Unger's Bible Dictionary: Philemon



PHILEMON, EPISTLE TO. A brief epistle of Paul to Philemon, a Christian slave owner, whose slave Onesimus had run away from him.


Object. Onesimus had fled to Rome, and he seems to have defrauded his master (v. 18). At Rome he was converted under the ministry of Paul and was induced by the great apostle to return to his master. The exquisite epistle to Philemon recommends the converted runaway slave to Philemon's favorable reception. Paul urges that the new convert be no longer considered a mere servant but also a brother in Christ. Paul also requests Philemon to prepare him a lodging, as he expects to visit Colossae shortly. Philemon is also addressed to a certain "Apphia," perhaps Philemon's wife, and to "Archippus," a minister in the Colossian church (cf. Col 4:17).


Place of Writing. Philemon is closely connected with Colossians. Onesimus carried both epistles. However, Tychicus is joined with Onesimus in the epistle to the Colossians (Col 4:9). Paul and Timothy stand in the greetings of Paul. Paul is named as a prisoner in both (Philem 9; Col 4:18); and in both Archippus is addressed (Philem 2; Col 4:17). It seems evident, therefore, that both epistles were written in about the same time and place-at Rome during Paul's first imprisonment, A.D. 61 or 62.


Authenticity. Origen cites the epistle as a Pauline letter addressed to Philemon concerning Onesimus. Tertullian refers to the brevity of this epistle as the "sole cause of its escaping the falsifying hands of Marcion" (Against Marcion 5.21). Eusebius refers to it as one of the "universally acknowledged Epistles of the canon" (Ecclesiastical History 3.25). Jerome and Ignatius also allude to it. It is quoted infrequently by the Fathers, evidently because of its brevity. Its coincidences with the Colossian epistle attest to its authenticity.


Its Style. This short epistle is a masterpiece of Christian tactfulness and politeness. In fact, it has been called "the polite epistle." Its politeness, however, has no trace of insincerity, often found in the urbanity of the world. As Luther noted, the epistle exhibits "a right noble, lovely example of Christian love." Verses 17 and 18 of the epistle present a forceful illustration of imputation: "Accept him as you would me," that is, reckon to him my merit; "if he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account," that is, reckon to me his demerit.



BIBLIOGRAPHY: W. H. G. Thomas, Studies in Colossians and Philemon (1973); H. C. G. Moule, Studies in Colossians and Philemon (1977); W. G. Scroggie, Studies in Philemon (1977). See also Colossians [COLOSSIANS, EPISTLE TO THE].

(from The New Unger's Bible Dictionary. Originally published by Moody Press of Chicago, Illinois. Copyright (c) 1988.)

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