Paul's Appeal for Onesimus (8-21) 
       IV. Conclusion (22-25) 

Slavery in the Greco-Roman World 

    PHILEMON Slavery was practiced throughout the Greco-Roman world, and there were several categories of slaves: 
  • The helot was a citizen of a city that was in permanent subordination to another state. A famous example is Messenia, a Greek city-state subdued by Sparta and then reduced to peasant status and forced to serve the needs of Sparta's military culture.The people of Gibeon are an analogous example from Israelite history; they served as menial workers for the sanctuary (Jos 9). 
  • The indentured servant was reduced to slavery by debt but could obtain remission by working off that liability. 
  • The chattel-slave was quite simply the property of his or her master. 
    People fell into slavery by various means and for various reasons. As mentioned above, unresolved debt could lead to this condition. Large numbers of people became slaves through conquest. Victorious armies would sell captured people into slavery, and these wretched souls typically never again saw their homelands. Frequently slavers would simply kidnap people, take them far away and sell them. Ancient pirates regularly practiced this, and the Roman government from time to time sought to clear the seas of pirate fleets. In addition, the children of a slave woman were born into slavery, regardless of the status of their father. Slavery was not racially based, although people generally preferred not to enslave others of their own ethnic group (e.g., Greeks typically enslaved non-Greeks, whom they considered "barbarians"). 

    The degree of hardship related to slavery also varied considerably. No doubt the worst lot fell to those who worked in mines and similar labor-intensive industries. Slightly better was the situation of peasant-farmers, with household slaves experiencing an easier life still.The most desirable position for a slave was that of a teacher, scribe or clerk, but even such a situation could be miserable if the master was harsh. Slaves were considered nonpersons and thus enjoyed no rights including privacy or control over their own sexual lives. Not surprisingly, an enormous number of slaves ran away, particularly if they had no hope of obtaining manumission.The flight of Philemon's slave Onesimus, then, was not a peculiar occurrence. Occasionally outright rebellion occurred, the most spectacular example being that of the Spartacus slave revolt of 73 B.C. Passive resistance (e.g., by working slowly) was more common. 

    The New Testament does not condemn slavery outright or demand that Christian slaveholders emancipate their slaves. On the other hand,the pressure Paul applied to Philemon to release Onesimus was exemplary, and Paul elsewhere urged Christian slaves to obtain manumission if at all possible (1Co 7:21). Paul undermined the foundation of slavery—the notion that slaves were nonentities—when he made the declaration that in Christ there is no distinction between slave and free (Gal 3:28).