A Commentary on the Book of Philemon

theology

The book of Philemon is a small epistle tucked into the New Testament that is often overlooked. However, this book is immensely valuable and provides commentary not only on the context of the Greco-Roman world but also our world. This lengthy post is a copy of an exegetical research paper I wrote as a commentary on verses 8-16. What we come to find is a beautifully subversive letter from the apostle Paul. My translation of the Greek with notes can be found at the bottom of this page, and this is the translation that I use throughout the paper.


Christianity throughout history has been riddled with controversy. From the Crusades to the Inquisition, we have always struggled to properly lead the lives that we are called to in Scripture. In particular, Philemon can be seen as one of these more controversial books since Paul does not outrightly denounce slavery when he discusses a slave named Onesimus. However, with careful inspection of historical, rhetorical, and finally theological implications of this short book, we find that Paul skillfully subverts the system of not only slavery but of hierarchy in general. The result is a deeply moving and compelling transformation of how the Christian ought to see the world and interact with those in the world. With clear theological implications as well as a glimpse into the world of the apostle Paul, Philemon is a crucial part of the New Testament canon. This is a deep dive into the book itself, so I begin with historical background followed by commentary and finally theological implications.

The book of Philemon is the fourth of the prison letters Philippians, Ephesians, and Colossians, all of which were written by Paul.[1] This is undisputed due to the fact that Paul labels himself within the letter.[2] There has been debate historically as to whether this book was written from Paul’s time in Rome, Caesarea, or Ephesus. Due to the fact that Rome was a popular city for those who have left their masters to assimilate into the crowded city as well as postscripts attached to manuscripts that state the letter was written from Rome, I think that this is the best option for this letter.[3] This reading also has been affirmed by the likes of Aquinas, Luther, Lightfoot, and Metzger. However, the evidence is not ultimately exclusive, so it is still possible that it was written elsewhere. If it were indeed to have been written in Rome, the dating of this letter would be anywhere from 61-63.[4] The circumstances behind the text have been disputed throughout history, and the most traditional reading can be summarized in this statement from John Calvin that “Sending back a runaway slave and thief, he [Paul] supplicates pardon for him.”[5] Amongst other problems, Pao notes that slaves were most likely not to be housed with Roman citizens (like Paul) in jail, making the traditional interpretation difficult to maintain with the influx of historical data not available to people like Calvin.[6] Recognizing that the slave is indeed alienated, another hypothesis is that the alienated Onesimus sought out Paul because Paul had the authority to reason and intercede on behalf of Onesimus.[7] Citing verses 10-14, however, expresses that it is in no way clear that Onesimus is explicitly wishing to be restored to his master as this conjecture posits. This interpretation also undermines how Paul associates himself more so with the slave than with Philemon.[8]  Pao argues that Onesimus is not an runaway slave but rather one sent to Paul as he was under arrest in Rome. By discussing similarities between Philemon and Philippians as well as Philemon sending Onesimus as the act of kindness Paul discusses, this interpretation is compelling. [9]

This letter to Philemon, Apphia, and Archippus is not unlike most ancient letters. It begins with and “identification of tise writer, identification of the sender, and a greeting.”[10] The uniqueness of the letter is that Paul includes more than simply one name, and there seems to be a reason for this. By having multiple addresses, it is almost certain that Paul expected this letter to be read aloud to the church that met in Philemon’s house.[11] Moreover, if indeed these extra addresses are members of Philemon’s household, then Paul is utilizing an honor-shame dynamic so that he may be able to sway Philemon to do as he wished. The more people who hear the word of Paul, the more likely Philemon is to listen to his supplication. Paul continues on from this greeting to praise Philemon’s character as possessing both faith and love. Paul uses a chiastic structure, surrounding faith with love in order that he may fully express the gracious nature of Philemon with the end of eventually seeking to hold Philemon accountable to this appraisal.[12] Paul wishes to rhetorically obligate Philemon to the loving nature that he has exhibited towards Paul, and this relies upon Philemon responding honorably in light of the congregants expectations according to the letter.

Beginning with the historical perspective, we must come to realize that stark difference between New World slavery and slavery in the Greco-Roman world. Keener points out that slaves by nature “were persons, but from an economic standpoint they were property.”[13] We also must see that most slaves would receive manumission by the age of thirty.[14] Barchty points out that selling oneself into slavery was something common and seen as a path towards economic freedom.[15] Moreover, Keener discusses how many slaves in the ancient world received much better treatment than many freeman.[16] There are ever-clear disconnects between the modern-day notion of slavery and what we know to be slavery. This does not mean that Paul supported slavery in its undeniably inhumane form, but it may provide insight as to why Paul does not incite his readers to insurrection. Rather, Paul spends his time undermining slavery not through direct ethical discourse but through capitalizing off of rhetorical devices and his close relationship with Philemon.

With context properly setting the stage for examination of the text, we begin with verse 8 with the inferential conjunction dio, which I translated, “For these very reasons.”[17] White comments that this example of the conjunction is used to express the body of the paragraph is in light of everything contained within verses 4-7, which is a high appraisal of the nature of Philemon’s character.[18] Paul’s appeal on behalf of Onesimus is now predicated upon Philemon’s kind and gracious nature, and Paul is thereby obligating Philemon to his request via the honor-shame dynamic that was an innate part of the Greco-Roman culture.[19] With this in mind, we also must notice that Paul explicitly denies using his apostolic authority “in Christ” and rather chooses to advocate on the basis of love, which is the chief attribute of Philemon.[20] In this manner, Paul is now able to make his argument abundantly clear, not through using a “position of authority,” but on “on the basis of love.”[21] Paul depicts himself as an old man in chains not only to express the need of Philemon’s help but also to create an intimate relation between him and Onesimus in slavery, who is “in the chains of the good news.”[22] Paul is rhetorically twisting the arm of Philemon into agreement with him but also is drawing new theological distinctions about the nature of the Church and familial relations in Christ.[23] It is also important to note that Paul includes Onesimus in this new family of Christ with the phrase “prisoner of Christ.”[24]

Verse 10 begins to create an interesting and unprecedented dynamic unseen within Classical literature.[25] Paul explicitly describes Onesimus as one whom he is directly related to, using the Greek verb genao which I translated as “begotten” but is translated as Paul being the “father” of Onesimus in many other translations.[26] I chose to use a more rigid iteration because I want readers to realize that Paul may be using a proverbial statement, but it is not merely proverbial, for Paul truly wishes to reorganize power structures and the family under the newly instituted covenant of Christ.[27] We also again see the repetition of the word “chains” so that we may continue to draw direct relation between Paul and Onesimus.[28] Paul then utilizes a form of wordplay by stating that Onesimus, which means “useful”, may again be “useful” to Paul and Philemon.[29]

These familial relations are brought out again in verse 12 where Paul writes, “Whom I am sending back to you is my very heart.” Again, this brings a theological flavor to the rhetorical structure that Paul has been using thus far. N.T. Wright says that “Paul bases his law on the law of the new nature: Christ releases you to be truly human.”[30] In this way, we see that Paul is proclaiming that the reconciliatory nature of the work of Christ deconstructs the rigidity of any hierarchical structure set forth by any society, whether by Rome or America. Verse 13 shows that Onesimus has proven to be an extremely useful assistant unto Paul, with purpose of serving in “the chains of the good news.” We see from this that Paul is repeating the word “chains” to demonstrate not only his relation to Onesimus but also Onesimus’ binding to the Gospel of Christ, of which he is able to minister as an equal to Paul. It is obvious that Paul not only linguistically keeps relating himself directly to Onesimus but also rhetorically forces Philemon to take notice of the equal footing that all Christians receive in Christ. It is for this reason that Sarah Ruden believes that Christians were the ones who began to recognize the un-Christian nature of slavery and made movements to eliminate it.[31]

With again a conscious contrast against Paul’s authority, Paul appeals to Philemon’s “consent” in which he would not ask Philemon to receive Onesimus “according to compulsion.”[32] Rather, Paul wishes that Philemon’s “goodness may be according to [his] willingness.”[33] It is clear that Paul wants Philemon to exercise his own free will as he receives Onesimus.[34] The use of hina with a subjunctive verb demonstrates that there is a clear purpose expressed, showing that Paul wants the purposeful force behind the decision to be Philemon himself (with the help of rhetorical obligation, of course). However, we see that Paul is “attempting to avoid a zero-sum game” by beseeching Philemon on the basis of his willing love over and up against compulsion.[35] Transitioning to verse 15, we find that the usage of “slavery” is appropriate as Paul discusses Philemon “possessing” Onesimus. Paul charges that perhaps Onesimus was in Paul’s presence and serving for the Gospel in order that (purpose clause again) Onesimus may perpetually be linked to Philemon. However, we will come to see that Paul’s train of thought following these words clearly undermines any and all systems of slavery.

In fact, this linking is deeply subversive, and this is why Paul continues using Onesimus’ new status as a son begotten of him, going back to verse 10. Paul makes his previous claim concrete as he explicitly elevates Onesimus to the same status as himself and Philemon, which is why Keener argues that the point of this is “that one could not enslave one’s own spiritual patron.”[36] The Greek preposition huper is usually translated as “more,”[37] but it may be also translated in the way I used it, which was “above.” I chose to use this translation because it is clear that Paul is now placing Onesimus in terms of hierarchy above the place in which he previously was in slavery, now being a “beloved brother, especially to me [Paul].”[38] The addition of “in the flesh and in the Lord” is also crucially important in understanding the perception of Paul. The dative with the preposition ev denotes the idea of sphere. In the sphere of the flesh we have the operations of the world and humanity. In that era, it was the dominating Roman culture. The sphere of the Lord is most likely a reference to the coming of Jesus Christ, who heralded in the kingdom of God. Not only is Paul seeking manumission of Onesimus by wishing that he would be a brother even in the Roman world, but all of this is thanks to “the new nature” discussed by Wright which was inaugurated by the coming of Christ.[39]

 This brings us to the theological implications of the book of Philemon, especially verses 8-16. I will begin with the more subtle and not easily noticeable implication of this passage, which is re-definition of familial and household relationships. Paul is often proclaimed as the theologian of Christianity- while Jesus simply was manifesting the kingdom, Paul came along to expound upon the implications and reasons for this. However, Paul’s redefinition of familial structures can be traced back to a theology first proposed by and argued for by Jesus himself. I will use a couple instances of Jesus’ teaching to show how he redefines family, which Paul utilizes in this letter: Mark 3:31-35 and Luke 8:19-21. In the first passage we have Jesus amidst the controversy of Beelzebul, and his family seeking him out during this narrative because they believed “He is [was] out of his mind.”[40] In the dynamic of shame and honor, Jesus’ actions of healing on the Sabbath were transferring shame onto the family, and Jesus consciously undermines this in his actions.[41] Following the Beelzebul controversy, the family is still looking for him, and he said in reference to those surrounding him, “Here are my mother and brothers! For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister…”[42] Paul capitalizes on this, for service unto the Gospel by Onesimus is obviously the will of the Lord, which thereby brings Onesimus into brotherhood and equality under the name and word of Christ. Paul traces his theology of the fellowship or koinonia of the household of God back to these words of Jesus. The implication is not only a subversion of familial obligations but also a liberation from whatever social circumstance somebody may be found within, which was slavery for Onesimus.

Another teaching of Jesus about the household of God is found in Luke 14 where Jesus boldly states “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters…he cannot be my disciple.”[43] No, this does not literally mean to hate those whom we hold dear. However, Jesus knew that the family “will be divided,” especially in the early days of Christianity where it was dangerous to be a Christian.[44] With the honor-shame form of life, being a Christian then may mean that you are legitimately disowned for bringing shame upon the family. In place of this negative view of the blood-family comes a new meaning of family under Christ, in whom “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”[45] Jesus is not seeking to himself divide the family (though he knew it would be a natural consequence in some cases) but rather is offering hope especially to those who are downtrodden or denied personhood because of their life status. This is the case for Onesimus. He is provided equal footing in the family of Christ under the name of Christ, so we see that Jesus’ own theology has the positive effect of elevating those who are without honor or status, which is exactly what Paul is doing with familial language in Philemon. Onesimus, a fellow servant of the Gospel, is awarded the same status as every other person in Christ. The sphere of the Lord has invaded earth in the person of Christ, and Christ subverts the very idea of family into something beautifully compassionate and inclusive that is sorely missed by the sphere of the flesh.

The next theological implication we find from these verses is perhaps more easily perceivable and commonly thought of as Pauline in nature, which is utilizing slavery as a means by which to communicate our state especially before coming to Christ. One of the most explicit cases of this is seen in Romans 16:6 where Paul asks the Roman churches, “Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?”[46] Playing off of this theological statement, A.A. Rupprecht writes, “For Paul the one who is truly free is the person who is a slave of Christ.”[47] According to Paul it is important for Christians to realize that we are “bought with a price”[48] and the beauty of slavery to Christ is that “the one who is enslaved to Christ is ultimately free.”[49] This is expressed by the statement of Onesimus being “in chains of the good news.”[50] The paradox of Christ is that his work sets us spiritually free while the teachings of Christ set the precedence for literal manumission from worldly subjugation, and all of this under the name of and in slavery to Christ. However, I think the focus of Philemon is focused more on the literal freedom and equality of Onesimus based on the teachings of Christ rather than theologizing the convention of slavery. Mark, Luke, and Paul’s focus in general does not discount spiritual aspects of freedom. However, from Mark 3, Luke 12-14, and Philemon, we find a specific focus on the how the Gospel may affect our “in the flesh” realm with the “in the Lord” realm.[51]

Philemon is a book often overlooked not only for its brevity but also for its neglecting of outrightly confronting slavery as an inherently evil institution. However, with careful inspection of linguistic and rhetorical conventions we find that Paul indeed is subverting slavery by utilizing a manner of writing common to his day. Moreover, his approach to the case of Onesimus echoes Jesus’ own teaching and helps us realize that Paul does not support the fleshly ownership of Onesimus but rather the brotherhood of Onesimus according to Christ. While slavery is often used in the New Testament as a spiritual metaphor, I think that this provocative book speaks to being bound by literal chains, and how defending such an idea in the name of Christ directly undermines said work of Christ.

[1] Markus Barth and Helmut Blanke. The Letter to Philemon. (Grand Rapids: Wi. B. Erdmans, 2000), 121.

[2] Philemon 1;9, Lucas Revised Version.

[3] Barth and Blanke, The Letter to Philemon, 122.

[4] Ibid., 123.

[5] David W. Pao, Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, ed. Clinton E. Arnold (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), 343.

[6] Ibid., 344.

[7] Ibid., 345.

[8] Ibid., 345.

[9] Ibid., 346.

[10] Douglas J. Moo, The Pillar New Testament Commentary: The Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon, ed. D.A. Carson (Grand Rapids: Wi. B. Erdmans, 2008), 379.

[11] Ibid., 383.

[12] Ibid., 385.

[13] Craig Keener, “Philemon,” in The IVP Background Commentary (Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 642.

[14] Scott S. Bartchy, “Slavery (Greco-Roman),” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. David N. Freedman (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 66.

[15] Ibid., 67.

[16] Keener, “Philemon,” 643.

[17] Philemon 8, Lucas Revised Version.

[18] Joel White, “Game Theory and the Reconfiguration of Household Relationships,” in European Journal of Theology, vol. 26, no. 1 (EBESCO Host, April 27), 31.

[19] Ibid., 35.

[20] Ibid., 37.

[21] Cain Hope Felder, “Philemon,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, ed. Leander E. Keck, vol. 11 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000), 898.

[22] Cho Bernard, “Subverting Slavery: Philemon, Onesimus, and Paul’s Gospel of Reconciliation,” in Evangelical Quarterly, vol. 86, no. 2 (EBESCO Host, April 2017), 109.

[23] Ibid., 112.

[24] Philemon 9, Lucas Revised Version.

[25] Ibid., 107.

[26] ESV, NLT, NRSV.

[27] Cho Bernard, “Subverting Slavery,” 112.

[28] Philemon 10, Lucas Revised Version.

[29] Philemon 11, Lucas Revised Version.

[30] Cho Bernard quoting N.T. Wright in “Subverting Slavery,” 112.

[31] Sarah Ruden, Paul Among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time (New York: Image Books, 2010), 168.

[32] Philemon 14, Lucas Revised Version.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Douglas J. Moo, The Pillar New Testament, 386.

[35] Joel White, “Philemon, Game Theory,” 35.

[36] Craig Keener, “Philemon,” 645.

[37] ESV, NRSV.

[38] Philemon 16, Lucas Revised Version.

[39] Cho Bernard, “Subverting Slavery,” 112.

[40] Mark 3:21, ESV Study Bible (Wheaton: Crossway Bibles, 2010).

[41] Mark 3:1-20, ESV.

[42] Mark 3:34-35, ESV.

[43] Luke 14:26, ESV.

[44] Luke 12:53, ESV.

[45] Galatians 3:28, ESV.

[46] Romans 16:6, ESV Study Bible.

[47] A.A. Rupprecht, “Slave, Slavery,” in Dictionary of Paul and his Letters, ed. Gerald F. Hawthorne and Ralph P. Martin (Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 882.

[48] 1 Corinthians 6:20, ESV Study Bible.

[49] A.A. Rupprecht, “Slave,” 882.

[50] Philemon 13, Lucas Revised Version.

[51] Philemon 16, Lucas Revised Version.

(8) For these very reasons,[1] although having[2] much boldness in Christ to order you[3] what is befitting, [4] (9) on account of love, rather I appeal, being[5] just as an old man now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus, (10) I appeal to you for my child, whom I have begotten[6] in chains, Onesimus. (11) [He was] once useless[7] in reference to you[8] now however both useful to you and to me. (12) Whom I will be sending back to you[9] in person is my very heart. (13) Whom I myself[10] would have wished[11] to keep with myself in order that[12] on behalf of you he may serve me in the chains of the good news.[13] (14) Apart from, however, your consent, I wished[14] to do nothing in order that[15] not just according to compulsion, but your goodness may be according to willingness.(15) For perhaps on account of this he was separated[16] from you for a time in order that[17] you may possess him forever, (16) no longer just as a slave[18] but above a slave, a beloved brother especially to me, but how much more to you in the flesh[19] and in the Lord.[20]


[1] Greek inferential preposition dio, which iterates Paul is transitioning into the body of the letter in light of everything previously stated, so that is why I translated this preposition as plural.

[2] A participle of concession, denoting the addition of “although.”

[3] Dative of direct object.

[4] Adjectival participle translated substantively.

[5] Adverbial participle that is temporal expressing the contemporaneous state of being.

[6] An ingressive aorist expressing how Onesimus has become the son of Paul.

[7] It is important to note the wordplay being used here because the Onesimus means useful.

[8] Dative of reference.

[9] Translated as proleptic aorist.

[10] The pronoun used as intensive.

[11] Translated as an imperfect retained in indirect discourse.

[12] Hina in addition to a subjunctive verb creates a purpose clause.

[13] Genitive in simple apposition.

[14] Translated as constative aorist.

[15] Hina in addition to a subjunctive creates a purpose clause.

[16] Translated as a simple passive aorist verb.

[17] Hina in addition to a subjunctive creates a purpose clause.

[18] Depending on various translations, the Greek word doulos is translated differently according to context, and I believe “slave” is the best rendering of this here.

[19] Dative of sphere expressing Philemon’s redefined and new familial relation to Onesimus.

[20] Dative of sphere to represent the kingdom coming to earth and now redefining familial relations- the sphere of the Lord and of the flesh have now come into full contact in light of Jesus.

John Calvin on Prayer

theology

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“Moreover it has been explained to you that our Lord generously offer himself to us in his Son Jesus Christ, promising us through him all happiness in place of our misery, all fulness in place of our poverty, and opening up to (in him) all his heavenly treasures and riches, so that our faith may wholly look to his precious Son, our expectation be wholly directed to him, and our hope rest entirely in him.”

John Calvin

Romans 5: Death in Adam, Life in Christ

theology

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“In human affairs a representative is not a substitute. Whereas a substitute takes our place, a representative acts on our behalf, and so makes us present where we cannot personally be. But Christ is both. He always has represented and always shall represent his people before the face of God, the throne of grace and the judgment seat. He stands for us, and we are present in him. This means we are chosen in him, accepted in him, righteous in him, glorious in him. Whatever he is before God, he is for us. And so we are complete in him.”

John M. Brentnall 

Wage War

theology

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“And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.”

Matthew 5:30, ESV

This immediately brings to mind the notion set forth firstly by Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” This is the idea of living a Christian life without discipline, repentance, and confession. In terms of analogy, ponder someone welcomed into a rehabilitation clinic without any effort to recover. They talk up becoming a better person, but never bother to actually put an ounce of effort into this lasting betterment. Sadly, this is so often the case for the Church, and especially me as well. I look into heady theology and talk about God while my life is in shambles, and it is a true shame as we will come to discover.