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The Access Bible New Revised Standard Bible, written and edited with first-time Bible readers in mind.

The Letter of Paul to Philemon - Introduction

The letter to Philemon is Paul's shortest and the only undisputed letter addressed to an individual. Despite its brevity, its clever wordplay, careful speech, and presentation of character give it a distinct, graceful tone. Furthermore, it is really more than a private letter to Philemon: The central portion directly addresses Philemon, but the number of persons addressed in vv. 3 and 25 shifts, and v. 1 names several persons along with the group that meets in Philemon's house.

Philemon resembles a letter of recommendation: A powerful person (who can grant favors) writes to another powerful person on behalf of someone less powerful. In Philemon, Paul wants a favor for Onesimus (“welcome him as you would me,” v. 17; compare v. 20) and recalls a favor done for Philemon (v. 19).

It is uncertain where Philemon lived or where Paul was in prison (vv. 1, 9, 13, 22). Because Onesimus and Archippus (v. 2) are mentioned in Colossians (Col 4.9, 17 ), Philemon may have lived in Colossae. If so, then Ephesus (located, like Colossae, in Asia Minor) is likely the place from which Paul writes, rather than from Rome or Caesarea, both much more distant places where Paul was imprisoned. The date of writing would be about 55 CE.

The social circumstances that evoked the letter are clear—the practice of slavery—but the precise contours of those circumstances are not. Onesimus, a slave, was absent from the house of his master, Philemon. Had Onesimus taken money or valuables and run away? Had Philemon mistreated Onesimus? Was Onesimus looking for someone to plead for better treatment from Philemon? Or perhaps Onesimus had not run away. Perhaps he was carrying out a task for Philemon and it had taken longer than either of them had expected. Some slaves managed affairs for their masters. Paul may be addressing the possibility that the delay was costly for Philemon (v. 18). Furthermore, Paul's reference to Onesimus's uselessness (v. 11) could also refer to the short period (“a while”) of unexpected absence, not the entire absence. The contrast in v. 11 then need not be “formerly” (as in the NSRV) versus “now” but “at the time [of the delay]” versus “now.” During this time, Paul had converted Onesimus. Now, to explain the “delay” during which the conversion took place, Paul writes commending Onesimus's changed character and citing the change as the reason for the delay. Moreover, Onesimus now might be “useful” to Paul, though Paul will wait for Philemon to allow Onesimus to stay and will not coerce Philemon into generosity (v. 14).

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