By Adolf Jülicher
§ 10. The Epistle to Philemon
This little note, which besides the address and farewell greetings consists of merely a single paragraph, is addressed to an individual Christian named Philemon; the persons included in the opening greeting, Apphia and Archippus, are members of his family, and around this again a house-community, as in the case of Aquila and Prisca at Ephesus, has gathered. A certain slave of Philemonʼs, Onesimus by name, had run away from his master, perhaps under aggravating circumstances—i.e. with stolen money 1—and the imprisoned Paul had succeeded in converting him. The Apostle now sends him back to his master, as he was bound to do, but entreats the latter to forgive him and to look upon him no longer as a slave, but as a brother. Since he allows it to be seen how gladly he would have kept Onesimus beside him, and how Philemon really owed him some such requital for ʽhis conversion, which had been effected by Paul himself, it seems that he expected the liberation of the slave as the one service to which, for the sake of the Gospel, he laid claim. He makes no demand, however, on that ground. According to Colossians iv. 9, Onesimus was a Colossian, and Archippus also belonged to that city, or to its immediate
126 AN INTRODUCTION TO THE NEW TESTAMENT (cnap. I.
neighbourhood,2 so that we must look for the head of the family, Philemon, at Colosse too. It is true that Paul had never been to this town and yet seems to have won over Philemon to Christ, but a man so well-to-do would have travelled—at least as much as a Chloë3 or a Phoebe4—and nothing would have been more natural than that he should have met Paul more than once on such occasions— e.g. at Ephesus.
At the time of writing the Epistle Paul was in captivity,5 but was not hindered from doing fruitful work.6 This alone might speak for Rome as against Caesarea, but the impression is further strengthened by the hope expressed by Paul in ver. 22 that he would soon be able to claim Philemonʼs hospitality.7 In no case would the discrepancy between the plans of travel in Philippians ii. 24 and Philemon 22 (if it exists at all) compel us to consider Rome in the former case and Caesarea here as the starting-points of the proposed journeys —as though Paul were bound to cling fast to ideas so casually hinted at (for they are really nothing more) for a period of perhaps a year. Nor need we rack our brains to decide whether a slave escaping from Colosse would be more likely to betake himself to Rome, with all its hiding-places, or to Caesarea, where no one would suspect his presence; for his meeting with Paul must in any case have been the work of chance. Since Timothy, as well as certain other brethren, is here staying with Paul, as in Philippians,8 the Epistle should be assigned to some date near the Epistle to the Philippians, but whether a trifle earlier or later is not to be determined. At any rate, the cheerful temper of the present Epistle—which in ver. 19 allows the writer to speak in harmless jest—is not necessarily earlier than the melancholy thoughts of Philippians. The Tübingen school have pronounced the Epistle to be non-Pauline; they consider that the supposed later author was aiming at a settlement of the slavery question through the lips of Paul, and that the state of things implied in the Epistle is a little too romantic to be true. But the whole of the Apostleʼs life was romantic in this sense, and a settlement of the slavery question, which one almost expects, is precisely what the writer does not attempt; he keeps himself throughout to the one case before him, and does not even there give any quite unequivocal decision. As far as form and contents are concerned, there is nothing in Philemon unfavourable to the theory of its authenticity, and it is probable that no one would have questioned it, had not the Epistle been injured by its close connection with Colossians and Ephesians, whose Pauline authorship it was thought necessary to deny. But how could a forger have put unfulfilled hopes9 into the mouth of the Apostle? And what a masterpiece of imitation would the whole Epistle present, notably vv. 15-20! The pedantic doubts of later theologians as to the canonical nature and the inspiration of Philemon, of which we hear through Jerome, Chrysostom and Theodorus Mopsuestenus, are anything rather than the relics of primitive tradition; on the contrary, the external evidence rather confirms the witness borne by every sentence in the Epistle, that Philemon belongs to the least doubtful part of the Apostleʼs work.
1) Verse 18.
2) Col. iv. 17.
3) 1 Cor. i. 11.
4) Rom. xvi. 1.
5) Vv. 1 and 13.
6) Ver. 10.
7) See p. 122.
8) Philip. i. 1, i. 14 and 16-18.
9) Ver. 22.