Introducing the New Testament, 2nd Edition

A Historical, Literary, and Theological Survey

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23. Philemon


This chapter should enable the student to

  • summarize what modern scholarship has to say regarding the historical background for Philemon, including information about the individual addressed, the date of the letter’s composition, and the circumstances that prompted Paul to write such a letter.
  • describe the reality of slavery in the Roman world and the attitude taken toward it in Philemon.
  • discuss Paul’s rhetorical strategies employed in the letter to Philemon.

Pedagogical Suggestions

1. Philemon’s Slave or Brother?

Is Onesimus a slave? Slavery was a prominent institution in the ancient world. As much as one-third of the population may have been enslaved at one time. During times of famine, rates may have gone higher as people would sell themselves into slavery to be able to eat. Generally speaking, slaves were at the bottom of the social structure. “To be a slave” was a common metaphor for what some viewed as lower-class activities or despicable behavior. “Slave!” was used as a rebuke and insult. To call a free citizen a “slave” was considered libel. Some scholars have questioned whether the two phrases in this letter “no longer as a slave” and “as more than a slave” are literal or figurative. That is, is Onesimus Philemon’s legal slave, or is Onesimus perhaps Philemon’s estranged (indebted? “useless”?) brother, for whom Paul hopes to clear a path of reconciliation back to the family?

Read the letter carefully together in class. Where does the word “slave” occur? How is it used? Is there any indication that Onesimus has “run away,” as some traditional interpretations of this letter assume? Paul often uses both the language of “slave” (in Greek, the same word doulos is translated “slave” and “servant”) and of “brother” (Greek adelphos) metaphorically, so it is up to the interpreter to adjudicate and discern the function of this language here. What changes if one reads “slave” metaphorically? What changes if one reads “brother” metaphorically?

Compare the much more direct language of an ancient letter in text box 23.3 regarding a runaway “freedman” (a former slave who continues to serve his original master after earning or buying his freedom). Compare the similarities and differences in this letter and Paul’s.


Biblical studies is a living discipline, and scholars make headway and discoveries with new evidence, new methods, and sometimes, just new ways of thinking and reading. The interpretation of Philemon is such a case. The weight of tradition stands with the reading of Onesimus as Philemon’s estranged slave. However, some very intriguing arguments have been put forward to counter this argument and to understand Onesimus as Philemon’s brother “no longer a slave (base human) but as a brother (in name and in responsibility).” With their analytical tools, and the brief explanation of the use of the language of slave and brother, students can enter the scholarly debate. They practice the use of evidence to make arguments and the close reading of themes, phrasing, and tone in the letter as well as comparison with other letters. The goal is not to resolve the question but to have students engage the questions.

Discussion Prompts

  1. Although the content of this letter is directed at Philemon, the letter itself is addressed to “Philemon, Apphia, Archippus, and the church in your house.” This is a letter to a church whose members may be concerned with the outcome of the reconciliation Paul is trying to broker between Philemon and Onesimus. If Onesimus carried this letter back to the house church led by Philemon and read the letter aloud in the assembly of the believers, what rhetorical force does this “performance” create? How is Paul using the practice of reading letters aloud in the public assembly as part of his strategy for reconciliation of the two parties?
  2. Note Paul’s careful negotiating. He calls on Philemon as a friend and also a debtor. Paul is walking a careful line between reminding his friend of a favor owed and creating goodwill in his friend to grant that favor. How does Paul balance the language of friendship, debt, memory, and future relations to walk this line successfully?