Lesson 4 of5
In Progress

Introductory Issues in Philemon

Location, address, and dating of Philemon

From the contents of the letter, it is clear that Paul is in prison when he writes to Philemon. Paul was imprisoned for shorter or longer times on numerous occasions (2 Corinthians 11:23-27). Rome, Ephesus, or Caesarea, places where Paul was imprisoned for longer periods of time, would seem the most likely possibilities. Arguments in favor of any of them are largely circumstantial based on imagination about which of these locales would most likely fit the events surrounding Paul’s reception of a runaway slave while in prison. Most readers favor Rome, with Caesarea seeming the most unlikely. The fact that the letter to the Colossians speaks of an Onesimus sent to Colossae along with Tychicus (Colossians 4:7-9) and also mentions an Archippus (Colossians 4:17), the name of one of the recipients of the letter to Philemon (v. 2), has lead many to assume that Philemon and his house church must have been located in close proximity to Colossae in Asia Minor. That argument depends on the assumption of Pauline authorship of Colossians, a matter that is questioned by many readers. If Colossians is a derivative letter, then it is possible that the references there to Onesimus and Archippus may be influenced by Philemon. The dating of the letter depends on assumptions about the location of Paul’s imprisonment at the time of its writing. If Ephesus is assumed, a date around 55-56 C.E. is likely. However, if Rome is assumed, then a dating toward the end of Paul’s life, around 60-61 C.E., is more likely. It is probably best to say we simply do not know for sure where Philemon lived or where Paul was imprisoned when he wrote this letter.

The person of Paul

This letter reveals a Paul who is a consummate pastoral caregiver. His compassion for both Philemon and Onesimus comes through in frequent personal expressions of his thankfulness for the love, consolation, and joy that he has experienced in their partnership in faith in Christ Jesus. At the same time we see a kind of tough love that holds Philemon accountable both to the standard of his own previous actions on behalf of the Christian community and to standards of the potential for good actions that are within people of faith who act as brothers and sisters for the sake of Christ (see especially vv. 4-7, 16, 21)

Persuasion and practical imagination

The letter to Philemon exhibits one of the most effective demonstrations in all of Paul’s letters of his ability to use the power of persuasive rhetoric to encourage responsible action in service of Christ. The second word in the Greek text of the letter–“prisoner”–already plays on Philemon’s sympathy for Paul’s imprisonment for the sake of Christ, a matter that is brought up at least five times in this brief letter (see vv. 1, 9, 13, 22, 23). At the end Paul craftily notes that it will be a sign of God’s grace in answer to their prayers, which will incidentally result in his being soon set free and thus able to come for a visit in person (v. 22). In the letter’s every word the sequence of thought is calculated to persuade Philemon to do the right thing. For example, when giving thanks for Philemon’s love and faith, Paul expresses that thanksgiving to God right up front (v. 4). But when it comes to broaching the topic at hand, he delays mention of the name of Onesimus until the last possible moment, and even then, in the middle of one long Greek sentence (vv. 8-14) that allows Philemon no chance for a word of rebuttal. And when that chance comes, Paul immediately anticipates each of Philemon’s objections with commonplaces of rational argument (vv. 15-20).

A slave and slavery

In its appeal to a Christian master for the appropriate treatment of a runaway slave who has now also become a Christian, this letter focuses very clearly the issue of attitudes and responses to slavery. Paul seeks to persuade Philemon to do willingly a “good deed” that encompasses at least the reception of his runaway slave “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother…in the Lord” (v. 16). Yet, although there may be some clues in Paul’s remarks about Onesimus possibly serving Paul’s needs in prison on Philemon’s behalf (v. 13), Paul never spells out more clearly just what that “good deed” might look like. Neither does Paul go beyond the particular instance of this slave to address the broader question of slavery. We are left to speculate both about the particular circumstances that brought this slave to Paul in prison and about what action Philemon may have taken in response; we can then reflect on a proper Christian response to the institution of slavery in the social setting of the Roman Empire during the first century or in our own contemporary context. It is clear in this regard that one’s own social setting and attitudes will play a great part in how one reads this letter, a point that is underscored by the fact that this letter’s ambiguity and the authority of Paul have been used by Christians through the centuries both to support and to argue against slavery.