The Epistle to Philemon

W. C. Van Manen

"Philemon, Epistle To," in Encyclopaedia Biblica (New York: Macmillan, 4 Vols., 1899-1903), Vol. 4, 3693-3696. In the following text EB page numbers appear in brackets.

1. History

PHILEMON, EPISTLE TO (pros filêmona; so Tish. WH with Aleph A and other MSS, but fuller superscriptions also occur mainly to indicate that the Epistle was written by the apostle Paul and at Rome) is the name of a short composition which has come down to us from antiquity as the thirteenth in the NT collection of "Epistles of Paul." Tertullian (AM 5.21) is the first who expressly mentions the writing as included by Marcion among the ten epistles of Paul accepted by him, adding the remark that this was the only epistle whose brevity availed to protect it against the falsifying hands of the heretic (soli huic epistolae brevitas sua profuit ut falsarias manus Marcionis evaderet). It retained its position undisturbed, although now and then (as, for example, by Jerome) its right to do so had to be vindicated against some (plerique ex veteribus) who thought the honour too great for an epistle having no doctrinal importance. Others did not fail to praise this commendatory letter of the apostle on behalf of a runaway slave 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.

F. C. Baur was the first (Pastoralbriefe, 1835; Paulus, 1845) who found himself led by his one-sided preoccupation with the four "principal epistles" to raise difficulties with regard to the Epistle to Philemon. Its close relationship to Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, especially the last-named, which he found himself unable to attribute to Paul, was too much for him, although in this case his "tendency-criticism" failed him. The considerations he urged in addition were certain hapox legomena, the romantic colour of the narrative, the small probability of the occurrence, some plays upon words and the perhaps symbolical character of Onesimus — points which, all of them, can be seen set forth in detail Paulus2, Vol 2, 88-94.

Thorough-going disciples of the Tiibingen school followed in the footsteps of their leader although with occasional modifications in detail. Rovers (Nieuw Testamentische letterkunde, 1888) saw in the epistle a concrete illustration of what is laid down in Colossians as to the relation between masters and slaves. Pfleiderer (Paulinismus, 1890, 42f), although impressed by the simplicity and naturalness of motive of Philemon, could not get over its agreement with Colossians, and, taking refuge in the consideration that Onesimus seemed to betray an allegorical character, ended by regarding [3694] the epistle as a symbolical illustration of the relation between Christian slaves and their masters as set forth in Col 3:22-4:1. Similarly, Weizsäker (Apos. Zeitalter, 1892, 545) who found himself compelled in view of Colossians to regard Philemon "as an illustrative example of a new doctrine bearing on the Christian life, the allegorical character of which is already shown by the very name of Onesimus."

Those who did not adopt the Tübingen position in its entirety, but endeavoured to rescue at least some of the "minor" Pauline epistles — such critics as Hilgenfeld and S. Davidson — either argued for the genuineness or sought a way out of the difficulty of maintaining its genuineness as a whole by a hypothesis of interpolations. So Holtzmann, ZWT, 1873, 428-41 (with regard to vv 4-6, controverted by Steck, JPT, 1891, 570-584), and W. Brückner, Chron. Reihenfolge, 1890, 200-3 (as regards vv 5f., controverted by Haupt, Komm., 1897, 10).

The conservative school carried on its opposition to Baur and his followers with greater or less thoroughness in various introductions and commentaries, the most recent being that of M. R. Vincent (Comm., 1897, 160) who, after briefly summing up the objections, proceeds: "It is needless to waste time over these. They are mostly fancies. The external testimony and the general consensus of critics of nearly all schools are corroborated by the thoroughly Pauline style and diction and by the exhibition of those personal traits with which the greater epistles have made us familiar." So also Zahn (Einleitung, 1900, Vol 1, 322), with the usual pathos, and adding a couple of notes, observes: "That this epistle also, with its fullness of material which could not have been invented (note 7), should without any support for tradition and without any adequate reason whatever having been suggested for its invention, have been declared to be spurious, does not deserve more than a passing mention (note 8)."

On the other hand, the criticism which refused to accept as an axiom the doctrine of the four "principal epistles" of Paul (see EB, PAUL, §§ 30, 32, 34; = "The Pauline Writings" on this site) did not make itself much heard. Bruno Bauer was quite silent, and its other representatives contented themselves, as a rule, with the declaration — sometimes more, sometimes less, fully elaborated — that we do not possess any epistles of Paul at all.  R. Steck wrote the treatise already referred to (JPT, 1891) in which he concentrated attention upon the double character of the epistle, as a private letter and as a writing apparently intended for the Pauline church; repeated some of the objections of Baur and others; maintained that the ultimate design of the author was to "present vividly" the apostle's attitude to the slavery question, as seen in 1 Cor 7:21f.; and took special pains to emphasize the view that the unknown writer had made use, in his composition, of a correspondence between Pliny and Sabinianus preserved in the Epistles of Pliny (9.21-24) to which Grotius had long ago called attention (see below, § 4). Van Manen (Handleidung) devoted two sections to a statement of his views as to Philemon.

2. Contents.

Paul a prisoner of Christ Jesus and brother Timothy, so we learn from the epistle, address themselves with words of blessing to the persons named (vv 1, 2a, 3), or otherwise Paul alone does so to Philemon (2b). Next Paul goes on to say to Philemon that he thanks God always for his well-known love and his exemplary faith (vv 4-7), upon which he, as Paul presbutês (the aged) and a prisoner of Christ Jesus, beseeches him to receive his son Onesimus, whom he sends to him, though he would willingly have kept him beside himself, as a beloved brother (vv 8-16). Whatsoever expenses may have been incurred the apostle promises to defray (vv 17-20). He might enjoin; but he trusts to the goodwill of Philemon of whose hospitality he hopes ere long to be able to partake (vv 21-22a) through the mediating prayers of all of them (dia tôn proseuchôn humôn, 22b). Next he conveys to him the greetings of Epaphras, his fellow-prisoner in Christ Jesus, and of Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, Luke, his fellow-workers (vv 23, 24), and the epistle closes with a word of blessing upon all (v 25).

On the assumption of the correctness of the received tradition regarding the canonical epistles of Paul, and of the identity of the Onesimus of Phlm 10 with the person named in Col 4:9, the statement usually met with is that Onesimus, a runaway slave, christianised by Paul and sent back by the apostle to his master with our present "letter to Philemon," originally belonged to Colossæ, where also lived his master Philemon, a man of wealth inasmuch as he owned a slave (!), who, either from Ephesus or perhaps at Ephesus itself (for we cannot be certain that the apostle ever visited Colossæ), had been converted by Paul.

Any one, however, who will allow the epistle to tell its own story must receive from it a somewhat different impression [3695]. There is in it no information as to who Philemon was — he is mentioned in the NT nowhere else and is known only by later tradition — nor as to where he was living when Paul, according to Phlm 10-20 sent back to him his former slave Onesimus, after he had christianised him and so made him a brother of the master who could be spoken of as a beloved fellow-worker of Paul and Timothy, owing his conversion to Christianity to the former (vv 1, 19). The reader is not further advanced in his knowledge when Philemon is named by the tradition of a later age as a presbyter, a bishop, a deacon, or even an apostle, and Onesimus is reputed to have been bishop of Ephesus. For the unpreoccupied reader this little document of ancient Christianity represents itself in various lights, now as a letter written by Paul and Timothy to Philemon, Apphia, Archippus, and a domestic church (vv 1, 2a, 3, 22b, 25), now as written by Paul alone to Philemon (vv 2b, 4-22a, 23, 24). Sister Apphia and Archippus, the fellowsoldier of Paul and Timothy according to v 2, are nowhere else met with in the NT, unless Archippus be, as many suppose, identical with the person named in Col 4:17 — which may or may not be the case. That Apphia and Archippus should be respectively the wife and the son of Philemon, as many are ready to assume, is a gratuitous supposition which has no solid ground, and has against it the strangeness of the collocation "Apphia the sister, Archippus our fellow soldier and the church in the house that is yours, Philemon (sou).

3. Composition.

There is a surprising mixture of singular and plural both in the persons speaking and in the persons addressed. This double form points at once to some peculiarity in the composition of the epistle. It is not a style that is natural to any one who is writing freely and untrammelled, whether to one person or to many. Here, as throughout the discussion, the constantly recurring questions as to the reason for the selection of the forms, words, expressions adopted find their answer in the observation that the epistle was written under the influence of a perusal of "Pauline" epistles, especially of those to the Ephesians and the Colossians. Take the examples in which one or more persons near Paul are named as the writers:

Col 1:1 as Phlm 1 "Brother Timothy." Again, why does Paul call himself in Phlm 9 desmios Christou Iêsou, and not as elsewhere doulos or apostolos? The answer is found in Eph 3:1; 4:1. What is meant by the inclusion of other names besides that of Philemon among the addressees? For an answer see 1 Cor 1:2; 2 Cor 1:1.  Archippus comes from Col 4:17 — The epithets sunergos and sunstratiôtês from Phil 2:25 — The "church which in the house of" from Cor 4:15 — The prayer in v 3 from Rom 1:7; 1 Cor 1:3; 2 Cor 1:2; Gal 1:3; Eph 1:2; or Phil 1:2 — The thanksgiving and commemoration of v 4 from Rom 1:8, 9; 1 Cor 1:4 Eph 1:16, 5:20; Phil 1:3; Col 1:3. The continual hearing of Philemon's love and faith towards all the saints (v 5) comes from Eph 1:15; Col 1:4 — The expression hon egennêsa (v 10) from 1 Cor 4:15; cf. Gal 4:19.  The sending of' Onesimus in vv 10f. comes from Col 4:8 or Eph 6:21f., although in these passages it is Tychicus, a free man — The phrase pros hôran of v 15 from 2 Cor 7:8; Gal 2:5 — The "brother beloved" and "servant of the Lord" of v 16 from Col 4:7, 9 — The "reckoning" of v 18 from Phil 4:15 — The "I Paul" in v 19 from Gal 5:2, Eph 3:1 — The phrase "with my hand" from 1 Cor 16:21, Gal 6:11, Col 4:18 — The names in vv 23f from Col 1:7, 4:10, 12, 14, although now Epaphras takes the place of Aristarchus, "the fellow-prisoner," as Onesimus a slave takes the place of the free man, the "brother beloved," in Col 4:9. The final benediction comes from Phil 4:23.

4. Authorship

Such phenomena are adverse to the supposition that Paul can have written the epistle. The thing is possible indeed, but certainly not probable. Rather may we say that no one could repeat himself so or allow himself to be restricted to such a degree by the limitations of his own previous writings. Nor can we think of Paul, however often we are told that he did so, as having put a private letter, after the manner here observed, into the form of a church epistle. We need not pause to conjecture what was the relation between him and Philemon, or where the latter had his home — whether in Colossæ, Ephesus, Laodicea, somewhere else in Asia Minor, or perhaps even somewhere beyond its limits; nor yet as to the circumstances and date of his conversion by the apostle, or as to the reason why the runaway slave Onesimus, who as yet was no Christian, should have betaken himself precisely to Paul the prisoner — at Caesarea, shall we say, or at Rome?

The romantic element in the story does not need to be insisted on. It is to be put to the credit of the writer who may very well perhaps have made use of the story which has been so often compared with it (see above; Pliny, Epist. 9.21. 24). A freedman (libertus) of Sabinianus makes his escape and seeks refuge with Pliny, who was known to him as a friend of Sabinianus who also lives in Rome, whereupon Pliny sends him back with a commendatory letter in which he pleads for the runaway from the standpoint of pure humanity. Our unknown author makes the freedman into a slave whom he brings into contact, at an immense distance from his home, with Paul, Philemon's spiritual father, who converts Onesimus also, and thereupon sends him back with a plea for the slave from the standpoint of Christian faith and Christian charity. He has thus presented us with an ideal picture of the relations which, in his judgment, that is according to the view of Pauline Christiains, ought to subsist between Christian slaves and their masters, especially when the slaves have in some respect miscondiicted themselves, as for example by secretly quitting their master's service. One might also add that he thus has given a practical commentary on such texts as Col 3:22-25, Eph 6:5-9, 1 Cor 7:21-22 (see Steck).

The author's name and place remain unknown. He is to be looked for within the circle from which the "epistles of Paul" to the Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians, emanated; nor can Philemon be much later in date. Probably it was written in Syria or, it may be, in Asia Minor about 125-130. In any case, later than Paul's death about 64 CE, and at a time when men had begun to publish letters under his name, when also they had formed the habit of adorning him with titles of honour such as "bondman (desmios) of Christ Jesus,", "aged" (presbutês), "being such an one as Paul. etc." (toioutos ôn hôs Paulos, k.t.l.). The "I Paul" (egô Paulos) implies a name of high authority (vv19, 19), when further the Christology of the church had already so far developed that it was possible to use convertibly the designations Christ, Jesus, Christ Jesus, Jesus Christ, and to speak of him as the fountain of grace and peace as God himself is (vv. 3, 25) and as "the Lord" who is the centre towards whom all the thinking and striving of believers is directed (vv 3, 5-9, 20, 23). On the other hand, it is of course earlier than Tertullian's Marcion.

5. Value.

If the epistle can no longer be regarded as a direct product of Paul's spirit, so full of Christian charity, it nevertheless remains to show by an example what Christianity at the time of its composition had been able to achieve as a guiding and sanctifying force in the case of certain special problems of life, and what the several relations were amongst believers of that time.

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