The Epistle of Paul to Philemon, known simply as Philemon, is one of the books of the Christian New Testament. It is a prison letter, co-authored by Paul the Apostle with Timothy, to Philemon, a leader in the Colossian church. It deals with the themes of forgiveness and reconciliation. Paul does not identify himself as an apostle with authority, but as “a prisoner of Jesus Christ”, calling Timothy “our brother”, and addressing Philemon as “fellow labourer” and “brother.” (Philemon 1:1; 1:7; 1:20) Onesimus, a slave that had departed from his master Philemon, was returning with this epistle wherein Paul asked Philemon to receive him as a “brother beloved.”(Philemon 1:9–17)
Philemon was a wealthy Christian, possibly a bishop of the house church that met in his home (Philemon 1:1–2) in Colossae. 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 Greek text.
The Epistle to Philemon was composed around 57-59 A.D by Paul while in prison at Caesarea Maritima.
The epistle of Philemon is attributed to the apostle Paul, and this attribution has rarely been questioned by scholars. Along with six others, it is numbered among the “undisputed letters”, which are widely considered to be authentically Pauline. The main challenge to the letter’s authenticity came from a group of German scholars in the nineteenth century known as the Tübingen School. Their leader, Ferdinand Christian Baur, only accepted four New Testament epistles as genuinely written by Paul: Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians and Galatians. Commenting on Philemon, Baur described the subject matter as “so very singular as to arouse our suspicions,” and concluded that it is perhaps a “Christian romance serving to convey a genuine Christian idea.”
The opening verse of the salutation also names Timothy alongside Paul. This, however, does not mean that Timothy was the epistle’s co-author. Rather, Paul regularly mentions others in the address if they have a particular connection with the recipient. In this case, Timothy may have encountered Philemon while accompanying Paul in his work in Ephesus.
According to the majority interpretation, Paul wrote this letter on behalf of Onesimus, a runaway slave who had wronged his owner Philemon. The details of the offence are unstated, although it is often assumed that Onesimus had fled after stealing money, as Paul states in verse 18 that if Onesimus owes anything, Philemon should charge this to Paul’s account. Sometime after leaving, Onesimus came into contact with Paul, although again the details are unclear. He may have been arrested and imprisoned alongside Paul. Alternatively, he may have previously heard Paul’s name (as his owner was a Christian) and so travelled to him for help. After meeting Paul, Onesimus became a Christian believer. An affection grew between them, and Paul would have been glad to keep Onesimus with him. However, he considered it better to send him back to Philemon with an accompanying letter, which aimed to effect reconciliation between them as Christian brothers. The preservation of the letter suggests that Paul’s request was granted.
Onesimus’ status as a runaway slave was challenged by Allen Dwight Callahan in an article published in the Harvard Theological Review and in a later commentary. Callahan argues that, beyond verse 16, “nothing in the text conclusively indicates that Onesimus was ever the chattel of the letter’s chief addressee. Moreover, the expectations fostered by the traditional fugitive slave hypothesis go unrealized in the letter. Modern commentators, even those committed to the prevailing interpretation, have tacitly admitted as much.” Callahan argues that the earliest commentators on this work – the homily of Origen and the Anti-Marcion Preface – are silent about Onesimus’ possible servile status, and traces the origins of this interpretation to John Chrysostom, who proposed it in his Homiliae in epistolam ad Philemonem, during his ministry in Antioch, circa 386–398. In place of the traditional interpretation, Callahan suggests that Onesimus and Philemon are brothers both by blood and religion, but who have become estranged, and the intent of this letter was to reconcile the two men. Ben Witherington III has challenged Callahan’s interpretation as a misreading of Paul’s rhetoric. Further, Margaret M. Mitchell has demonstrated that a number of writers before Chrysostom either argue or assume that Onesimus was a runaway slave, including Athanasius, Basil of Caesarea and Ambrosiaster.
The only extant information about Onesimus apart from this letter is found in Paul’s epistle to the Colossians 4:7–9, where Onesimus is called “a faithful and beloved brother”:
All my state shall Tychicus declare unto you, who is a beloved brother, and a faithful minister and fellow servant in the Lord: 8 Whom I have sent unto you for the same purpose, that he might know your estate, and comfort your hearts; 9 With Onesimus, a faithful and beloved brother, who is one of you. They shall make known unto you all things which are done here.
The letter is addressed to Philemon, Apphia and Archippus, and the church in Philemon’s house. Philemon is described as a “fellow worker” of Paul. It is generally assumed that he lived in Colossae; in the letter to the Colossians, Onesimus (the slave who fled from Philemon) and Archippus (whom Paul greets in the letter to Philemon) are described as members of the church there. Philemon may have converted to Christianity through Paul’s ministry, possibly in Ephesus. Apphia in the salutation is probably Philemon’s wife. Some have speculated that Archippus, described by Paul as a “fellow soldier”, is the son of Philemon and Apphia.
The American John Knox proposed that Onesimus’ owner was in fact Archippus, and the letter was addressed to him rather than Philemon. In this reconstruction, Philemon would receive the letter first and then encourage Archippus to release Onesimus so that he could work alongside Paul. This view, however, has not found widespread support In particular, Knox’s view has been challenged on the basis of the opening verses. According to O’Brien, the fact that Philemon’s name is mentioned first, together with the use of the phrase “in your house” in verse 2, makes it unlikely that Archippus was the primary addressee. Knox further argued that the letter was intended to be read aloud in the Colossian church in order to put pressure on Archippus. A number of commentators, however, see this view as contradicting the tone of the letter. J. B. Lightfoot, for example, wrote: “The tact and delicacy of the Apostle’s pleading for Onesimus would be nullified at one stroke by the demand for publication.”