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New Testament: Philemon

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Saint PaulThe Apostle Paul writes a personal and pastoral appeal to Philemon, a beloved coworker, on behalf of Onesimus, Philemon's runaway slave. Onesimus has arrived where Paul is imprisoned and has come to faith in Christ. Since Paul remains in prison, this letter, which accompanies the return of Onesimus to his master, illustrates Paul's skill in pastoral care from a distance. Paul relies on careful rhetoric and the themes of partnership in faith and of the mutual love of Christian community to support his appeal for Philemon to do the right thing and receive Onesimus back as a brother in Christ.

So What?

This letter reveals Paul's pastoral concern for a particular individual and his confidence that the faith and love that Christians share in Christ can be energized by discerning what it means to do a "good deed" in particular instances. As is true for Philemon, so the partnership of faith in Christian community offers the support and encouragement that enables action that goes beyond even what is asked or imagined.

Where Do I Find It?

Paul's letter to Philemon is the eighteenth book in the New Testament. As the shortest of Paul's letters (335 words), it is situated at the end of the "Pauline corpus," which has been traditionally arranged not by date but from the longest to the shortest (Romans through Philemon).

Who Wrote It?

The opening word identifies Paul as the author of this letter. Although he adds Timothy's name as a coauthor, within the main body of the letter his appeal is repeatedly singular and personal (using "I" and "me"). At one point he makes pointed reference to his "writing this with my own hand" as he in effect writes an IOU to cover any losses that Philemon may have experienced (19).

When Was It Written?

The dating of the letter depends on assumptions about the location of Paul's imprisonment at the time of its writing. Dates between 55 C.E. and 61 C.E. are possible. It is probably best to say we simply do not know for sure where Paul was imprisoned when he wrote this letter.

What's It About?

Paul writes a letter asking Philemon to receive back his runaway slave Onesimus as a brother in Christ.

How Do I Read It?

When reading Philemon, it is helpful to keep in mind that you are eavesdropping on a letter that seeks to resolve a potentially explosive situation. Paul appeals to a master, who has absolute economic and personal rights over his slave, to do the "good deed" called for in responsible Christian love. This is a situation of pastoral care in which Paul brings to bear his own personal resources (as an apostle, as a prisoner, and as a friend) and his skill in persuasive argument. Every word is carefully chosen, and his appeal is artfully constructed for its emotional and rational impact on Philemon.

AUTHOR: James Boyce, Professor of New Testament and Greek

I. Introduction (Philemon 1-3)

Paul, imprisoned for the sake of Christ, along with Timothy, greets Philemon and others in his house church with an expression of their mutual bond of grace and peace that comes from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

II. Thanksgiving, Remembrance, and Prayer (Philemon 4-7)

Paul anticipates his appeal by thankful remembrance of Philemon's faith and love, which have comforted and refreshed Paul and all the believers. He prays that their partnership in faith might now become actualized in doing a particular good work in service of Christ.

III. An Appeal in Two Parts (Philemon 8-20)

First (vv. 8-14), Paul, aged and in prison, returns Philemon's slave, Onesimus, along with this letter and its carefully worded appeal that Philemon's good deed will be done willingly and not by compulsion. Second (vv. 9-20), Paul anticipates Philemon's objections by identifying the recently converted Onesimus as a "beloved brother in the Lord" to be received as Paul himself and by reminding Philemon that he owes Paul his very life.

IV. Concluding Expressions of Confidence and Benediction (Philemon 21-25)

Paul expresses confidence that Philemon will do even more than he asks, promises a visit upon his release from prison, and concludes with greetings and a blessing.

AUTHOR: James Boyce, Professor of New Testament and Greek

A careful reading of this the shortest of Paul's letters (only 335 words in Greek) gives the best evidence for its background. While Paul is in prison (vv. 1, 9, 10), a slave by the name of Onesimus 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.

AUTHOR: James Boyce, Professor of New Testament and Greek

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.

AUTHOR: James Boyce, Professor of New Testament and Greek

Community in Christ. Paul repeatedly uses language that calls attention to the community that Christians share in Christ as the basis for his appeal to Philemon. He speaks of brothers and sisters, of coworkers, of fellow soldiers and fellow prisoners, thus calling attention to the mutuality of the relationship formed by being in Christ Jesus.

Doing a good deed. Though what it should be is never spelled out clearly, doing a "good deed" is the clear practical response sought by Paul's repeated appeal (vv. 6, 14, 20, 21). When it does gain some specificity, it is characterized in terms of the communal relationship of the partnership Christians share in Christ: "welcome him as you would welcome me" (v. 17).

Faith and love. Paul gives thanks to God for Philemon's faith and love that are directed to the Lord Jesus and to all the saints (vv. 4-5). The sharing of this faith and love have brought joy and consolation to Paul in the past (v. 7), and now Paul counts on that same love and faith to energize Philemon's good deed in this particular instance (vv. 14, 20).

Partnership. Partnership or sharing (in Greek, koinōnia) in faith is a key motif for Paul here as in other letters. He sees it as the basis for every good deed that Christians are able to do (v. 6) and thus as the motivating occasion for Philemon's response to Paul's appeal as Paul extends it to include this new brother Onesimus within its sphere (v. 17).

AUTHOR: James Boyce, Professor of New Testament and Greek