The letter to Philemon is the shortest of Paul’s letters and is more closely related to the ordinary private and personal letters of the time than others addressed by Paul either to communities or groups of communities. This does not mean, however, that it is simply a piece of private correspondence. Like the apostle’s longer letters it is a means of early Christian missionary work and a substitute for Paul’s personal presence.
The letter is addressed to Philemon who is described as Paul’s ‘dear friend and fellow-worker’ (1). Others mentioned in the greetings are Apphia, who was probably Philemon’s wife, Archippus, Paul’s ‘fellow-soldier’ (and possibly the son of Philemon and Apphia) and the church community (ekkleµsi) that assembled in Philemon’s house (2).
The occasion of the letter to Philemon can be worked out from its contents, though not all the details are clear. A slave named Onesimus had wronged his owner, Philemon, who was a Christian living at Colosse (vs 1–2; cf. Col. 4:9, 17). It is not certain how Onesimus had offended but it is usually assumed on the basis of v 18 that he had stolen his master’s money and then run away. It is possible, however, that the words, ‘if he has done you any wrong or owes you anything’, simply indicate that Onesimus had been sent to fulfil some commission and had overstayed his leave.
In the Roman world of Paul’s day slaves sometimes ran away. They joined groups of robbers, attempted to disappear in the subculture of large cities, tried to flee abroad and be absorbed into the work-force, or sought refuge in a temple. Onesimus came into contact with Paul, perhaps as a fellow-prisoner, who took an interest in him and this led to Onesimus’s conversion (10). The apostle clearly grew to enjoy his company (cf. v 12) and benefited from his ministry (11, 13). He dearly wished to keep Onesimus with him so that he might take Philemon’s place at his side in the service of the gospel. He had no right, however, to retain Onesimus. This would not only have been illegal according to Roman law, it would also have involved a breach of Christian fellowship between himself and Philemon.
So Paul sent Onesimus back to his master Philemon together with an accompanying letter. Using gentle language and carefully chosen words Paul requested that Philemon might welcome his slave just as he would receive Paul himself (17), that is, as a ‘dear brother’ (16). He did not want the reconciliation between master and slave to collapse because of any demand for compensation, so he asked that any outstanding debt arising from Onesimus’s action might be charged to his own account. After all, did not Philemon owe his very self to Paul, since the latter was responsible for his conversion (19)? The decision was to be Philemon’s entirely, so Paul refused to command or coerce him in any way (14). The apostle was confident that his friend would respond in a godly manner and believed that he ‘will do even more than I ask’ (21). These words are tantalizing but as we read between the lines we conclude that the ‘more’ of which Paul speaks is Philemon’s willingness to return Onesimus to Paul for the service of the gospel (21).
An alternative interpretation is that of S. C. Winter (NTS, 33 (1987), pp. 1–15), who suggests that the letter was written to the church at Colosse, not to an individual, and that Onesimus was in prison with Paul because he had been sent there by Archippus on behalf of the congregation. Paul requested that Onesimus be ‘manumitted’ (his freedom purchased) and released from his obligations in Colosse so as to remain with Paul in the work of ministry (Winter). But there are considerable difficulties with this interpretation regarding the supposed public nature of the letter, the circumstances of its composition and the nature of Paul’s request (see the Commentary below).
Authorship, place and date
Paul’s authorship has rarely been questioned in the past. The letter obviously breathes the genuine apostle as he tenderly deals with a difficult, personal and social situation.
The letter was sent from the same place as that to Colossians and of the three possibilities—Rome, Caesarea or Ephesus—the balance of probability lies in favour of the first. The most likely placing of the two letters is fairly early in Paul’s (first) Roman imprisonment, i.e. ad 60–61.
The New Testament and slavery
No NT writer comments on the origins of slavery. Also, no theological support for slavery, or justification for human beings owning other human beings, is presented in the NT even though direct evidence is provided which shows that some early Christians were slaves and others were owners of slaves. Further, no revolutionary programme was suggested by Paul or others to deal with the evils of slavery or its total abolition. Instead, the focus is upon transforming personal relationships within the system.
In 1 Cor. 7:21–24 Paul mentions, not the wider issue of slavery, but the possibility of manumission of Christian slaves. Although many claim that the apostle was urging Christian slaves to take their freedom, it is more likely that he was encouraging them to live according to their new status in Christ (the ‘calling’) which is more fundamental than any social, legal or other change.
The letter to Philemon, like the rest of the NT, does not specifically address the broader question of slavery. Rather, in vs 16–17 Paul deals with the issue of brotherly love in the body of Christ. The relationship of slave to owner, within the existing structures, is to be conducted in the light of belonging to the same Lord. That relationship has now been transcended. Onesimus’s earthly freedom may be rightly desired and valued; but what is of ultimate significance is that he has accepted God’s call and followed him (cf. v 16 and 1 Cor. 7:21–24), whether he is a slave or not. The letter to Philemon is moving in the realm of personal relationships where the institution of slavery could only wilt and die.
See also the article on Reading the letters.
N. T. Wright, Colossians and Philemon, TNTC (IVP, 1986).
R. P. Martin, Colossians and Philemon, NCB (Nelson, 1981).
P. T. O’Brien, Understanding the Basic Themes of Colossians, Philemon, QRBT (Word, 1991).
NT New Testament
TNTC Tyndale New Testament Commentary
NCB New Century Bible
QRBT Quick Reference Bible Topics
Carson, D. A. (1994). New Bible commentary : 21st century edition. Rev. ed. of: The new Bible commentary. 3rd ed. / edited by D. Guthrie, J.A. Motyer. 1970. (4th ed.) (Flm 1). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill., USA: Intervarsity Press.