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Bible Commentaries

The Expositor's Greek TestamentExpositor's Greek Testament

- Philemon

by William Robertson Nicoll





§ I. Authorship, Place and Date . The external evidence for the authenticity of this Epistle is sufficiently strong; it is included among the Pauline writings in the collection of Marcion; Tertullian mentions this in his Adv. Marc . v. 42. It is also mentioned, in connexion with the Pastoral Epistles, in the Muratorian Fragment. Origen ascribes it to St. Paul ( Hom. in Matth . xxxiii., xxxiv.); Eusebius reckons it among the ὁμολογούμενα ( H. E . iii. 25); Jerome, in his commentary on the Epistle, mentions the fact that its genuineness was disputed by some because it did not treat of doctrinal matters; he holds that it would not have been received by the Church from the beginning unless it had been St. Paul’s. The fact that it is not mentioned in the sub-apostolic literature cannot excite suspicion, for its shortness and the character of its contents sufficiently account for this non-mention. The internal evidence is equally strong; the Epistle bears the impress of the Pauline spirit throughout; and one has only to compare the vocabulary and style with those of the other Pauline Epistles to be convinced at once that St. Paul wrote it. Very few among modern scholars reject its Pauline authorship; van Manen, for example, finds a difficulty in the “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 many” ( Encycl. Bibl . col. 3695). Such a futile objection is self-condemnatory; but he continues: “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 Colossians” ( ibid. ). That is as much as to say that the fact that a writer is writing in his usual style is presumptive evidence that his style is being imitated by someone else! The minute verbal comparisons which van Manen tabulates between this and the other Pauline (he would write ‘Pauline’) Epistles constitutes a strong proof of identity of authorship between them. Objectors like the writer mentioned are, of course, exceptional; as Jülicher says, “the all but universal judgment is that Philemon belongs to the least doubtful part of the Apostle’s work” ( Intr. to the N. T . p. 127).

The Place of writing and the Date of the Epistle are mutually determining; St. Paul was in prison when he wrote it, therefore the Epistle must have come either from Cæsarea (Acts 24-26), or from Rome (Acts 28:30 ); the time of these two imprisonments was A.D. 58 63; the vast majority of writers are agreed that the group of Epistles to the Philippians, Colossians, Ephesians and to Philemon were written from Rome (see, for the reasons for this view, Lightfoot’s Philippians , pp. 30 ff.); this would narrow the date of our Epistle down to somewhere between A.D. 60 63. As to the question whether Philemon was written early or late within this period, this depends upon the answer to the question as to whether the Epistle to the Philippians should be placed early in the Roman captivity and the three other Epistles later, or vice versa , for it is generally allowed that the Epistle to the Philippians stands alone, the other three were written and despatched at or about the same time. For a full discussion of these questions reference must be made to Lightfoot’s Philippians , pp. 30 46; here it will have to suffice to say that the most probable year for the date of Philemon is A.D. 62.

§ II. Occasion and Contents . Although the Epistle is not the only one of St. Paul’s addressed to an individual which has come down to us, it is the only one of a, mainly, private character; for although in the opening salutation Apphia, Archippus and the Church in Philemon’s house are addressed as well as Philemon himself, nevertheless the contents of the Epistle deal with a personal matter. The nearest parallel in the N.T. Isaiah 3:0 John, addressed to “Gaius the beloved”. The Epistle is an appeal made by St. Paul to Philemon on behalf of the runaway slave, Onesimus. Philemon was a citizen of Colossæ ( cf. Colossians 4:17 , Philemon 1:2 ; Philemon 1:10-12 , and see Colossians 4:9 ); the Word was most likely preached here during the period which St. Paul spent at Ephesus, from which centre his influence extended widely (see Acts 19:26 , 1 Corinthians 16:19 ); Philemon was among the converts made by St. Paul himself (see Philemon 1:19 ), and he evidently became a zealous worker, since St. Paul applies the title συνεργός to him; that he was loving and hospitable is clear from vv. 5 7.

Onesimus, the immediate cause of the Epistle, who had run away from his master, also became a convert of St. Paul’s (ver. 10); from ver. 18 it would almost seem as though he had committed a theft; if so, the reason of his having run away would have been fear of punishment. St. Paul’s influence upon him must have been strong to have induced him to return. The name Onesimus, like Philemon, is Phrygian; for some reason or other Phrygian slaves were regarded with contempt: φρὺξ ἀνὴρ πληγεὶς ἄμεινον καὶ διακονέστερος (mentioned by Vincent as being quoted by Wallon, Hist. de l’esclavage dans l’antiquité , ii. 61, 62). The name was very commonly given to slaves, and appears over and over again on inscriptions as the name of a slave or a freedman.

The letter in which St. Paul intercedes for Onesimus was sent by Tychicus, who was going to Colossæ and Laodicæa with other letters from him to the churches there. Nothing could exceed the affectionate tactfulness displayed in the Epistle; the delicate way in which St. Paul combines the appeal to all that is best in Philemon with a gentle, yet distinct assertion of his own authority (see vv. 8, 9, 21) is very striking. The Epistle is a witness to the high demands which Christianity makes upon men; and the way in which it teaches the universal brotherhood of man together with the eternal truth that one man is better than another or worse and that therefore class distinctions lie within the nature of things; this is another side of its permanent value. The power of the Gospel and the noble character of St. Paul are the two notes sounded throughout; or, as Lightfoot so well expresses it, the special value of the Epistle lies in the fact that “nowhere is the social influence of the Gospel more strikingly exerted, nowhere does the nobility of the Apostle’s character receive a more vivid illustration than in this accidental pleading on behalf of a runaway slave”.

§ III. Slavery, Jewish and Roman . The question of slavery so obviously suggests itself in connexion with this Epistle that a short section on the subject seems called for. It is not enough to refer only to Roman slavery, although Onesimus was a slave and Philemon a master under the Roman régime ; for St. Paul was a Hebrew, and the Hebrew conception of slavery must, therefore, be taken into account as well. “Slavery was practised by the Hebrews under the sanction of the Mosaic law, not less than by the Greeks and Romans. But though the same in name, it was in its actual working” and, we may add, in its whole theory and conception “something wholly different” (Lightfoot, Philemon , p. 319). The Hebrew laws regarding slavery were exceedingly humane, for Hebrew slaves belonged to the Covenant people, for which reason also they were regarded as members of their owner’s family; they therefore had their social, as well as their religious rights. A Hebrew slave could not be kept as such for more than six years at the outside, unless he himself wished it; the laws concerning the redemption of a slave are very explicit. But owing to the conditions of society in ancient times there can be no doubt that a slave was, as a rule, much better off in a servile condition than if he were free; it was for this reason that the Hebrews had a special law laying down the procedure in the case of those who desired to continue bondmen “for ever”. According to Jeremiah 34:8-22 , however, permanent enslavement of Hebrew men and women is strongly denounced as a sin which will bring about national disaster. According to Leviticus 25:45-46 , the Hebrew was permitted to buy Gentile slaves, who became personal property and were inherited by the owner’s children. But the owner’s power over his slaves was strictly limited by the law; if he punished a slave in such a way as to cause permanent bodily injury the slave gained his freedom as compensation; if a master chastised his slave so as to cause his death, he was treated as a murderer. Then, again, according to Hebrew law, a slave who had escaped was not to be delivered up again to his master. St. Paul cannot, of course, be accused of having broken this law in the case of Onesimus, since the latter returned voluntarily; but it is, however, possible that when St. Paul wrote, “For perhaps he was therefore parted from thee for a season, that thou shouldest have him for ever,” he had in mind the law of the slave’s voluntary return to his master in order to remain his “bondman for ever” (Deuteronomy 15:16-17 ), and thought of how that law had been “fulfilled” by the teaching of Christ (see Matthew 5:17 ).

Much ancient traditional matter is contained in Talmudical writings; it is, therefore, interesting to note one or two data in these on the subject of slaves; it is said, for example, that the master of a Hebrew slave (man or woman) must place him on an equality with himself “in meat and drink, in lodging and bed-clothes, and must act towards him in a brotherly manner,” so that a saying is preserved in Kiddushin , 20 a that, “whosoever buys a Hebrew slave buys a master for himself”. Again, the law concerning the escaped slave, referred to above, is in the Talmud construed as applying to one who flees from a place outside the Holy Land into it; but the slave must give the master from whom he has fled a bond for his value; if the master refuses to manumit the slave by deed, the court protects the former bondman in his refusal to serve further ( Gittin , 45 a ). According to Rabbinical teaching a runaway slave who is recaptured must make good the time of his absence; if this is traditional and ancient law, which is very probable, it throws an interesting side-light upon our Epistle; in the first place, it may, in part, have been the reason for St. Paul’s insistence on the return of Onesimus to his master; and in the second place, it may have some bearing on the words in vv. 18, 19 “But if he hath wronged thee at all, or oweth thee aught, put that to mine account; I Paul write it with mine own hand, I will repay it”; these last words are perhaps meant literally, the reference being to manual labour, or the like, which St. Paul was prepared to undertake in order to make up for the time lost by Onesimus, this lost time having presumably occasioned loss to Philemon. For the above see further Exodus 21:2-11 , Leviticus 25:39-54 , Deuteronomy 15:12-18 ; Deuteronomy 23:16-17 (15, 16 R.V.); Hamburger, Real-Encycl. des Judenthums i. p. 947; Jewish Encycl . xi. 404 ff.

These few data are sufficient to show the spirit of mercy and fellow-feeling which characterised Jewish slavery.

Utterly different from this was the Roman system; this is well described in Lighfoot’s Colossians and Philemon , pp. 320 ff., and with great minuteness in Wallon’s Hist. de l’esclavage dans l’antiquité (2nd ed.), which is the chief authority on the subject. For details concerning slavery in the Roman empire recourse must be had to these works; and for a description of the appalling moral effects of the institution upon both masters and slaves, see Vincent’s Commentary , pp. 163 ff. While there were undoubtedly exceptions, cp., e.g. , the letter written by the younger Pliny (Ep. ix. 21), quoted by Lightfoot, op. cit . p. 316, the general rule was that the Roman system was, practically, the antithesis of the Jewish.

St. Paul’s attitude towards slavery must be understood in the light of the Jewish system; this contained within itself the germs of the Christian conception of man, which was bound sooner or later to prove fatal to slavery. “When the Gospel taught that God had made all men and women upon earth of one family; that all alike were His sons and His daughters; that, whatever conventional distinctions human society might set up, the supreme King of Heaven refused to acknowledge any; that the slave, notwithstanding his slavery, was Christ’s freedman, and the free, notwithstanding his liberty, was Christ’s slave; when the Church carried out this principle by admitting the slave to her highest privileges, inviting him to kneel side by side with his master at the same holy table; when, in short, the Apostolic precept that: ‘in Christ Jesus is neither bond nor free’ was not only recognised, but acted upon, then slavery was doomed” (Lightfoot, op. cit . p. 325).

§ IV. Literature :

Lightfoot, Colossians and Philemon , 1884.

Von Soden, “Philemon,” in Holtzmann’s Hand Kommentar , 1891

Vincent, “Philemon,” in the International Critical Commentary , 1897.

The articles on Philemon in Hastings’ Dict. of the Bible and Cheyne’s Encycl. Biblica .

For the abbreviations in the Apparatus Criticus see the Introduction to St. James . The Greek text is that published by Nestle, 1907.

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