Philemon, Epistle to
PHILEMON, EPISTLE TO
This shortest of paul's letters has occasioned some interesting discussion in the history of interpretation. Though even Marcion had not challenged its authenticity, in the fourth century Jerome, Chrysostom, and Theodore of Mopsuestia had to defend it against detractors who claimed that it taught nothing of theological interest or ecclesiastical discipline and that it had not been written by Paul. Luther and Calvin expressed appreciation for it, and even F. C. Baur, who sought to reduce the Pauline corpus to Romans, Galatians, and the Corinthian correspondence, was impressed by its attractive form and Christian spirit. Paul's authorship of the letter is generally recognized today. As with Philippians, the other undisputed captivity epistle, the place of writing is unclear; Caesarea, Ephesus, and Rome have been proposed. Probable dates range from the mid-50s to early 60s.
The most thorough treatment of this epistle is a 1985 work by Norman Petersen. He maintains that if the letter is lacking in theological concerns, it is of great interest from a sociological perspective. He moves from examining the narrative world of the letter to the symbolic universe of the complete undisputed Pauline corpus (Rom, Gal, 1 & 2 Cor, Phil, Phlm, 1 Thes) in an effort to ascertain the sociological interactions among Paul, Philemon and his house church, and the wider Christian community.
Despite the fact that interpretations of Philemon often stress its private, domestic character, J. D. G. Dunn notes that Apphia, probably Philemon's wife, is addressed with the feminine singular form "the sister," suggesting that a serious effort was being made to treat women as individuals and as Christians in their own right. Also, the designation of Archippus as "fellow soldier" probably indicates one who had carried out an independent commission in the service of the gospel. Finally, the church in Philemon's house is addressed, intimating that Philemon probably recognized the church's right to advise on internal matters, even though slaves probably constituted part of the house church.
While it is often argued that Onesimus simply ran away from Philemon, reputable scholars maintain that Onesimus had offended Philemon but did not feel completely in the wrong and left with the purpose of seeking Paul's intercession in mending matters. Dunn suggests that if this is true the dynamics of this three-way relationship cause the letter to be even more fascinating than Petersen suggests. It would mean that what Onesimus perceived as most likely to work in his favor was Philemon's character as a Christian who had not enforced his belief on his entire household; it might also suggest that Onesimus was already attracted to Christianity. Thus perhaps there is more of theological interest in this letter than is sometimes presumed.
Modern aversion to slavery as an institution is probably not a fair standard against which to judge the acceptance of the institution in ancient times. The ethical question then was the treatment of slaves. Paul's ultimate appeal to Philemon clearly reflects the baptismal formula of Gal 3.28. Onesimus is now "in Christ" and the distinction between master and slave no longer exists within that relationship.
Bibliography: d. l. allen, "The Discourse Structure of Philemon: A Study in Text Linguistics," in Scribes and Scriptures: New Testament Essays in Honor of J. Harold Greenlee, ed. d. a. black, (Winona Lake, Ind. 1992). 77–96. j. m. g. barclay, "Paul, Philemon and the Dilemma of Christian Slave-Ownership," New Testament Studies 37 (1991): 161–86. j. d. g. dunn, The Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon (New International Greek Testament Commentary; Grand Rapids, Mich.-Carlisle 1996). d. b. martin, Slavery as Salvation: The Metaphor of Slavery in Pauline Christianity (New Haven, Conn. 1990). n. r. petersen, Rediscovering Paul: Philemon and the Sociology of Paul's Narrative World (Philadelphia 1985).