Epistle to Philemon

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The Epistle to Philemon is the eighteenth book of the New Testament (NT). Consisting of only 25 verses, it is, along with Jude, one of the smallest books of the Bible. It is the only letter that is purely about an individual (specifically a runaway slave) and is the most obviously private of all the correspondence in the NT.[1] The epistle deals with how an individual's behaviour towards others should be based on the way that the individual has been treated by God:

  • to accept as He accepts
  • to forgive as He forgives
  • to show mercy as the individual receives God's mercy
  • to love as God loves

Paul explains that failure to live like this demonstrates one has not understood God's grace, and that one's personal salvation in Christ should be mirrored in one's way of life. Its place in the canon has many times been challenged on the grounds that it has no doctrinal importance, however it has maintained its position within the Pauline epistles due to its being regarded as "a precious gem showing forth Paul's tenderness and love for all his spiritual children, even those who were the least of them if judged by the standard of the world."[2]

Language and author

The epistle was written in koine; "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 St. 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 St. 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."[3] Paul also expressly states that Timothy has assisted with the composition of the letter, which may account for some of the distinctive vocabulary.


The epistle is first mentioned by Tertullian, who concurs with Marcion that it is a genuine work by Paul, and also that its brevity "availed to protect it against the falsifying hands of the heretic."[4] Paul was a prisoner at the time of his writing the Letter to Philemon. In the letter, Paul says that he is sending Onesimus back to Philemon, and, in Colossians 4:9, Onesimus is identified as one who will be travelling to Colossae with Tychicus, suggesting that Paul wrote the letter at the same time that he wrote the Epistle to the Colossians.[5] This dates the writing of the letter to some time between AD 61-63.

To whom written

Paul wrote this letter to a person called Philemon, who appears nowhere else in the Bible. It is regarding another person called Onesimus and, rather than being written as general advice to Christians it is to specifically help an individual, in the sense of a church leader helping to resolve a member's personal situation.

Structure and content

The body of the text concerns Onesimus, who is a slave from Colossae who had run away from his master, possibly committing an act of theft in the process. Onesimus was converted by Paul who then sent him back to his master with the letter asking that he be welcomed willingly, and not just as a slave but as a "brother in Christ" (Philemon 1:16). Paul uses very strong arguments in his appeal and suggests he would like to have Onesimus work with him for the gospel.[6] "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" (Lightfoot, "Colossians and Philemon", London, 1892, 389)."[7] "He does not attack slavery directly, for this is something the Christian communities of the first century were in no position to do, and the expectation that Christ would soon come again militated against social reforms. Yet Paul, by presenting Onesimus as "brother, beloved... to me, but even more so to you", voiced an idea revolutionary in that day and destined to break down worldly barriers of division."[8] Readers today often express shock that Paul never expressly suggests that slavery should be abolished, but Paul in fact does condemn slave trading (along with murder, adultery and lying in 1 Timothy 1:10). However, he was a teacher of the gospel, rather than a champion of social causes, but still attempts to break slavery "from the inside" by changing the relationship and attitudes involved. This is very clear in his urging of Philemon to see Onesimus as a "brother", not as a piece of property, and speaks of Onesimus as "my son"; "who is dear to me". He knew that eventually such a perspective would undermine the foundations of slavery.[9] He also states that if Onesimus stole anything from Philemon during his escape, to charge it against his account (and not Onesimus'). Paul closes with greetings from those who are with him, some of whom are also prisoners like him, and he blesses Philemon. He asks that grace will be in Philemon's life and with these final words, Paul reminds Philemon that just as God has loved him freely, so Philemon must love other people in the same way as God loves him.

See also

Epistle to Philemon (Translated)


  1. Pawson, J. David Unlocking The Bible p.1078 (London, Collins; 2003) ISBN 978 0 00 716666 4
  2. Van Manen, W. C. Epistle to Philemon (1996) Institute for Higher Critical Studies: Drew University, Madison, NJ. Accessed 19 March 2008
  3. "Authenticity" Epistle to Philemon Catholic Encyclopedia. Accessed 19 March 2008
  4. Van Manen, W. C. op cit
  5. Smith, Professor Barry D. The Letter to Philemon Atlantic Baptist University: reprinted in Religious Studies 1023: The New Testament and Its Context.
  6. Introduction to the Book of Philemon New American Bible. Accessed 19 March 2008
  7. "Occasion and purpose" Epistle to Philemon Catholic Encyclopedia. Accessed 19 March 2008
  8. Introduction to the Book of Philemon op cit
  9. Pawson, J. David Unlocking The Bible p.1081 (London, Collins; 2003) ISBN 978 0 00 716666 4

External links