Fausset's Bible Dictionary

The Epistle to Philemon

Anthenticity of. Origen (Hom. 19, Jer. 1:185) quotes it as Paul's. Tertullian (Marcion 5:21), "the brevity of this epistle is the cause of its escaping Marcion's falsifying hands." Eusebius (E. H. 3:25) ranks it among "the universally acknowledged (homologoumena) epistles of the canon." Jerome (Prooem. Philemon iv. 442) argues against those who thought its Subject beneath an apostle. Ignatius (Ephesians 2, Magnes. 12) alludes to Phm 1:20. Compare Polycarp 1 and 6. The catalogues, the Muratori Fragment, the list of Athanasius (Ep. 39), Jerome (Ep. 2 ad Paulin.), the council of Laodicea (A.D. 364), and the third of Carthage (A.D. 397) support it.

Its brevity accounts for the few quotations from it in the fathers. Paley (Hor. Paul.) shows its authenticity from the undesigned coincidences between it and the epistle to the Colossians. Place and time of writing. The same bearer Onesimus bore it and epistle to Colossians; in the latter (Col 4:7-9) Tychicus is joined with Onesimus. Both address Archippus (Phm 1:2; Col 4:17). Paul and Timothy stand in both headings. In both Paul writes as a prisoner (Phm 1:9; Col 4:18). Both were written at Rome during the early and freer portion of Paul's first imprisonment, A.D. 62; in Phm 1:22 he anticipates a speedy release.

AIM. This epistle is a beautiful sample of Christianity applied to every day life and home relations and mutual duty of master and servant (Psa 101:2-7). Onesimus of Colosse, (Col 4:9), Philemon's slave, had fled to Rome after defrauding his master (Phm 1:18). Paul there was instrumental in converting him; then persuaded him to return (Phm 1:12) and gave him this epistle, recommending him to Philemon's favorable reception as henceforth about to be his "forever," no longer unprofitable but, realizing his name, "profitable to Paul and Philemon" (Phm 1:11; Phm 1:15).

Not until Phm 1:10, and not until its end, does the name occur. Paul skillfully makes the favorable description precede the name which had fallen into so bad repute with Philemon; "I beseech thee for my son whom I begat in my bonds, Onesimus." Trusting soon to be free Paul begs Philemon to prepare him a lodging at Colosse. Paul addresses this epistle also to Apphia, who, from its domestic subject, is supposed to have been Philemon's wife, and to Archippus, a minister of the Colossian (Col 4:17) church, and supposed to be Philemon's relative and inmate of his house.

STYLE. Graceful delicacy and genuine politeness, combined with a natural, easy, free flow of feeling and thought, characterize this elegant epistle. Manly and straightforward, without insincere compliment, suppression, or misrepresentation of facts, it at once charms and persuades. Luther says: "it shows a lovely example of Christian love. Paul layeth himself out for poor Onesimus, and with all his means pleadeth his cause with his master, and so setteth himself as if he were Onesimus and had himself done wrong to Philemon. Yet all this doeth he, not with force as if he had a right thereto, but strippeth himself of his right and thus enforceth Philemon to forego his right also: even as Christ did for us with God the Father; for Christ also stripped Himself of His right and by love and humility enforced (?) the Father to lay aside His wrath and power and to take us to His grace for the sake of Christ, who lovingly pleadeth our cause and with all His heart layeth Himself out for us; for we are all His Onesimi."

"Paul was the common friend of the parties at variance; he must conciliate a man who had good reason to be offended; he must commend the offender, yet neither deny nor aggravate the fault; he must assert Christian equality in the face of a system which hardly recognized the humanity of the slave; he could have placed the question on the ground of his own personal rights, yet must waive them to secure an act of spontaneous kindness; his success must be a triumph of love, and nothing be demanded for the sake of the justice which could have claimed everything; he limits his request to a forgiveness of the wrong and g restoration to favor, yet so guards his words as to leave scope for all the generosity which benevolence might prompt toward one whose condition admitted of so much alleviation. Paul has shown in dealing with these contrarieties a tact equal to the occasion" (Smith's Bible Dictionary). The younger Pliny's intercession for a runaway (Ep. 9:21) is decidedly inferior.


Taken from: Fausset's Bible Dictionary by Andrew Robert Fausset (1821-1910)