Paul’s Revolutionary Epistle: The Letter to Philemon

“Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother. To Philemon our beloved fellow worker and Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier, and the church in your house: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Philemon, 1:1-3)

Paul’s Letter to Philemon is one of the shortest writings in the New Testament and within the entire collection of Sacred Scripture. Yet, its impact upon the history of Christianity and the world as a whole has been large and long in its reach. This is because in a few short lines, which were to be read as a public letter to the Christian community that met as a “house-church” on Philemon’s property, Paul in subtle and nuanced terms begins the eventual dismantling of the institution of slavery.

While there have been Pauline detractors, who from their twenty-first century historical and ethical perch, assert that Paul should have denounced slavery clearly and forced Philemon to promise the manumission (freeing) of his slave Onesimus, we must remember that there was no precedent for him to do so, in the Judaism from which he came, or the Greco-Roman world he lived in. According to Biblical scholar John R. Levison, “Paul’s own Jewish scriptures, while limiting the harshness of slavery because the Israelites were believed to have had their origins in an exodus from slavery in Egypt, by no means abolished slavery. In the so-called Covenant Code, for example, a male Hebrew slave is freed after six years of enslavement, though he may not take, even then, a wife and children whom the master has given him.”

In the Greco-Roman or Hellenistic world into which the Church was born, slaves often outnumbered those who were free. It was such an accepted institution that even philosophers such as Aristotle argued in the Politics for “natural slavery.” The famous slave revolt of Sparticus against his Roman masters in 70 B.C. was not intended to eradicate slavery but merely address the harshness of its application.

Philemon (“loving” in Greek) to whom the letter is addressed was a young, seemingly wealthy, respected Christian of a town in the Locus Valley of Asia Minor, probably Colossae. Paul greets him along with Apphia (probably Philemon’s wife) and Archippus (possibly a son), and the Christian community; Philemon it is thought was converted by Paul possibly in Ephesus. Paul refers to himself as a prisoner, as often elsewhere (cf. Romans, 1 Corinthians, Galatians especially), the second word in Greek enunciates the theme and sets the tone of the letter. Here it is the prisoner of Christ Jesus (for he writes this while in prison for preaching the gospel) appealing, rather than the apostle commanding, Philemon to consider his feelings for freeing Onesimus the slave.

The slave Onesimus (“useful” in Greek) had run away, having caused his master considerable damage. In his flight he came to where Paul was imprisoned, perhaps knowing of the esteem his master held for Paul. Somehow Paul managed to give him refuge and ultimately converted him to Christianity. Eventually, Paul learned that Onesimus was Philemon’s slave, and though he wanted to keep him with himself for help in evangelization, he recognized Philemon’s right and decided to send Onesimus back. Paul writes in 1:7-14:

For I have experienced much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the holy ones have been refreshed by you, brother. Therefore, although I have the full right in Christ to order you to do what is proper, I rather urge you out of love, being as I am, Paul, an old man, and now also a prisoner for Christ Jesus. I urge you on behalf of my child Onesimus, whose father I have become in my imprisonment, who was once useless to you but is now useful to [both] you and me. I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. I should have liked to retain him for myself, so that he might serve me on your behalf in my imprisonment for the gospel, but I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that the good you do might not be forced but voluntary.

Paul asked Philemon not to inflict on Onesimus the severe penalties permitted by law. Paul also promised to restore the damage that Onesimus had caused—how he would do this from prison is not said. Paul further suggested that he would like to have Onesimus come back to work with him. Did Paul mean by this that Philemon should emancipate the slave? This may be implied. He writes in 1:14-20:

Perhaps this is why he was away from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a brother, beloved especially to me, but even more so to you, as a man and in the Lord. So if you regard me as a partner, welcome him as you would me. And if he has done you any injustice or owes you anything, charge it to me. I, Paul, write this in my own hand: I will pay. May I not tell you that you owe me your very self. Yes, brother, may I profit from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ.

Paul’s words in verse 16, (no longer a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother,) puts Philemon in a dilemma. As a slave owner, he is entitled by law to punish the returning Onesimus to the fullest extent, which could even mean death. As a Christian he must acknowledge that he and Onesimus are now on equal footing, since Onesimus has converted to Christianity also. For Paul there is only one option for Philemon, to embrace Onesimus as a brother in the faith, forgive him the wrongdoing of having fled his duties, and free him from slavery. Without directly attacking the institution of slavery with logical and rhetorical arguments, Paul smashes this most unjust and horrid state of life, by shinning upon it the light of Christ.

It should be remembered that this letter to Philemon, while written in a very personal tone, stressing the relationship and friendship between Paul and Philemon, Paul and Onesimus, and the type of new relations Paul desires between Philemon and Onesimus; it is also a public letter. He has seemingly already shared his views with his stated companions (Epaphras, Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke), and intends Philemon to share it with his household and the church that gathered in his house. Paul is a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and his proclamation of it is always public, for all to hear, it is a universal (catholic) proclamation of truth and of new life in Christ—it calls all men and women to conversion of heart. With the Letter to Philemon, Paul initiated one of the greatest reversals of institutional sin in human history. Paul fittingly ends the letter by saying, “the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.” To this we must all say, Amen!

Editor’s note: Pictured above is a detail from “St. Paul” painted by Diego Velázquez in 1619.

Fr. David Andrew Fisher

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Fr. David Andrew Fisher is priest in residence at St. Cyprian Catholic Church in Philadelphia and is an adjunct faculty member at Rosemont College. He earned his S.T.L and Ph.D. in theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University.

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