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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Philemon Epistle to

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1. Authenticity.-The Pauline authorship of this Epistle is beyond reasonable doubt. The repeated use by Ignatius, c._ a.d. 109 (Ephesians 2, Magn. 12, Polyc. 6), of the words ὀναίμην σου, ‘let me have joy of thee,’ used in Philemon 1:20, may be a coincidence, the phrase being fairly common; but before the middle of the 2nd cent., Marcion, who rejected a large portion of the NT, including several Pauline Epistles, retained this letter, without mutilation, ascribing it to St. Paul (Tertullian, c. Marc. v. 21). It is also included in the Muratorian Canon (c._ a.d. 170) among St. Paul’s Epistles. Early in the 3rd cent., Origen repeatedly quotes the letter as Pauline (Com. in Matt. Tract. 33, 34); and Eusebius (HE_ iii. 25) includes all St. Paul’s Epistles among ‘acknowledged Scriptures.’ In the 4th cent. it was rejected by some as either not Pauline or, if Pauline, uninspired; but for no other reason, apparently, than its supposed non-edifying character (see Jerome and Chrysostom, Comm. in Philem.). In modern times Baur (Paul, Eng. tr._2, 1873-75, ii. 80) has stood almost alone among eminent critics in rejecting (with hesitation, however) the Pauline authorship, owing chiefly to his more emphatic rejection of Colossians, with the authenticity of which that of Philemon stands or falls (see Colossians, Ep. to the). For the view that the letter is allegorical (grounded on the name Onesimus and on the play thereon in v. 11) there is no semblance of ancient authority; and historical reality is stamped on every sentence of the Epistle (see Onesimus).

2. Place and date of composition.-As St. Paul was in captivity at the time (Philemon 1:9), the letter must have been sent either from Rome or from Caesarea; and although the subscription ‘written from Rome to Philemon’ cannot be traced further back than the 5th cent. (it is ascribed then to Bishop Euthalius), it appears to be correct. Some critics, indeed (including Meyer, Weiss, Holtzmann, etc.), prefer Caesarea, chiefly because (1) a runaway slave would choose a near city as refuge; (2) St. Paul hoped soon to visit Colossae (v. 22), and (3) he had more reason to expect early release from Caesarean than from Roman imprisonment. But (1) Rome would be preferable for Onesimus, with a view to avoiding detection: and v. 18 suggests, without actually indicating, that the slave, like many runaways, had purloined enough to defray expenses; (2) at Caesarea, the Apostle must have always looked forward to Rome (Acts 23:11; Acts 25:11) and therefore would not be contemplating an early visit to Phrygia; (3) Philippians 2:24 (certainly written from Rome) shows that St. Paul had then some hope of release.

The place of composition so far fixes the date; for St. Paul’s ‘two years’ of Roman confinement (Acts 28:30) are usually ascribed to the period between a.d. 59 and 63 (see Colossians, Ep. to the, with which the letter to Philemon was simultaneously dispatched, the salutations being similar).

3. Occasion and object.-See Onesimus and Philemon.

4. Contents.-After salutations to Philemon, Apphia, and Archippus (qq.v._) in which Timothy (who had been with St. Paul at Ephesus, Acts 19:22) is appropriately associated with the Apostle, the letter begins with a cordial recognition of Philemon’s faith and love towards Christ and towards brethren whose hearts he had refreshed by Christian fellowship and generous charity. He then indicates that something which he might have boldly enjoined he prefers to plead for as a favour; ‘old man_ as he now is,’ and ‘a prisoner of Jesus Christ,’ he is to be indulged. He solicits a friendly reception for Philemon’s slave Onesimus, in spite of past delinquency through which he had belied his name, and become ‘unprofitable.’ Onesimus was St. Paul’s spiritual son, and had become most helpful to the Apostle in ministry, and much beloved. St. Paul calls him his ‘very heart.’ He would have liked to retain him at Rome as the representative of Philemon, knowing the latter’s anxiety to serve him (Paul). But the Apostle will do nothing without his friend’s consent, so that Philemon’s favour to himself might be quite voluntary and not constrained. ‘Perhaps, however,’ continues the Apostle (who assumes with delicate tact the deep regard which Philemon would now have for his penitent and converted slave), ‘perhaps he was parted from thee for a season’ (note how the idea of an over-ruling Providence is adroitly introduced) ‘in order that thou mightest receive him back for altogether, not now as a slave, but as a beloved brother in the Lord.’ There is a possible barrier, however, which St. Paul seeks to remove. Onesimus had in some way wronged Philemon, apart from desertion. ‘Let me discharge his debt,’ writes St. Paul euphemistically; ‘put it to my account: here is my signature-I, Paul, will repay.’ ‘For,’ he adds, recalling Philemon’s conversion by himself, ‘I will not plead that thou owest to me thy very self.’ ‘Yea, brother,’ he continues, adducing what would be the strongest motive in Philemon’s eyes, viz. his love of St. Paul, ‘let me have joy of thee; refresh my heart in the Lord.’ Finally, as if apologizing, with winning courtesy and confidence, for the injustice he has been doing to Philemon through superabundant intercession, ‘I well know,’ he declares, ‘that thou wilt perform even beyond what I ask.’ After an expression of hope that, through the prayers of Philemon and others, he may soon be set free, and so be able to visit his Colossian brethren, he sends salutations from mutual friends (including Luke and Demas, the faithful and the faithless at a later time, 2 Timothy 4:10-11), and concludes with the Apostolic Benediction: ‘The Grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.’

5. Testimony to the Epistle.-Against depreciators, in the 4th cent., of the Epistle as trifling and unedifying, Jerome, the most learned, and Chrysostom, the most eloquent, of the Fathers, vindicate, as we have seen, its apostolic worthiness and religious helpfulness. In the Reformation epoch, Luther (in his German Bible) eulogizes it as showing a ‘right noble and lovely example of Christian love’; and Calvin (Com. in loc.) discerned in it a ‘life-like portrayal of the gentleness’ of the apostolic spirit. Among modern writers, Sabatier (The Apostle Paul, Eng. tr._, 1891, p. 226) describes it as ‘full of grace and wit, of earnest, trustful affection,’ gleaming ‘among the rich treasures of the NT as a pearl of exquisite fineness.’ ‘Nowhere,’ writes Ewald (Com. in loc.), ‘shall we find the sensibility and warmth of delicate friendship more beautifully blended with the higher feeling of a superior intellect, of a teacher and an Apostle.’ Lightfoot compares it with the younger Pliny’s similar letter (Ep. ix. 21) to a friend on behalf of an offending but penitent freedman, and awards the palm to the Apostle’s Epistle, which ‘stands unrivalled as an expression of simple dignity, of refined courtesy, of large sympathy, and of warm personal affection’ (op. cit. p. 319). ‘A veritable little masterpiece of the art of letter-writing,’ exclaims Renan (L’Antéchrist, 1873, p. 96). ‘Those sweet utterances of an author deeply imbued with the Christian spirit,’ writes Baur, even while rejecting the authenticity of the Epistle (Paul, ii. 83). Hackett (in Lange’s Com. on Holy Scriptures, ‘Philemon,’ p. 7) notes the Apostle’s delicacy and skill in ‘harmonizing contrarieties.’ ‘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.… 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’ (including emancipation).

6. Incidental instruction

(1) Christianity and slavery.-We have in this letter an illustration of the two-fold relation of primitive Christianity to slavery. On the one hand, slaves are instructed to recognize the obligation of faithful and obedient service, along with careful avoidance of any teaching which might seem to identify the Church with the social revolution, rapine, and murder by which slave-insurrections were then characterized. On the other hand, there is fearless proclamation of the grand truth of universal Christian brotherhood, through which eventually slavery was to be expelled from Christendom; along with emphatic encouragement of Christian masters, like Philemon, to treat their slaves with humane consideration, and their Christian slaves as brethren in the Lord. The outcome of this policy was the immediate betterment of the condition of slaves, their more frequent liberation, and their ultimate emancipation by all Christian nations. Christianity, moreover, has delivered from moral as well as from material bondage; from the bondage of spiritual ignorance and from subjection to sinful tastes and habits. ‘Stand fast in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free’ (Galatians 5:1).

(2) This Epistle illustrates the refining influence of Christianity. St. Paul, while honest from the outset even amid anti-Christian prejudice, had yet a rough element in his original nature. He not only persecuted but ‘ontraged’ (ἐλυμαίνετο) the Church, dragging (σύρων) even women to prison, and breathing out slaughter (Acts 8:3; Acts 9:1). Christian faith not only reformed but refined him, made him (as this Epistle emphatically indicates) a true gentleman, through the development in him of a fine spirit of Christian courtesy and consideration.

(3) The Epistle, while manifestly describing a real incident, is none the less incidentally, what Weizsäcker regards it as essentially, an allegory. ‘We are all by nature Onesimi,’ as Luther said; we have revolted from the service of our rightful Master and Lord; we have sought again and again to be fugitives from His presence, and to live in a ‘far country,’ ‘without God in the world.’ In Christ, whom the Apostle here represents, we have at once a Friend in need, a Redeemer from sin and misery more effective than St. Paul, an Intercessor at the throne of grace, more sympathetic and more persevering even than him who mediated with Philemon for the runaway Onesimus.

Literature.-Commentaries (among others) of Jerome, Chrysostom, and Theodore of Mopsuestia; of Calvin, Bengel, and Rollock; of H. Ewald (1857), H. Alford (Gr. Test.5 iii. [1871]), H. A. W. Meyer (Eng. tr._, 1880), C. J. Ellicott (31865), J. B. Lightfoot (31879), H. B. Hackett (in Lange’s Com. on Holy Scriptures, ‘Philemon,’ Eng. tr._, 1869), A. H. Drysdale, Philem., 1906, H. von Soden (in Holtzmann’s Handkom. zum NT, 1893), M. R. Vincent (ICC_, 1897), A. Maclaren (Expositor’s Bible, 1887); F. W. Farrar, The Messages of the Books, 1884; A. L. Williams, Col. and Philem., 1907; A. Schumann, Philem., 1908. For Christianity and slavery, see W. A. Becker, Gallus, tr._ F. Metcalfe, 21849, and W. E. H. Lecky, History of European Morals8, 1888, chs. ii. and iv.

Henry Cowan.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Philemon Epistle to'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hdn/p/philemon-epistle-to.html. 1906-1918.

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