Epistle to Philemon

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Paul's Epistle (or Letter) to Philemon, usually referred to simply as Philemon, is a prison letter to Philemon from Paul of Tarsus. Philemon was a leader in the Colossian church. This letter, which is one of the books of the New Testament, deals with forgiveness.

Philemon was wealthy Christian and a minister (possibly a bishop[1]) of the house church that met in his home[2] in Colosse. This letter, is now generally regarded as one of the undisputed works of Paul. It is the shortest of Paul's extant letters, consisting of only 335 words in the original Greek text and 25 verses in modern English translations.


Content and reconstruction

Papyrus 87 (Gregory-Aland), fragment of Epistle to Philemon
Papyrus 87 (Gregory-Aland), fragment of Epistle to Philemon

Paul, who is in prison (probably in either Rome or Ephesus), writes to a fellow Christian named Philemon and two of his associates: a woman named Apphia, sometimes assumed to be his wife, and a fellow worker named Archippus, who is assumed by some to have been Philemon's son[3] and who also appears to have had special standing in the small church that met in Philemon's house (see Colossians 4:17). If the letter to the Colossians is authentically Pauline, then Philemon must live in Colossae. As a slave-owner he would have been wealthy by the standards of the early church and this explains why his house was large enough to accommodate the church that meets in his house.[4] Paul writes on behalf of Onesimus, Philemon's slave. Beyond that, it is not self-evident as to what has transpired. Onesimus is described as having been "separated" from Philemon, once having been "useless" to him (a pun on Onesimus's name, which means "useful"), and having done him wrong.

Hermeneutically speaking, chiastic structure appears to be inherent in the letter, as suggested by Gregory L. Fay, PhD.

The dominant scholarly consensus is that Onesimus is a runaway slave who became a Christian believer. Paul now sends him back to face his aggrieved master, and strives in his letter to effect reconciliation between these two Christians. What is more contentious is how Onesimus came to be with Paul. Various suggestions have been given: Onesimus being imprisoned with Paul; Onesimus being brought to Paul by others; Onesimus coming to Paul by chance (or in the Christian view, by divine providence); or Onesimus deliberately seeking Paul out, as a friend of his master's, in order to be reconciled.

There is no extant information about Onesimus apart from the letter. Ignatius of Antioch mentions an Onesimus as Bishop of Ephesus in the early second century. It was suggested by some Bible scholars in the 1950s that this Onesimus is the same as the Onesimus in Paul's letter. Furthermore, it was suggested that Onesimus could have been the first to compile the letters of Paul, including the letter that gave him his own freedom as an expression of gratitude. This hypothesis could explain why the letter to Philemon (a letter written to an individual) is included alongside letters written to Christian communities.


Paul's letter is a personal one and can appear cryptic to outsiders. His tactful address to Philemon was labelled "holy flattery" by Martin Luther. Commending Philemon's Christian compassion, but at the same time subtly reminding Philemon of his apostolic authority over him, and the spiritual debt Philemon owes to him, Paul pleads with Philemon to take Onesimus back. Paul notes that because of his conversion, Onesimus is returned "no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother" (v. 16). Several issues remain unclear about Paul's expectations for Philemon. Is he expected to forgive Onesimus or manumit him? Is he to consider Onesimus to be Philemon's "brother" as well as his "slave"? Does this new brotherhood supplant Onesimus's servitude or does the brotherhood confer only a spiritual equality between Onesimus and Philemon, while the temporal designation of slave remains? Furthermore, are there implications in the text (verses 14 and 20) that suggest Philemon is actually to return Onesimus to Paul, following forgiving and accepting him as a Christian brother? Some facets of Paul's societal expectations can be seen in these verses.

The German Protestant theologian Martin Luther saw a parallel between Paul and Christ in their work of reconciliation, which is also in fact contained within the concept of Christian Grace.

Still, Luther insisted that the letter upheld the social status quo: though not explicit, the text could be interpreted to indicate that Paul did nothing to change Onesimus's legal position as a slave and that Paul was complying with Roman law in returning him to Philemon. However, the text could also be interpreted as indicating that Paul was demanding the legal freedom of Onesimus and, as an act of both trust and reconciliation, holding Philemon accountable in the higher court of God to accomplish this change himself. That Onesimus was a runaway slave could be suggested by the pun Paul makes on his name (which means "useful"), stating that (up until the time of Philemon receiving the letter) Onesimus had been "useless" to Philemon. The fact that Paul enjoins Philemon to prepare a room for Paul's later visit – even though Paul is currently in prison without a stated commutation of sentence – could be read as a subtle threat: Paul would come to ensure his wish for Onesimus's freedom was in fact carried out by Philemon. Paul was so sure of his spiritual authority in issuing this only nominally "voluntary" request that he was convinced that his own imprisonment would be dissolved via Divine intervention. There is thus an ironic contrast between Paul's own temporal imprisonment and Philemon's temporal freedom (and mastery over Onesimus), balanced by the inversion of that relationship in what Paul sees as his own spiritual authority over Philemon and Philemon's spiritual subservience to Paul, who is claiming that Onesimus – temporally, a slave – is, spiritually speaking, not simply equal to his master but a brother of his. The fact that Paul makes the expectation of his own temporal freedom explicit by demanding that Philemon prepare for his literal return is thus a poetic reinforcement of the fact that he expects Onesimus' temporal freedom to be granted as well. The paradox is further extended when one considers that – despite his claims of spiritual authority over Philemon – Paul frames himself – and, by extension, both Philemon and Onesimus – as fellow bondservants of Christ, who being their spiritual master, is also their brother and equal. Even further, Christ is described by Paul elsewhere as a bondservant of the Father, though mysteriously coequal to the Father. Just as Paul expects Onesimus (and, at a later time, himself) to be freed literally from his yoke, as fellow servants of Christ, they expect to realize their status of brotherhood and thus equality with Christ (before the Father) in a literal, temporal fashion, upon Christ's return to earth.

Diarmaid MacCulloch, in his A History of Christianity, describes the epistle as "a Christian foundation document in the justification of slavery".[4] Due to its ambiguity, the letter was a cause of debate during the British and later American struggles over the abolition of slavery. Both sides cited Philemon for support.

See also


  • J. M. G. Barclay, Colossians and Philemon, Sheffield Academic Press, 1997 (ISBN 1-85075-818-2)
  • F. F. Bruce, Philemon, International Bible Commentary, Eerdmans, 1984.
  • N. T. Wright, Colossians and Philemon, Tyndale IVP, 1986 (ISBN 0-8028-0309-1)

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