The Letter Of Paul To Philemon - Introduction
This enigmatic text is a piece of the apostle Paul's business correspondence, a curious but intentional blend of personal and public appeal, addressed to three named recipients (Philemon, Apphia, and Archippus) and to the church that meets in one of their houses (v. 2 ). The letter shows Paul's epistolary style at its best, and employs a subtle rhetoric to make a request of one of the recipients— probably Philemon, because he is the first named. The exact nature of the request is the basis for the enigma that the epistle to Philemon represents.
In order to interpret this epistle, one must reconstruct the situation it presupposes, but to do so the reader must depend upon the letter itself. Paul writes this letter from prison (vv. 1,9–10 ; a location is not specified), where he has been joined by someone named Onesimus, whom Paul has converted to the gospel there (v. 10 ). This Onesimus, who is the slave of Philemon (v. 16 ), is the object of Paul's appeal (v. 10 ). While the circumstances that led to Onesimus's encounter with Paul are not described in the letter, two quite different possibilities suggest themselves: Either Onesimus ran away from his master, perhaps after causing him some financial loss (vv. 15,18 ), or Onesimus was sent by his owner to serve Paul in prison (v. 13 ), much as Epaphroditus was sent to Paul in prison by the Philippians (Phil 2.25–30 ). The advantage of the latter possibility is that it explains how Onesimus came to be in prison with Paul, whereas the former option must explain why a slave would run away to a prison. Perhaps Onesimus, according to legal precedent, sought out a friend of his master's to act as an intermediary in a dispute between himself and his owner. The precise occasion of the letter is the moment of Paul's sending Onesimus back to his master (v. 12 ). The letter will accompany Onesimus and register a plea on his behalf (v. 10 ).
What is Paul asking Philemon to do? Because Paul formulates his request in intentionally vague and rhetorical terms, a definitive judgment is hard to make. Readers should explore at least three possible interpretations: (1) Paul is asking Philemon to receive Onesimus back as a slave and forgive whatever transgressions he had committed (vv. 17–18 ); (2) Paul is asking Philemon to send Onesimus back to continue serving the apostle's physical needs while in prison (vv. 13–14 ); (3) Paul is strongly hinting that Philemon should not only receive Onesimus back, but grant this new Christian brother his freedom (vv. 16,21 ). Each of these options has some grounding in the text, and which one the reader adopts depends upon which verses are thought to be the focal point of the argument, and upon how one assesses Paul's tone at various points. One thing, however, is certain about this letter: Paul engages in fullstrength armtwisting of Philemon to do his “good deed” (v. 14 ). But the final decision of what to do is left up to Philemon himself—in the context of a range of onlookers among his fellow Christians! One of the most remarkable things about this letter is that it was preserved, and ultimately incorporated into the canonical collection of Paul's letters. This may be a hint that Philemon's ultimate decision agreed with Paul's request.
The structure of Philemon is neatly exact. After the epistolary salutation (vv. 1–3 ) and thanksgiving (vv. 4–7 ), which praise Philemon for his past benefactions, in the epistolary body (vv. 8–22 ) Paul makes a fresh request for the present situation involving Onesimus through various forms of subtle and not‐so subtle appeal, ending with the suggestion that he will soon visit Philemon. He closes the letter with epistolary greetings from missionary coworkers that accent the public arena of Philemon's decision.
This letter has played a role in the history of Christian social ethics disproportionate to its size. The adequacy of Paul's attitude and actions toward the institution of slavery, both in his context and as a legacy for Christian social thought, continues to be debated.