The standard format for a letter in New Testament times was to start with the From ... and To ... followed immediately by a thanksgiving to various gods for good health. Paul tended to vary this to the Christian situation, e.g. "I always thank God for you".
The letter is usually interpreted on the assumption that Onesimus had run away from his owner Philemon, but Nichols acknowledges an alternative assumption that Philemon had loaned Onesimus to Paul. However, I reject that suggestion because the letter clearly implies that Onesimus has changed dramatically for the better (v.11) yet Philemon might not welcome him home (v.17).
Paul was in a real fix; apparently Roman Law obliged him to return Onesimus to Philemon (and to compensate him for his loss), but Jewish Law required him not to (see Deuteronomy 23:15 and Proverbs 30:10). This letter shows how he sought to reconcile these conflicting requirements.
Brown[1 p.505] says "The letter, designed to persuade, is astute, with almost every verse hinting at something more than is stated". Paul believed that Christian faith changes relationships deeply. He draws attention to close parallels with Colossians, both in style and in the people who are mentioned.[1 p.507]
Onesimus's situation makes a useful contrast with our salvation. Someone who is enslaved cannot simply run away from their position, because a price must be paid (1 Corinthians 6:20).
© David Billin 2002–2021