Background of Philemon
A careful reading of this the shortest of Paul’s letters (only 335 words in Greek) gives the best evidence for its background. While A Christian missionary who once persecuted the church More is in prison (vv. 1, 9, 10), a slave by the name of Slave of Philemon for whom Paul appealed in his Letter to Philemon More has shown up and been led to faith in Christ (vv. 10, 16). After his having perhaps “ministered” to Paul for a brief time (v. 13), Paul now sends him back to his master, Philemon, with this cover letter (v. 12). Although he might have wished to keep Onesimus with him to attend to his needs (v. 13), Paul sends him back with this letter of appeal, not commanding, but requesting that Philemon will receive back his slave as one who is now more than a slave, indeed a “beloved brother…in the Lord” (v. 16). The letter is addressed ostensibly as a personal letter to Philemon; but the fact that it is addressed also to Apphia, Archippus, and to the church that meets in Philemon’s house and the fact that the letter begins and ends with references to “you” plural make clear that the letter assumes a more public reading. From beginning to end the carefully orchestrated rhetoric of the letter underscores the fact that Paul is using his best resources to encourage Philemon to do a “good deed” with respect to Onesimus (vv. 6, 14, 21). Although some details thus seem clear, others lie in obscurity. Paul is in prison; but which of his imprisonments and thus the origination of the letter are not clear. Paul expresses confidence that Philemon will do even more than he requests (v. 21), but he never states exactly what that good deed might be. Though one can assume that the good deed has to do with how he will receive and treat his returning slave Onesimus, still the issue of slavery is never directly addressed, and Paul never directly suggests whether or not Onesimus should be set free.