Catholic Encyclopedia – Epistle to Philemon

Article

Authenticity

External testimony to the Pauline authorship is considerable and evident, although the brevity and private character of the Epistle did not favour its use and public recognition. The heretic Marcion accepted it in his “Apostolicon”; and it is named in the Muratorian Fragment as well as contained in the Syriac and old Latin Versions. Eusebius includes Philemon among the homologoumena, or books universally undisputed and received as sacred. Saint Chrysostom and Saint Jerome, in the prefaces to their commentaries on the Epistle, defend it against some objections which have neither historical nor critical value. The vocabulary (epignosis, paraklesis tacha), the phraseology, and the style are unmistakably and thoroughly Pauline, and the whole Epistle claims to have been written by Saint Paul. It has been objected, however, that it contains some words nowhere else used by Paul (anapempein, apotinein, achrmstos, epitassein, xenia, oninasthai, prosopheilein). But every epistle of Saint Paul contains a number of apax legomena employed nowhere else, and the vocabulary of all authors changes more or less with time, place, and especially subject matter. Are we not allowed to expect the same from Saint Paul, an author of exceptional spiritual vitality and mental vigour? Renan voiced the common opinion of the critics when he wrote: “Saint Paul alone, it would seem, could have written this little masterpiece”.

Date and place of writing

It is one of the four Captivity Epistles composed by Saint Paul during his first imprisonment in Rome. Colossians, Ephesians, and Philippians are closely connected, so that the general opinion is that they were written and despatched at the same time, between A.D. 61-63. Some scholars assign the composition to Caesarea (Acts 23-26: A.D. 59-60), but both tradition and internal evidence are in favour of Rome.

Occasion and purpose

Onesimus, most likely only one of many slaves of Philemon, fled away and, apparently before his flight, defrauded his master, and ran away to Rome, finding his way to the hired lodging where Paul was suffered to dwell by himself and to receive all that came to him (Acts 28:16, 30). It is very possible he may have seen Paul, when he accompanied his master to Ephesus. Onesimus became the spiritual son of Saint Paul (verses 9, 10), who would have retained him with himself, that in the new and higher sphere of Christian service he should render the service which his master could not personally perform. But Philemon had a prior claim; Onesimus, as a Christian, was obliged to make restitution. According to the law, the master of a runaway slave might treat him exactly as he pleased. When retaken, the slave was usually branded on the forehead, maimed, or forced to fight with wild beasts. Paul asks pardon for the offender, and with a rare tact and utmost delicacy requests his master to receive him kindly as himself. He does not ask expressly that Philemon should emancipate his slave-brother, but “the word emancipation seems to be trembling on his lips, and yet he does not once utter it”. We do not know the result of Saint Paul’s request, but that it was granted seems to be implied in subsequent ecclesiastical tradition, which represents Onesimus as Bishop of Beraea,

Argument

This short letter, written to an individual friend, has the same divisions as the longer letters: (a) the introduction (verses 1-7); (b) the body of the Epistle or the request (verses 8-22); (c) the epilogue (verses 23-25).

1. Introduction (1-7)

The introduction contains (1) the salutation or address: Paul, “prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy” greets Philemon (verse 1), Appia, Archippus, and the Church in their house (verse 2), wishing them grace and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ (verse 3); (2) the thanksgiving for Philemon’s faith and love (verses 4-6), which gives great joy and consolation to the Apostle (verse 7).

2. Body of the Epistle

The request and appeal on behalf of the slave Onesimus. Though he could enjoin Philemon to do with Onesimus that which is convenient (verse 8), for Christian love’s sake, Paul “an aged man and now also a prisoner of Jesus Christ” (verse 9) beseeches him for his son Onesimus whom he had begotten in his bonds (verse 10). Once he was not what his name implies (helpful); now, however, he is profitable to both (verse 11). Paul sends him again and asks Philemon to receive him as his own heart (verse 12). He was desirous of retaining Onesimus with himself that he might minister to him in his imprisonment, as Philemon himself would gladly have done (verse 13), but he was unwilling to do anything without Philemon’s decision, desiring that his kindness should not be as it were “of necessity but voluntary” (verse 14). Perhaps, in the purpose of Providence, he was separated from thee for a time that thou mightest have him for ever (verse 15), no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a better servant and a beloved Christian brother (verse 16). If, therefore, thou regardest me as a partner in faith, receive him as myself (verse 17). If he has wronged thee in any way, or is in they debt, place that to my account (verse 18). I have signed this promise of repayment with my own hand, not to say to thee that besides (thy remitting the debt) thou owest me thine own self (verse 19). Yea, brother, let me have profit from thee (sou onaimen) in the Lord, refresh my heart in the Lord (verse 20). Having confidence in thine obedience, I have written to thee, knowing that thou wilt do more than I say (verse 21). But at the same time, receive me also and prepare a lodging for me: for I hope that through your prayers I shall be given to you (verse 22).

3. Epilogue (23-25)

The epilogue contains (1) salutations from all persons named in Colossians 4 (verses 23-24), and (2) a final benediction (verse 25). This short, tender, graceful, and kindly Epistle has often been compared to a beautiful letter of the Younger Pliny asking his friend Sabinian to forgive an offending freedman. As Lightfoot says: “If purity of diction be excepted, there will hardly be any difference of opinion in awarding the palm to the Christian apostle”.

Attitude of Saint Paul towards slavery

Slavery was universal in all ancient nations and the very economic basis of the old civilization. Slaves were employed not only in all the forms of manual and industrial labour, but also in many functions which required artistic skill, intelligence, and culture; such as especially the case in both the Greek and the Roman society. Their number was much greater than that of the free citizens. In the Greek civilization the slave was in better conditions than in the Roman; but even according to Greek law and usage, the slave was in a complete subjection to the will of his master, possessing no rights, even that of marriage. Saint Paul, as a Jew, had little of pagan conception of slavery; the Bible and the Jewish civilization led him already into a happier and more humane world. The bible mitigated slavery and enacted a humanitarian legislation respecting the manumission of slaves; but the Christian conscience of the Apostle alone explains his attitude towards Onesimus and slavery. One the one hand, Saint Paul accepted slavery as an established fact, a deeply-rooted social institution which he did not attempt to abolish all at once and suddenly; moreover, if the Christian religion should have attempted violently to destroy pagan slavery, the assault would have exposed the Roman empire to a servile insurrection, the Church to the hostility of the imperial power, and the slaves to awful reprisals. On the other hand, if Saint Paul does not denounce the abstract and inherent wrong of complete slavery (if that question presented itself to his mind, he did not express it), he knew and appreciated its actual abuses and evil possibilities and he addressed himself to the regulations and the betterment of existing conditions. He inculcated forbearance to slaves as well as obedience to masters (Ephesians 6:5-9; Colossians 3:22; 4:1; Philemon 8-12, 15, 17; 1 Timothy 6:1; Titus 2:9). He taught that the Christian slave is the Lord’s freedman (1 Corinthians 7:22), and vigorously proclaimed the complete spiritual equality of slave and freeman, the universal, fatherly love of God, and the Christian brotherhood of men:

For you are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as have been baptized in Christ, have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free: there is neither male nor female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:26-28; cf. Colossians 3:10-11)

These fundamental Christian principles were the leaven which slowly and steadily spread throughout the whole empire. They curtailed the abuses of slavery and finally destroyed it.

MLA Citation

  • Achille Camerlynck. “Epistle to Philemon”. Catholic Encyclopedia, 1913. Saints.SQPN.com. 15 February 2013. Web. 16 September 2014. <>