Lectionary Calendar
Saturday, June 22nd, 2024
the Week of Proper 6 / Ordinary 11
We are taking food to Ukrainians still living near the front lines. You can help by getting your church involved.
Click to donate today!

Bible Commentaries

Lange's Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Critical, Doctrinal and HomileticalLange's Commentary

- Philemon

by Johann Peter Lange




[N. B.—The parts added to the original work by the Translator and Editor are enclosed in brackets, with his initial attached to them, except where they consist of very brief expressions. It was thought best to change the order of the topics in the following Introduction, for the sake of a stricter method, and also (on account of the peculiar interest of this Epistle) to treat some of the divisions more fully than Dr. Van Oosterzee has done. The writer has transferred to this Commentary the results of some study bestowed on the Epistle, which have already appeared in other publications.—H.]


The Christian Church has with reason assigned a place also to the Epistle to Philemon in the canonical collection of the writings of Paul; and although the last place, yet at the same time the one next to the pastoral Epistles, which contain the last written memorial of the labors of the great Apostle. This letter, indeed, may justly be called “a decided Pastoral, with special reference to the cure of souls” (Lange). Since it relates merely to a private affair, it stands not improperly after all the other Epistles of Paul, which were written with respect to more general, important matters in the different churches. As a contribution, however, to our knowledge of the person and character of Paul, it contains so much that is interesting as well as beautiful, that we may term it a little gem, yet a gem of great value—nay, one of the most precious relics which have come down to us from Christian antiquity.

[In the historical order the letter to Philemon stands properly after that to the Colossians, since these two letters were written at the same time, were sent to the same place, and make mention of the same persons. The continuous commentators, as De Wette, Meyer, Wordsworth, Ellicott, treat of them in this relation to each other.—H.]


The genuineness of this Epistle is amply attested on external grounds. Even in the writings of Ignatius, expressions occur which appear to refer to passages in this letter.1 It is mentioned in Muratori’s canon [which is from the second century], and in that of Tertullian and Eusebius, without the least appearance of any objection. Origen (Hom. XIX. in Jer.) ascribes it expressly to the Apostle Paul. Marcion himself, as Tertullian states (Advs. Marc. V. 42), received it. [Sinope in Pontus, the birthplace of Marcion, was not far from Colossæ, where Philemon lived, and the letter would naturally find its way to the neighboring churches, at an early period. In short, the early testimonies of this nature are so many and decisive, that, as De Wette says (Einleit. in das N. Test., p. 278), its genuineness on that ground is beyond dispute.—H.]

The citations from this Epistle by the early writers are less frequent than from some others; but that is explained simply by the fact, that its contents are so little polemic or didactic. Yet, compare Origen, Opp. tom. 3. pp. 263, 884, 889. There were some, indeed, according to Jerome, who denied the genuineness of the Epistle, but drew that conclusion only from its brevity and simplicity: Aut epistolam non esse Pauli, aut eliam, si Pauli sit, nihil habere quod œdificare nos possit. The manner in which this church father replied to them, shows plainly enough how little importance he conceded to this purely subjective and isolated objection.

[Nor does the Epistle itself offer anything at variance with this external proof of its authorship. It is impossible to conceive of a writing more strongly marked within the same limits by those unstudied assonances of thought, sentiment, and expression, which indicate an author’s hand, than this short Epistle as compared with Paul’s other productions. It contains but ten words which are not found in his other writings.
The words peculiar to this Epistle are the following: συστρατιώτης, Philemon 1:2; ἀνῆκον, ἐπιτάσσειν, Philemon 1:8; πρεσβύτης, Philemon 1:9; ἄχρηστος and εὔχρηστος, Philemon 1:11; ἀποτίω, προσοφείλω, Philemon 1:19; ὀνίνασθαι, Philemon 1:20; ξενία, Philemon 1:22. Baur (see his Paulus, p. 475) founds his only external objection to the Epistle on the absence of these words from Paul’s other letters. But to argue from these that they disprove the apostolic origin of the Epistle, is to assume the absurd principle that a writer, after having produced two or three compositions, must for the future confine himself to an unvarying circle of words, whatever may be the subject which he discusses, or whatever the interval of time between his different writings. Nothing could be more arbitrary than such a rule as applied to a question of authorship. There are no writers in any language, who would not be deprived of their claim to the composition of many portions of their works, universally accredited to them, if the occurrence of some new word, or new turn of expression, not found in other portions, be a sufficient reason for denying their genuineness. Baur is even still more unreasonable. He not only objects, if the Apostle employs new terms, but equally as well if he repeats those which he is accustomed to use else where. He admits that Paul could have said σπλάγχνα twice, but thinks it suspicious that he should say it three times (vers. 7, 12, 20).—Such criticisms only serve to illustrate Baur’s own remark, that in objecting to the genuineness of this letter, one runs a greater risk of being thought hypercritical, of betraying a morbid sensibility to doubt and denial, than in questioning the claims of any other Pauline Epistle.

The letter reflects Paul’s personal characteristics, such as tact, sense of honor, generosity, self-sacrifice, politeness, so well known to us elsewhere.Dr. Howson, in his “Hulsean Lectures” on the Character of St. Paul,2 adduces from this letter some of his most striking illustrations of that unity, peculiar to the Apostle’s character, which he finds portrayed in his various Epistles, and in the Acts. It should be remarked, too, that the historical allusions which the Apostle makes to events in his own life, or to other persons with whom he was connected, harmonize perfectly with the statements or incidental intimations contained in his other Epistles, or in the Acts of the Apostles. An example of this agreement (which Paley has pointed out in his Horœ Paulinœ) will show its relevancy as a source of argument here. We are informed in the Epistle to the Colossians (Colossians 4:9) that Onesimus was a Colossian (ὅς ἐστιν ἐξ ὑμῶν), but learn nothing else respecting him from that letter. This assertion is confirmed in a singular manner by the Epistle to Philemon, though without any mention of Colossæ, or of the place of Philemon’s abode. Philemon and Archippus are saluted together (Phil. vers. 1,2), and hence, as Archippus was an officer in the church at Colossae (Colossians 4:17), Philemon must have been a Colossian, and consequently Onesimus must have been a Colossian, since he appears in the letter to Philemon as one of his servants. “The case then stands thus: Take the Epistle to the Colossians alone, and no circumstance is discoverable which makes out the assertion, that he was ‘one of them’—i. e., was a Colossian. Take the Epistle to Philemon alone, and nothing at all appears concerning the place to which Philemon or his servant Onesimus belonged. For anything that is said in the Epistle, Philemon might hare been a Thessalonian, a Philippian, or an Ephesian, as well as a Colossian. Put the two Epistles together, and the matter is clear. The reader perceives a junction of circumstances, which ascertains the conclusion at once. It is a correspondence which evinces the genuineness of one Epistle as well as of the other. It is like comparing the two parts of a cloven tally. Coincidence proves the authenticity of both.”—H.]

In view of such attestation, the scepticism of the Tübingen school in regard to this part of the apostolic remains may not unjustly be called “a conceit hardly meant in earnest” (Meyer). If the critics of this school appeal to single words and expressions which do not occur in the other Epistles of Paul, we answer simply, that such singularia are found in his other Epistles, and therefore prove nothing respecting its genuineness. If they deny in general that Paul wrote letters during his captivity at Rome, we have only to refer to what has been said on this question in the Introduction to the other Epistles [Ephesians, Colossians, Philippians] which belong to this period; and even though (which we emphatically deny) all the other Epistles assigned to that period were suspicious, it would by no means follow that this one is therefore spurious, especially since the fabrication of such a private letter must be pronounced, in fact, almost inexplicable. And, finally, if they affirm that the entire history of Onesimus appears like a romantic story, originating in a desire to veil a truly Christian idea in an appropriate dress, we but recognize here again the same arbitrary separation of history and symbol, of idea and reality, which, in a certain sense, may be called the πρῶτον ψεῦδος of the Tübingen school. We but hear again the old song: “Too beautiful to be a fact, too ingenious not to be a fiction.” “The history is too rare to be true—Christian faith has answered that. The history is too suggestive to be true—Christian science has answered that. If this letter had been something more ordinary, something less significant, perhaps it would have found favor in the eyes of such critics; and yet, indeed, the opposite is more probable.” Lange, Apost. Zeitalter, 1. p. 134. Profane history itself is not without examples similar to that which gave occasion for the writing of this letter. Compare especially the Epistles of Pliny (Lib. xi. 21, 24), to which Grotius has very properly referred in his Commentary on Philemon 1:10, [See under “Doctrinal and Practical,” at the end of the present Commentary.]

Instead, therefore, of finding in this letter the embryo of an idealized, spiritualized fiction, such as we find more fully developed in the Pseudo-Clementina, we have to do here with nothing beyond the limits of the most sober, historical reality.


The time and place of writing this letter coincide with the date and place of the composition of the Epistles to the Colossians, Philippians, and Ephesians. It is entirely evident that Paul, when he wrote the letter to Philemon, was in prison for the cause of Christ (Philemon 1:1); and the question can only be, whether we are to think of his imprisonment at Cœsarea (Acts 24:27), or his first imprisonment at Rome (Acts 28:30-31). Many reasons concur in leading us to adopt the last-named of these views. At Rome only is it conceivable that he could have had such free scope for the propagation of the gospel as is presupposed and intimated in the Epistles above mentioned. The flight of Onesimus directly to Rome, the capital of the world, where especially he could hope, in the midst of its vast population, to remain concealed and safe, has nothing improbable in it. The expression (Philemon 1:15), that he departed—from his master for a season (πρὸς ὥραν), need not be so urged as to be understood of a definite time, and hence as an argument against the flight of Onesimus to the more distant Rome. [Rome, of course, was geographically more remote from Colossæ than Cæsarea; but in that age of Roman supremacy, the facilities of intercourse would make Rome as near as Cæsarea, and thus Onesimus and Paul could become acquainted with each other as soon in the former city as in the latter.—H.] That other proofs, also, which some think are found in the Epistle itself in favor of Cæsarea, are in the highest degree weak and fanciful, has been conclusively shown by Wiesinger in the Introduction to his Commentary on this Epistle (p. 693).3 At all events, therefore, this Epistle was written some years earlier than the pastoral Epistles, namely, between the years A. D. 58–61: [or, not improbably, two or three years later still. The Apostle, at the close of the letter to Philemon, expresses a hope of his own speedy liberation. He speaks in like manner of his approaching deliverance in his Epistle to the Philippians (Philippians 2:23-24), which was written during the same imprisonment at Rome. Presuming, therefore, that he had good reasons for such an expectation, and that he was not disappointed in the result, we may conclude that this letter was written by him about the year A. D. 63, or early in A. D. 64; for it was in the latter year, according to the best chronologists, that he was freed from his first Roman imprisonment.—H.]

The identity of this Epistle with that to the church at Laodicea (Colossians 4:16), though strenuously maintained by some (Affelmann, Zeltner, Wieseler), is certainly destitute of support. [It is altogether improbable that Paul would address a letter relating to a personal affair to an entire church. It proves nothing that an Archippus is mentioned in the Apostolical Constitutions (vii. 46) as a Laodicean; for the Archippus whom Paul salutes in Philemon 1:2 belonged to Colossæ, and not Laodicea, as is evident from Colossians 4:17. It lies on the face of the passage, that Archippus, to whom the Colossians were to deliver Paul’s message (Colossians 4:17), was one of their own number; and it is merely accidental that the Apostle names him in that place, just after speaking of the church in Laodicea. Wieseler’s inference (chronologie, p. 452), that the Colossians were expected to transmit the message to Laodicea, where Archippus lived, is violent and unnecessary.—H.]


Respecting the persons of Onesimus and Philemon, we know little or nothing except what we learn from this brief letter itself. The former appears (Colossians 4:9) to have been a native of Colossæ. [If not a native, he was certainly a resident there, since Paul, in writing to the church at Colossæ, speaks of him (Colossians 4:9) as one of them, i. e., of the Colossians. This expression confirms the presumption which his Greek name affords, that he was a Gentile, and not a Jew, as some would infer from μάλιστα ἐμοὶ, in Philemon 1:16 (see in loc.) He was originally a slave of Philemon, as Dr. Oosterzee assumes without discussion. The manner in which Paul speaks of the relation between Philemon and Onesimus (ὠς δοῦλον, ὑπὲρ δοῦλον), the coloring of his language so evidently suggested by that relation (ἄχρηστον, εὔχηστον, ἀιώνιον�, ἀποτίσω, προσοφείλεις), and the unvarying tradition on the subject, are all without any adequate explanation, unless we admit that the two men were related to each other as master and slave. On this point not only the ancient commentators, but nearly all of any critical weight among the modern, agree in their decision. In Phrygia, where Onesimus lived, slaves were so numerous that the name itself of Phrygian was almost synonymous with that of slave (see on vers. 18). The instruction which Paul gave to the Colossians respecting the duties of masters and servants to each other (Colossians 3:22-24; Colossians 4:1), bears witness to the same fact.4

As there were believers in Phrygia when the Apostle passed through that region on his third missionary tour (Acts 28:23), and as Onesimus belonged to a Christian household, it is not improbable that he had some knowledge of the Christian doctrine before he went to Rome. But whether this was so or not, it is certain that he did not embrace the Gospel until he met with the Apostle at Rome, and was led by him there to believe in Christ. The language of the Epistle (ὃν ἐγέννησα ἐν τοῖς δεσμοῖς μου, Philemon 1:10) is explicit on this point.

After his conversion, the most happy and friendly relations sprung up between the teacher and the disciple. The situation of the Apostle as a captive, and an indefatigable laborer for the promotion of the gospel (Acts 28:30-31), must have made him keenly alive to the sympathies of Christian friendship, and dependent upon others for various services of a personal nature, important to his efficiency as a minister of the Word. Onesimus appears to have supplied this twofold want in an eminent degree. We see, from the letter, that he won entirely the Apostle’s heart, and made himself so useful to him in various private ways,5 or evinced such a capacity to be so (for he may have gone back to Colossæ quite soon after his conversion), that Paul wished to have him remain constantly with him. His attachment to him as a disciple, as a personal friend, and as a helper to him in his bonds, was such that he yielded him up only in obedience to that spirit of self-denial, and that sensitive regard for the claims or feelings of others, which comport so well with his known characteristics.6—H.]

It can hardly be doubted that Onesimus, after having been commended to Philemon in such terms, was restored to his favor, and was set at liberty. Tradition at least claims to inform us (comp. Canon. Apost. 73, and Constit. Apost. 7. 46), that he was ordained by Paul bishop of the church at Berœa, in Macedonia, and afterward suffered martyrdom at Rome. In the Epistle, also, of Ignatius to the Ephesians (i. 6), a bishop of the church at Ephesus is mentioned, named Onesimus, though there is no sufficient reason for supposing them identical.

Philemon, the master of Onesimus, as tradition relates, was a native of Laodicea, but dwelt at Colossæ. In the latter city he was a fellow-laborer of Paul, though in what relation we are not told, and stood at the head of a Christian congregation in his own house (Philemon 1:2). If we conclude from Philemon 1:19 (σεαυτόν μοι προσοφειλεις) that he also had been brought into the church by the preaching of Paul, we must suppose this took place during the Apostle’s abode at Ephesus, since Paul was not personally known to the church at Colossæ; see Colossians 2:1, and comp. Colossians 1:3-7. [The Apostle labored at Ephesus three years or more (Acts 20:31), about A. D. 54–57. Ephesus was the religious and commercial capital of western Asia Minor; and such was the Apostle’s zeal, that “all they who dwelt in Asia heard the word of the Lord Jesus Christ.” Phrygia was a neighboring province, and among the strangers who repaired to Ephesus, and had an opportunity to hear the preaching of Paul, may have been the Colossian Philemon. At the same time it is possible, as others think, that Paul may have visited Colossæ when he passed through Phrygia on his second missionary journey (Acts 16:6); and if that was so, it was then undoubtedly that Philemon heard the gospel and attached himself to the Christian party.—H.] According to Theodoret, Philemon’s house was still pointed out at Colossæ in his time, i. e., in the fifth century.

Some have inferred from this letter, without sufficient ground, that Philemon was uncommonly harsh and severe in his character. [On the contrary, it is evident, from what Paul says or implies concerning him, that, on becoming a disciple, Philemon gave no common proof of the sincerity and power of his faith. His character, as shadowed forth in this Epistle, is one of the noblest which the sacred record makes known to us. He was full of faith and good works, was confiding, obedient, sympathizing, benevolent, and a man who, on a question of simple justice, needed only a hint of his duty to prompt him to go even beyond it. Any one who studies the Epistle will perceive that it ascribes to him these varied qualities; it bestows on him a measure of commendation, which forms a striking contrast with the ordinary reserve of the sacred writers. It was by the example and activity of such believers that the primitive Christianity evinced its divine origin, and spread with such rapidity among the nations.—H.]
The legendary history says that Philemon became bishop at Colossæ, and died a martyr under Nero (Constit. Apost. 7. 46). According to Pseudo-Dorotheus, he is said to have been a bishop at Gaza.


The occasion for writing the Epistle was the following: Onesimus, the slave of Philemon, a Christian master, had fled from him (vers. 11, 15, 18) out of fear of punishment, probably on account of a theft which he had committed. During his flight he became acquainted with Paul, perhaps through the intervention of Epaphras, and by the Apostle was converted to Christ. Some time afterward, as the imprisoned Paul was sending his fellow-laborer Tychicus to Ephesus (Ephesians 6:21) and to Colossæ (Colossians 4:7-9), he availed himself of the opportunity to send back also Onesimus to his lawful master, whom he commended at the same time to the church at Colossæ (Colossians 4:9). At his departure, the Apostle gave to Onesimus the present letter, in order to request for him a kind reception, and a remission of the punishment which he feared, and also a lodging for himself, which should be ready for him in anticipation of a proposed journey through that region.

[Tychicus, his fellow-traveller, was the bearer also of the Epistle to the Ephesians (Ephesians 6:21-22), and hence that Epistle and the two Epistles to the Colossians and Philemon were all written, no doubt, on the eve of the Apostle’s acquittal. It is very possible that the lost letter to the Laodiceans (Colossians 4:16), of which we have already spoken, was entrusted to the same hands. We do not know what circumstances may have controlled the course of the journey. The most direct way was to cross the northern part of the Greek peninsula. They would embark at Brundusium, and disembark at Dyrrhachium, on the other side of the Adriatic. They would then traverse the Egnatian Way, along which Paul in his second missionary tour had passed and scattered the seed of the Word. They would meet with Christian hospitality at Thessalonica. Apollonia and Amphipolis were on the route. The disciples at Philippi would be eager to hear tidings of the beloved Apostle. From the Pass over Symbolum they would look forth once more upon the waters which divided Europe from their native Asia.7 Neapolis, the port of Philippi, lay at the base of that range of hills, and would afford them the means to cross to Troas, or to the mouth of the Cayster or the Mseander, whence they could proceed to Ephesus, Laodicea, and Golossæ, in such order as their convenience, or the nature of their errand might require.

It may be assumed, from the known character of Philemon, that the Apostle’s intercession for Onesimus was not unavailing. There can be no doubt that, agreeably to the express instructions of the letter, the past was forgiven; that the master and the servant were reconciled to each other. If the liberty which Onesimus had asserted in a spirit of independence, and had consented to place once more at his master’s disposal, was not conceded to him as a boon or right, the freedom was enjoyed, at all events, under a form of servitude which henceforth was such in name only. So much must be regarded as certain; or it follows that the Apostle was mistaken in his opinion of Philemon’s character; that he was not the Christian that the Apostle supposed him to be, and not worthy of the confidence with which he entrusted the beloved Onesimus to his absolute power. Chrysostom declares, in his impassioned style, that Philemon must have been less than a man, must have been alike destitute of sensibility and reason (ποῖος λίθος, ποῖον θήριον), not to be moved by the arguments and spirit of such a letter to fulfil every wish and intimation of the Apostle. Precisely how much the Apostle had in view as the direct object of his mediation, may not be certain. But, surely, no fitting response to his pleadings for Onesimus could involve less than a cessation of everything oppressive and harsh in his civil condition, as far as it depended on Philemon to mitigate or neutralize the evils of a legalized system of bondage, as well as a cessatior of everything violative of his rights as a Christian. But, in all probability, more than this is true. The import of such a letter must be sought in what it suggests as well as in what it says. Some insist on ὑπὲρ ὃ λέγω, in Philemon 1:21, as the expression of a distinct expectation on the part of Paul that Philemon would liberate Onesimus. Nearly all agree that, even if that favor was not asked, in so many words, Philemon would not have withheld it after such an appeal to his justice and humanity, as the entire letter urges upon him with so much earnestness and power. The traditions above referred to show the ancient opinion on this subject. We can well believe that the Lord’s freedman in this case became politically free, and henceforth called no man master after the flesh. See more fully on Philemon 1:21.—H.]


[This Epistle to Philemon has one peculiar feature—its æsthetic character, we may term it—which distinguishes it from all the other Epistles of Paul, and demands a special notice at our hands. It has been admired deservedly as a model of delicacy and skill in the department of composition to which it belongs. The writer had peculiar difficulties to overcome. He was the common friend of the parties at variance. He must conciliate a man who supposed that he had good reason to be offended. He must commend the offender, and yet neither deny nor aggravate the imputed fault. He must assert the new ideas of Christian equality in the face of a system which hardly recognized the humanity of the enslaved. He could have placed the question on the ground of his own personal rights, and yet must waive them in order to secure an act of spontaneous kindness. His success must be a triumph of love, and nothing be demanded for the sake of the justice which could have claimed everything. He limits his request to a forgiveness of the alleged wrong, and a restoration to favor and the enjoyment of future sympathy and affection, and yet would so guard his words as to leave scope for all the generosity which benevolence might prompt towards one whose condition admitted of so much alleviation. These are contrarieties not easy to harmonize; but Paul, it is confessed, has shown a degree of self-denial and a tact in dealing with them, which, in being equal to the occasion, could not well be greater.

As stated already, we have an extant letter of the younger Pliny (Epist. ix. 21), which he wrote to a friend whose servant had deserted him, in which he intercedes for the fugitive, who was anxious to return to his master, but dreaded the effects of his anger. Thus the occasion of the correspondence was similar to that between the Apostle and Philemon. It has occurred to scholars to compare this celebrated letter with that of Paul in behalf of Onesimus; and as the result, they declare that not only in the “spirit of Christianity, of which Pliny was ignorant,” but in dignity of thought, argument, pathos, beauty of style, and eloquence, the communication of the Apostle is vastly superior to that of the polished Roman writer. (See this letter of Pliny, at the end of the Commentary.)—H.]

Hence it is no wonder that the contents of this Epistle have called forth at all times the warmest praise. Thus Jerome: “Evangelico decore conscripta est.” Luther, in his Preface, says: “This Epistle presents a charming and masterly example of Christian love. St. Paul takes the poor Onesimus to his heart, stands as representative for him with his master, intercedes for him as if it was himself who had sinned and not Onesimus, strips himself of his own rights, and so compels Philemon to relinquish also his. Even as Christ did for us with God the Father, thus also does St. Paul for Onesimus with Philemon; for Christ also stripped Himself of His right, and by love and humility induced the Father to lay aside His anger and power, and to take us to His grace for the sake of Christ, who lovingly pleads our cause, and with all His heart lays Himself out for us. For we are all to Him, like Onesimus to Paul, as I think of it.”—[Erasmus says of it: “Cicero never wrote with greater elegance”]—Calvin: “Quanta fuerit spiritus Paulini celsitudo—hœc quoque epistola testis est, in qua argumentum tractans humile alias et abjectum, suo tamen more sublimis ad Deum evehitur.... Ita modeste et suppliciter pro infimo homine se dimittit, ut vix alibi irsquam magis ad vsum tit expresse ingenii ejus mansuetudo.”—Frankius: “Unica epistola ad Philemonem omnem mundi sapientiam longissime superat.”—Bengel: “Epistola familiaris, suœmm sapientiœ prœbitura specimen, quomodo christiani res civiles debeant tractare ex principiis altioribus.”—Ewald: “Nowhere shall we find the sensibility and warmth of delicate friendship more beautifully blended with the higher feeling of a superior intellect, yea, of a teacher and an Apostle, than in this brief and yet most sententious Epistle.”—Wiesinger: “What consciousness of apostolic dignity, with such humility and love! What fulness and elevation of Christian thought, exhibited in the treatment of an incident belonging to the most common relations of life! What power of eloquence! What delicacy of feeling, yet sharpness of argument! In comparing this Epistle with the Pastoral Epistles, we may conceive how their Pauline character might be assailed; but criticism, which would find in this letter itself the grounds of such an assault, ‘exposes itself not merely to the reproach of hypercriticism, but that of the denial and contempt of all criticism’ ” (Unkritik).—Conybeare and Howson: “This letter is not only a beautiful illustration of the character of St. Paul, but also a practical commentary upon the precepts concerning the mutual relations of slaves and masters, given in his contemporary Epistles.”—A. Rochat: “Outre les instructions générales, que fournit cette Epître, elle a l’ avantage de nous montrer comment l’Apôtre traitait une affaire particuliere et comment il se montrait à ses amis dans les détails de la vie commune.” [Translation: “Besides the general instructions which this Epistle furnishes, it serves to show us how the Apostle treated a private affair, and how he showed himself to his friends in the details of common life.]—Burke: “This letter is an important help for enabling us to understand Paul, his character, his intellectual gifts, his qualities of heart.”—[“It is a precious relic,” says Meyer, “of a great character. It pursues its object with so much Christian love and wisdom, with so much psychological tact, and without a renunciation of the apostolic, authority, is so ingenious and suggestive, that this letter, viewed merely as a specimen of the Attic elegance and urbanity, may rank among the epistolary masterpieces of antiquity.”—Bengel’s gnomic description is, “mire ἀστεῖος.”—“It is impossible to read it,” says Doddridge, “without being touched with the delicacy of sentiment, the masterly address, that appear in every part of it. We see here, in a most striking light, how perfectly consistent true politeness is, not only with the warmth and sincerity of the friend, but even with the dignity of the Christian and the Apostle. If this letter were to be considered in no other view than as merely a human composition, it must be allowed to be a masterpiece of its kind.”—H.]


As to the comparatively rich literature of the Epistle, we need mention only such aids as have a special value for the object of this Bible-Work. Besides the Commentaries of Dr Wette (2d ed., 1847), Wiesinger (Königsberg, 1851), one of the continuators of the Olshausen series; Meyer (2d ed., 1859); [Bleek (Vorlesungen ü. die Briefe an die Colossen, den Philemon u. die Epheser, 1865) ], and the older interpreters mentioned by Meyer, compare especially D. H. Wildschut de vi dictionis et sermonis elegantia, in epistola Pauli ad Philemonem conspicua Traj. ad Rhen., 1809.—A. Rochat: Méditation de l’épître de St. Paul à Philemon, occurring in his Meditations sur quelques portions de la parole de Dieu, 3me edition, Paris, 1848.—F. Küiine: Der Epistel Pauli an Philemon, in Bibelstunden, zur Erbauung für das christliche Volk ausgelegt, 2 Bändchen, Leipzig, 1856 [i. e., expounded in Bible lessons for the edification of Christian people.]

[Koch’s Commentary (Comm, über den Brief Pauli an dem Phil., Zürich, 1846) the writer has found to be of great assistance. C. R. Hagenbach’s Interpretation (Pauli ad Philem. ep. interpret, est, Bas. 1829; was one of his early efforts, and is much less important. Pauli ad Philemonem Epistolœ Interpretatio Historico-exegetica, by M. Rothe (Bremæ, 1844, pp. 1–60), shows the results of careful study in the use of the best means existing at that period.—The reader will find eighty folio pages devoted to Philemon in Tom. V. of the Critici Sacri (ed. Francof. 1695), by the jurist, Scipio Gentilis.—The celebrated Lavater, as pastor in Zürich, preached thirty-nine sermons on this brief composition, and published them in two volumes (Predigten über den Brief an den Philemon, St. Gallen, 1785–’6). The sermons contain no exegesis or critical material, but are purely homiletic and hortatory. Paul speaks of himself by one cursory word as “old;” and Lavater has two discourses on “old age”—the duties we owe to the aged, and the duties the aged owe to themselves. In copiousness of ideas and directness of appeal he is hardly surpassed by Baxter himself.—In our own language, the Commentaries of Ellicott, Wordsworth, Alford, and Barnes include, of course, an exposition of this Epistle.—There are many good thoughts on Philemon, though quaintly expressed, in the Commentary on the New Testament, by John Trapp, M.A. (Webster’s ed., London, 1865).—Doddridge’s notes here are among the best that he has written on the Epistles.—Those of Macknight are remarkably pertinent and suggestive, and have been almost copied by some later writers without due acknowledgment.—The Rev. J. S. Buckminster, of our own country, has a sermon on the entire letter as a text, in which he has displayed his rare power of eloquent expression and illustration, but discusses a different class of topics from those which the spirit of the times would lead us to expect from a preacher now.—Among the patristic commentators, no one succeeds better than Chrysostom in bringing out the delicate touches of the letter.—H.]

Compare further the articles relating to Philemon and Onesimus, and to the Epistle itself, in Herzog’s Real-Encykopädie, in Zeller’s Wörterbuch [and in Smith’s Bible Dictionary].


As regards the classification or analysis of the letter, a single word will suffice. In order to perceive and enjoy its full beauty and power, we should read it as one uninterrupted out-gush from beginning to end. If any one, however, needs resting-places, in order to bring the whole under the eye at once, the following division may be made: First, address and salutation (vers. 1–3); secondly, an expression of Christian sympathy and recognition (vers. 4–7); thirdly (the proper kernel of the Epistle), intercession for Onesimus, and commendation of him (vers. 8–22); and finally, request for a lodging, greetings of friends, and prayer for spiritual blessings (vers. 22–25).8


[1][Ignatius, it is true, says three times in his letters, ὀναιμην ὑμῶν, which reminds us certainly of Paul’s ἐγώ σου ὀναίμην in Philemon 1:20. See Kirchhofer’s Geschichte des Kanon’s, p. 205. But the phrase was apparently not uncommon, and should not be pressed too far. As one of the apostolic Fathers, Ignatius would be the earliest witness.—H.]

[2]Preached before the University of Cambridge, 1863.

[3][Pressensé (Histoire des trois Premiers Siècls, vol. 2. p. 56, ed. 1858) reasserts the opinion that the Epistle was written at Cæsarea, and not at Rome. His principal argument is, that the Apostle’s captivity was comparatively light at Rome, and hence he could not hare been the fellow-prisoner of a slave there, because an association like that implies a more rigorous confinement. But we reply, there is no evidence whatever that Onesimus was a prisoner anywhere: on the contrary, the fact that during his connection with Paul he could render himself so useful to him (vers. 11, 13), and that he was apparently at liberty to remain at Borne or return to Colossæ, as the Apostle might direct (see Philemon 1:12), proves that Onesimus was not a prisoner. Still further, it is an oversight to speak of the custody to which he was subjected at Ctesarea, as more severe than that at Borne; for we read in Acts 24:23, that Felix commanded the centurion “to let Paul have liberty (indulgence may be more correct), and that he should forbid none of his acquaintance to minister or come unto him.” So that, if it were true that Onesimus was also a prisoner as well as Paul, the situation of Paul at Rome was no more inconsistent with the intimacy between them there than it would have been at Cæsarea. See Smith’s Bible Dictionary, art. Colossans, Amer. ed.—H.

[4]Laodicea belonged ethnologically to Phrygia, though assigned politically to Proconsular Asia (Revelation 1:11).—H.]

[5][It is barely possible that ἳνα διακονῆ μοι, in Philemon 1:13, may refer to ministerial coöperation. See on the passage.—H.]

[6][The parting with Onesimus (see Philemon 1:16) must have been the more painful to Paul in consequence of the natural craving for personal sympathy, for which he was remarkable. Dr. Howson has illustrated this trait of the Apostle’s character with great beauty and effect in his Lectures on the Character of St. Paul, pp. 58–61.—H.]

[7][In a journey which the writer made to Macedonia in the month of December, 1858, it was discovered that the site of Philippi, with its ruins, and the present Kavalla, the Neapolis of the Acts (Acts 16:11), may be seen distinctly in their opposite directions from a height overhanging the road across Symbolum, which leads from the coast to Philippi, in the interior. The few travellers who have been here appear to have followed the beaten road, some fifty or seventy-five feet lower than the summits, and thus have failed to obtain this simultaneous view of the town and the harbor. The places are about ten miles distant from each other. See Journey to Neapolis and Philippi, in the Bible Sacra, xvii. pp. 866–898, and, Neapolis, in Smith’s Bible Dictionary.—H.]

[8][It is thought best to extend the analysis to four divisions, instead of three, as in the German work.]

Ads FreeProfile