Why Did Paul Write to Philemon?

The traditional “background” to Philemon posits Philemon as a wealthy man and slave owner (15-16) probably living in Colossae.  He is described as a “partner” in Paul’s ministry and his house appears to have been used for meetings of believers (2).  His wife and son appear to share in the ministry of this house church.  Paul considers Philemon an “old friend.” It is possible he was saved in Ephesus when Paul spent three years earlier in the city.

PhilemonOne of Philemon’s slaves, Onesimus has escaped and fled to Rome. It is possible Onesimus stole something from Philemon when he left. Rome is an easy place to “get lost” since it was very large; he could easily find a place to lay-low for the rest of his life.  While in Rome Onesimus meets Paul and accepts Jesus Christ as his Savior.  He apparently is with Paul for a while, since he is described as “useful” in Paul’s ministry.

Onesimus returns to his former master to ask forgiveness and accept his punishment.  The letter to Philemon is something like a “letter of recommendation” from Paul to Philemon vouching for Onesimus’ conversion.  Paul also promises to pay any debt Onesimus has incurred as a result of his escape.

This traditional background makes for a great story but it is hard to make this short letter fit this complex story. The main problem with the traditional view Onesimus’s encounter with Paul. If Rome is such a large city, how does Onesimus just happen to meet Paul there, a good friend of his former master?

One attempt to answer this problem is to assume Onesimus fled to Rome in order to find Paul and ask him to intercede on his behalf. Perhaps Philemon was not treating him fairly “in Christ” and he wanted to Paul to adjudicate their dispute. Paul would function as an amicus domini, a “friend of the master,” who is called upon to mediate a dispute. The situation is not unusual. In fact, Pliny wrote a letter which is similar to the situation in Philemon. In this letter Pliny writes Sabinianus on behalf of a freedman who has “fallen at his feet.”  Pliny asks Sabinianus to forgive a man who has insulted him in a youthful indiscretion.

A second possibility is Onesimus was an unsaved slave sent to help Paul in his imprisonment, perhaps on the analogy of Epaphroditus in Philippians. While working with Paul Onesimus accepts Christ and becomes useful in Paul’s mission in Rome. The letter of Philemon is therefore Paul’s requests to Philemon allow Onesimus to join Paul’s ministry team and perhaps even grant Onesimus his freedom.

A third, less likely possibility is that Onesimus is not a slave, but the wayward brother of Philemon. Verse 16 could be read as saying Onesimus is Philemon’s literal brother. The point of the letter would be the same (reconciliation with Philemon).

Fourth, perhaps Philemon was not the owner at all, but rather Archippus, from Colossians 4:17.  In Col. 4:17 Paul tells this man to “complete the work you have in the Lord.”  John Knox takes this to mean, “Free Onesimus.”  Philemon is the local “partner in ministry” in Colossae who is asked to act as a go-between for Onesimus and Archippus.  While this is an intriguing theory, there are a number of un-provable assumptions standing behind it.

 

 

Bibliography: John Knox, Philemon among the Letters of Paul (Nashville: Abingdon, 1959). L. Cope, “Rethinking the Philemon – Colossian Connection” Biblical Research 30 (1985): 45-50.  Knox is following his teacher E. R. Goodenough,  “Paul and Onesimus,” HTR 22 (1929): 181-83.

20 thoughts on “Why Did Paul Write to Philemon?

  1. Paul wrote to Philemon on Onesimus’ behalf in the book of Philemon (Philemon 1:8-22). Philemon was a “slave-owner and believer, who apparently was led to faith by Paul in Ephesus” (Longenecker, 213). Onesimus was a “slave of Philemon who became a Jesus-follower through Paul’s influence” (Longenecker, 385). As mentioned, it is presumed that Paul and Onesimus crossed paths in Rome. Longenecker provides multiple possible scenarios as to why Onesimus would leave Philemon and be in Rome to see Paul. One of the scenarios are that Onesimus was a runaway slave after stealing from his owner (Longenecker, 214). Another scenario suggests that Onesimus was an aggrieved slave who looked for Paul in Rome because Paul was a friend of Philemon. This opinion holds that Onesimus wanted Paul to mediate the conflict between him and his master; a common friend between them (Longenecker, 214). With both scenarios, Paul is believed to be in chains in Rome (Longenecker, 214).

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  2. The book of Philemon has always had a place on my heart. I always found it so interesting that slavery was addressed in this manner. Like it states in Longnecker, “slave of Philemon who became a Jesus-follower through Paul’s influence.” Onesimus, when he ran away, found Paul. Paul lead him to know Christ and I believe that gave Paul a soft spot for Onesimus. He saw him as an equal, bonded by their love for Christ and became family through that. Paul became an advocate for Onesimus. I think that it is a cool testimony for Paul, that he was able to set aside the norms of slavery in that time and treat Onesimus as an equal and friend. It took bravery for Paul to stand up to his friend to help out a slave in that time frame. I have a lot of respect for Paul through the passage of Philemon.

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    • I understand that the Philemon was a slave owner and Omesmus was a former slave of his. They both eventually are led to Christ by Paul. I get why this part of it is interesting. ‘Paul helps both of them and this is unquie because of the context and time frame. I also was not asware that we would later see omesimus as important in Pauls ministry as mentioned above, but I think that that sends a certain pattern within Paul’s ministry. He is always described as being part of the urban church if you will, because he doesn’t have a boundary of who he will help. In reading and really understanding Philemon, I don’t understand what the correlation between Paul talking to a slave and bravery as suggested by many. Why wouldn’t they be equal? Why would it be a big deal for Paul to talk to a slave and meet him as his equal? We are all made in the image of God, so why would he be treated any differently by Paul? If Paul is an urban leader and Christ follower, then wouldn’t he talk to anyone, no matter what walk of life, as his testimony suggests?

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  3. At first really reading I was confused on how could someone hide out the rest of their life in Rome, but then when I compared it to New York city for example it would be really easy to hide out there for a good long time. When it comes to Paul’s and Onesimus’ meeting it is truly in the hands of God, it seems that God had placed everyone perfectly where he needed them to be. I think that it is correct in saying that Onesimus also wanted to search out Paul to help dispute things with his master “In response, Onesimus sought out Paul, a friend of his master whose whereabouts he knew or discovered would mediate the conflict”(TTP, 214). From this we get that Onesimus wanted Paul’s help to reconcile things with his master. And in the midst of things Onesimus actually converts to Christianity.

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  4. After reading through Philemon I feel that it is most fitting that Onesimus is trying gain grace from Philemon and is hoping that a letter from Paul will help in that. “Perhaps his master was not treating him fairly “in Christ” and he wanted Paul to adjudicate their dispute” (P. Long). It sees that throughout Philemon the common theme is Onesimus wanting Philemon to take him back no matter the context in which it happens. The start is by Paul greeting Philemon then moving into how much love Philemon has. These seem to act as a buffer for the real conversation that is about to be had. Philemon 1:16 states, “no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother – especially to me, but how much more to you both in the flesh and in the Lord”. I took this a beg for forgiveness over them being actually brothers as we are all brothers and sisters in Christ. We have all had times that we have felt nervous or uneasy about asking someone for forgiveness and wanted to have someone else there to help us express our feelings. We all need to see one another as equals. Rather than seeing some as below us and above us. If Paul a well known follower of Christ can see “a slave” as an equal why then can we not do the same?

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  5. After reading through the book of Philemon, the first theory seems to be the most sound. It definitely gives off the feel as though Onesimus has wronged Philemon in some way. “that I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.” (Philemon 1:10-11). I read this and see Onesimus as a burden on Philemon, a disgruntled and stubborn slave who has been no help. WE also know that Philemon, as a member of the church of Colossae heard Paul’s words when he wrote “Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven.” (Colossians 4:1). It would not be unrealistic to come to the conclusion that Onesimus had also heard these words and, feeling mistreated, sought aid from Paul on the matter.

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  6. According to TTP, “Paul then composes a letter on behalf of ‘his son’ before reluctantly sending him back to Philemon” (TTP 214). Paul and Onesimus formed a relationship, so of course, Paul had good things to say about Onesimus. Would Paul’s judgement about Onesimus changed based off of his status? Paul was also trying to impress Philemon and get on his good side. TTP says, “Paul continues his subtle, skillful communication to Philemon in vv. 4-7 by reporting his thanksgiving to God for Philemon” (TTP 216).

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  7. These are some really great possibilities to explain the letter. It does seem hard to believe that Onesimus would “get lost” and some how wind up running into Paul who happens to be good friends with his master. However, when we read Philemon we can see in versus 12 -14 where Paul mentions sending him back because he did not want to keep him without Philemon’s consent. If Philemon had originally sent Onesimus to Paul why would Paul be asking for permission to have him to help ministry? This unlikely scenario that led Onesimus to Paul at random was more certainly orchestrated by Go, working all things together for His will.

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  8. Philemon baffled me for quite sometime because I didn’t understand the meaning of it. We see Paul advocating for a saved slave — which is good. Paul exhibits a lot of compassion for people, even as slaves. But from a modern state of mind, there’s a strange reality to accept here; that somehow, a theological hero is encouraging a slave to go back to his owner/master? Not much rings as right in a moral compass if someone’s advocating for slavery to be held as acceptable. There’s a different perspective here, though. There is reluctance, as Longenecker points out, accompanied with this love that Paul has for his saved brother that he is sending back. As I grow and comprehend more, I understand that there’s no condoning the idea of slavery, but instead going out of your way to right a situation, even if it’s not ideal. In any case, out of all of Paul’s letters, I think Philemon gets overlooked — after all, it barely covers a page!

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  9. I remember reading Philemon for the first time and really studying it more in my senior year of High school. Before that, all I knew about the book was that it is very short! The story behind Philemon is very interesting and looking at the different viewpoints is very interesting as well. What we talked about in class today about Paul’s view on slavery was interesting regarding Philemon in that slavery was not a huge issue back in the first century. There were bigger fish to fry, such as doing away with your unwanted daughters or male “mentoring” (aka NOT really mentoring). Being a slave was not the worst position someone could be in during the first century. However, Paul still wrote to Philemon regarding his slave to encourage a better relationship with him as his slave, not necessarily urging him to free him. By Paul writing this very specific letter, I think it is very heart warming in that it shows how much Paul cared about Osemius. He even calls him his son in the letter. Paul usually writes to churches, not to specific people or a specific person for this matter. Yet, he cares a lot about this new family member in Christ.

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  10. Part of my favorite thing about this book is the mystery of it. There is no clear cut answer (like many other stories) and it creates some good dialogue especially when there are so many different theories to consider. The relationship between these three men is worth investigating as you read the story. Obviously Onesimus and Philemon has some sort of falling out in order for Paul to get involved. What is interesting to me is the way that Paul and Onesimus start to interact. There is no time frame as far as how long these 2 have been hanging out but obviously in this time, Paul has gotten attached. “Just as Paul labored to give birth to Onesius, he labored to let him go.” (TTP, 217) He is his spiritual father so you can see why this would be difficult for Paul to let him go but it is also interesting if you remember that Paul is the spiritual father to Philemon as well. All of these things start to stack up as you get more and more context which just creates more layers that are up for debate. This is an exciting and interesting story that can be looked at from a new angle almost every time.

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  11. One part of the story of Philemon that intrigues me is the change that takes place in the life of Onesimus after he is converted. While this may not fit with the theory that Onesimus was an upstanding slave who sought Paul’s help when he was not being treated as another “in Christ,” it does fit with all the other proposed theories. Whether Onesimus went to Rome to get lost, was a brother of Philemon, or was actually the slave of Archippus, he still experiences a character change from before his conversion to after he accepts Christ as Savior. In verse 11, Paul exclaims that Onesimus has become very useful to him, and he would appreciate it if Philemon returned him to Paul. Longenecker explains that this is actually a pun, as “in the past, Paul concedes, Onesimus did not live up to the meaning of his name” (217) Onesimus meant useful, and now he truly lived up to his name. This goes to show that when the Lord gets ahold of one’s life, fruit begins to appear that was not present before in that person’s life.

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  12. My view of how Paul and Onesimus found each other is the idea that runaway slaves were not easily tolerated in the Empire. Slavery was an important economic reality and not many years prior a large slave revolt rocked all of Italy. Lets remember this was not racial slavery like the American type of the Nineteenth Century.
    Paul was probably already imprisoned when Onesimus got caught. Many factors could betray his status whether a distinctive slave mark or he might not have known how to act correctly in the stratified society of Rome.
    They no doubt recognized each other in prison and Paul may have intervened through his Roman friends to pay Onesimus fine or fee and so send him back to Philemon as a convert. Paul’s criminal case was probably more severe and had more opponents against him judging by other episodes such as Thessaloniki, but he expected release shortly also.

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