Epistle to Philemon

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The Epistle to Philemon, the 18th book of the New Testament of the Bible, is Saint Paul's eloquent appeal on behalf of a runaway slave, Onesimus, whom he had converted to Christianity. The letter, which was probably written during Paul's Ephesian imprisonment in AD 56 or during his Roman imprisonment 5 years later, shows the depth of his Christian humaneness. In it he asks Philemon - a wealthy Christian of Colossae whom he had converted - for Onesimus's quiet return to his former station or, in another interpretation, for his complete freedom to become an evangelist.

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Philemon was an inhabitant of Colosse, and apparently a person of some note among the citizens (Col. 4:9; Philemon 2). He was brought to a knowledge of the gospel through the instrumentality of Paul (19), and held a prominent place in the Christian community for his piety and beneficence (4-7). He is called in the epistle a "fellow-labourer," and therefore probably held some office in the church at Colosse; at all events, the title denotes that he took part in the work of spreading a knowledge of the gospel.

(Easton Illustrated Dictionary)

Epistle to Philemon

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The Epistle to Philemon was written from Rome at the same time as the epistles to the Colossians and Ephesians, and was sent also by Onesimus. It was addressed to Philemon and the members of his family. It was written for the purpose of interceding for Onesimus (q.v.), who had deserted his master Philemon and been "unprofitable" to him. Paul had found Onesimus at Rome, and had there been instrumental in his conversion, and now he sends him back to his master with this letter. This epistle has the character of a strictly private letter, and is the only one of such epistles preserved to us. "It exhibits the apostle in a new light. He throws off as far as possible his apostolic dignity and his fatherly authority over his converts. He speaks simply as Christian to Christian. He speaks, therefore, with that peculiar grace of humility and courtesy which has, under the reign of Christianity, developed the spirit of chivalry and what is called 'the character of a gentleman,' certainly very little known in the old Greek and Roman civilization" (Dr. Barry).

(Easton Illustrated Dictionary)


From: Home Bible Study Commentary by James M. Gray

Philemon, like some other of the epistles, is not located in the canon chronologically. It will be seen to have been written by the Apostle while a prisoner at Rome, and the supposition might be that the second imprisonment was meant, because it follows 2 Timothy. But it was addressed to Philemon, beyond doubt, on the earlier occasion. See verse 22 as a hint of this. In verse 23 Epaphras is named as one known to Philemon, who, according to Collossians 1:7, and 4:12, was a minister at Colosse, and perhaps Philemon and his household were members of his flock.

As Philemon owed his salvation to Paul, (verse 19), we may believe that the latter had made his acquaintance during his stay in Ephesus and its vicinity (Acts 19, 20), for Colosse was in that neighborhood. Philemon had a slave named Onesimus who seemed to have run away from his master, perhaps having stolen from him besides (18), and had found his way to Rome, and was thrown into the way of Paul. We would rather say God led him into the way of Paul. Perhaps he had known Paul when he lived with Philemon at Colosse.

At all events, the circumstances are changed now, and under the power of a burdened conscience, and perhaps the condition in which he finds his old friend as a prisoner, he is moved to give more earnest heed to the message, is converted and is rejoicing in the Lord. But one of the first duties of the converted man, is confession and restitution of wrong. Onesimus knows this and is ready to return, but shrinks from doing so unless he shall have some document to show the genuineness of the change wrought in him, and some place from the friend of both his master and himself that may intercede for him and what a loving letter Paul writes.

Outline of the Epistle

The epistle begins with the salutation, verse 1-3. "The church in thy house," is mentioned, showing that in the primitive times the gatherings of Christians were in private homes. Now comes the Thanksgiving, 4-7. Paul had good reason to remember Philemon in thanksgiving and prayer, for see what kind of man he was! Following the thanksgiving is revealed the reason for the letter, the plea for Onesimus, 8-21. He pleads through he might command (8, 9). Onesimus has been converted by him while a prisoner in Rome (10). Onesimus means "profitable," but he had not been profitable to his master theretofore, he had belied his name. He had now, however, become profitable to both Philemon and Paul (11). Paul would like to have kept him, he was so profitable to him, only he had not the mind of Philemon on the subject, and did not feel at liberty to do so (12-14). He was returning now to Philemon in a new relationship (15, 16).

It were worth while to have lost him for a while to get him back forever! What a striking testimony that saints shall know each other in the life to come! But he was now coming back not merely as a slave, but a beloved brother! This does not mean that the old relationship as master and slave should be dissolved (see 1 Corinthians 7:17-24), but only that is should now be continued under these more blessed circumstances. Observe how delicately Paul pleads for him on the ground that he is now his (Paul's) brother (16, 17).

Paul is willing to assume whatever pecuniary responsibility might be attached to his running away, but tactfully insists that if Philemon considers, he will regard himself as still in the Apostle's debt (18, 19). Following the plea, the letter concludes with personal allusions, and the benediction (22, 25). Who of the brethren named in verse 24 were with Paul in his second imprisonment? Which one did he ask to come unto him? See 2 Timothy. Its Place in the Canon If some ask why such a personal letter should find a place among the inspired books of Holy Scripture, it would seem sufficient to refer to the glimpses it affords of the social intercourse of Christians in the primitive days. But there is something else here, viz: Christianity does not rashly interfere with existing institutions, even when they are inimical to its principles.

Philemon was not bidden to give Onesimus his freedom. Does Christianity, then, countenance human slavery? Nay, wherever Christianity has made headway, slavery has fallen. The truth makes free. The union of believers in Jesus Christ promotes love to one another, and love ministers to freedom. There is still another lesson to be drawn. As Paul found Onesimus wandering from his master's house, so the Lord Jesus Christ found us wandering from God. As Paul pleaded for the restoration of Onesimus, asking that what he owed might be placed to his account, so Jesus Christ acts as our Advocate with the Father, having borne our sins. As Philemon received Onesimus on Paul's account, so God has received us, and made us what we never were before, "profitable" unto Him, "created in Christ Jesus unto good works which he hath before prepared for us to walk in them."

Questions 1. State what you know of the acquaintance of Paul and Philemon. 2. State what you know of the history of Onesimus. 3. State the four divisions of this epistle. 4. What reason is suggested for its appearance in the canon? 5. What moral lesson is found in it? 6. What spiritual analogies does it suggest?


Catholic Information

A citizen of Coloss Colossæ, to whom St. Paul addressed a private letter, unique in the New Testament, which bears his name. As appears from this epistle, Philemon was his dear and intimate friend (verses 1, 13, 17, 22), and had been converted most probably by him (verse 19) during his long residence at Ephesus (Acts 19:26; cf. 18:19), as St. Paul himself had not visited Coloss Colossae aelig; (Colossians 2:1). Rich and noble, he possessed slaves; his house was a place of meeting and worship for the Colossian converts (verse 2); he was kind, helpful, and charitable (verses 5,7), providing hospitality for his fellow Christians (verse 22). St. Paul calls him his fellow labourer (synergos, verse 1), so that he must have been earnest in his work for the Gospel, perhaps first at Ephesus and afterwards at Coloss Colossae.aelig;. It is not plain whether he was ordained or not. Tradition represents him as Bishop of Coloss Colossae aelig; (Const. Apost., VI, 46), and the Menaia of 22 November speak of him as a holy apostle who, in company with Appia, Archippus, and Onesimus had been martyred at Coloss Colossae aelig; during the first general persecution in the reign of Nero. In the address of the letter two other Christian converts, Appia and Archippus (Colossians 4:17) are mentioned; it is generally believed that Appia was Philemon's wife and Archippus their son. St. Paul, dealing exclusively in his letter with the domestic matter of a fugitive slave, Onesimus, regarded them both as deeply interested. Archippus, according to Col., iv, 17, was a minister in the Lord, and held a sacred office in the Church of Coloss Colossae aelig; or in the neighbouring Church of Laodicaea.


A. Authenticity

External testimony to the Pauline authorship is considerable and evident, although the brevity and private character of the Epistle did not favour its use and public recognition. The heretic Marcion accepted it in his "Apostolicon" (Tertullian, "Adv. Marcion", V, xxi); Origen quotes it expressly as Pauline ("Hom.", XIX; "In Jerem.", II, 1; "Comment in Matt.", Tract. 33, 34); and it is named in the Muratorian Fragment as well as contained in the Syriac and old Latin Versions. Eusebius includes Philemon among the homologoumena, or books universally undisputed and received as sacred. St. Chrysostom and St. Jerome, in the prefaces to their commentaries on the Epistle, defend it against some objections which have neither historical nor critical value. The vocabulary (epignosis, paraklesis tacha), the phraseology, and the style are unmistakably and thoroughly Pauline, and the whole Epistle claims to have been written by St. Paul. It has been objected, however, that it contains some words nowhere else used by Paul (anapempein, apotinein, achrmstos, epitassein, xenia, oninasthai, prosopheilein). But every epistle of St. Paul contains a number of apax legomena employed nowhere else, and the vocabulary of all authors changes more or less with time, place, and especially subject matter. Are we not allowed to expect the same from St. Paul, an author of exceptional spiritual vitality and mental vigour? Renan voiced the common opinion of the critics when he wrote: "St. Paul alone, it would seem, could have written this little masterpiece" (St. Paul, p. xi).

B. Date and place of writing

It is one of the four Captivity Epistles composed by St. Paul during his first imprisonment in Rome (see COLOSSIANS; EPHESIANS; PHILIPPIANS, EPISTLES TO THE; Philem., 9, 23). Colossians, Ephesians, and Philippians are closely connected, so that the general opinion is that they were written and despatched at the same time, between A.D. 61-63. Some scholars assign the composition to Caesarea (Acts 23-26: A.D. 59-60), but both tradition and internal evidence are in favour of Rome.

C. Occasion and purpose

Onesimus, most likely only one of many slaves of Philemon, fled away and, apparently before his flight, defrauded his master, and ran away to Rome, finding his way to the hired lodging where Paul was suffered to dwell by himself and to receive all that came to him (Acts 28:16, 30). It is very possible he may have seen Paul, when he accompanied his master to Ephesus. Onesimus became the spiritual son of St. Paul (verses 9, 10), who would have retained him with himself, that in the new and higher sphere of Christian service he should render the service which his master could not personally perform. But Philemon had a prior claim; Onesimus, as a Christian, was obliged to make restitution. According to the law, the master of a runaway slave might treat him exactly as he pleased. When retaken, the slave was usually branded on the forehead, maimed, or forced to fight with wild beasts. Paul asks pardon for the offender, and with a rare tact and utmost delicacy requests his master to receive him kindly as himself. He does not ask expressly that Philemon should emancipate his slave-brother, but "the word emancipation seems to be trembling on his lips, and yet he does not once utter it" (Lightfoot, "Colossians and Philemon", London, 1892, 389). We do not know the result of St. Paul's request, but that it was granted seems to be implied in subsequent ecclesiastical tradition, which represents Onesimus as Bishop of Beraea (Constit. Apost., VII, 46).

D. Argument

This short letter, written to an individual friend, has the same divisions as the longer letters: (a) the introduction (verses 1-7); (b) the body of the Epistle or the request (verses 8-22); (c) the epilogue (verses 23-25).

1. Introduction (1-7)

The introduction contains (1) the salutation or address: Paul, "prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy" greets Philemon (verse 1), Appia, Archippus, and the Church in their house (verse 2), wishing them grace and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ (verse 3); (2) the thanksgiving for Philemon's faith and love (verses 4-6), which gives great joy and consolation to the Apostle (verse 7).

2. Body of the Epistle

The request and appeal on behalf of the slave Onesimus. Though he could enjoin Philemon to do with Onesimus that which is convenient (verse 8), for Christian love's sake, Paul "an aged man and now also a prisoner of Jesus Christ" (verse 9) beseeches him for his son Onesimus whom he had begotten in his bonds (verse 10). Once he was not what his name implies (helpful); now, however, he is profitable to both (verse 11). Paul sends him again and asks Philemon to receive him as his own heart (verse 12). He was desirous of retaining Onesimus with himself that he might minister to him in his imprisonment, as Philemon himself would gladly have done (verse 13), but he was unwilling to do anything without Philemon's decision, desiring that his kindness should not be as it were "of necessity but voluntary" (verse 14). Perhaps, in the purpose of Providence, he was separated from thee for a time that thou mightest have him for ever (verse 15), no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a better servant and a beloved Christian brother (verse 16). If, therefore, thou regardest me as a partner in faith, receive him as myself (verse 17). If he has wronged thee in any way, or is in they debt, place that to my account (verse 18). I have signed this promise of repayment with my own hand, not to say to thee that besides (thy remitting the debt) thou owest me thine own self (verse 19). Yea, brother, let me have profit from thee (sou onaimen) in the Lord, refresh my heart in the Lord (verse 20). Having confidence in thine obedience, I have written to thee, knowing that thou wilt do more than I say (verse 21). But at the same time, receive me also and prepare a lodging for me: for I hope that through your prayers I shall be given to you (verse 22).

3. Epilogue (23-25)

The epilogue contains (1) salutations from all persons named in Col., iv, 10-14 (verses 23-24), and (2) a final benediction (verse 25). This short, tender, graceful, and kindly Epistle has often been compared to a beautiful letter of the Younger Pliny (Ep. IX, 21) asking his friend Sabinian to forgive an offending freedman. As Lightfoot (Colossians and Philemon, 383 sq.) says: "If purity of diction be excepted, there will hardly be any difference of opinion in awarding the palm to the Christian apostle".

E. Attitude of St. Paul towards slavery

Slavery was universal in all ancient nations and the very economic basis of the old civilization. Slaves were employed not only in all the forms of manual and industrial labour, but also in many functions which required artistic skill, intelligence, and culture; such as especially the case in both the Greek and the Roman society. Their number was much greater than that of the free citizens. In the Greek civilization the slave was in better conditions than in the Roman; but even according to Greek law and usage, the slave was in a complete subjection to the will of his master, possessing no rights, even that of marriage. (See Wallon, "Hist. de l'Esclavage dans l'Antiquité", Paris, 1845, 1879; SLAVERY.) St. Paul, as a Jew, had little of pagan conception of slavery; the Bible and the Jewish civilization led him already into a happier and more humane world. The bible mitigated slavery and enacted a humanitarian legislation respecting the manumission of slaves; but the Christian conscience of the Apostle alone explains his attitude towards Onesimus and slavery. One the one hand, St. Paul accepted slavery as an established fact, a deeply-rooted social institution which he did not attempt to abolish all at once and suddenly; moreover, if the Christian religion should have attempted violently to destroy pagan slavery, the assault would have exposed the Roman empire to a servile insurrection, the Church to the hostility of the imperial power, and the slaves to awful reprisals. On the other hand, if St. Paul does not denounce the abstract and inherent wrong of complete slavery (if that question presented itself to his mind, he did not express it), he knew and appreciated its actual abuses and evil possibilities and he addressed himself to the regulations and the betterment of existing conditions. He inculcated forbearance to slaves as well as obedience to masters (Ephesians 6:5-9; Colossians 3:22; 4:1; Philemon 8-12, 15, 17; 1 Timothy 6:1; Titus 2:9). He taught that the Christian slave is the Lord's freedman (1 Corinthians 7:22), and vigorously proclaimed the complete spiritual equality of slave and freeman, the universal, fatherly love of God, and the Christian brotherhood of men:

For you are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as have been baptized in Christ, have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free: there is neither male nor female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:26-28; cf. Colossians 3:10-11)

These fundamental Christian principles were the leaven which slowly and steadily spread throughout the whole empire. They curtailed the abuses of slavery and finally destroyed it (Vincent, "Philippians and Philemon", Cambridge, 1902, 167).

Publication information Written by A. Camerlynck. Transcribed by Thomas M. Barrett. Dedicated to the memory of slaves who were slain The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume XI. Published 1911. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Nihil Obstat, February 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York


In addition to works referred to, consult Introductions to the New Testament. CATHOLIC: TOUSSAINT in VIGOUROUX, Dict. de la Bible, s. vv. Philemon; Philemon, Epître à; VAN STEENKISTE, Commentarius in Epistolas S. Pauli, XI (Bruges, 1896); ALLARD, Les esclaves chretiens (Paris, 1900); PRAT, La Théologie de S. Paul (Paris, 1908), 384 sq.; NON-CATHOLIC: OLTRAMARE, Commentaire sur les Epitres de S. Paul aux Colossiens, aux Ephesiens et a Philémon (Paris, 1891); VON SODEN, Die Briefe an die Kolosser, Epheser, Philemon in Hand-Commentar zum N.T., ed. HOLTZMANN (Freiburg, 1893); SHAW, The Pauline Epistles (Edinburgh, 1904); WOULE, The Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon (Cambridge, 1902).

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