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
I -- 1:1-3 – Salutation
- Paul says he is a prisoner of Christ Jesus
- Scholars take this literally, that he really is in prison
- Paul says Timothy, his brother, joins him in sending greetings
- The letter conforms to ancient letter writing standards
- The greeting is written in a way that anticipates a favorable response
- Philemon is addressed as a "dear friend and fellow worker"
- "Apphia" might be his wife and she is also greeted
- The third individual, Archippus, might be the spiritual leader
- This person is mentioned in the hope of bringing a positive solution to the situation
- (Some scholars have speculated that Archippus might have been their son, but this is not widely accepted.)
- The inclusion of these two individuals indicates that this was a public matter
- Whatever Philemon decides will affect the whole church
- Philemon has enough wealth to host the church in his home
- Paul closes his greeting with "grace and peace"
- These are his standard catchwords – two great gifts of the Christian life
II – 1:4-7 – Praise for Philemon
- Typically, thanksgiving follows the greeting in ancient letters
- Paul has nothing but praise for Philemon
- He remembers him always in his prayers
- He has heard about his love for all the saints and faith in the Lord Jesus
- Paul prays that Philemon will be active in sharing his faith
- Such active faith promotes a fuller understanding of Christian blessings
- Paul repeats his praise for Philemon's love
- It has given him great joy and encouragement
- It suggests that Paul has been enriched by his knowing of Philemon
- This focus on love is meant to influence how Philemon might respond to Paul's request
- Paul is really hoping for Christian maturity in Philemon's response to Onesimus
III – 1:8-22 – Paul's Request Regarding Onesimus
This is the heart of the letter If Paul is in prison, then he is limited in what he can do for Onesimus. He can only write a letter to his friend asking for clemency. As a runaway slave, Onesimus had no rights and was protected by no laws. Typically, he would have been severely beaten (punished) upon his return. Paul is essentially asking Philemon to "forgive" him with no recourse. Yet he avoids making that decision for him; the choice rests with Philemon. Because of Philemon's character, Paul appeals to having a special relationship with him.
- Paul reminds Philemon of his apostolic authority – he could compel Philemon to act
- Paul refers to himself as an "old man," who is suffering for Christ
- (Some scholars think Philemon and Paul were contemporaries)
- Purportedly, this is to enhance his appeal to Philemon
- Paul claims to be doing this on the basis of love
- Paul refers to Onesimus as his "son"
- This indicates that Paul was the instrument by which Onesimus became a Christian
- As his spiritual father, he now appeals to Philemon on behalf of his "son"
- The "father/son" metaphor was frequently used between teacher and student
- Formerly, Onesimus was "useless" to Philemon (a pun on his name)
- Onesimus was a common slave name because it means "useful"
- Now, however, he is "useful" to both of them
- Obviously, he is a changed man
- Yet, he can only be "useful" to Paul if he remains with him, and "useful" to Philemon only if he returns
- Onesimus is very dear to Paul
- Sending him back is like "losing his heart"
- Yet Paul knows it is the only legal and "right" thing to do
- Paul would prefer to keep Onesimus with him (in prison)
- Essentially, Onesimus is doing what Philemon may have previously done for Paul
- Paul tactfully defers to Philemon's decision – and doesn't tell him how to decide
- Whatever Philemon chooses must be his very own choice
- Yet this choice must be informed by his Christianity
- Onesimus possibly left his master under dubious circumstances
- Some scholars surmise that he probably stole from him and then ran away
- Societal laws would allow for him to be hunted down and punished
- Paul is advocating a different set of laws
- God's providential hand was in all this
- Onesimus left so he could return for good
- Philemon's temporary loss will be his ultimate gain
- And since Onesimus is now a Christian, he will no longer be a slave but a brother
- Slavery was a demeaning condition; a "brother" means he has a new status in Christ
- They are all united in brotherhood
- Therefore Onesimus left as a "slave," but will return as a "man" and a "brother"
- (This is not to suggest that Paul is advocating the end of all slavery. This is a special case involving two of his students.)
- Regardless of Paul's preaching "equality in Christ," he supports Onesimus' obligation to Philemon
- Yet scholars see in this at least a veiled request for manumission
- Finally, the request – welcome him as you would me
- Paul begins by referring to Philemon as a "partner"
- Their "partnership" refers to their common goals and interests – and their faith
- If Philemon sees Paul as a "partner," he will surely assent to Paul's request
- Therefore, he should receive Onesimus as he would receive Paul
- There can be no social barriers in Christ
- Paul then says that if Onesimus has wronged Philemon, he will make amends
- Philemon should merely send him the bill and Paul will take care of it
- (This was according to law. If someone took in a runaway slave, he was required to pay any penalties or debts to the old master.)
- Paul is essentially assuming any of Onesimus' debts
- In stating that he is writing these words himself, Paul is giving Philemon a promissory note
- These words would have had great legal weight
- (This is why scholars think he might have stolen from his master.)
- The price for slaves varied according to their skills and abilities
- Alongside this offer, Paul reminds Philemon how much he is in debt to Paul
- (The implication is that Philemon won't even consider asking Paul for any financial remuneration for Onesimus.)
- After all, it was because of Paul that Philemon became a Christian
- What price could Philemon put on that
- Paul refers to him again as "brother," saying that he wishes to benefit from him
- This may be a veiled request to keep Onesimus with him
- At the very least, it is a request that Philemon respond with love to Onesimus
- If he can do this, he will "refresh" Paul's heart
- Finally Paul writes that he knows Philemon so well that he is confident of his response – obedience (scholars just don't know obedient to what?)
- This is obedience, perhaps, to Christian love and not to Roman law
- He hints that Philemon might even do more than what Paul has requested
- (This may be another request for manumission or to keep Onesimus.)
- Either way, Paul leaves it up to Philemon to decide
- A future visit
- The last exchange repeats Paul's desire that he will soon be able to visit
- This would indicate that he hopes to be freed from his chains
- This would be the answer to their prayers, indicating the whole congregation had been praying for his release
- He is so hopeful about this that he reserves a room in Philemon's house
- (This is why scholars think he was close by in Ephesus.)
IV – 1:23-25 – Final Greetings
- These words are very similar to the greetings in Colossians
- The same names are mentioned, only here Epaphras is named as the fellow prisoner
- According to Colossians 4:10-14…
- Aristarchus was a fellow-prisoner
- Mark was the cousin of Barnabas with whom Paul had a falling out (See Acts 15:39)
- Luke is referred to as a physician and might be Paul's companion
- Demas "deserted" Paul later on (See 2 Tim 4:10)
- (The mention of these people has led some scholars to assume the letters were written in close proximity. But other scholars maintain that Colossians is a deutero-Pauline letter. [See discussion on Colossians])
- Regardless of the dating issues, these lists indicate how important these fellow workers were in Paul's ministry
- Paul repeats the greeting that the grace of the Lord Jesus be with his spirit
- This functions more as a benediction than a greeting
- The "your" is also plural, suggesting that this letter was intended for the whole congregation
Paul ends his letter to Philemon in the same way he ended most of his letters – with formal greetings from fellow workers and a final benediction. Obviously we long to know how things turned out, both for Philemon and Onesimus. Modern readers might be distressed to realize that Paul affirmed Philemon's rights over Onesimus instead of coming down hard on the whole institution of slavery, but in so doing, Paul was acting as a law-abiding Roman citizen.
Barclay, William. "The Letters to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon." Daily Study Bible. Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press. 1975.
Barth, Markus, and Helmut Blanke. "The Letter to Philemon." Eerdmans Critical Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B Eerdmans. 2000.
Duling, Dennis and Norman Perrin. The New Testament. Proclamation and Parenesis, Myth and History. Philadelphia, PA: Harcourt Brace College Publishers. 1994.
Gaebelein, Frank. "Philemon." Expositor's Bible Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing. 1985.
Koenig, John. "Philippians, Philemon." Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing. 1985.
Martin, Ralph. "Colossians and Philemon." The New Century Bible Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B Eerdmans. 1981.
Patzia, Arthur. "Ephesians, Colossians, Philemon." New International Biblical Commentary. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson. 1988.