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The Epistle of Paul to Philemon, usually referred to simply as Philemon, is a prison letter to Philemon from Paul of Tarsus. Philemon was a leader in the Colossian church. This letter, which is one of the books of the New Testament, deals with forgiveness.

It is now generally regarded as one of the undisputed works of Paul. It is the shortest of Paul's extant letters, consisting of only 335 words in the original Greek text, and twenty-five verses in modern English translations.

Contents

Content and reconstruction

Papyrus 87 (Gregory-Aland), fragment of Epistle to Philemon

Paul, who is apparently in prison (probably in either Rome or Ephesus), writes to a fellow Christian named Philemon and two of his associates: a woman named Apphia, sometimes assumed to be his wife, and a minister named Archippus (see Colossians 4:17). If the letter to the Colossians is authentically Pauline, then Philemon must live in Colossae. As a slave-owner he would have been wealthy by the standards of the early church and this explains why his house was large enough to accommodate church meetings (v. 2). Paul writes on behalf of Onesimus, Philemon's slave. Beyond that, it is not self-evident as to what has transpired. Onesimus is described as having been "separated" from Philemon, once having been "useless" to him (a pun on Onesimus's name, which means "useful"), and having done him wrong.

The dominant scholarly consensus is that Onesimus is a runaway slave who became a Christian believer. Paul now sends him back to face his aggrieved master, and strives in his letter to effect reconciliation between these two Christians. What is more contentious is how Onesimus came to be with Paul. Various suggestions have been given: Onesimus being imprisoned with Paul; Onesimus being brought to Paul by others; Onesimus coming to Paul by chance (or in the Christian view, by divine providence); or Onesimus deliberately seeking Paul out, as a friend of his master's, in order to be reconciled.

There is no extant information about Onesimus apart from the letter. Ignatius of Antioch mentions an Onesimus as Bishop of Ephesus in the early second century. It was suggested by some Bible scholars in the 1950s that this Onesimus is the same as the Onesimus in Paul's letter. Furthermore, it was suggested that Onesimus could have been the first to compile the letters of Paul, including the letter that gave him his own freedom as an expression of gratitude. This hypothesis could explain why the letter to Philemon (a letter written to an individual) is included alongside letters written to Christian communities.

Significance

Paul's letter is a personal one and can appear cryptic to outsiders. His tactful address to Philemon was labelled "holy flattery" by Martin Luther. Commending Philemon's Christian compassion, but at the same time subtly reminding Philemon of his apostolic authority over him, and the spiritual debt Philemon owes to him, Paul pleads with Philemon to take Onesimus back. Paul notes that because of his conversion, Onesimus is returned "no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother" (v. 16). Several issues remain unclear about Paul's expectations for Philemon. Is he expected to forgive Onesimus or manumit him? Is he to consider Onesimus to be Philemon's "brother" as well as his "slave"? Does this new brotherhood supplant his servitude? Some facets of Paul's societal expectations can be seen in these verses.

The German Protestant theologian Martin Luther saw a parallel between Paul and Christ in their work of reconciliation. However, Luther insisted that the letter upheld the social status quo: Paul did nothing to change Onesimus's legal position as a slave—and he complied with the law in returning him.

The letter was a cause of debate during the British and later American struggles over the abolition of slavery. Both sides cited Philemon for support.

See also

References

  • J. M. G. Barclay, Colossians and Philemon, Sheffield Academic Press, 1997 (ISBN 1-85075-818-2)
  • N. T. Wright, Colossians and Philemon, Tyndale IVP, 1986 (ISBN 0-8028-0309-1)
  • This article incorporates text from Easton's Bible Dictionary (1897), a publication now in the public domain.
Preceded by
Titus
Books of the Bible Succeeded by
Hebrews

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1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

EPISTLE TO PHILEMON, a scripture of the New Testament. Onesimus, a slave, had robbed (vv. 11, 18-19) and run away from his master Philemon, a prosperous and influential Christian citizen of Colossae (Col. iv. 9), either offence rendering him liable to be crucified. Voluntarily or accidentally, he came across Paul, who won him over to the Christian faith. In the few tactful and charming lines of this brief note, the apostle sends him back to his master with a plea for kindly treatment. After greeting Philemon and his wife, with Archippus (possibly their son) and the Christians who met for worship at Philemon's house (vv. 1-2), Paul rejoices over (vv. 4-7) his correspondent's character; it encourages him to make an appeal on behalf of the unworthy Onesimus (8-21), now returning (Col. iv. 9) along with Tychicus to Colossae, as a penitent and sincere Christian, in order to resume his place in the household. With a line or two of personal detail (22-25) the note closes.

Rome would be a more natural rendezvous for fugitivarii (runaway slaves) than Caesarea (Hilgenfeld and others), and it is probable that Paul wrote this note, with Philippians and Colossians, from the metropolis. As Laodicea is close to Colossae it does not follow, even if Archippus be held to have belonged to the former town (as Lightfoot argues from Col. iv. 13-17), that Philemon's residence must have been there also (so A. Maier, Thiersch, Wieseler, &c.). Paul cannot have converted Philemon at Colossae (Col. ii. 1), but elsewhere, possibly at Ephesus; yet Philemon may have been on a visit to Ephesus, for, even were the Ephesian Onesimus of Ignatius (Eph. ii.) the Onesimus of this note, it would not prove that he had always lived there. No adequate reason has been shown for suspecting that the note is interpolated at any point. The association of Timotheus with Paul (v. r) does not involve any official tinge, which would justify the deletion of Kai Teµ66Eos 6 65€X00s ,uou in that verse, and of r)µwv in vv. 1-2 (so Holtzmann), and Hausrath's suspicions of the allusion to. Paul as a prisoner and of v. 12 are equally arbitrary. The construction in vv. 5 -6 is difficult, but it yields to exegetical treatment (cf. especially Ha,upt's note) and does not involve the interpolation of matter by the later redactor of Colossians and Ephesians (Holtzmann, Hausrath' and Bruckner, Reihenfolge d. Paul. Briefe, 200 seq.).

The brevity of the note and its lack of doctrinal significance prevented it from gaining frequent quotation in the early Christian literature, but it appears in Marcion's canon as well as in the Muratorian, whilst Tertullian mentions, and Origen expressly quotes it. During the 19th century, the hesitation about Colossians led to the rejection of Philemon by some critics as a pseudonymous little pamphlet on the slave question - an aberration of literary criticism (reproduced in Ency. Bib., 3 6 93 seq.) which needs simply to be chronicled. It is interesting to observe that, apart from the letter of commendation for Phoebe (Rom. xvi.), this is the only letter in the New Testament addressed, even in part, to a woman, unless the second epistle of John be taken as meant for an individual.

Bibliography. - In addition to most commentaries on Colossians and to Dr M. R. Vincent's edition of Philippians, compare special exegetical studies by R. Rollock (Geneva, 1602), G. C. Storr (1781), J. K. I. Demme, Erklarung d. Philemon-Briefes (1844); H. A. Petermann, Ad fcdem versionum ... cum earum textu orig. graece (Berlin, 1844); M. Rothe, Pauli ad Philem. epistolae interpretatio historicoexegetica (Bremen, 1844); and H. J. Holtzmann, Zeitschrift fiir wissen. Theologie (1873), pp. 428 sqq., besides the essays of J. G. C. Klotzsch, De occasione et indole epistolae ad Philem. (1792); D. H. Wildschut, De vi diction-is et sermonis elegantia in epistola ad Philem. (1809); and J. P. Esser, Der Brief an Philemon (1875). An up-to-date survey of criticism is furnished by Dr J. H. Bernard in Hastings's Dictionary of the Bible, iv. 832-834, and a good exposition may be found in Z. Weber's Der Brief an d. Philemon, ein Vorbild fiir die 1 History of the New Testament Times (1895), iv. 122-123. See, on this, Schenkel's Bibel-Lexikon, iv. 531-532.

christl. Behandlung sozialer Fragen (1896), as well as in Dr A. H. Drysdale's devotional commentary (London, 1906). (J. MT.)


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