The Glossary of Terms



Harper’s Bible Dictionary

edited by Paul J. Achtemier (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985)

Philemon, resident of Colossae and owner of the slave Onesimus, for whom Paul appeals in his Letter to Philemon. He was converted to Christianity by Paul (Philem. 19), probably at Ephesus. He had been associated with Paul’s mission, for he is described as ‘our beloved fellow worker’ (Philem. 1). Since he was able to host a congregation (Philem. 2) and prepare a guest room for Paul (Philem. 22), Philemon was an individual of substance. Paul observes that Philemon was recognized as a person of faith and love toward Christ and the church (Philem. 4-7)

Philemon, the Letter of Paul to, the shortest of Paul’s Letters. It is a personal but not a private letter. Written primarily to Philemon, it is also addressed to Apphia (perhaps his wife), Archippus, and the congregation that meets in Philemon’s house (1-2) in Colossae (Col. 4:9, 17). The Letter appeals on behalf of Onesimus (10), Philemon’s slave, who has apparently run away after defrauding his master (18-19). Since fugitive slaves were subject to severe penalty (usually burning the legs or arms with hot iron or branding the forehead), Onesimus may have come to Paul for asylum. Runaway slaves could flee to shrines or altars (even one in a private residence) for sanctuary. Onesimus knew of Paul through his master’s association with the apostle (1, 19). Paul is in prison (1, 9, 10, 13, 23), probably in Ephesus—a location that would make feasible his projected visit to Philemon (22). While enjoying Paul’s protection, Onesimus has been converted to Christianity (10).

Paul sends the slave back to his master (12) bearing this Letter. According to Roman law, fugitive slaves were to be returned to their owners; anyone harboring a runaway was subject to a fine. However, if the slave was seeking protection from a maltreating master, he would not legally be a fugitive. Roman laws regarding slaves would apply to this situation only if Philemon was a Roman citizen—a matter about which we have no information. The exact nature of Paul’s appeal, which is composed with rhetorical skill, is not certain. Paul may simply be asking Philemon to receive the slave back without punishment. However, his recommendation to accept Onesimus ‘no longer as a slave, but…as a beloved brother’ (16) may imply the freeing of the slave and his acceptance into the Christian community. According to many interpreters, Paul is seeking the release of Onesimus for service in his, Paul’s, mission. Paul says that he would like to have kept Onesimus with him ‘in order that he might serve me’ (13) and that he expects Philemon will do ‘even more than I say’ (21).

The ingenious theory of John Knox that Onesimus is the slave of Archippus and that the Letter to Philemon is the letter ‘from Laodicea’ (Col. 4:16) rests on insufficient evidence. If Colossians is a genuine letter of Paul, it was written at the same time and place as Philemon (Col. 4:10-14; Philem. 23-24). Knox’s belief that Onesimus was released and became an important leader in the church is supported by the preservation of the Letter to Philemon and the reference to Onesimus in Col. 4:9.

Although Paul does not attack the institution of slavery (see 1 Cor. 7:20-24), his Letter to Philemon has important ethical implications. He urges the slave owner not to treat Onesimus (in accord with Roman law) as property but as a person in Christ (see Gal. 3:28; 1 Cor. 12:13), who should be received as though he were Paul himself (17). Philemon is free to make his decision (14) in response to the command of love (4-7).


Topical index of terms
Edited for by Robert Nguyen Cramer
Top of page