Letter to Philemon

PHILEMON, LETTER TO (fī-lēmŏn, Gr. Philēmōn, loving). Paul’s letter to Philemon dates, in all probability, from the period of his Roman imprisonment. Paul’s authorship is not seriously disputed. The letter is addressed: “To Philemon...Apphia...Archippus...and to the church that meets in your home.” Apphia was Philemon’s wife, and Archippus, not improbably, his son. Archippus appears to have been a person of some standing, but perhaps not notable for stability of character (Col.4.17). The Christian community was organized around a home, a practice of the early church. Many ancient churches were no doubt founded on the sites of homes where early Christians met. There is no evidence of church building of any sort before the third century. The fourth-century Christian chapel, recently discovered in the Roman villa of Lullingstone, Kent, England, is an illustration of the earlier practice. Justin Martyr provides similar evidence.

The occasion of the letter was the return of the runaway slave Onesimus to his master. There is a celebrated letter of the Roman writer Pliny on a similar subject, written perhaps forty years later. It is interesting to compare Pliny’s language of humane generosity with Paul’s language of brotherly affection. Pliny puts the plea for forgiveness on humanitarian and philosophical grounds; Paul founds all he has to say on Christian fellowship. He writes with exquisite tact and with words of praise before referring to obligation. The word “brother” comes like a friendly handclasp at the end of Col.4.7; “for my son Onesimus” adds a curiously poignant appeal at the end of Col.4.10. He is Paul the ambassador and as such might speak of duty. An imperial legate had a right to speak for the emperor, and the analogy would not be lost on Philemon. Paul reminds Philemon that, in respect to bondage, his own position did not vary from that of the man for whom he pleaded. Onesimus was a fellow bondsman and a son. The Talmud said, “If one teaches the son of his neighbor the Law, this is the same as if he had begotten him.” Paul has the rabbinical saying in mind. “Onesimus” means “useful,” and the writer makes a play on the word in Col.4.11, proceeding immediately to point to the sacrifice he himself was making. Onesimus was “briefly” parted from Philemon, says Paul, and he proceeds strongly to hint that manumission might be the truest mark of brotherliness. With a closing touch of humor Paul offers to pay Philemon back for anything the runaway owes, discounting, as he returns to seriousness, Philemon’s own deep debt.

“I do wish, brother,” Paul concludes, “that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord.” He puns once more on Onesimus’s name (onaimēn is the verb). The remark is a further appeal for Onesimus’s freedom. The approach is characteristic of early Christianity. Slavery is never directly attacked as such, but principles that must prove fatal to the institution are steadily inculcated. To speak of brotherly love between master and slave ultimately renders slavery meaningless.

The letter ends on notes of intimacy. There was something truly Greek about Paul. The great Greek orators seldom placed the climax of their speech in the closing words, ending on a minor note designed to bring the excited audience back to normalcy and rest. So Paul ends here.

Bibliography: See Bruce, Lightfoot, Lohse, Martin (No. 2), Moule, O'Brien in bibliography to Colossians; also J. Knox, Philemon Among the Letters to Paul, 1960.——EMB