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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

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Commentary on Philemon

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Prescript and Thanksgiving ( 1–7 )

( 1–3 ) Prescript

The references in vv. 1 and 9 reflect Paul's first written use of the appellation ‘prisoner of Christ Jesus’ (cf. 2 Tim 1:8; Eph 3:1; 4:1 ; 3 Cor. 3.1). Some see this expression as reflecting only Paul's presence in prison. Others understand it metaphorically, in the light of triumphal marches (cf. Stuhlmacher 1981 ) or initiations into mystery cults (cf. Reitzenstein 1978 ). Most interpreters, however, see Paul's status as ‘prisoner’ as resulting either ‘because of’ or ‘for the sake of’ Christ Jesus (cf. PHILEM 9; PHILEM 23 offers an alternative interpretation). ‘Philemon, our beloved brother and fellow worker’ (NASB). Ironically, only one other individual in this letter is referred to as ‘beloved’: Onesimus (in v. 16 ). ‘Co-worker’: like the four persons mentioned in v. 24 , Philemon is a fellow worker, apparently one who assists the imprisoned apostle. v. 2 , ‘Apphia’: some commentators see her as Philemon's wife. Regardless, she is a Christian (i.e. ‘sister’). ‘Archippus’: the appellation ‘fellow-soldier’ (cf. Phil 2:25 ) does not necessarily refer to one who performs a specific task within the church. Because soldiers were well known for their loyalty, the title may represent a character attribute (for other martial imagery, see PHILEM 23). The admonitions to a certain Archippus in Col 4:17 led Knox to ask if Paul's admonitions in Philemon were directed primarily to Archippus (cf. Knox 1959 ). ‘To the church in your house’: the earliest Christians gathered and worshipped in private homes (cf. PHILEM 22). v. 3 , salutation: ‘Grace to you and peace’. To readers of Greek epistles, charis (‘grace’) would have sounded similar to the typical epistolary greeting chairein (‘greetings’; cf. Jas 1:1 ). Paul thus uses wordplay in a way in which his greeting bears theological import. His use of the word ‘peace’, in the second part of this greeting, probably reflects the typical Hebrew and Aramaic salutation shalom (šālôm).

( 4–7 ) Thanksgiving

The thanksgiving establishes the major themes and expectations of the epistle. v. 4 , although this letter is addressed to an entire house-church, the Greek makes clear that Paul's thanksgiving is now directed to one individual, presumably Philemon. v. 5 , Paul acknowledges that he has heard of Philemon's ‘love’ and ‘faith’ towards Jesus and all ‘the saints’. In v. 6 Paul expounds on this faith and in v. 7 the love. v. 6 , ‘I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we [other ancient authorities read ‘you’] may do for Christ'. The word for ‘sharing’—koinōnia—is a technical term frequently associated with commerce in the Graeco-Roman world (cf. Sampley 1980 ). Cf. v. 17 where Paul more explicitly uses the language of commerce. Paul refers to ‘the good’ again in v. 14 . v. 7 , ‘joy’, a typical catchphrase of Pauline rhetoric in Philippians is frequently used during times of persecution. Paul notes his own joy and comfort in Philemon's love, ‘because the hearts (splagchna) of the saints’ had been ‘refreshed’ through Philemon. Here Paul sets the stage for the main concerns in the letter. Similar references reappear in v. 12 , where Paul describes Onesimus as his splagchna and in v. 20 where Paul encourages Philemon to ‘refresh my heart (splagchna) in Christ’. Note that around the year 110 CE, when the bishop Ignatius was being taken in chains to Rome, he wrote to the Ephesians, thanking them for ‘refreshing’ him through Crocus and others whom they had sent to be with him while he was a prisoner (cf. Ign. Eph. 2. 1–2) (cf. Wansink 1996 ).

Body: Paul's Request ( 8–20 )

vv. 8–9 , Paul opens his request by acknowledging that although he is ‘bold enough’ to command Philemon to do his duty, he would rather appeal to him ‘on the basis of love’ (cf. vv. 5, 7 ). Paul notes that he makes such an appeal as a ‘prēsbutes, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus’. The Greek term prēsbutes has been translated both as ‘old man’ and as ‘ambassador’. When the received text is emended (Lightfoot 1904 ) or when comparisons are made to 2 Cor 5:19b–20a and Eph 6:20 (cf. Stuhlmacher 1981 ), this word sometimes is translated as ‘ambassador’. However, since Paul has just announced that he would not exploit his authority to give commands (v. 8 ), referring to himself now as an ‘ambassador’ would seem contradictory. Furthermore, recent lexical studies emphasize that ‘old man’ would be the most appropriate translation for this Greek term (cf. Gnilka 1982; Birdsall 1993 ). Paul, thus, is seeking empathy. He is old and, furthermore, he is in a situation inappropriate for a person of his age: he is a prisoner. These two epithets share at least one key characteristic: both the elderly and the imprisoned were seen as vulnerable and dependent upon others (Hock 1995). ‘Prisoner of Christ Jesus’: the point seems to be that prisoners were dependent on support from outsiders (cf. v. 13 ). At the same time, the constellation of military metaphors in this letter points to an even richer meaning for this appellation (cf. PHILEM 23). v. 10 , ‘Onesimus’: literally ‘useful’ in Greek. In this first reference to Onesimus, Paul is not explicit about how these two came to be together. Apparently Philemon already knew. ‘My child’: in the Pauline and Deutero-Pauline literature, Onesimus, Titus (Titus 1:4 ), and Timothy (1 Cor 4:17; Phil 2:22; 1 Tim 1:2, 18; 2 Tim 1:2; 2:1 ) are the only specific individuals whom Paul refers to as his children. The language, thus, is quite intimate. As in 1 Cor 4:17 and Phil 2:22 , here Paul uses the word ‘child’ in commending to the addressees the one whom Paul, himself, is sending. ‘Whose father I have become’: Onesimus was converted by the imprisoned apostle. v. 11 , by postponing the word ‘Onesimus’ to the end of v. 10 , the Greek highlights the wordplays in v. 11 . Immediately we are told that Onesimus was formerly ‘useless’ (achrēstos) but ‘now is useful (euchrēstos) both to you and to me’. In what respect was Onesimus ‘useless’ (achrēstos)? It is difficult to know if Paul is using this expression in a literal, figurative, or simply rhetorical sense. The reference to ‘Onesimus’ as having been ‘useless’ would have sounded ironic to the original readers of this letter. The wordplay is even more notable when we look at achrēstos in the light of v. 10 . Onesimus became a Christian while with Paul. Before Onesimus met Paul he was not a Christian. He was achristos (without Christ). In Koine Greek, achristos and achrēstos were homophones. Thus, Paul is saying: Before Onesimus was a Christian, he was named Onesimus (or ‘useful’). At that time, however, he was not truly useful, because he was achrēstos/achristos. Now that he is a Christian, however, he is truly useful (cf. Winter 1987 ). As Philemon's messenger and minister to Paul, Onesimus would be useful to both persons. v. 12 , ‘I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you.’ The Greek verb employed here is frequently used to refer to the return of messengers or envoys. ‘My own heart’ (cf. PHILEM 7, 20): the Greek word splagchna, translated as ‘heart’, is also a synonym for the Greek word pais (child) (cf. Artemidorus, Oneirocritica, 1.44). v. 13 , ‘I wanted to keep him with me’ (Paul wants Philemon to make his own choice; vv. 9, 14, 21 ), ‘so that he might be of service to me in your place’. In prison, Paul would have been dependent on outsiders for food, clothing, the delivering of letters, etc. v. 14 , ‘I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary’. In v. 6 , Paul prays that Philemon might effectively share his faith when he perceives ‘all the good that we [the imprisoned?] may do for Christ’. Here Paul expects that Philemon—with free will and this knowledge—will use his goodness appropriately. v. 15 , ‘Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while’. Those interpreters who claim that Onesimus was a runaway slave tend to see this verse as Paul's euphemistic handling of a delicate situation (cf. Stoger 1971; Lohse 1971 ). The Greek word translated as ‘separated’, however, does not necessarily mean ‘ran away’. Slaves were often separated from their owners, conducting business for them, delivering letters, helping others, or simply working where their labour was needed (cf. D. B. Martin 1990 ). What Paul directly acknowledges is that this separation has resulted in a change in Onesimus' status and how he is to be viewed. v. 16 , ‘no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother’. Onesimus was converted in prison and just as Philemon is referred to as ‘beloved’ (v. 1 ), just as he is referred to as Paul's ‘brother’ (vv. 7, 20 ), so Onesimus here is referred to as a ‘beloved brother’. vv. 17–18 , ‘If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account.’ The ‘if’ which begins this sentence makes the apodosis hypothetical (cf. C. J. Martin 1992 ). Onesimus did not necessarily wrong Philemon or owe him anything. At the same time, slavery in the Graeco-Roman world often resulted from personal bankruptcy or need. Under these conditions, individuals were slaves because they were in debt to their masters. Furthermore, even if a slave owed his master nothing, if that slave were to be freed, the owner would expect recompense: he would be reluctant to give away what he considered to be an investment. v. 19 , ‘I, Paul, am writing (egrapsa) this with my own hand’. The epistolary aorist functions like a signature on a typed letter (cf. Gal 6:11; Col 4:18; 1 Cor 16:21 ). Paul is serious about this request. ‘I say nothing about your owing me even your own self’. Paul apparently was responsible not only for the conversion of Onesimus but also for that of Onesimus' owner. v. 20 , ‘Yes, brother, let me have this benefit from you in the Lord!’ In v. 7 , after Paul writes that the hearts of the saints had been refreshed through Philemon, he refers to him as ‘brother’. Here, similarly, Paul refers to Philemon as ‘brother’, and asks that he benefit him by refreshing his heart in Christ. Just as Philemon refreshes ‘the hearts of the saints’, so he is to refresh Paul. The verse has, however, yet another implication. In v. 12 , Paul refers to Onesimus as ‘my heart’. Paul's reference to Onesimus in v. 20 hinges on the equation Paul makes in v. 7 . Thus, when Paul writes ‘let me have this benefit (onaimēn) from you in the Lord’, the term onaimēn is not coincidental. In a letter inundated with wordplay, the similarities between onaimēn and Onesimus (onēsimos) would have been obvious to a Greek-speaking audience. Thus, Philemon here is called upon to refresh both Paul and Onesimus.

Final Prayer, Greetings, and Blessing ( 21–5 )

vv. 21–2 , Paul is confident about both Philemon's obedience and his own release from prison. Furthermore, he asks Philemon to prepare lodging for him. House-churches were not only for worship, Christian meetings, and moral instruction, but also for hosting travellers and guests. Just as Paul had prayed for Philemon (cf. PHILEM 4), so he asks that this community pray for him in his imprisonment. Paul employs the second person plural pronoun, clearly emphasizing his relationship with the entire community. v. 23 , ‘Fellow prisoner’. The Greek sunaichmalōtos actually means ‘fellow prisoner of war’. The term points to more than merely shared imprisonment. When Paul, by implication, refers to himself both as a ‘soldier’ (cf. PHILEM 2) and as a ‘prisoner of war’, the implication is that Paul's imprisonment followed naturally from his commitment to Christ Jesus. Like famed Roman soldiers, and like Socrates, Paul and Epaphras refused to desert their posts, regardless if it would lead to imprisonment or death (cf. Knox 1955; Wansink 1996 ). v. 24 , Paul refers to the others with him as ‘fellow workers’ (cf. PHILEM 1). Of Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, the latter figure has provoked the most interest. In 2 Tim 4:11 , he is the last person to remain with the imprisoned apostle. In Col 4:14 , he is called ‘the beloved physician’. Because ancient sources see illness as a terrifying threat faced by the imprisoned, it is interesting to note that each of the references to Luke—the physician—appears only in epistles said to have been written from prison. v. 25 , a traditional final greeting.

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