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Paul’s Letter to Philemon
a.d. 60 – 61
by Paul, under house arrest, from Rome
46. Personal Appeal On Behalf of a Slave
Taking the first half of Lewis’s remark about Paul’s lack of lucidity and adding to it, “I cannot be the only reader who has wondered” why Philemon was included in the New Testament canon at all. Its brevity, specificity, and lack of obvious theological content have puzzled many concerning its value to the Church as a whole.
If one views Philemon, however, as a post script to Colossians, which interpretation easily fits, then it might be read in much the same light as many of Paul’s other personal P.S. sections.
Recall, for example the entire 16th chapter of 1 Corinthians, almost exactly the same length as Philemon, which read in much the same way—requesting the Corinthians, among other things, to be accepting of Timothy and Apollos when they come to visit, and mentioning his own desire to visit Corinth. The similarities are striking. This is exactly what Paul does in Philemon—pleads for the acceptance of Onesimus upon his return to Colossae, and asks for a lodging to be prepared for him when he comes for a visit. The only difference—in addition to the unique circumstances prompting the letter to Philemon—is that the Corinthians P.S. is tacked on to the end of the letter, while Philemon, because it has a more specific purpose, was written separately.
Recall, too, Romans 16, even longer than Philemon and which many believe actually was originally a separate letter not part of Romans at all. Again, the similarities are impossible to miss, the commendation of a specific individual (Phoebe), that the church would “receive her in the Lord in a manner worthy of the saints.”
Philemon, therefore, is not actually so unusual in the Pauline corpus. It only seems unusual because it has been preserved as a separate entity, while all Paul’s other personal post scripts—even those which might also have originated as separate letters—were attached to the end of longer letters.
That said, however, the circumstances behind Paul’s writing to Philemon are definitely more unique than can be said of Paul’s other post scripts, “qualifying” it for special consideration. Indeed, the more one probes, the more the story turns into a mystery of some drama and intrigue.
The New Bible Commentary: Revised points out the epistle’s uniqueness in what it reveals about Paul:
Of all his Epistles, in spite of its brevity, it is the most revealing of the character of the apostle. It may be wondered why so brief a personal letter was preserved among the NT books, but the answer must surely be that it provided an exquisite example of one Christian man’s petition for another. The fact that the author was no less a man than the apostle Paul must have warmly commended it to the early Christians. (p. 1187)
At the center of the storm, so to speak, is a slave from Colossae by the name of Onesimus. Exactly whose slave he was is in some doubt. There are two chief theories, giving his owner as either Philemon (the most commonly held and traditional view) or Archippus. Both men are mentioned, along with Apphia, in Paul’s salutation . Since Philemon is listed first, it has generally been assumed that he was intended as the primary recipient of the letter, hence the title given to the epistle. But the plot thickens in light of Paul’s specific words to Archippus at the end of the letter to the Colossians (4:17). There Philemon is not mentioned at all. So the precise relationship between the four principle players—Philemon, Archippus, Apphia, and Onesimus—remains a matter of speculation.
What is known is that—when and for reasons unknown—Onesimus had run away from his owner, had probably stolen some of his belongings, and had ended up in Rome. There—again, how and when and under what circumstances—he encountered Paul. As a result he became a Christian.
How did he meet Paul? There would appear to be several possibilities:
Did Onesimus fall in with Roman Christians and was he then one of those who visited Paul in his captivity, listening to his preaching, and giving himself to a new Master?
Had he been captured and himself imprisoned, there meeting Paul simply as a fellow prisoner? This possibility would seem improbable if Paul were enjoying the reasonable freedom of house arrest in what Luke calls (Acts 28:30) his own rented quarters. This has therefore strengthened for some scholars the likelihood of Ephesus as the location of the imprisonment which prompted the captivity epistles, much closer to Colossae and easier and more likely for a runaway slave to have escaped to.
Had Onesimus somehow encountered Epaphras in Rome (who had himself come to see Paul) either by accident or brought together by Roman Christians knowing they were from the same city? As one of the leaders, or perhaps its pastor, of the very church in Colossae to which Onesimus’ master belonged, had Epaphras then taken the runaway to see Paul? This theory, too, has an apparent contradiction: How could Epaphras have done this if he was Paul’s “fellow prisoner” as Paul calls him?
All these options explain why I said that the plot thickens the more one probes. Specific answers are hard to come by.
Epaphras had earlier become an influential Christian as a result of Paul’s witness, and had started the Colossian church, which, in time, had come to include both Philemon and Archippus. Now, in Rome, Onesimus also becomes a Christian through Paul’s witness. However difficult some of Paul’s written letters may be, it is obvious that in person he must have been a dynamic, masterful, and persuasive communicator. Wherever he went, people gave their hearts to the Lord in droves, churches sprang up overnight, and an entire empire was infiltrated with the gospel in the incredibly brief span of twelve or fifteen years.
However it came about, then, Epaphras and Onesimus—both from Colossae—wind up together with Paul.
Paul was clearly told of the circumstances about Onesimus. For all we know, it may have been those very circumstances of his escape and theft and possible guilt over them that resulted in his conversion.
Now Paul has two situations in Colossae to deal with—the false teachings he had been informed about by Epaphrus, and what to do about Onesimus. Obviously, as a Christian, Onesimus had a duty, which Paul persuaded him of, to return to his master.
Such a course, however, was risky. Runaway slaves were subject to severe penalties and punishment. In first century culture there is no reason to suppose that a Christian slaveowner would necessarily see the matter differently.
Paul, therefore, took it upon himself to write to Onesimus’ owner, pleading for leniency, testifying to the fact that Onesimus was now a brother in the Lord—indeed, whom Paul says has been helpful to him—begging him to accept his former slave as a “beloved brother,” even going so far as to ask him to accept Onesimus as he would accept Paul himself. I find his statement in verse 8 interesting—Paul says he has enough confidence “in Christ” (but I think he really means confidence in his own standing in Christ) to make it an order, but he would rather make it an “appeal.” It is obvious that he feels adamant about his request. Paul’s petition is so strong that he says that he will himself repay any wrong or debt from what Onesimus has done. (Adding with a twist of the knife into the conscience, that he, the owner, actually owes Paul even more! Then Paul adds in verse 21 that he has “confidence in his obedience.” In other words, he is making it an order, though phrasing it like a request! There is a little cunning on Paul’s part in this letter!)
The enormous extent to which Paul puts himself on the line for Onesimus—I am thinking back to his response to Mark’s defection and to what Paul considered the hypocrisy of Barnabas—reveals one more example of how much Paul has changed through the years. He was not willing to stand up even for his friends back in Antioch—to whom he owed even more. Now he is willing to stake his whole reputation on the standing of a runaway slave.
It is a bold appeal, probably without precedent up to that time in the young Christian church. This tiny letter of the New Testament, on the basis of Paul’s authority and this obvious heartfelt and personal plea, carried with it the possibility of changing the Church’s entire outlook on slavery and class distinction.
philemon or archippus?
It really doesn’t matter whether Philemon or Archippus was the owner of Onesimus. Yet I find the whole story fascinating. We can deduce that both were leaders in the Colossian church, that they were intimately connected with one another, along with Apphia, and that some portion of the Colossian congregation met in one of their homes. From both Philemon 1:2 and Colossians 4:17, that would seem to indicate Archippus. Perhaps they were of the same household…or related? Was Apphia perhaps the wife of one of the men? Were they brothers…or brothers-in-law? Paul’s words in verses 4-7, as well as 21, also imply a previous acquaintance. Yet we cannot draw definite conclusions. We simply don’t know the details of the situation. Guthrie suggests the possibility that, Epaphras, as head of the Colossian church, left Archippus in charge during his absence. This lends credibility to Paul’s mention of both him and Onesimus in both letters and makes the situation all the more a “high profile” case.”
From the context of the two letters it is clear that Paul probably wrote both in conjunction with one another, and sent them back to Colossae together with Tychicus and Onesimus (Colossians 4:7-9). His appeal for leniency toward Onesimus is not limited to Philemon. He makes it a matter for the whole church. In Colossians he emphasizes that Onesimus is a “faithful and beloved brother,” a statement about a runaway slave that might well have shocked a good many of the congregation. Imagine their response when Tychius appears with a letter from Paul, a repentant Onesimus at his side, as they then read from Paul that they should accept this runaway as a brother.
Then further on (Colossians 4:17) comes a personal message to Archippus: “Take heed to the ministry you have received in the Lord, that you may fulfill it.”
It is a cryptic statement. Was Paul emphasizing, in the hearing of the whole church: Pay close attention to the other letter I wrote to you and Philemon.
Interesting as well is Paul’s statement in Colossians 4:1: “Masters, grant to your slaves justice and fairness.” With the two letters, Paul has launched a two-pronged attack…all for the benefit of a single man, and a runaway slave at that.
The Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary on the Bible comments:
Even though Philemon was written for a very particular reason, it would be misleading to describe it as a purely private document. While its central appeal is directed to an individual…the opening salutation…and concluding benediction…presupposed a Christian congregation, a “house church” (vs. 2). Moreover, Col. may have been written to this same congregation at the same time, at least in part to bolster the appeal of this letter…Therefore in this as in his other letters, Paul speaks as an apostle mindful of a whole community of Christian brethren, and everything he says presupposes that wider context.
The owner of Onesimus is generally assumed to be Philemon…but the theory that the owner is Archippus…has been adopted by some scholars…If the real owner of Onesimus is Archippus…Paul’s urging of the Colossians to see that Archippus fulfills his service…is a specific reference to the whole issue discussed in this letter…
Though Paul’s objective seems to be the release of Onesimus from his master, one must not regard Philemon as an abolitionist tract. Neither here nor in 1 Cor. 7:20-24 does Paul question the rightness or wrongness of slavery as an institution. For Paul, as for early Christianity in general, the institution of slavery was regarded as a fixed part of society, and there is no writer within the NT who envisions a social order without this institution. On the other hand, slavery is never expressly condoned or given theological sanction…
Paul viewed all human institutions as features of a temporary worldly order which was in the process of “passing away” (1 Cor. 7:31). Because he shared the conviction of earliest Christianity that the last days were at hand, the reform of social institutions would have seemed to him irrelevant and superfluous. (p. 894)
It is obvious that the interwoven threads between Colossians and Philemon are very close. Not only is this true of the complex situation involving Philemon, Archippus, and Onesimus, the personal greetings from Paul’s fellow workers are sent from the exact same five men: Epaphras, Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke.
The connections are fascinating!
There are two interesting theories about Onesimus later in life, both unsubstantiated, without factual evidence, and primarily coming from only one man, but nevertheless worthy of reflection. One is that he was the later author/compiler of Ephesians, the second that he later became bishop of Ephesus. Both are based on Ignatius’ mention of a bishop by the same name. Donald Guthrie, referencing the work of J. Knox comments:
Knox has pointed out some resemblances between this passage in Ignatius and the language of Philemon, and he regards this as support for his suggestion. There seems to be no positive reason for rejecting the theory that Onesimus the slave later became bishop of the Ephesian church, but mere similarity of name cannot of itself confirm the identity. Knox develops still further his speculation about Onesimus by suggesting that as Bishop of Ephesus at the time he was responsible for the collection and publication of the Pauline Corpus. Because of his own intense personal interest…Onesimus ensured that the little letter to Philemon was included. This is not the place to discuss the formation of the Pauline Corpus but there are strong reasons for thinking that a collection existed long before this theory supposes. Yet again there are no positive grounds for denying that Onesimus may have been the original collector of Paul’s letters, but there are equally no grounds in support of it. It is no more than a subjective conjecture. (New Testament Introduction, p. 640)