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This month we will explore the last of Paul’s authentic letters, the Letter to Philemon. It bears the dubious distinction of being the shortest book in the New Testament. Comprised of roughly 330+ words, this letter still contains a rich vocabulary. Scholars disagree whether this was intended to be a private letter or an official church communiqué. It is addressed to an individual who is also a member of the Colossian Church. Scholars are convinced that he was the owner of slaves, Onesimus, who had run away and made his way to Paul when the latter was in prison. Onesimus is now returning to his master and Paul hopes to influence how Philemon responds to him. If you want to read some of the history previous to this selection, you can find the earlier books in our archives.
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The reasons for considering this to be a private letter are obvious. It is addressed to an individual and seems to involve an ethical question directed at one person. Yet scholars have noted that the congregation meeting in Philemon’s house is also addressed. In a sense, they are, at the least, invited to bear witness to the letter’s effects. Some think they also would have had a role in determining Philemon’s actions, but whether this would have been directly or indirectly, through peer pressure, is not known. Nonetheless whatever the slaves owner finally decided would have an impact on all of them. For this reason, several scholars consider this to be an official church letter. Obviously, those who included it in the canon saw inspiration and authority for the whole congregation.
Regardless of the private/public issue, the letter is Paul’s attempt to effect reconciliation between two individuals. One is Philemon, who is the owner of the slaves, Onesimus. According to the letter, Onesimus had fled Philemon’s household, but was now returning to work things out. Needless to say, societal laws were explicit and harsh regarding runaways. Paul pleads for Philemon to set all that aside and to put his Christianity into practice. It is apparent from the letter that Paul is writing from prison. One might think this would be helpful in determining the date of the letter. Unfortunately, since Paul was imprisoned on at least three different occasions, there are still multiple options. If he was writing from Rome, then Philemon would be among his latest letters – possibly as late as 61 CE. If he was writing from Caesarea, the date would be roughly three years earlier. But if he was writing from Ephesus, then the date could be as early as 55 CE. There are various arguments for each location, but none is more convincing than the other. Most scholars prefer the Roman location for several reasons. Runaway slaves would be less noticeable in a larger city. Though under house arrest, Paul had access to other individuals, employing some of them as workers. Other scholars, however, prefer the Ephesus location because Paul tells Philemon to reserve a room for his upcoming visit. Obviously, Paul intended to be released from prison and expected to travel in that direction. His plans from Rome included pressing on towards Spain – not in the direction of Colossae.
Despite its brevity, the letter raises some profound questions about the relationship between slave and master when both of them had converted to Christianity. Paul had previously stated in Gal 3:28 that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” This letter is an example of how Paul tried to apply this to the real world. But the issues were complex. Nowhere does Paul ever call for the abolishment of slavery. Though this offends modern sensibilities, it is a true reflection of life in the first century. Slavery was an integral part of the Roman Empire; Christianity was a young, untested new religion. Had Christians advocated slavery’s demise, they would have been summarily snuffed out. Yet Paul was not oblivious to the problems associated with slavery. He does preach about Christian love. He mentioned in a number of letters that Christians must love and care for each other apart from any societal distinctions. This activity was always to be rooted in the example of Christ’s love and was to be motivated by the Holy Spirit. In like manner, he also addressed the slaves, entreating them to obey their masters and to serve them with a loving attitude. Slaves were still slaves and did not have the freedom to do whatever they wished.
Yet, it is also true that not all masters were kind to their slaves. It has been said that no slaves were ever “happy” and that they all prayed to be set free. It’s a generalization that can be neither affirmed nor denied. But in this case, we know that Onesimus ran away. Because the laws were so onerous against runaways, we have to assume that he had a good reason for doing so. The risks were great in that runaway slaves typically had nowhere to go. Harboring them was prohibited by law. Law-abiding people would avoid helping them out of fear of the consequences if they were found out. There could be huge penalties in the form of fines for anyone assisting runaway slaves. Since all the laws were meant to protect the investment of the slave owner, the runaway was essentially outside the law. Frequently their only recourse was to try to become invisible in a large city, oftentimes joining gangs in order to survive. As an outlaw, they could be beaten, robbed, raped, starved, or killed by any one at any time.
And yet, slaves did have two options for a better life. One was to go to the home of a free and possibly high status person; the other was to go to the temple where refuge was permitted. Scholars think Onesimus might have attempted the first alternative. It is possible that he sought out Paul in order to claim asylum. If Paul was in prison, this would again stretch the laws of the land because Paul was severely limited in his ability to help. Paul was under an obligation to report to Philemon and to intervene on behalf of his slaves. The “patron” was also required to pay all of the slave’s debts and to reimburse the master for any financial losses incurred since the slave ran away. If someone had higher social standing than the master, it was likely this intervention would succeed. If slaves happened upon someone who was not a “patron” in relation to their master, they took a great risk. They might be turned in to the law by the individual or sold to a new master. This was usually done in an expedient manner so the individual would not be accused of aiding and abetting the slaves.
It appears that Paul might have been acting along these lines; however, he also had a secret weapon at his disposal. It is likely that Onesimus showed up at his doorstep pleading for asylum. During his time with Paul, he learned about Christianity and was baptized and converted. Along with this conversion came a transformation of character. Out of gratitude, Onesimus became very useful to Paul, though there are no specific details on what he actually did for him. Nonetheless, Paul became very fond of him, calling him “son” and “fellow worker.” This would accord with Paul’s message about the transforming power of the gospel. Since Paul converted both Philemon and Onesimus, it means that in this case both master and slave would have been transformed. Paul then advocated reconciliation between them, a reconciliation that had its roots in Christian love. He pleaded the case of Onesimus to Philemon, tactfully praising Philemon’s great love and faith for the Lord as well as all the saints. Paul is essentially inviting Philemon to practice the Christianity he professed to all. Yet, he refrains from giving a direct order. He understands full well that he could order obedience on the part of Philemon, but not effect a change in attitude. Philemon could comply with the letter, but not the spirit of the law – in this case, the law of Christian brotherliness.
There are roughly four sections to this letter: 1:1-3 – Salutation; 1:4-7 – Praise for Philemon; 1:8-22 – Paul’s Request Regarding Onesimus; 1:23-25 – Final Greetings