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The Epistle of Paul to Philemon, known simply as Philemon, is one of the books of the Christian New Testament. It is a prison letter, co-authored by Paul the Apostle with Timothy, to Philemon, a leader in the Colossian church. It deals with the themes of forgiveness and reconciliation. Paul does not identify himself as an apostle with authority, but as "a prisoner of Jesus Christ", calling Timothy "our brother", and addressing Philemon as "fellowlabourer" and "brother". Onesimus, a slave that had departed from his master Philemon, was returning with this epistle wherein Paul beseeched Philemon to receive him as a "brother beloved".
Philemon was a wealthy Christian (possibly a bishop) of the house church that met in his home (Philemon 1:1–2) in Colosse. This letter is now generally regarded as one of the undisputed works of Paul. It is the shortest of Paul's extant letters, consisting of only 445 words and 25 verses in the Bible.
Paul, who was then a prisoner (in either Rome or Ephesus) and Timothy, wrote to a fellow saint named Philemon and two of his associates: a woman named Apphia, sometimes assumed to be his wife, and a fellow worker named Archippus, who is assumed by some to have been Philemon's son and who also appears to have had special standing in the church that met in Philemon's house (see Colossians 4:17). Since Onesimus was one of the Colossians (see Col.4:9 quote below), it can be assumed, though not expressly stated, that Philemon lived in Colossae. It is supposed that he was wealthy by the standards of the early church and this is explained by noting his house was large enough to accommodate the church that met in his house. Paul wrote on behalf of Onesimus, a former slave of Philemon who had left him. Beyond that, it is not self-evident what has transpired. Onesimus is described as having "departed" from Philemon, once having been "useless" to him (a pun on Onesimus's name, which means "useful"), and having done him wrong.
The modern scholarly consensus is that Onesimus was a runaway slave who became a Christian believer. Paul sent him back to face his aggrieved master, and sought in this letter to effect reconciliation between these two Christians. What is problematic is how Onesimus came to be with Paul. Various suggestions have been given: Onesimus being imprisoned with Paul; Onesimus being brought to Paul by others; Onesimus coming to Paul by chance (or in the Christian view, by divine providence); or Onesimus deliberately seeking Paul out, as a friend of his master's, in order to be reconciled.
However, Onesimus' status as a runaway slave was challenged by Allen Dwight Callahan in an article published in the Harvard Theological Review. In this article Callahan notes that the weight of proving Onesimus' servile identity falls on verse 16; beyond this "nothing in the text conclusively indicates that Onesimus was ever the chattel of the letter's chief addressee. Moreover, the expectations fostered by the traditional fugitive slave hypothesis go unrealized in the letter. Modern commentators, even those committed to the prevailing interpretation, have tacitly admitted as much." Callahan points out that the earliest commentators on this work – the homily of Origen and the Anti-Marcion Preface – are silent about Onesimus' possible servile status, and traces the origins of this interpretation to its first documented advocate, John Chrysostom, who proposed it in his Homiliae in epistolam ad Philemonem, during his ministry in Antioch, circa 386–398. In place of the traditional interpretation, Callahan suggests that Onesimus and Philemon are brothers both by blood and religion, but who have become estranged, and the intent of this letter was to reconcile the two men.
The only extant information about Onesimus apart from this letter is found in Paul's epistle to the Colossians 4:7–9, where Onesimus is called "a faithful and beloved brother":
All my state shall Tychicus declare unto you, who is a beloved brother, and a faithful minister and fellowservant in the Lord: 8 Whom I have sent unto you for the same purpose, that he might know your estate, and comfort your hearts; 9 With Onesimus, a faithful and beloved brother, who is one of you. They shall make known unto you all things which are done here.
Paul's tactful address to Philemon was labelled "holy flattery" by Martin Luther. He saw a parallel between Paul and Christ in their work of reconciliation, which is also contained within the concept of Christian grace. Still, Luther insisted that the letter upheld the social status quo: though not explicit, the text could be interpreted to indicate that Paul did nothing to change Onesimus's legal position as a servant and that Paul was complying with Roman law in returning him to Philemon. However, the text could also be interpreted as indicating that Paul was demanding the legal freedom of Onesimus and, as an act of both trust and reconciliation, holding Philemon accountable in the higher court of God to accomplish this change himself.
Diarmaid MacCulloch, in his A History of Christianity, described the epistle as "a Christian foundation document in the justification of slavery". Due to its ambiguity, the letter was a cause of debate during the British and later American struggles over the abolition of slavery. Both sides cited Philemon for support.
Epistle to Philemon
Books of the Bible