F. C. Baur’s extreme Hegelianism as applied to the NT prevented him from seeing Philemon as authentic. Instead, he regarded it as a second-century document which was intended to show the church how to deal with slavery. Virtually no one today would follow in Baur’s train.
Even though this letter is a brief, personal note to a friend, it shows up in the early canon lists (Marcion’s and the Muratorian). Further, the ancient church never doubted its authenticity.
Internally, “it breathes the great-hearted tenderness of the apostle[,] and its dealing with an intensely difficult situation points to an author of much experience in handling social problems.”1
Typically, Philemon is regarded as “next in line” after the Hauptbriefe in terms of its security as an authentic piece by Paul. There is certainly nothing linguistically,2 historically, or theologically against this supposition.
The traditional view that this letter was written while Paul was in a Roman prison has been assailed from two corners: some claim Ephesus is a better starting point, others suggest Caesarea. Before deciding on this issue, it must first be recognized that, on the assumption of authenticity, where Paul was when he wrote Ephesians is where he was when he wrote Colossians and Philemon. This can be seen by several pieces of evidence: (1) the commendation of Tychicus, as the bearer of the letter, found in exactly the same form in both Eph 6:21-22 and Col 4:7-8, surely indicates that he was sent with both epistles at the same time; (2) the strong verbal overlap between Colossians and Ephesians must, if authentic, indicate that the two were written at the same time; (3) Colossians is inseparable from Philemon3—that is, they must both have been sent at the same time. Hence, all three letters were written and sent at the same time. Consequently, if there is anything in either Colossians or Philemon which helps to narrow down where Paul was imprisoned at the time of writing, such would equally apply to Ephesians.
A Caesarean imprisonment is improbable for two reasons: (1) Onesimus, the runaway slave, would hardly have gone to Caesarea. Not only would he not have escaped notice as easily, but he would most likely not have had very good access to Paul. In Rome, however, Paul was under house arrest and had relatively free mobility.4 (2) In Phile 22 Paul requests Philemon to prepare lodging for him, in anticipation of his release. This would hardly be the case in Caesarea, however, for Paul appealed to Caesar, prolonging his imprisonment by more than two more years.
On behalf of Ephesus are two arguments (both negative in character): (1) the great distance between Rome and Colossae (1200 miles each way) suggests that Onesimus would hardly have made the journey; it would be easier for him to travel to a nearby city; (2) in Phile 22 Paul asks Philemon to prepare him lodging, suggesting that he intended on returning to Asia Minor after his release. But he had written the Romans a few years earlier of his plan on going westward, even to Spain (cf. Rom 1:10ff; 15:19ff.). It should be noted that both of these arguments only help an Ephesian imprisonment, not a Caesarean (because Caesarea is far from Asia Minor and because Asia Minor would conceivably be en route to Rome and Spain from Caesarea).
In response: (1) There is just as much likelihood that Onesimus would want to travel to Rome, because it was far away as Ephesus because it was close by—especially since he robbed Philemon, giving himself travel funds.5 Not only this, but he would almost surely have been detected in Ephesus by other Christians, perhaps even by some of Paul’s traveling companions. But whether he would have been able to visit Paul before being detected is doubtful. (2) Paul could easily have changed his mind about going to Spain, or he might have wished to visit his friends in Asia Minor before journeying westward—especially to gain emotional strength after having suffered imprisonment for several years.
Not only this, but an Ephesian imprisonment is improbable: (1) We have no positive evidence that Paul was ever imprisoned in Ephesus. (2) If the “in Ephesus” in Eph 1:1 is original, then this view is almost impossible; even if not original, there is the strong possibility that Ephesians was sent to the churches in Asia Minor (with Ephesus being the port of entry, giving cause for the traditional view).6 And if so, then Paul most likely was elsewhere when all three letters were sent.
Both because of Paul’s known imprisonment in Rome, and because of the tradition of a Roman imprisonment for these letters,7 the burden of proof must rest with a non-Roman origin. As we have seen, the arguments against the Roman theory are not convincing. On behalf of Rome, however, is an important internal clue: Luke is with Paul during his imprisonment (Col 4:14; Phile 24). Luke’s presence with Paul is supported by Acts while Paul was in Rome, “whereas the Ephesian ministry of Paul does not occur in a ‘we’ section and it may reasonably be doubted whether Luke was with Paul during this period.”8
In conclusion, the traditional view that Paul was in Rome when he wrote Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon, is still the most probable.
This letter was sent while Paul was in prison in Rome (59-61 CE). Since the apostle gives no indication that he will be released soon (contra Philippians), it is likely that this was written before the end of his imprisonment was in sight. Further, it is obvious that it was sent along with the letter to the Ephesians and the letter to Philemon. Once the occasion for the writing of Colossians/Philemon is established, it can be reasonably supposed that all three letters were written sometime during the middle of Paul’s imprisonment—hence, c. 60 CE. But more than that can be said here.
Philemon 22 seems merely to be an expression of the hope of release from prison, without giving any indication as to when. If this is read as an expression of imminent release, then the relative dating of Ephesians-Colossians-Philemon in relation to Philippians may need some revision. But other considerations certainly suggest that Philippians is the last of the prison epistles: (1) Phile 22 may be a somewhat exaggerated statement (intended to reflect Paul’s positive attitude more than the reality of imminence), for if Paul was in Rome, it would take him several weeks to travel to Asia Minor; (2) Epaphras is mentioned in Phile 23, as someone known to Philemon (cf. also Col 4:12), without any mention of his illness (cf. Phil 2:25ff.)—even though news of his illness was know to Christians outside of Rome (ibid.); (3) Only Timothy is with Paul when he wrote Philippians (Phil 2:19-21), while Luke, Demas, Aristarchus, Mark and Epaphras are with him when he wrote Colossians-Ephesians-Philemon (cf. Col 4:10-14; Phile 23-24). Whatever else this indicates, it is evident that Philippians cannot be dated at the same time as the other three epistles; (4) the final proof is that Paul sends Epaphroditus to the Philippians (Phil 2:25-30) with the epistle, while he is still with Paul when the apostle wrote the other three letters. All of this evidence points to Philippians being written not only at a different time than the other three prison epistles, but at a later time. Hence, a date of c. 60 CE is most appropriate for Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon.
Traditionally, the letter is addressed to Philemon, the owner of the slave Onesimus, and a member of the church at Colossae.9 Apparently Philemon became a Christian through Paul’s ministry (v. 19). At the same time, he must not have been in Colossae at the time of his conversion, for Paul had not yet been to Colossae (cf. Col 1:4; 2:1).
As we have discussed at length in our introductions to Ephesians and Colossians, Onesimus apparently ran away from Philemon, his pockets lined with his owner’s money, and headed for Rome. He may have stumbled across Epaphroditus, who was also en route to Rome; if so, Epaphroditus may have urged him to seek out Paul in order to gain advice.10 While with Paul, Onesimus became a Christian (v. 10), and proved himself “useful” (a word-play on his name) to Paul. The apostle wrote this letter to Philemon, asking Philemon to reinstate Onesimus—this time as a “dear brother”(v. 16), rather than as a slave. Although Paul could command Philemon to do so, he urges him instead, hoping that Philemon will be willing without coercion. Further, to show his sincerity, Paul vows to pay back whatever Onesimus owes (vv. 18-19).
What Paul is asking Philemon to do is to model redemption in a social context (15-16). Put briefly, “Forgive one another even as God in Christ has forgiven you.”
Paul opens this, his most personal letter in the canon, with a greeting to Philemon, Apphia, and Archippus (1-3). He then gives his customary thanks for the addressee and offers a prayer on his behalf (4-7). However, the opening prayer in Philemon is virtually unique among Paul’s letters: it looks like a prayer for Philemon to share his faith (6, NIV: “I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith”). But in reality, Paul is probably asking him to deepen his understanding of the blessings that all believers have in Christ—an understanding that would reveal the incongruity of slavery and Christianity. The NET Bible renders this verse: “I pray that the faith you share with us may deepen your understanding of every blessing that belongs to us in Christ,” offering an extensive note on the justification of this rendering. I believe that this captures Paul’s point the best.
The body of the letter is an appeal that Philemon would take back Onesimus—but as a brother rather than as a slave (8-22). Paul prefaces the appeal with a reminder of his apostolic authority (8), then alters the tone from strict obedience to love (9). It is only at this stage in the letter that the apostle mentions Onesimus (10) as the object of the appeal. With an allusion to Philemon’s conversion and hence changed character, the appeal’s persuasive force begins to gain momentum (10-11).
At this stage Paul has not yet specified the content of the appeal, only that it was for Onesimus. In vv. 12-16 he plainly states, “I am sending him back to you.” Then he boldly suggests that Philemon might consider freeing him for the sake of the gospel (13-16).
Paul now plays his trump card both by reminding Philemon of his own (spiritual) debt to Paul and by volunteering to pay for any damages done by Onesimus (17-21). He concludes his appeal with the suggestion that he hopes to return to Philemon. From this Philemon should certainly read between the lines: it would be most prudent to heed Paul’s advice since Paul will follow up on the suggestion in person (22)!
The letter concludes with greetings from those with Paul in Rome and a benediction (23-25).
I. Salutation (1-3)
II. Thanksgiving (4-7)
III. The Plea for Onesimus (8-22)
A. Paul’s Return of Onesimus (8-16)
1. The Person of Onesimus Introduced (8-10)
2. The Value of Onesimus Assessed (11)
3. The Freedom of Onesimus Suggested (12-16)
B. Philemon’s Reception of Onesimus (17-22)
1. The Basis: Paul as Cosigner for Onesimus (17-21)
2. The Hope: Paul as Guest of Philemon (22)
IV. Final Greetings (23-25)
2 Longenecker (“Amanuenses”) regards Philemon as perhaps the only canonical letter by Paul which he actually penned himself, the others being written for him by an amanuensis. In the ancient world it was indeed typical for an author to write for himself personal correspondence, leaving more general treatises to his secretary to pen.
6 See the discussion of the textual variant in Eph 1:1 in the NET Bible at this verse.
7 Marcion’s Prologue places Paul in Ephesus for the writing of Colossians, but it places him in Rome for the writing of Philemon. Yet, since both of these must surely have been written at the same time, Marcion can only be half right. The rest of the external testimony puts Paul in Rome for the writing of these epistles.