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Epistle to Philemon

The Epistle to Philemon is a prison letter from Paul of Tarsus to Philemon, a leader in the Colossian church. It is one of the books of the New Testament of the Christian Bible. The epistle is the most important early Christian writing dealing with forgiveness.

Though it is now generally regarded as one of the undisputed works of Paul, it was questioned in the past by F. C. Baur. It is the shortest of Paul's extant letters, consisting of only 335 words in the original Greek text, and twenty-five verses in modern English translations.

Content and reconstruction

Paul, who is apparently in prison (probably in either Rome or Ephesus), writes to a fellow Christian named Philemon and two of his associates: a woman named Apphia, sometimes assumed to be his wife, and a man named Archippus. If the letter to the Colossians is authentic, then Philemon must live in Colossae. As a slave-owner he would have been wealthy by the standards of the early church and this explains why his house was large enough to accommodate church meetings (v. 2). Paul writes on behalf of Onesimus, Philemon's slave. Beyond that, it is not self-evident as to what has transpired. Onesimus is described as having been "separated" from Philemon, once having been "useless" to him (a pun on Onesimus's name, which means "useful"), and having done him wrong.

The dominant scholarly consensus is that Onesimus is a run-away slave: a fugitivus who has encountered Paul and becomes a Christian believer. Paul now sends him back to face his aggrieved master, and strives in his letter to effect reconciliation between these two Christians. What is more contentious is how Onesimus came to be with Paul. Various suggestions have been given: Onesimus being imprisoned with Paul; Onesimus being brought to Paul by others; or Onesimus deliberately seeking Paul out, as a friend of his master's, in order to be reconciled.

There is no way of knowing what happened to Onesimus after the letter. Ignatius of Antioch mentions an Onesimus as Bishop of Ephesus in the early second century.


Paul's letter is cryptic. His tactful address to Philemon was labelled "holy flattery" by Martin Luther. Commending Philemon's Christian compassion, but at the same time subtly reminding Philemon of his apostolic authority over him, and the spiritual debt Philemon owes to him, Paul pleads with Philemon to take Onesimus back. Due to his conversion, Onesimus is returned "no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother" (v. 16). It is not altogether clear whether Onesimus is to be forgiven or manumitted, whether Onesimus is now Philemon's "brother" as well as his "slave", or whether his brotherhood supplants his servitude. On the interpretation of this verse hinges the social impact of Paul's letter.

The German Protestant theologian Martin Luther saw a parallel between Paul and Christ in their work of reconciliation. However, Luther insisted that the letter upheld the social status quo: Paul did nothing to change Onesimus's legal position as a slave—and he complied with the law in returning him.

The letter was a cause of debate during the British and later American struggles over the abolition of slavery. Both sides cited Philemon for support.


  • J. M. G. Barclay, Colossians and Philemon, Sheffield Academic Press, 1997 (ISBN 1-85075-818-2)
  • N. T. Wright, Colossians and Philemon, Tyndale IVP, 1986 (ISBN 0-8028-0309-1)

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