End Division and Be Welcome: Reflecting on Paul’s Letter to Philemon

Philemon Insights

From New American Bible, St. Joseph’s Edition Commentary:

  • This letter is addressed to 3 individuals: Philemon, Apphia (his wife?) and Acchippus (a friend?).
  • It was written by Paul during imprisonment, maybe in Rome between AD 61 & 63.
  • Onesimus is a slave from Colossae who had run away, maybe guilty of theft. He converts.  There is an Onesimus who becomes bishop of Ephesus…the same?  (Brown sites the reference being in a letter that Ignatius of Antioch wrote to the Ephesians, “in the person of Onesimus, a man of love beyond recounting and your bishop.” Eph 1:3  Brown wonders if it was Onesimus himself who preserved this letter.)
  • Paul’s letters tend to have a greeting, a note of thanks, the body or main point and final greetings.
  • The name Onesimus means “useful”, so it is a play on words.

From Reading the New Testament by Pheme Perkins:

  • This author suggests it was written more towards Paul’s imprisonment at Ephesus, which would be closer to AD 52-54.

From Introducing the New Testament by Mark Allan Powell:

  • Slaves could be beaten, could not legally marry and any children were master’s property. They were the bottom of the social pyramid.  No honor.  BUT, there was a range in their treatment.  They could be doing hard labor or in charge of finances.
  • The reference to “old man” could refer to chronological age or his status as elder. Presebytes  stood for “old man” but presbeutes stood for “ambassador”.

From An Introduction to the New Testament by Raymond Brown:

  • Many became slaves in different ways – taken in war, kidnapped by slave huntersm enslaved through debt or perhaps born into slavery.
  • Brown hints that Philemon probably did act generously toward Onesimus or else the letter would not have been preserved.
  • Brown also illustrates the various sides that are taken in how Paul handles slavery. Some interpreters feel he lacked nerve because he didn’t outright condemn it, or call Philemon out on it.  Others think his delicate way of handling it was smart, because Paul otherwise may have seemed a troubler of the social order and a revolutionary.  Brown’s theory is that Paul (and the believers at the time) thought Jesus was coming back at any minute.  So to overturn the Roman societal institution of slavery was not a feasible accomplishment for such a theorized, limited amount of time.

Read the Letter and Review Reflection Questions

  1. What do you think of how Paul handled slavery?
  2. How do you feel about church (Paul) stepping in in order to resolve this societal dilemma? How does the church do this today?
  3. How is Paul’s attitude and treatment of Onesimus similar to Christ’s treatment of us believers?
  4. How would you have handled this situation?
  5. The division between slaves and free people were immense. We still have grave division in our country among people.  What can we learn from Paul?
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