Epistle Of Paul To Philemon

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The Epistle to Philemon is a book of the Bible in the New Testament. This most beautiful of all Paul's Epistles, and the most intensely human, is one of the so-called Captivity Epistles of which Ephesians, Colossians, and Philippians are the others. Of these four Philippians (which see) stands apart, and was written more probably after the other three. These are mutually interdependent, sent by the same bearer to churches of the same district, and under similar conditions.

Philemon is now generally regarded as one of the undisputed works of Saint Paul, although it was questioned in the past by Ferdinand Christian Baur. It is the shortest of Paul's extant letters, consisting of only 25 verses.

It was written from Rome at the same time as the epistles to the Colossians and Ephesians, and was sent also by Onesimus. It was addressed to Philemon and the members of his family.

It was written for the purpose of interceding for Onesimus, who had deserted his master Philemon and been “unprofitable” to him. Paul had found Onesimus at Rome, and had there been instrumental in his conversion, and now he sends him back to his master with this letter.

This epistle has the character of a strictly private letter, and is the only one of such epistles preserved to us. “It exhibits the apostle in a new light. He throws off as far as possible his apostolic dignity and his fatherly authority over his converts. He speaks simply as Christian to Christian. He speaks, therefore, with that peculiar grace of humility and courtesy which has, under the reign of Christianity, developed the spirit of chivalry and what is called 'the character of a gentleman,' certainly very little known in the old Greek and Roman civilization” (Dr. Barry).

See Slave.

This most beautiful of all Paul's Epistles, and the most intensely human, is one of the so-called Captivity Epistles of which Ephesians, Colossians, and Philippians are the others. Of these four Philippians (which see) stands apart, and was written more probably after the other three. These are mutually interdependent, sent by the same bearer to churches of the same district, and under similar conditions.


Contents

The letter and its reconstruction

Paul, who is apparently in prison (probably in either Rome or Ephesus), writes to a fellow-Christian Philemon and two of his associates. Paul writes on behalf of Philemon's slave, one Onesimus (whose name means 'useful'). Beyond that, it is not self-evident as to what has transpired. Onesimus is described as having been 'separated' from his master, once having been 'useless' to him (a pun), and having done him wrong.

The dominant scholarly consensus is that Onesimus is a run-away slave: a fugitivus, who has encountered Paul and become a Christian believer. Paul now (apparently) 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: 1) Onesimus being imprisoned with Paul; 2) Onesimus being brought to Paul by others. 3) Onesimus deliberately seeking Paul out, as a friend of his master's, in order to be reconciled.

Paul's letter is cryptic. He tactfully addresses Philemon (Luther spoke of 'Holy flattery'), speaking of Philemon's Christian compassion, but at the same time Paul subtly reminds Philemon of his authority over him, and the (spiritual) debt Philemon owes to him. He also points out that Onesimus's conversion has brought about a new state of affairs. And so Onesimus is returned "no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother" (vs. 16).

It is less than clear what that critical phrase means, and what Paul wants Philemon to do. Is Onesimus simply to be forgiven, or freed (given manumission)? Is Onesimus now Philemon's 'brother' as well as his 'slave', or does his position of 'brother' supplant that of 'slave'. The letter is unclear and scholars are divided. But this interpretation is important for an understanding of the social impact of Paul's gospel.

There is no way of knowing what happened to Onesimus after the letter. Ignatius of Antioch mentions an Onesimus as Bishop of Ephesus in the early second century. But Onesimus was not an uncommon slave name, so to identify the bishop with Philemon's slave is entirely speculative.

Significance

Philemon has been of only marginal interest in Christian theology and ethics. The German Protestant theologian and reformer 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' 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 interpretations of Philemon for support. Modern scholarship has tended to assume that either Paul did undermine slavery in this letter, or that he would have, had circumstances permitted.


1. Place of Writing:

There is some diversity of opinion as to the place from which the apostle wrote these letters. Certain scholars (Reuss, Schenkel, Weiss, Holtzmann, Hilgenfeld, Hausrath and Meyer) have urged Caesarea in opposition to the traditional place, Rome. The arguments advanced are first that Onesimus would have been more likely to have escaped to Caesarea than to Rome, as it is nearer Colosse than Rome is, to which we may reply that, though Caesarea is nearer, his chance of escape would have been far greater in the capital than in the provincial city. Again it is said that as Onesimus is not commended in Ephesians, he had already been left behind at Colosse; against which there are advanced the precarious value of an argument from silence, and the fact that this argument assumes a particular course which the bearers of the letters would follow, namely, through Colosse to Ephesus. A more forcible argument is that which is based on the apostle's expected visit. In Philippians 2:24 we read that he expected to go to Macedonia on his release; in Philemon 1:22 we find that he expected to go to Colosse. On the basis of this latter reference it is assumed that he was to the south of Colosse when writing and so at Caesarea. But it is quite as probable that he would go to Colosse through Philippi as the reverse; and it is quite possible that even if he had intended to go direct to Colosse when he wrote to Philemon, events may have come about to cause him to change his plans. The last argument, based on the omission of any reference to the earthquake of which Tacitus (Ann. xiv. 27) and Eusebius (Chron., O1, 207) write, is of force as opposed to the Rom origin of the letters only on the assumption that these writers both refer to the same event (by no means sure) and that the epistles. were written after that event, and that it was necessary that Paul should have mentioned it. If the early chronology be accepted it falls entirely, as Tacitus' earlier date would be after the epistles. were written. In addition we have the further facts, favorable to Rome, that Paul had no such freedom in Caesarea as he is represented in these epistles as enjoying; that no mention is made of Philip who was in Caesarea and a most important member of that community (Acts 21:8), and finally that there is no probability that so large a body of disciples and companions could have gathered about the apostle in his earlier and more strict imprisonment, at Caesarea. We may therefore conclude that the Captivity Epistles were written from Rome, and not from Caesarea.


2. Authenticity:

The external evidence for the epistle is less extensive than that of some of the other epp., but it is abundantly strong. The play on the word Onesimus which Paul himself uses (Philemon 1:11) is found in Ignatius, Ephesians, ii. This may not mean necessarily a literary connection, but it suggests this. The epistle is known to Tertullian, and through him we know that Marcion accepted it (Adv. Marc., v. 21). It is in the list in the Muratorian Fragment (p. 106, l. 27), and is quoted by Origen as Pauline (Hom. in Jer., 19) and placed by Eusebius (Historia Ecclesiastica, III, xxv) among the acknowledged books.

It has twice been the object of attack. In the 4th and 5th centuries it was opposed as unworthy of Paul's mind and as of no value for edification. This attack was met successfully by Jerome (Commentary on Philemon, praef.), Chrysostom (Argum. in Philem) and Theodore of Mopsuestia (Spicil. in Solesm, I, 149), and the epistle. was finally established in its earlier firm position. The later attack by Baur was inspired by his desire to break down the corroborative value of Philem to the other Captivity Epistles, and has been characterized by Weiss as one of Baur's worst blunders. The suggestions that it is interpolated (Holtzmann), or allegorical (Weizsacker and Pfleiderer), or based on the letter of Pliny (Ep. IX, 21) to Sabinianus (Steck), are interesting examples of the vagaries of their authors, but “deserve only to be mentioned” (Zahn). In its language, style and argument the letter is clearly Pauline.


3. Date:

The date will, as is the case with the other Captivity Epistles, depend on the chronology. If the earlier scheme be followed it may be dated about 58, if the later about 63, or 64.


4. Argument:

The apostle writes in his own and Timothy's name to his friend Philemon (which see) in behalf of Onesimus, a runaway slave of the latter. Beginning with his usual thanksgiving, here awakened by the report of Philemon's hospitality, he intercedes for his 'son begotten in his bonds' (Philemon 1:10), Onesimus, who though he is Philemon's runaway slave is now “a brother.” It is on this ground that the apostle pleads, urging his own age, and friendship for Philemon, and his present bonds. He pleads, however, without belittling Onesimus' wrongdoing, but assuming himself the financial responsibility for the amount of his theft. At the same time the apostle quietly refers to what Philemon really owes him as his father in Christ, and begs that he will not disappoint him in his expectation. He closes with the suggestion that he hopes soon to visit him, and with greetings from his companions in Rome.


5. Value:

The charm and beauty of this epistle have been universally recognized. Its value to us as giving a glimpse of Paul's attitude toward slavery and his intimacy with a man like Philemon cannot be over-estimated. One of the chief elements of value in it is the picture it gives us of a Christian home in the apostolic days; the father and mother well known for their hospitality, the son a man of position and importance in the church, the coming and going of the Christian brethren, and the life of the brotherhood centering about this household.


Literature.

Lightfoot, Col and Philem; Vincent, “Phil” and “Philem” (ICC); yon Soden, Hand Commentar; Alexander, in Speaker's Commentary.

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