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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible

Philemon, Epistle to

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1. Occasion and contents . This beautiful private letter, unique in the NT, purports to be from St. Paul (with whose name that of Timothy is joined, as in 1 and 2 Thess., 2 Cor., Philipp., Col.) to Philemon, with Apphia and Archlppus, and the church in his house. This plural address appears, quite naturally, in Philippians 1:22 and Philippians 1:25 (‘you’); otherwise the letter is to Philemon alone (‘thee’). St. Paul is a ‘prisoner’ ( Philippians 1:1; Philippians 1:9; Philippians 1:13 ) a first link of connexion between this letter and Philippians ( Philippians 1:7; Philippians 1:18 etc.), Eph ( Ephesians 3:1; Ephesians 4:1; Ephesians 6:20 ), and Col. ( Colossians 4:3; Colossians 4:18 ); with Col. there is also close connexion in the fact that Onesimus was a Colossian ( Colossians 4:9 ), and in the salutations in both Epistles from Epaphras, Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke. It is almost certain that the letter was sent from Rome (not Cæsarea) to Colossæ, along with the Colossian Epistle, by Tychicus and Onesimus, to be handed to Philemon by the runaway slave, who at St. Paul’s instance was returning to the master he had wronged by embezzlement and flight. Onesimus had in some way become known to the Apostle, who had won him to the Christian faith ( Philippians 1:10 ). St. Paul regards him as his ‘child,’ his ‘very heart,’ a ‘brother beloved’ ( Philippians 1:10; Philippians 1:12; Philippians 1:16 ), and would fain keep his helpful ministry ( Philippians 1:13; Philippians 1:11 ). But the convert must first put himself right by voluntary surrender: his service belongs to Philemon, and, however desired by St. Paul, can be accepted by him only of his friend’s free will ( Philippians 1:14 ). So St. Paul sends the slave back, with this letter to secure his forgiveness and the welcome of one Christian brother for another ( Philippians 1:15-17 ). He founds his appeal on what he has heard of Philemon’s love ‘toward all the saints’ ( Philippians 1:4-7; Philippians 1:9 ); yet makes it also a personal request from ‘Paul the aged and now a prisoner,’ who has claims upon Philemon’s service ( Philippians 1:9-14; Philippians 1:17; Philippians 1:20 ), with just a hint of an authority which he will not press ( Philippians 1:8; Philippians 1:19; Philippians 1:21 , ‘obedience’). A wistful humour appears in the play on the meaning of the name Onesimus; ‘I beseech thee for Profitable, who was aforetime unprofitable, but now is profitable … Yea, let me have profit of thee’ ( Philippians 1:11; Philippians 1:20 ); also when at Philippians 1:19 St. Paul himself takes the pen and with playful solemnity (cf., for the solemn formula ‘I Paul,’ 1 Corinthians 16:21 , 2 Corinthians 10:1 , Colossians 4:18 , 2 Thessalonians 3:17 ) gives his bond for the debt, ‘I Paul write it with my own hand, I will repay it.’ (It is possible, though less probable. that the Greek tense should be rendered ‘I have written,’ and that the previous verse also, if not the whole letter, is by St. Paul’s hand.) Indeed, the mingled earnestness, tact, and charm amply endorse Renan’s verdict ‘a little masterpiece’: the letter exemplifies the Apostle’s own precept as to ‘speech seasoned with salt’ ( Colossians 4:6 ), and shows the perfect Christian gentleman.

2. Teaching. It is significant for the depth and sincerity of St. Paul’s religious faith that this private letter in its salutation, thanksgiving, and benediction is as loftily devout as any Epistle to the Churches. Apart from this, the dogmatic interest lies in its illustration of Christianity at work . The relation of master and slave comes into conflict with that of the Christian communion or fellowship: the problem is whether that fellowship will prove’ effectual in the knowledge of every good thing which is in you unto Christ,’ and the slave be received as a brother. St. Paul does not ask that Onesimus be set free. It may even be doubted whether ‘the word emancipation seems to be trembling on his lips’ (Lightfoot, Col . p. 321): if it is, it is rather that Onesimus may be permitted to return to continue his ministry to the imprisoned Apostle than that Christianity, as he conceives it, forbids slavery. That Institution is not in St. Paul’s judgment to be violently ended, though it is to be regulated by the Christian principle of equality and responsibility before God ( Ephesians 5:5-9 , Colossians 3:22 to Colossians 4:1 ); to the slave himself his worldly position should be matter of indifference ( 1 Corinthians 7:21-24 ). Yet if Philemon should choose to assert his rights, it will mean a fatal breach in Christian ‘fellowship’ and the rejection of a Christian ‘brother.’ Thus St. Paul laid down the principle which inevitably worked itself out though not till the 19th cent. into the impossibility of slavery within a Christian nation. Christians long and strenuously defended It: Christianity, and not least this letter, destroyed it.

3. Authenticity. The external testimony is full and consistent, although so short and personal a letter might easily lack recognition. It is contained in the Syriac and Old Latin Versions, and named in the Muratorian Fragment. Marcion accepted it (Tert. adv. Marc . v. 21). Origen quotes from it three times, in each case as St. Paul’s. Eusebius includes it among the undisputed books. On internal grounds it may fairly he claimed that the letter speaks for its own genuineness. Some modern critics (since F. C. Baur) have questioned its authenticity, mainly because they reject Colossians, with which this letter is so closely connected. As Renan writes: ‘If the epistle is apocryphal, the private letter is apocryphal also; now, few pages have so clear an accent of truth. Paul alone, it would seem, could have written this little masterpiece’ ( St. Paul , p. xi.). But it must suffice here to affirm as the all but universal judgment, that ‘Philemon belongs to the least doubtful part of the Apostle’s work’ (Jülicher, Introd. to NT , p. 127).

4. Date and place of writing. The argument for Rome as against Cæsarea (Meyer, etc.) seems decisive. Opinion is greatly divided as to the order of the Epistles of the Captivity, i.e . whether Philippians or the group Eph.-Col.-Philem. is the earlier (see Lightfoot, Philip . pp. 30 46). In either case the limit of date for Philem. lies between c [Note: circa, about.] . a.d. 60 62, and the later date is suggested by Philippians 1:21-22 (see Colossians and Philippians).

S. W. Green.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Philemon, Epistle to'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. 1909.

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