The Epistle to Philemon is a book of the Bible in the New Testament.
Philemon is now generally regarded as one of the undisputed works of Paul, although it was questioned in the past by F.C. Baur. It is the shortest of Paul's extant letters, consisting of only 25 verses.
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. (If the letter to the Colossians is authentic, then Philemon must live in Colossae.) 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 seeking 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 this 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 centaury. But Onesimus was not an uncommon slave name, so to identify the bishop with Philemon's slave is entirely speculative.
Philemon has been of only marginal interest in Christian theology and ethics. 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 scolarship has tended to assume that either Paul did undermine slavery in this letter, or that he would have, had circumstances permitted.
J.M.G. Barclay Colossians and and Philemon Sheffield Accademic Press 1997
N.T. Wright Colossians and Philemon Tyndale IVP 1986
Online translations of the Epistle to Philemon:
Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04