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Epistle to Philemon

PHILEMON, EPISTLE TO fī le’ mən (πρὸς Φιλήμονα). A letter of Paul to a Christian man.

Occasion and purpose.

Philemon is the shortest letter of the Pauline corpus, consisting of 335 words in the original. It is the only example within the Pauline library of correspondence that may be termed a personal note, although both Lohmeyer and Théo Preiss (see Bibliography) have drawn attention to the way the letter opens—the link between Timothy and Paul and the association of Philemon with the whole church that assembled in his house—to show that the document is an epistle which Paul wrote in full awareness of his apostolic authority. This is confirmed by v. 9 where the tr. of “Paul, an ambassador” (Gr. presbutēs) is to be preferred to “Paul, the aged” (KJV).

The occasion of this letter may be inferred from its contents, although some details are obscure. A slave named Onesimus had wronged his owner Philemon, a Christian living with the other persons named in the salutation to Colossae (Col 4:9, 17).

The nature of the slave’s offense is not certain. It usually is assumed that he had stolen money and then absconded (v. 18). Since current Rom. law required that whoever gave hospitality to a runaway slave was liable to the slave’s master for the value of each day’s work lost it may be that Paul’s promise to stand guarantor (v. 19) is no more than the assurance to Philemon that he will make up the amount incurred by Onesimus’ absence from work.

Or it may be that the slave had come on an errand to Paul and had overstayed his time. Nonetheless, the primary purpose of the letter is to act as a covering note to insure that Philemon will receive back his delinquent slave, although some scholars (J. Knox and T. Preiss) regard the injunction of Paul to Philemon as a request for Onesimus to be allowed permanently to remain as his aide or else to be set free (v. 16). Preiss argues that Paul’s language is insistent that the slave should be welcomed into Philemon’s family, but this conclusion is somewhat strained. Verse 21, however, contains an undertone of hope that Philemon will agree to the manumission of the slave, a revolutionary thought in the contemporary treatment of runaway slaves whom masters could brutally punish. Indeed, severe penalties were exacted of those who harbored deserting slaves (see Oxy. Pap. 1422 for the redress before the law that slave owners could claim against any who sheltered slaves). For good reason Paul’s bold request for Onesimus is carefully prepared—by his approach of gentle language (vv. 8, 9) with its tones of “begging,” which leads to an appeal to Philemon’s willing cooperation and consent (v. 14) and the promise to accept any liability that he may have incurred (v. 19).

The letter is not merely a simple request for a slave’s life on humane grounds. Running through Paul’s appeal is the current of Christian compassion (v. 12) and the powerful reminder that Philemon is already in debt to Paul himself (v. 19b) as owing his very salvation to Paul’s preaching of the Gospel. The characteristic note is therefore: “for love’s sake” (v. 9)...“Refresh my heart in Christ” (by acceding to this request, v. 20) and “receive” this truant slave “as you would receive me” (v. 17). The request ends with a challenge (v. 21) that Philemon will go beyond the limit of Paul’s desire, an appeal reinforced by the prospect of the apostle’s visit (v. 22)—a hope that would spur Philemon to a ready acceptance of what was asked of him. There is every reason to believe that he did respond; otherwise the letter would not have been preserved.

Origin and date.

Paul writes as a prisoner (vv. 9, 10), and a careful comparison of names with Colossians 4:7-17 reveals that this letter was sent from the same place as the Colossian epistle. Onesimus is to accompany Tychicus who was entrusted with the Colossian letter (Col 4:9). Moreover, Paul’s situation as a prisoner may well have drawn Onesimus into his company, as some scholars believe Onesimus had been caught and placed in the same cell with the Christian missionary, and was thus won for Christ. This however can only be speculative. See Colossians; Ephesians.

The precise locale of Paul’s imprisonment is raised. For if (as has just been mentioned) Paul and Onesimus were in prison together, Paul’s circumstances must have worsened considerably from the “free custody” in a hired room that he had at Rome (Acts 28:30f.). On other grounds, it has been proposed (chiefly by G. S. Duncan, St. Paul’s Ephesian Ministry [1929], 72ff.) that Paul was a prisoner at Ephesus when he wrote this note to Philemon. He builds his theory on the request Paul made (v. 22) for lodging, and argues that this promised visit to the Lycus valley is congruous with Paul’s plans at the time of his Ephesian ministry (Acts 19; 20), but hardly likely when he was at Rome. Then his plans were to proceed to Spain. C. H. Dodd, who argues for a Rom. origin of Philemon (in BJRL, XVIII [1934]), concedes that this is a “real point in favour of the Ephesian hypothesis” (op. cit. 80), but postulates a change of plan. His chief support is the assumption that Onesimus was more likely to flee to the anonymity of the imperial city where he was brought into touch with the apostle; and F. F. Bruce adds a further pointer in the direction of a Rom. provenance of this epistle by drawing attention to the inclusion of Luke and Mark in Paul’s list (v. 24). “Luke was with Paul at Rome; we have no evidence that Luke was with him at Ephesus. Mark is traditionally associated with Rome, not with Ephesus” (BJRL, XLVIII [1965], 87f.). The case for a Rom. origin of the letter is reinforced if the Colossian letter can be placed in this period of Paul’s life. The case for this dating of Colossians is chiefly on the ground that the more developed theology of that epistle seems to require a place at the end of Paul’s life (cf. the affinity of Colossians with Ephesians). The captivity epistles (with the possible exception of Philippians) may be placed in the Rom. period, and Philemon can be dated c. a.d. 58-60. But see the article on Colossians for alternate views.


As a historical document, the letter throws unusual light on the Christian conscience in regard to the institution of slavery in the ancient world, and so complements the so-called Household Codes of the other NT epistles (1 Cor 7:21-23; Eph 6:5-9; Col 3:22-4:1; 1 Tim 6:1f.; 1 Pet 2:18-21). The novel feature of this epistle is brought out by F. F. Bruce (op. cit., 90), viz. “What this epistle does is to bring us into an atmosphere in which the institution could only wilt and die,” and Paul’s statement (v. 16) is the Magna Carta of true emancipation and human dignity. The query is sometimes raised that the NT never condemns slavery explicitly and is thus defective at a crucial point. The answer to this criticism was given by W. Bousset (in Die Schriften des Neuen Testaments, II [1929], 101): “Christianity would have sunk beyond hope of recovery along with such revolutionary attempts; it might have brought on a new slave rising and been crushed along with it. The time was not ripe for this solution of such difficult questions.” (See also Preiss’s sensitive comments on this matter, loc. cit., 40-42.)

Another value of this small epistle might be derived from a reconstruction of Paul’s correspondence adopted by E. J. Goodspeed and popularized by J. Knox (esp. in his Philemon Among the Letters of Paul, 2nd ed. [1959]). Knox offers two identifications which, if accepted, would modify the understanding of this letter and enlarge the picture of apostolic Christianity. They are (1) that the real slave owner was Archippus, not Philemon, to whom Paul appealed and whose services he sought to enlist in an attempt to persuade the former to have compassion on Onesimus; and (2) that Onesimus did return and became in due course the bishop of Ephesus in the 2nd cent., an identification attested (says Knox) by Ignatius whose letter to the Ephesians reveals that he read Paul’s letter to Philemon, specifically that Ignatius adopted the same play on words that Paul used (v. 20). Ignatius writes: “May I always have profit from you (onaimēn hymōn), if I am worthy.” With this identification assumed, Knox proceeds to maintain that the same Onesimus, now a church leader, collected and published the Pauline letters, including the one to Philemon in which he had a personal stake.

Critical opinion on these two hypotheses has not been altogether favorable. C. F. D. Moule (Commentary, 16f.) rightly objects that Philemon’s name standing at the head of the persons addressed (v. 1) seems “fatal to the theory that Archippus is primarily the one addressed”; and E. F. Harrison (Introduction to the New Testament, 309) has raised a formidable set of objections to Knox’s entire reconstruction, whereas F. F. Bruce (op. cit. 90ff.) is sympathetic to Knox’s second point but unpersuaded by his attempt to give Archippus a distinguished role.

The epistle to Philemon is of value also because of the window it opens on Paul’s character. He is the true man who is also an apostle, as Chrysostom aptly comments, full of sympathy and concern for a person in distress and willing to do all in his power to help, even at cost (v. 19). Moreover, Paul so identifies himself with the slave and his master that he can fulfill the office of mediator and represent meaningfully both parties. The knowledge of Paul would be so much poorer if this slender document had not been preserved.


No serious objection stands in the way of receiving this letter as genuine; even A. Q. Morton (Paul: the Man and the Myth [1966]) raises no discordant voice. The Tübingen school of F. C. Baur did oppose this letter, followed by the Dutch radical W. C. van Manen (in Encyclopedia Biblica, III [1902]), but these are aberrations.


J. J. Müller, New International Commentary; E. Lohmeyer, Kommentar (1930); T. Preiss, Life in Christ (1954), 32-42; J. Knox, IB, XI (1955).

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

This most beautiful of all Paul’s Epistles, and the most intensely human, is one of the so-called Captivity Epistles of which Ephesians, Colossians, and Philippians are the others. Of these four PHILIPPIANS (which see) stands apart, and was written more probably after the other three. These are mutually interdependent, sent by the same bearer to churches of the same district, and under similar conditions.

1. Place of Writing:

There is some diversity of opinion as to the place from which the apostle wrote these letters. Certain scholars (Reuss, Schenkel, Weiss, Holtzmann, Hilgenfeld, Hausrath and Meyer) have urged Caesarea in opposition to the traditional place, Rome. The arguments advanced are first that Onesimus would have been more likely to have escaped to Caesarea than to Rome, as it is nearer Colosse than Rome is, to which we may reply that, though Caesarea is nearer, his chance of escape would have been far greater in the capital than in the provincial city. Again it is said that as Onesimus is not commended in Ephesians, he had already been left behind at Colosse; against which there are advanced the precarious value of an argument from silence, and the fact that this argument assumes a particular course which the bearers of the letters would follow, namely, through Colosse to Ephesus. A more forcible argument is that which is based on the apostle’s expected visit. In Php 2:24 we read that he expected to go to Macedonia on his release; in Phm 1:22 we find that he expected to go to Colosse. On the basis of this latter reference it is assumed that he was to the south of Colosse when writing and so at Caesarea. But it is quite as probable that he would go to Colosse through Philippi as the reverse; and it is quite possible that even if he had intended to go direct to Colosse when he wrote to Philemon, events may have come about to cause him to change his plans. The last argument, based on the omission of any reference to the earthquake of which Tacitus (Ann. xiv.27) and Eusebius (Chron., O1, 207) write, is of force as opposed to the Ro origin of the letters only on the assumption that these writers both refer to the same event (by no means sure) and that the epistles. were written after that event, and that it was necessary that Paul should have mentioned it. If the early chronology be accepted it falls entirely, as Tacitus’ earlier date would be after the epistles. were written. In addition we have the further facts, favorable to Rome, that Paul had no such freedom in Cuesarea as he is represented in these epistles as enjoying; that no mention is made of Philip who was in Caesarea and a most important member of that community (Ac 21:8), and finally that there is no probability that so large a body of disciples and companions could have gathered about the apostle in his earlier and more strict imprisonment, at Caesarea. We may therefore conclude that the Captivity Epistles were written from Rome, and not from Caesarea.

2. Authenticity:

The external evidence for the epistle is less extensive than that of some of the other epp., but it is abundantly strong. The play on the word Onesimus which Paul himself uses (Phm 1:11) is found in Ignatius, Ephesians, ii. This may not mean necessarily a literary connection, but it suggests this. The epistle is known to Tertullian, and through him we know that Marcion accepted it (Adv. Marc., v.21). It is in the list in the Muratorian Fragment (p. 106, l. 27), and is quoted by Origen as Pauline (Hom. in Jer., 19) and placed by Eusebius (Historia Ecclesiastica, III, xxv) among the acknowledged books.

It has twice been the object of attack. In the 4th and 5th centuries it was opposed as unworthy of Paul’s mind and as of no value for edification. This attack was met successfully by Jerome (Commentary on Philemon, praef.), Chrysostom (Argum. in Philem) and Theodore of Mopsuestia (Spicil. in Solesm, I, 149), and the epistle. was finally established in its earlier firm position. The later attack by Baur was inspired by his desire to break down the corroborative value of Phm to the other Captivity Epistles, and has been characterized by Weiss as one of Baur’s worst blunders. The suggestions that it is interpolated (Holtzmann), or allegorical (Weizsacker and Pfleiderer), or based on the letter of Pliny (Ep. IX, 21) to Sabinianus (Steck), are interesting examples of the vagaries of their authors, but "deserve only to be mentioned" (Zahn). In its language, style and argument the letter is clearly Pauline.

3. Date:

The date will, as is the case with the other Captivity Epistles, depend on the chronology. If the earlier scheme be followed it may be dated about 58, if the later about 63, or 64.

4. Argument:

The apostle writes in his own and Timothy’s name to his friend PHILEMON (which see) in behalf of Onesimus, a runaway slave of the latter. Beginning with his usual thanksgiving, here awakened by the report of Philemon’s hospitality, he intercedes for his `son begotten in his bonds’ (Phm 1:10), Onesimus, who though he is Philemon’s runaway slave is now "a brother." It is on this ground that the apostle pleads, urging his own age, and friendship for Philemon, and his present bonds. He pleads, however, without belittling Onesimus’ wrongdoing, but assuming himself the financial responsibility for the amount of his theft. At the same time the apostle quietly refers to what Philemon really owes him as his father in Christ, and begs that he will not disappoint him in his expectation. He closes with the suggestion that he hopes soon to visit him, and with greetings from his companions in Rome.

5. Value:

The charm and beauty of this epistle have been universally recognized. Its value to us as giving a glimpse of Paul’s attitude toward slavery and his intimacy with a man like Philemon cannot be over-estimated. One of the chief elements of value in it is the picture it gives us of a Christian home in the apostolic days; the father and mother well known for their hospitality, the son a man of position and importance in the church, the coming and going of the Christian brethren, and the life of the brotherhood centering about this household.


Lightfoot, Col and Philem; Vincent, "Phil" and "Philem" (ICC); yon Soden, Hand Commentar; Alexander, in Speaker’s Commentary.