Epistle to Philemon

Epistle to Philemon

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Paul's Epistle to Philemon, usually referred to simply as Philemon, is a prison letter
Prison literature
Prison literature is a literary genre characterized by literature that is written while the author is confined in a location against his will, such as a prison, jail or house arrest...

 to Philemon from Paul of Tarsus
Paul of Tarsus
Paul the Apostle , also known as Saul of Tarsus, is described in the Christian New Testament as one of the most influential early Christian missionaries, with the writings ascribed to him by the church forming a considerable portion of the New Testament...

. Philemon was a leader in the Colossian church
Epistle to the Colossians
The Epistle of Paul to the Colossians, usually referred to simply as Colossians, is the 12th book of the New Testament. It was written, according to the text, by Paul the Apostle to the Church in Colossae, a small Phrygian city near Laodicea and approximately 100 miles from Ephesus in Asia...

. This letter, which is one of the books of the New Testament
New Testament
The New Testament is the second major division of the Christian biblical canon, the first such division being the much longer Old Testament....

, deals with forgiveness
Forgiveness is typically defined as the process of concluding resentment, indignation or anger as a result of a perceived offense, difference or mistake, or ceasing to demand punishment or restitution. The Oxford English Dictionary defines forgiveness as 'to grant free pardon and to give up all...


Philemon was a wealthy Christian (possibly a bishop) of the house church
House church
House church, or "home church", is used to describe an independent assembly of Christians who gather in a home. Sometimes this occurs because the group is small, and a home is the most appropriate place to gather, as in the beginning phase of the British New Church Movement...

 that met in his home 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

Paul, who is in prison (probably in either Rome
Rome is the capital of Italy and the country's largest and most populated city and comune, with over 2.7 million residents in . The city is located in the central-western portion of the Italian Peninsula, on the Tiber River within the Lazio region of Italy.Rome's history spans two and a half...

 or Ephesus
Ephesus was an ancient Greek city, and later a major Roman city, on the west coast of Asia Minor, near present-day Selçuk, Izmir Province, Turkey. It was one of the twelve cities of the Ionian League during the Classical Greek era...

), 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
Archippus was an early Christian believer mentioned briefly in the New Testament epistles of Philemon and Colossians.-Role in the New Testament:...

, who is assumed by some to have been Philemon's son 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
Epistle to the Colossians
The Epistle of Paul to the Colossians, usually referred to simply as Colossians, is the 12th book of the New Testament. It was written, according to the text, by Paul the Apostle to the Church in Colossae, a small Phrygian city near Laodicea and approximately 100 miles from Ephesus in Asia...

 is authentically Pauline, then Philemon must live in Colossae
Colossae or Colosse , was an ancient city of Phrygia, on the Lycus, which is a tributary of the Maeander River. It was situated about 12 miles South East of Laodicea, and near the great road from Ephesus to the Euphrates...

. 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. Paul writes on behalf of Onesimus
Saint Onesimus |churches]]) was a slave to Philemon of Colossae, a man of Christian faith. Eventually, Onesimus transgressed against Philemon and fled to the site of Paul the Apostle's imprisonment to escape punishment for a theft he was said to have committed, there, he heard the Gospel from...

, 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
The pun, also called paronomasia, is a form of word play which suggests two or more meanings, by exploiting multiple meanings of words, or of similar-sounding words, for an intended humorous or rhetorical effect. These ambiguities can arise from the intentional use and abuse of homophonic,...

 on Onesimus's name, which means "useful"), and having done him wrong.

Hermeneutically speaking, chiastic structure
Chiastic structure
Chiastic structure is a literary device for chiasmus applied to narrative motifs, turns of phrase, or whole passages. Various structures of chiasmus are commonly seen in ancient literature to emphasize, parallel, or contrast concepts or ideas...

 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
Ignatius of Antioch
Ignatius of Antioch was among the Apostolic Fathers, was the third Bishop of Antioch, and was a student of John the Apostle. En route to his martyrdom in Rome, Ignatius wrote a series of letters which have been preserved as an example of very early Christian theology...

 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
Martin Luther
Martin Luther was a German priest, professor of theology and iconic figure of the Protestant Reformation. He strongly disputed the claim that freedom from God's punishment for sin could be purchased with money. He confronted indulgence salesman Johann Tetzel with his Ninety-Five Theses in 1517...

. 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
Reconciliation (theology)
Reconciliation, a theological term, is an element of salvation that refers to the results of atonement. Reconciliation as a theological concept describes the end of the estrangement, caused by sin, between God and humanity. John Calvin describes reconciliation as the peace between humanity and...

, which is also in fact contained within the concept of Christian Grace
Grace (Christianity)
In Christian theology, grace is God’s gift of God’s self to humankind. It is understood by Christians to be a spontaneous gift from God to man - "generous, free and totally unexpected and undeserved" - that takes the form of divine favour, love and clemency. It is an attribute of God that is most...


Still, Luther insisted that the letter upheld the social status quo
Status quo
Statu quo, a commonly used form of the original Latin "statu quo" – literally "the state in which" – is a Latin term meaning the current or existing state of affairs. To maintain the status quo is to keep the things the way they presently are...

: 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
Diarmaid MacCulloch
Diarmaid Ninian John MacCulloch FBA, FSA, FR Hist S is Professor of the History of the Church at the University of Oxford and Fellow of St Cross College, Oxford...

, in his A History of Christianity, describes the epistle as "a Christian foundation document in the justification of slavery". Due to its ambiguity, the letter was a cause of debate during the British and later American struggles over the abolition of slavery
Abolitionism is a movement to end slavery.In western Europe and the Americas abolitionism was a movement to end the slave trade and set slaves free. At the behest of Dominican priest Bartolomé de las Casas who was shocked at the treatment of natives in the New World, Spain enacted the first...

. Both sides cited Philemon for support.

See also

  • Textual variants in the Epistle to Philemon