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Introduction to the Book of Philemon

Julian Spriggs M.A.

The brief letter to Philemon is the shortest and most personal of Paul’s letters. It only contains 335 words in the Greek text.

Authorship

There is very little debate that this is a genuine letter by Paul (v1).

The Muratorian Canon includes Philemon with the letters by Paul. “But he (Paul) wrote out of affection and love one to Philemon, one to Titus, two to Timothy and these are held sacred in the honourable esteem of the church catholic, in the regulation of Ecclesiastical discipline.”

The book is only occasionally referred to or quoted by the early church fathers.

Tertullian referred to the Book of Philemon when opposing the heretic Marcion, who rejected some of Paul’s letters.
“To this epistle alone did its brevity avail to protect it against the falsifying hands of Marcion. I wonder, however, when he received (into his Apostolicon) this letter which was written but to one man, that he rejected the two epistles to Timothy and the one to Titus, which all treat of ecclesiastical discipline.” Against Marcion 5:21

In his homily on Jeremiah, Origen actually gives a rare quotation from the Book of Philemon and mentions Onesimus. “God does tyrannize but rules, and when he rules, he does not coerce but encourages, and he wishes that those under him yield themselves willingly to his direction so that the good of someone may not be according to compulsion but according to his free will. This is what Paul with understanding was saying to Philemon in the Letter to Philemon concerning Onesimus: So that your good be not according to compulsion but according to free will.” Homilies on Jeremiah 20

Date and place of writing

Philemon is included as one of Paul’s four prison letters. From evidence within the letters it is clear that the letters to Philemon, the Colossians and the Ephesians were written and sent together, while Philippians was sent separately. In Philemon, Paul introduces himself as a prisoner (v1), and later refers to his imprisonment (v9,10).

There is a debate about the place of writing, depending on where Paul was in prison. Rome is the generally most accepted place around AD 60-62, when Paul was under house arrest (Acts 28). The situation fits well, as he was able to receive visitors. Other scholars claim that Philemon and the other prison letters were written while Paul was a prisoner for two years in Caesarea (Acts 23-26), while others claim that they were written from Ephesus, even though no imprisonment there was mentioned in the Book of Acts.

Historical Setting

From a comparison with the Book of Colossians, we can conclude that Philemon was probably a leader of the church in Colossae, which met in his house (v2). The close connection between the Book of Philemon with the Book of Colossians can be seen through the list of people sending greetings: Epaphras, Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke (v23-24). Each of the people also send greetings at the end of Colossians (Col 4:7-17) indicating that all were present with Paul at the writing of both letters. The letter to Philemon is also addressed to Archippus (v2), who is also exhorted in the Book of Colossians (4:17). It is likely that Apphia (v2) was Philemon’s wife, and Archippus was his son.

Onesimus is also mentioned in Colossians, that he is coming from Paul to Colossae with Tychicus (4:9). Tychicus probably acted as the postman, who carried the letters from Rome. He also accompanied Onesimus, probably ensuring that he actually returned to Philemon. Tychicus is also mentioned in Ephesians, “So that you also may know how I am and what I am doing, Tychicus will tell you everything. He is a dear brother and a faithful minister in the Lord. I am sending him to you for this very purpose, to let you know how we are, and to encourage your hearts.” (Eph 6:21-22). This would suggest that the three letters (Ephesians, Colossians and Philemon) were all carried at the same time by Tychicus.

The church in Colossae was probably founded while Paul was in Ephesus on his second missionary journey. Paul remained in Ephesus, arguing daily in the lecture hall of Tyranus, so over the two years all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord (Acts 19:10). This would include Colossae and the other towns nearby, including Laodicea and Hieropolis in the Lycus Valley. “This (the gospel) you learned from Epaphras, our beloved fellow servant. He is a faithful minister of Christ on your behalf, and he has made known to us your love in the Spirit.” (Col 4:7). Epaphras is described as one of yourselves, so he also comes from Colossae (Col 4:12).

To summarise - during the two or more years that Paul was in Ephesus on his second missionary journey, Epaphras heard Paul preaching the Gospel and became a Christian. He took the Gospel back to Colossae and planted a church. Paul did not visit Colossae at that time. Philemon was converted either through Epaphras in Colossae, or through Paul on a visit to Ephesus.

Onesimus, whose name means “useful”, was probably born a slave. He was either born into Philemon’s household, or was purchased by him. He was evidently “useless” (v11) and eventually ran away. Somehow he came to Paul, through whom he became a believer (v10). As part of his discipleship, Paul was returning him to Philemon to ask forgiveness of his master and seek to have the relationship restored.

The letters to Colossians, Ephesians and Philemon were all written at the same time and delivered to Asia by Tychicus. Paul was in prison in Rome (first Roman imprisonment AD 60-62). He is waiting for the appeal to the emperor to be heard and is expecting to be released. Epaphras was in prison with him. Luke and the other three were in Rome working with Paul, but were free men. Tychicus was the postman, who also brought Onesimus back to Philemon in Colossae.

For more about slavery in New Testament times, please see the page about Slavery.

Style of writing

To a modern reader, the Book of Philemon can seem as if Paul is being rather manipulative in the way he makes his request. However, this approach to making requests was more common in Roman society.

The Book of Philemon can be seen as a “Letter of Recommendation”, by which a socially superior person (the patron) would write to an socially dependent person (the client) to ask a favour. A patron was the social superior in the relationship who granted favours to his clients, and acted as their political sponsor. In return, the client was expected to give honour and respect to their patron as their benefactor. There is more information about Patronage in the first century on the Patronage page.

In the book, Paul also uses a style of writing known as deliberative rhetoric, which educated persons used to persuade other people to change their behaviour or attitude. Greek rhetoric was the art or study of proper forms and methods of public speaking, which was highly emphasised in educated Greek and Roman society. Training in rhetoric was a central part of the education of the children of well-to-do members of society. Public speeches frequently used the same rhetorical style, so the ordinary members of society would also become familiar with it.

The structure of the book follows the accepted form of deliberative rhetoric.

1. Standard greeting of Greek letter (v1-3)

2. Opening appeal, or exordium (v4-7)
This was used in speeches to praise the listeners in order to secure their favour. The same is being done here in a letter. The mention of a shared friendship between the writer and recipient (v7) was frequently used in letters, when the writer was about to request a favour from the recipient.

3. Main argument (v8-16)
This is the main section containing the request. Paul uses several examples of rhetorical style including making a reminder while pretending not to do so. Rhetoricians liked to argue this way: “I could remind you of this, but I won’t”, thus reminding their reader while pretending not to do so.

Again he states their shared relationship as a basis of his request, when he appeals on the basis of love rather than authority (v9). As a friend, Philemon would be socially obliged to grant and return the favour. By calling Onesimus his child (v10), he also appeals on the basis of emotion, which was also an important part of a rhetorical argument.

4. Summary, or peroratio (v17-22)
In his summary to conclude the letter, Paul uses several rhetorical techniques. The first is the appeal to consider the bearer of the letter “as if he were me” (v17). Philemon is being requested to welcome Onesimus, his runaway slave, in the same way as he would welcome the apostle Paul himself.

He then employs language normally used for formally assuming a debt. Letters acknowledging debt normally included the promise, “I will repay”, and were signed by the debtor in his own handwriting. Because it is in writing, this offer would be legally binding in the unlikely event that Philemon would take Paul up on it (v18-19). This is the only part of the letter that Paul actually wrote himself (v19), the rest was written by his secretary, probably Timothy (v1).

Philemon owes a debt to Paul, his own self (v19b), so again Paul used the rhetorical technique of “not to mention” something he then mentions. By ancient social custom, friends were bound by the reciprocal obligation of repaying favours. Philemon owes Paul the greatest favour - his self, his new life in conversion.

Professional speakers often sought favours saying something like, “Knowing your goodness you will gladly hear me ...”, or “Grant me such and such a request”. Paul finishes his request by saying, “knowing that you will do even more than I say” (v21).

5. Standard final greetings and blessing of Greek letter (v 23-25)

Three questions to conclude

1. What was Paul asking for?
As noted above, Paul finishes his request by saying, “knowing that you will do even more than I say” (v21), so it is interesting to wonder what Paul is actually asking for.

At a minimum, he is asking that Philemon would forgive Onesimus for being a useless slave, and for running away. A runaway slave normally deserved the death penalty. Paul was willing to send a useful member of his team back in order for the broken relationship with his master to be restored.

Paul is also asking that Philemon would recognise the change that had happened to Onesimus, and welcome him as a fellow believer and member of the body of Christ (v17). It is also likely that Paul is asking that Philemon would release Onesimus from slavery, and give him his freedom.

Paul said that he would have liked to keep Onesimus with him (v13) as a useful member of his ministry team, so it is also quite likely that he is also asking Philemon to send Onesimus out from the church to serve as a missionary for the Gospel, and return him to Paul.

2. Did he get it?
Paul used methods of rhetorical argument and request common in his day to persuade the well-to-do and well-educated Philemon, who would find such arguments persuasive. The actual existence of this letter suggests that Paul succeeded in persuading Philemon. If Philemon had refused to free Onesimus, it would be most unlikely that the letter would have survived.

3. Why was the letter preserved and included in the NT?
Early church tradition says that Onesimus succeeded John as the presiding bishop of Ephesus. Ignatius, bishop of Syrian Antioch, was taken to Rome for martyrdom around AD 110. This was during the period when Onesimus was bishop of Ephesus. Ignatius wrote a letter to the Ephesians alluding to the letter to Philemon alongside mention of Onesimus. The Book of Philemon was only rarely quoted in early church writings. “Since, therefore, I have received in God’s name your whole congregation in the person of Onesimus, a man of inexpressible love who is also your earthly bishop, I pray that you will love him in accordance with the standard set by Jesus Christ and that all of you will be like him. For blessed is he who has graciously allowed you, worthy as you are, to have such a bishop.” Ignatius to the Ephesians 1

The letters of Paul, known as the Pauline Corpus, were brought together in Ephesus towards the end of the first century. It is very likely that Onesimus would have been in charge of this process. He would have kept this letter, as it had given him his freedom, and included it with Paul's other letters, so it was Onesimus who actually included this book in the New Testament.