Philemon: Quick Summary of the Book of Philemon


Written by Joshua Schachterle, Ph.D

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Date written: June 27th, 2024

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily match my own. - Dr. Bart D. Ehrman

Within the collection of Pauline epistles, the Epistle to Philemon stands out. Its brevity, single addressee, and specific occasion make it unusual among Paul’s authentic letters. Despite its conciseness, however, scholars have long debated the circumstances and intent of its composition.

In this article, I’ll address these uncertainties while explaining the context in terms of ancient Roman slavery and prisons. In addition, I’ll investigate why this letter is so different from other Pauline letters, and share Paul’s views on slavery.

Philemon

How Is Philemon Unique?

Although the book of Philemon is among the undisputed letters of Paul, it is unusual compared to Paul’s other epistles in a couple of ways. First, it is the shortest of all Paul’s letters, with the Greek text coming in at only 335 words. This makes it the third shortest book in the entire Bible (the shortest is 3 John, at 219 words and the second is 2 John, at 245 words).

Although according to Eric Huntsman, the average length of letters in the ancient Mediterranean world was less than 100 words, 335 words is extremely short for a Pauline letter. To illustrate this, 1 Corinthians and Romans are each over 9,000 words.

Second, while the rest of Paul’s undisputed letters are addressed to communities (Galatians, Romans, etc.), Philemon is addressed to one person – sort of. In fact, Philemon is the principal addressee of the letter, but in his greeting, Paul includes a woman named Apphia – probably Philemon’s wife – and a man named Archippus, as well as the church hosted in Philemon’s house.

Who is Philemon? We don’t know much about him. He was clearly a Christian who Paul had converted. He must have been fairly wealthy since he had a house with enough space for church gatherings, and we know he owned at least one slave. That’s about the extent of our knowledge of him.

That said, the rest of the letter seems to be speaking to Philemon alone. We know this because any time Paul uses the pronoun “you” after the greeting, it is in the singular rather than the plural form. He’s talking to one guy.

Finally, while all Paul’s letters are written to address specific questions and/or problems, most of them deal with these issues using highly theological language. Philemon, while it does assume Paul’s commitment to Christ, never veers into theology at all.

Having understood the unique features of Philemon, let’s look at the letter’s general content.

Author

The Apostle Paul

Dating

Either mid-50s CE or 63-64 CE (depending on where it was written).

Audience

Primarily Philemon, although Apphia, and Archippus are greeted as well.

Theme

Paul writes to reconcile Philemon with his former slave Onesimus.

Key Verse

Philemon 1:15-16: “Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back for the long term, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.”

Summary of Philemon

Since Paul doesn’t say where he is imprisoned, there are a couple of possible dates for the letter’s composition. If he is in Rome, the date is around 63-64 CE, not long before Paul’s death. If, instead, he’s writing from a prison in Ephesus, as many scholars believe, it was written in the mid 50s CE.

Verses 1-3 start us off, as most ancient letters did, with a formal greeting. The letter begins by saying that it is from Paul, specified as “a prisoner of Christ,” but also on behalf of Timothy, whom Paul calls “our brother.” When Paul says he is a prisoner of Christ, he simply means that he is in prison due to his activities for Christ.

Timothy was a missionary partner of Paul’s who traveled with him to several places (as noted in the openings of other Pauline epistles, such as Philippians and 2 Corinthians). He was probably imprisoned with Paul as well.

As I said above, Paul addresses his letter to Philemon, Apphia, and Archippus, but when he addresses “the church in your house,” the “your” is singular, indicating that the letter’s message is meant solely for Philemon.

Next, in verses 4-7 Paul says that he is thankful for Philemon’s love and faith. He says that he mentions Philemon in his prayers and that Philemon’s faithfulness has given him joy.

The body of the letter consists of verses 8-22. Here, Paul finally addresses the real occasion for writing to Philemon. He starts out by saying that, although he is bold (or outspoken) enough to command Philemon to do what is right, he prefers to gently ask this of Philemon in love.

Paul then speaks on behalf of a man named Onesimus, whom he says has become a kind of spiritual son to him. This may mean that Onesimus simply sought out Paul in prison or even that Onesimus himself is imprisoned. It’s already clear, however, that Philemon knows Onesimus, because in the next sentence, Paul says “Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.” This is actually a bit of wordplay in Greek: “Onesimus” means “useful.”

Who was Onesimus in the Bible? He may have been a runaway slave belonging to Philemon. Paul says that, although he’d like to keep Onesimus with him, he’s instead sending him back to Philemon. He asks that Philemon receive Onesimus “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother.” This is an unusual demand in the ancient world, which I’ll discuss further later.

Paul then says that if Onesimus has wronged Philemon in any way or owes him anything, that Paul himself will repay it. Just to ensure Philemon’s compliance, Paul says he knows Philemon will obey his request since he owes Paul (presumably for teaching him about Christ).

Finally, Paul says Philemon should prepare a guest room since he hopes to visit him soon. The letter then ends with additional greetings from other missionaries who are either imprisoned with Paul (Epaphras) or helping him while he is in prison (Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke).

Now let’s look at some detailed interpretation of this book, short as it is.

Interpretation of the Book of Philemon

Although this authentic letter of Paul is short and to the point, scholars point out that readers throughout Christian history have assumed many things about it which are not as certain as they might seem. For example, it’s often assumed that Onesimus is a runaway slave, but as Barbara Geller notes in the Jewish Annotated New Testament, this is not entirely clear.

Perhaps, Geller suggests, Onesimus had simply sought out Paul, as Philemon’s friend, to act as a mediator between him and his master. Or, perhaps Philemon had sent Onesimus to Paul in prison to help him by bringing supplies. Given the actual words of the text, either of these is equally possible. To appreciate why Philemon might have sent Onesimus to Paul, it’s important to understand the Roman penal system.

In Penal Practice and Penal Policy in Ancient Rome, O.F. Robinson writes that Roman prisons were filthy, badly ventilated, and subterranean. Furthermore, the authorities provided no food or other necessities to prisoners, leaving that up to friends and families of the accused. It would make sense, then, that Philemon, hearing of Paul’s imprisonment, might have sent his slave to take care of Paul. On the other hand, it makes equal sense that Onesimus could have appealed to Paul for help, since Paul seems to have already had friends helping him, whom he names at the end of the letter.

Because we don’t fully know the circumstances which brought Onesimus to Paul, we can’t entirely know Paul’s intent in writing the letter, as Geller points out. Does he want to keep Onesimus to serve him, as he seems to imply in verses 13-14? Alternatively, is he appealing to Philemon to welcome his returned slave with forgiveness, as verses 17-18 suggest? Is he actually suggesting that Philemon free Onesimus from slavery altogether since he is now a Christian (verses 16 and 21)?

Despite centuries of assumptions and interpretation, all of these alternatives are possible but none are certain. In fact, Geller notes that another possibility is that Paul is simply applying pressure, not only to Philemon but also to his house church, to always love and forgive each other. But how did Paul feel about slavery?

In Galatians 3:28, Paul wrote that “there is neither slave nor free” in Christ. And yet, he never called for the abolition of slavery in any of his letters. For free citizens of Rome, slavery was such a common institution that they barely noticed it (of course slaves didn’t feel this way, and there are extensive records of slave rebellions). However, the treatment of slaves was left almost entirely to the master’s discretion.

On the one hand, masters could free their slaves and those freedmen, as they were called, could become Roman citizens. On the other hand, slaves, as the legal property of their owners, could be mistreated at will.

According to M.I. Finley in his book Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology, recaptured runaway slaves were punished harshly, sometimes even put to death. If Onesimus had indeed run away from Philemon, Philemon had every legal right to punish him. Perhaps this explains Paul’s advocacy for Onesimus — a plea for mercy.

In addition, Geller notes that since Paul seems to think Onesimus owes something which Paul offers to pay, Onesimus may have either stolen money from Philemon or merely deprived him of the value of his service in economic terms. Either way, Paul seems to be trying to placate Philemon so that Onesimus will be forgiven rather than punished.

Onesimus in the Bible

Conclusion

While undoubtedly written by Paul, the Epistle to Philemon is unusual in several ways. It’s not nearly as concerned, for instance, with theology. While all Paul’s letters are occasional, most use theological language to address the concerns of particular groups. Not so with Philemon.

Perhaps because of this, the letter is also incredibly short (for Paul, at least). At a mere 335 letters in its original Greek, the letter is Paul’s shortest. It’s still far longer than the average letter in Paul’s time, but for the notoriously wordy Paul, it’s remarkably succinct.

In addition, while the letter greets Philemon, Apphia, Archippus, and the whole community that meets in Philemon’s house, the rest of the letter addresses just Philemon, as evidenced by the use of the singular “you”. All the other undisputed letters of Paul, on the other hand, are written to whole communities. Letters such as Titus and 1 and 2 Timothy are addressed to individuals in Paul’s name, but the vast majority of scholars, such as Bart Ehrman, believe that these were not written by Paul, but simply forged in his name.

While the letter to Philemon is often assumed to be about a runaway slave named Onesimus, scholars are not entirely sure that’s the case. Yes, Onesimus was somehow with Paul, either imprisoned with him or simply visiting him in prison. And yes, Onesimus was Philemon’s slave. But the actual circumstances that brought Paul and Onesimus together are unclear.

Why did Paul write the letter? One possibility is that Paul wanted Philemon’s permission to keep Onesimus for his own service. On the other hand, perhaps Onesimus had run away and, in doing so, had wronged Philemon by stealing from him. This is suggested by Paul who says that if Onesimus owes Philemon anything, he – Paul – will pay Philemon back.

While Paul says in several letters that in Christ slaves and free people are equal, he never calls for the abolition of slavery. However, his request for Philemon to take Onesimus back as “more than a slave, a beloved brother” hints at the possibility that he thinks Onesimus should be freed.

Josh Schachterle

About the author

After a long career teaching high school English, Joshua Schachterle completed his PhD in New Testament and Early Christianity in 2019. He is the author of "John Cassian and the Creation of Monastic Subjectivity." When not researching, Joshua enjoys reading, composing/playing music, and spending time with his wife and two college-aged children.

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