Facts and summary
Philemon is the eighteenth book of the Christian New Testament. The author is traditionally understood to be the Apostle Paul. Philemon is one of the shortest books in the New Testament at 25 verses. Paul most likely wrote the letter around 60 A.D. from prison in Rome. The letter is named after the original recipient, Philemon, a Colossian believer and slave owner. The purpose of the book concerns Philemon's slave Onesimus had run away (a crime punishable by death), but then was converted by Paul and became willing to return to his master. Paul writes to ask Philemon to accept Onesimus as a Christian brother.
There is some diversity of opinion as to the place from which the apostle wrote Philemon. Certain scholars (Reuss, Schenkel, Weiss, Holtzmann, Hilgenfeld, Hausrath and Meyer) have urged Caesarea in opposition to the traditional place, Rome. The arguments advanced are first that Onesimus would have been more likely to have escaped to Caesarea than to Rome, as it is nearer Colosse than Rome is, to which we may reply that, though Caesarea is nearer, his chance of escape would have been far greater in the capital than in the provincial city.
Again it is said that as Onesimus is not commended in Ephesians, he had already been left behind at Colosse; against which there are advanced the precarious value of an argument from silence, and the fact that this argument assumes a particular course which the bearers of the letters would follow, namely, through Colosse to Ephesus. A more forcible argument is that which is based on the apostle's expected visit. In Phil 2:24 we read that he expected to go to Macedonia on his release; in Philem 1:22 we find that he expected to go to Colosse.
On the basis of this latter reference it is assumed that he was to the south of Colosse when writing and so at Caesarea. But it is quite as probable that he would go to Colosse through Philippi as the reverse; and it is quite possible that even if he had intended to go direct to Colosse when he wrote to Philemon, events may have come about to cause him to change his plans.
The last argument, based on the omission of any reference to the earthquake of which Tacitus (Ann. xiv.27) and Eusebius (Chron., O1, 207) write, is of force as opposed to the Rom origin of the letters only on the assumption that these writers both refer to the same event (by no means sure) and that the epistles.
Were written after that event, and that it was necessary that Paul should have mentioned it. If the early chronology be accepted it falls entirely, as Tacitus' earlier date would be after the epistles. were written. In addition we have the further facts, favorable to Rome, that Paul had no such freedom in Cuesarea as he is represented in these epistles as enjoying; that no mention is made of Philip who was in Caesarea and a most important member of that community (Acts 21:8), and finally that there is no probability that so large a body of disciples and companions could have gathered about the apostle in his earlier and more strict imprisonment, at Caesarea. We may therefore conclude that the Captivity Epistles were written from Rome, and not from Caesarea.
The external evidence for the epistle is less extensive than that of some of the other epp., but it is abundantly strong. The play on the word Onesimus which Paul himself uses (Philem 1:11) is found in Ignatius, Ephesians, ii. This may not mean necessarily a literary connection, but it suggests this. The epistle is known to Tertullian, and through him we know that Marcion accepted it (Adv. Marc., v.21). It is in the list in the Muratorian Fragment (p. 106, l. 27), and is quoted by Origen as Pauline (Hom. in Jer., 19) and placed by Eusebius (Historia Ecclesiastica, III, xxv) among the acknowledged books.
It has twice been the object of attack. In the 4th and 5th centuries it was opposed as unworthy of Paul's mind and as of no value for edification. This attack was met successfully by Jerome (Commentary on Philemon, praef.), Chrysostom (Argum. in Philem) and Theodore of Mopsuestia (Spicil. in Solesm, I, 149), and the epistle. was finally established in its earlier firm position.
The later attack by Baur was inspired by his desire to break down the corroborative value of Philem to the other Captivity Epistles, and has been characterized by Weiss as one of Baur's worst blunders. The suggestions that it is interpolated (Holtzmann), or allegorical (Weizsacker and Pfleiderer), or based on the letter of Pliny (Ep. IX, 21) to Sabinianus (Steck), are interesting examples of the vagaries of their authors, but "deserve only to be mentioned" (Zahn). In its language, style and argument the letter is clearly Pauline.
The date will, as is the case with the other Captivity Epistles, depend on the chronology. If the earlier scheme be followed it may be dated about 58, if the later about 63, or 64.
The apostle writes in his own and Timothy's name to his friend &PHILEMON (which see) in behalf of Onesimus, a runaway slave of the latter. Beginning with his usual thanksgiving, here awakened by the report of Philemon's hospitality, he intercedes for his `son begotten in his bonds' (Philem 1:10), Onesimus, who though he is Philemon's runaway slave is now "a brother." It is on this ground that the apostle pleads, urging his own age, and friendship for Philemon, and his present bonds.
He pleads, however, without belittling Onesimus' wrongdoing, but assuming himself the financial responsibility for the amount of his theft. At the same time the apostle quietly refers to what Philemon really owes him as his father in Christ, and begs that he will not disappoint him in his expectation. He closes with the suggestion that he hopes soon to visit him, and with greetings from his companions in Rome.
The charm and beauty of this epistle have been universally recognized. Its value to us as giving a glimpse of Paul's attitude toward slavery and his intimacy with a man like Philemon cannot be over-estimated. One of the chief elements of value in it is the picture it gives us of a Christian home in the apostolic days; the father and mother well known for their hospitality, the son a man of position and importance in the church, the coming and going of the Christian brethren, and the life of the brotherhood centering about this household.