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The Epistle to Philemon

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[4] 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).



It appears from Colossians 4:9 that Onesimus, and perhaps Philemon also, lived in Colossae.


A church met at Philemon's house, so he would have had a degree of authority in the fellowship; he was probably its leader[1 p.502]. A lady called Aπφια (pronounced Ap-fee-er) was prominent.


The letter makes heavy use of puns on the name Onesimus, which is a Latin version of a Greek name meaning Useful.


"Why did the early church not fight slavery? The usual argument is that they expected the world to end imminently, so there was not much point. This argument is inconclusive; if the end of the world was imminent, would that not make the task more urgent? Only one possible reason remains: they thought it consistent with God's will. Their judgement would have been based on the way they saw slavery practised in their day, which was unusually benign; it seems there was no obstacle to a slave becoming a Christian".[2]

First-century slavery was more like medieval serfdom than later, more cruel, forms of slavery. It involved much work but also a clear status and perhaps the opportunity for improvement[3]. cf Galatians 3:26–28.


Welcome him as you would welcome me: cf. Mark 9:37.


Aristarchus: see Appendix 1: Aristarchus.


  1. Brown, R An Introduction to the New Testament New York: Doubleday, 1997
  2. Bonhoeffer, Dietrich Ethics Ed: Eberhard Bethge 1949; Trans: Neville Horton Smith 1963; London & Glasgow: Collins "Fontana Library" 1964
  3. Brown, Rosalind in "Sunday's Readings" Church Times 6 September 2013 p.19
  4. Nichols, Bridget "How to be a useful disciple" in Church Times 2 September 2016 p.14, citing Craig Wansink

© David Billin 2002–2022