Studies in Philemon—Lesson 2
by Reta Halteman Finger
I hope by now, having read the Book of Philemon in lesson 1, you’ve had a few chuckles over Paul’s heavy-handed attempts to persuade Philemon, his “dear friend and co-worker” (v. 1) to welcome the runaway slave Onesimus. Have you ever felt pressured by some pastor or church worker “bold enough in Christ to command [you] to do [your] duty” (v. 8), yet who wants your good deed to be “voluntary and not something forced”? (v. 14). Philemon probably knew Paul well enough to recognize what he was up against!
A setting for this letter
What more can we learn about this brief letter? When was it written, and where was Paul when he wrote it? Where was Philemon and the church that met in his house?
One clue are the names in the final greetings. Epaphras, Mark, Luke, Demas (Philem. 23-24), and Onesimus (v. 10) are also mentioned in Paul’s letter to the church in Colossae (Col. 4:9,10,12,14), so it seems likely Philemon and his house church resided there. (The authorship of Colossians is disputed, but most Pauline scholars lean toward Paul’s active involvement in its content.)
Where is Paul in prison? We know that he was under house arrest in Rome at the end of his life (62 CE), but Rome is too far from Colossae in Asia Minor (now western Turkey) to imagine Onesimus traveling that far. In 2 Corinthians 11:23, Paul refers to many imprisonments, so he was likely still in Asia Minor, perhaps incarcerated in Ephesus while planting churches there in the mid-fifties CE (see Acts 19). Roman imprisonments, though under terrible conditions, were usually brief. At trial, the prisoner was either released, banished from the city, or executed. Paul’s request that Philemon prepare a room for him if and when he is freed (Philem. 22) is not unrealistic.
How did such a personal letter become Scripture? We know some of Paul’s letters could be lost (1 Corinthians 5:9 refers to one). Perhaps the original readers enjoyed the humor and a chance to see another side of Paul. If the Onesimus mentioned in Colossians 4:9 as Paul’s faithful co-worker is the same person, that indicates Philemon did what Paul requested. Perhaps it is only a coincidence that the bishop of Ephesus at the end of the first century, mentioned by the church father Ignatius, was named Onesimus. A more recent scholar, John Knox, even conjectured that Onesimus himself might have collected and published all the Pauline letters (Philemon among the Letters of Paul, University of Chicago Press, 1935).
A behind-the-scenes debate?
Whoever included this letter in the Pauline corpus understood Greco-Roman cultural realities better than we do today. I first experienced biblical simulation in the 1970s when a visiting seminary professor, Dale Brown, led a Bible study on this letter for an intentional community in Chicago I was relating to. We role-played the church that met in Philemon’s house, helping him decide what to do about Onesimus. It was not an easy decision! Paul deliberately chose to write to the whole church, forcing Philemon toward democratic inclusion rather than top-down decision-making.
There would have been four social groups in the house church. One group included wealthy patrons of the church, such as Philemon himself. All of them had slaves (some were even members of the house church!). Patrons had a vested interest in not freeing Onesimus, since it would put pressure on them to free their slaves as well. And that would render it impossible to maintain their standard of living. How could they provide space for the church to meet and financially support the church in other ways?
Second were the slaves themselves. If Philemon frees Onesimus as a runaway, what about the faithful slaves who didn’t run away and still labor without pay and with no legal or human rights? Would they advise Philemon to keep Onesimus as a slave—or only release him on condition that all slaves in the house church should be freed?
The third group represented freed slaves. They have worked for their master for 25 years before gaining their freedom. Even so, they still owe him deference and honor and first dibs on the products they make. Besides, they are old, with no retirement pension. Is it fair for Philemon to free the young runaway so he can go off and travel with Paul?
Freeborn men and women make up the fourth group. They come from the lower classes and have worked hard not to fall into debt slavery. They live in small rooms in shabby tenements. Without Philemon’s large, slave-driven household, where would the house church meet, and what would happen to communal meals that sustain the poorest and keep the church community together?
I never forgot that lively debate we had about freeing Onesimus! I have used a simulation approach many times since then in Sunday school or in college courses when I taught New Testament or Letters of Paul. Considering the rigid socio-economic class structure of the Roman Empire, where did Paul get the courage to challenge it with the gospel of equality in Christ? Even if Philemon did obey Paul and release Onesimus to work with him, we have no idea how this was decided or what effect it had on this house church. What we have is a story of a young man’s failure and redemption, and a charming and humorous letter depicting another side of Paul’s complex personality.
Questions for discussion or reflection
1. Imagine yourself in any of the above groups. What would you have suggested to Philemon?
2. Why do you think this letter was preserved, recopied, and accepted into the biblical canon? Does it have spiritual value for the church today? If so, how?
3. Does this letter do anything to change your opinion about the Apostle Paul?