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An Introduction To The Book Of Philemon

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A. External Evidence: Paul is strongly affirmed to be the author of Philemon:

1. Individuals: It is named as authentic by the following individuals:

a. Ignatius makes allusions to it (c. AD 110)

b. Cyril of Jerusalem (c. AD 315-386)

c. Eusebius (c. AD 325-340)

d. Jerome (c. AD 340-420)

e. Augustine (c. AD 400)

2. Canons: It is named as authentic by the following canons:

a. Marcion (c. AD 140)

b. The Muratorian Fragment (c. AD 170)

c. Apostolic (c. AD 300)

d. Cheltenham (c. AD 360)

e. Athanasus (c. AD 367)

B. Internal Evidence: Even though some of the most radical critical scholars2 did question Pauline authorship of Philemon, it is maintained by most to this day


A. Place of Origin: Paul’s (first) Roman Imprisonment:

1. Paul clearly writes as a prisoner in Philemon (1,9,10,23)3

2. Paul’s imprisonment seems to be from the same location as that in Colossians:

a. Names: When one compares the names in Philemon 1,10,22-24 with those in Colossians 4:7-17 it becomes evident that they were written from the same location:

1) Epaphras

2) Mark

3) Aristarchus

4) Archippus

5) Demas

6) Luke

7) Onesimus

8) Paul and Timothy

b. Messengers: In Colossians 4:7-9 Tychicus was entrusted with the letter with Onesimus as a companion; this Onesimus is the same one of Philemon

3. If the location is the same as that for Colossians, than Paul’s first Roman imprisonment seems to be the best choice for the following reasons:

a. Until recently, Rome was considered by most to be the location from which Paul wrote4

b. Caesarea: Some5 understand Caesarea to be the location of writing, but this is unlikely for the following reasons:

1) It is unlikely that a runaway slave (Philemon) would have fled to Caesarea to escape detection and would have found access to Paul like he would have in Rome (where Paul was under house-arrest)

2) Paul expects to be released in the near future since he requests Philemon to prepare him lodging (Phm. 22) and this probably would not have been the case at Caesarea where Paul knew that his only hope was to appeal to Caesar

3) It is unlikely that Caesarea was the home of active missionary work requiring such a large staff of Paul’s co-workers of Gentile origin for Philemon to seek refuge, and it does not seem that this small harbor city was the center of vigorous propaganda suggested in Colossians 4:3,46

c. Ephesus:7 Some8 understand Ephesus to be the location of writing, but this is unlikely for the following reasons:

1) No evidence exists to affirm that Paul was imprisoned in Ephesus (Acts 19)9

2) It is unlikely that a runaway slave (Philemon) would have fled to Ephesus and remained there long enough to know Paul since it was no more than 100 miles away from Colossae

3) The “we” sections of Acts do not allow for Luke to have been with Paul while he was in Ephesus (Acts 16:10ff; 20:6,13ff; cf. Col. 4:14)

d. Rome:10 The most probably location of writing was probably Rome for the following reasons

1) This is a known imprisonment of Paul’s which allows for the events reflected in Colossians and Philemon

2) Acts supports Luke’s presence in Rome with Paul (the “we” sections; Acts 27:2ff)

3) Paul was under house-arrest in Rome which would have allowed him visitors such as co-workers and Onesimus

4) The imperial capital would have allowed the run-away slave Onesimus to seek anonymity and then asylum in Paul’s presence there

5) No other imprisonment in Acts seems to be a real alternative (Philippi in Acts 16:23-40; Caesarea in Acts 24:27

6) Travel between Rome and the east was frequent and not too formidable a task to make the communications between the prison epistles possible

7) Although not determinative, the doctrinal outlook of Colossians seems to belong to a later rather than to an earlier period supporting a Roman origin over one in Ephesus11

8) It is very probable that Aristarchus accompanied Paul to Rome (Acts 27:2; cf. Col. 4:10) and thus shared in his imprisonment

9) Even though Paul intended to go on to Spain from Rome (Rom. 1:10ff; 15:19ff) it is not possible to know with certainty what he did upon his release. He could have changed his mind, or at least changed his immediate plans and thus gone to Colossae

B. Date: If the Roman hypothesis is accepted, then it is likely that Paul wrote Philemon early12 in his (first) Roman imprisonment (i.e., AD 60-61)


A. The Occasion:13

1. Runaway: A slave named Onesimus from Colossae wronged his Christian owner Philemon (and then ran off (or by running off)14

2. Meeting: Onesimus then somehow came into contact with Paul in prison15

3. Conversion: Paul took an interest in him, Onesimus was converted to Christianity, and ministered to Paul (10-13)

4. Return: Paul returned Onesimus to his master in Colossae in accordance with Roman law and Christian fellowship with a letter requesting Philemon to receive Onesimus as a beloved brother in the Lord (10,16), perhaps with the hope that Philemon will return Onesimus to him for ministry (21)

B. Its Recipient: Philemon [Apphia, Archippus, and the church in Philemon’s house]16

1. Philemon: Paul’s convert and fellow-worker who lived in Colossae and ministered to the saints

a. Paul’s Convert: Philemon became a convert through Paul (Phil. 3,8-9,19) perhaps through his ministry in Ephesus (Acts 19:9-10)17

b. Fellow-worker: Philemon is described as Paul’s fellow-worker (Phil. 1) who loves the saints (Phil. 5,7)

c. From Colossae: He seems to have lived in Colossae since Colossians says that Onesimus (4:9) and Archippus (4:17) belong to the church at Colossae and Archippus is addressed by Paul in Philemon (v. 2)

2. Other Names: Apphia, Archippus, and the church in Philemon’s house

a. Apphia the sister (who may have been Philemon’s wife) [Phil. 2]

b. Archippus the fellow-soldier (who may have been the son of Philemon and Apphia) [Phil. 2]

c. The community assembled in Philemon’s house (Phil. 2)18


A. To ask Philemon of Colossae to pardon his slave Onesimus

B. To ask Philemon of Colossae to not only pardon his slave Onesimus, but to give him a warm welcome as a fellow believer

C. To indirectly request of Philemon to send Onesimus back to Paul so that he can go on helping Paul as he had already begun to do

D. To provide a canonical example of Paul’s teaching of the transformation of human society into Christ’s image with reference to slaves and masters (cf. 1 Cor. 7:17ff.; Gal. 3:28)

E. To provide a concrete opportunity/example of what it means to sacrificially love/forgive as Christ has loved/forgiven believers (19)

F. To provide a concrete example of substitutionary forgiveness (18)

G. To emphasize the nature of redemption as God makes that which is “useless” to be “useful” again (10-11)

H. “To awaken mercy in Philemon by reflecting upon the implications of the gospel toward the runaway slave”19


A. Household Tables: The question of slavery is perhaps more specifically addressed in what are known as the “household tables” in Colossians 3:18--4:1; Ephesians 6:5-9; 1 Corinthians 7:21-23; 1 Timothy 6:1-2; Titus 2:9-10; 1 Peter 2:18-21 which emphasize the following:20

1. Owners have a “master in heaven”

2. Slaves are involved in “serving Christ”

3. God deals impartially with master and slave

4. Both slaves and masters are bond-servants of Christ

5. One may still continue in a functional relationship of master and slave after conversion, but must relate to one another on a higher level of unity

B. Slavery Not Addressed: In the letter to Philemon Paul does not directly take up the issue of slavery

C. Brotherly Love: Paul does deal with the issue of brotherly love in Philemon (vv. 16-17), and its significance is as follows:

1. Paul does not insist that Philemon free Onesimus21

2. If a master and slave are brothers one has the foundation for the collapse of slavery with its intimated hierarchy22

3. The terms of “slave” and “master” are transcended through their joint participation in the body of Christ

4. No one truly owns anyone; all believers are equal in Christ23

1 Much of what follows is adapted from the following: F. F. Bruce, Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free, pp. 393-406; Brevard S. Childs, The New Testament as Canon: An Introduction, pp. 396-399; Norman L. Geisler and William E. Nix, A General Introduction to the Bible: Revised and Expanded, pp. 289-295; Donald Guthrie, New Testament Introduction, pp. 635-642; Peter O’Brien, Philemon, Word Biblical Commentary, pp. 265-270.

2 The authenticity of Philemon was disputed by the Tübingen school under Baur due to its correlation with Colossians, and by the W. C. van Manen of the Dutch school who rejected the authenticity of all thirteen of the Pauline corpus, but such reasoning is consigned to the “eccentricities of NT scholarship” (O’Brien, Philemon, p. 269).

3 Even though Paul identifies himself as a prisoner, he does not inform the reader where his imprisonment is located.

4 Although the Marcionite Prologue had the opinion that the Epistle was written from Ephesus [“The apostle already in fetters writes to them from Ephesus”] even though the Prologue to Philemon claimed that the letter was written from Rome (Guthrie, NTI, p. 555).

The “subscript” which was added at a later date asserts: “written from Rome by Tychicus and Onesimus.” Also Eusebius reports that Paul was brought to Rome and that Aristarchus was with him (History, 2.22.1; see O’Brien, Colossians. p. l.).

5 Lohmeyer, Dibelius-Greeven, Reicke, J. J. Gunther, Goguel, deZwaan.

6 O’Brien, Colossians, p. lii.

7 For a more thorough discussion see Guthrie, NTI, pp. 472-478.

8 Deissmann, Michaelis, Duncan.

9 Even though Aristarchus was seized by mob-violence in Ephesus (Acts 19:29), there is no specific mention of arrest for him or for Paul.

10 See O’Brien for counter view (Colossians, p. li).

11 See O’Brien, Colossians, p. liii; Guthrie, NTI, p. 557; Childs, The NT as Canon, 346-349; Bruce, Paul, The Apostle of the Heart Set Free, pp. 411-412.

12 Philemon 9 suggests that Colossians-Philemon may have been written early in the imprisonment, “yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you--I, Paul, an ambassador and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus--.” The term for “now” (nuniv) is more emphatic than nu'n and suggests that Paul’s imprisonment had only just begun at the time he wrote (O’Brien, Philemon, p. 290).

13 Knox offered a completely different reconstruction of the occasion for the letter identifying the master as Archippus who was the host of the church mentioned in verse one, and Philemon as the one to plead reinstatement of Onesimus. He considers the epistle of Philemon to be the letter from Laodicea in Colossians 4:16, and the exhortation for Archippus to “fulfill his God-given ministry” (Col. 4:17) to be the request of Paul concerning Philemon (see John Knox, “Philemon” in The Interpreters Bible, vol. xi [New York, 1955], pp. 555ff; Knox, Philemon among the Letters of Paul: A New View of its Place and Importance; Guthrie, NTI, pp. 635-638; Bruce, Paul: Apostle, p. 401-406; O’Brien, Philemon, pp. 267-268).

14 There is some discussion about whether there were two events or one. O’Brien suggests that his running away may have caused him to owe his master the value of the work that he should have done (cf. verse 18; Philemon, p. 266).

15 The possible historical reconstructions are numerous: (1) he was taken prisoner in Rome, (2) he met Epaphras of Colossae who was on a visit to Paul and brought him to Paul because he knew Paul could help him, (3) he sought refuge in Paul’s company having heard of him in his master’s house, (4) the master sent Onesimus to Paul and Onesimus outstayed his leave (see F. F. Bruce, Paul: Apostle, pp. 339-400).

16 This would argue against the epistle merely being a private letter to Philemon. O’Brien strongly objects to this due to the pressure it would place upon Philemon to do what Paul was requesting. He explains the inclusion of Apphia, Archippus, and the church as, “due to Paul’s courtesy” since the bulk of the letter is addressed to an individual (Philemon, p. 268, 306; see also Bruce, Paul: Apostle, p. 405), but this does not seem to be dealing with the evidence well. Paul even closes the letter in the plural (diaV tw'n proseucw'n uJmw'n, “through your prayers,” v. 22, and metaV tou' pneuvmato" uJmw'n, “with your spirit”).

As Childs writes, “Paul’s use of all the same formal literary conventions which appear in his larger letters - the naming of the senders and addressees, greetings, and thanksgiving - cautions against categorizing it immediately as a private letter qualitatively different from his other epistles” (The New Testament as Canon, p. 399). It is the inclusion of the local church as recipients which may best explain the epistle’s inclusion in the Pauline corpus. Again Child’s notes that “Paul’s teaching regarding slaves and masters (I Cor. 7.17ff.; Gal. 3:28) was now instanced by the apostle by means of a concrete example of the effect of Christ’s transformation of human society in his image” (Ibid.).

Child’s discussion may be more convincing than that through the Chicago school of Goodspeed and Knox who suggested that the epistle to Philemon was included in the canon because Onesimus added it to the formation of the Pauline corpus when he was bishop of Ephesus at the end of the first century AD (see Bruce, Paul: Apostle, pp. 401-406).

17 See Bruce’s discussion in Paul: Apostle, p. 406, n. 37.

18 Knox understood it to be in Archippus’ house, but it is most naturally understood to refer to the house of the one first mentioned (even through it could relate to Archipipus; see Bruce, Paul: Apostle, p. 404).

19 Elliott E. Johnson, “Principle of Recognition” (unpublished class notes in 315 Advanced Hermeneutics, Dallas Theological Seminary, Spring 1979).

20 See O’Brien, Philemon, p. 269.

21 Guthrie writes, “There is no thought of denunciation even in principle. The apostle deals with the situation as it then exists. He takes it for granted that Philemon has a claim of ownership on Onesimus and leaves the position unchallenged” (NTI, p. 640).

22 As Bruce writes, “What this letter does is to bring us into an atmosphere in which the institution could only wilt and die. When Onesimus is sent to his master ‘no longer as a slave, but as a dear brother’, formal emancipation would be but a matter of expediency, the technical confirmation of the new relationship that had already come into being” (Paul: Apostle, p. 401). As Guthrie says, “Christianity removed the main moral evils of the system” (NTI, p. 640-641, n. 2).

23 Guthrie writes, “It is clearly incongruous for a Christian master to ‘own’ a brother in Christ in the contemporary sense of the word, and although the existing order of society could not be immediately changed by Christianity without a political revolution (which was contrary to Christian principles), the Christian master-slave relationship was so transformed from within that it was bound to lead ultimately to the abolition of the system” (NTI, p. 640).

Related Topics: Introductions, Arguments, Outlines