1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Philemon, Epistle to

20889971911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 21 — Philemon, Epistle to

PHILEMON, EPISTLE TO, a scripture of the New Testament. Onesimus, a slave, had robbed (vv. 11, 18–19) and run away from his master Philemon, a prosperous and influential Christian citizen of Colossae (Col. iv. 9), either offence rendering him liable to be crucified. Voluntarily or accidentally, he came across Paul, who won him over to the Christian faith. In the few tactful and charming lines of this brief note, the apostle sends him back to his master with a plea for kindly treatment. After greeting Philemon and his wife, with Archippus (possibly their son) and the Christians who met for worship at Philemon’s house (vv. 1–2), Paul rejoices over (vv. 4–7) his correspondent’s character, it encourages him to make an appeal on behalf of the unworthy Onesimus (8–21), now returning (Col. iv. 9) along with Tychicus to Colossae, as a penitent and sincere Christian, in order to resume his place in the household. With a line or two of personal detail (22–25) the note closes.

Rome would be a more natural rendezvous for fugitivarii (runaway slaves) than Caesarea (Hilgenfeld and others), and it is probable that Paul wrote this note, with Philippians and Colossians, from the metropolis. As Laodicea is close to Colossae it does not follow, even if Archippus be held to have belonged to the former town (as Lightfoot argues from Col. iv. 13–17), that Philemon’s residence must have been there also (so A. Maier, Thiersch, Wieseler, &c). Paul cannot have converted Philemon at Colossae (Col. 11. 1), but elsewhere, possibly at Ephesus, yet Philemon may have been on a visit to Ephesus, for, even were the Ephesian Onesimus of Ignatius (Eph. ii.) the Onesimus of this note, it would not prove that he had always lived there. No adequate reason has been shown for suspecting that the note is interpolated at any point. The association of Timotheus with Paul (v. 1) does not involve any official tinge, which would justify the deletion of καὶ Τιμόθεος ὁ ἀδελφός μου in that verse, and of ἡμῶν in vv. 1–2 (so Holtzmann), and Hausrath’s suspicions of the allusion to Paul as a prisoner and of v. 12 are equally arbitrary. The construction in vv. 5–6 is difficult, but it yields to exegetical treatment (cf. especially Haupt’s note) and does not involve the interpolation of matter by the later redactor of Colossians and Ephesians (Holtzmann, Hausrath[1] and Bruckner, Reihenfolge d. paul. Briefe, 200 seq.).

The brevity of the note and its lack of doctrinal significance prevented it from gaining frequent quotation in the early Christian literature. but it appears in Marcion’s canon as well as in the Muratorian, whilst Tertullian mentions, and Origen expressly quotes it. During the 19th century, the hesitation about Colossians led to the rejection of Philemon by some critics as a pseudonymous little pamphlet on the slave question—an aberration of literary criticism (reproduced in Ency. Bib, 3693 seq) which needs simply to be chronicled. It is interesting to observe that, apart from the letter of commendation for Phoebe (Rom. xvi), this is the only letter in the New Testament addressed, even in part, to a woman, unless the second epistle of John be taken as meant for an individual.

Bibliography.—In addition to most commentaries on Colossians and to Dr M. R. Vincent’s edition of Philippians, compare special exegetical studies by R. Rollock (Geneva, 1602), G. C. Storr (1781), J. K. I. Demme, Erklärung d. Philemon-Briefes (1844); H. A. Petermann, Ad fidem versionum . . . cum earum textu orig. graece (Berlin, 1844), M. Rothe, Pauli ad Philem. epistolae interpretatio historico-exegetica (Bremen, 1844), and H. J. Holtzmann, Zeitschrift für wissen. Theologie (1873), pp 428 sqq., besides the essays of J. G. C. Klotzsch, De occasione et indole epistolae ad Philem. (1792); D. H. Wildschut, De vi dictonis et sermonis elegantia in epistola ad Philem. (1809), and J. P. Esser, Der Brief an Philemon (1875). An up-to-date survey of criticism is furnished by Dr J. H. Bernard in Hastings’s Dictionary of the Bible, iv. 832–834, and a good exposition may be found in Z. Weber’s Der Brief an d. Philemon, ein Vorbild für die christl. Behandlung sozialer Fragen (1896), as well as in Dr A. H. Drysdale’s devotional commentary (London, 1906). (J. Mt.) 

  1. History of the New Testament Times (1895), iv. 122–123. See, on this, Schenkel’s Bibel-Lexikon, iv. 531–532.