Introducing the New Testament, 2nd Edition

A Historical, Literary, and Theological Survey


23. Philemon

Video Introduction


This chapter offers a brief overview of the contents of Philemon, followed by discussion of historical background and major themes.

In terms of historical background, the letter was written by Paul from prison to Philemon, a wealthy church member in Colossae. The date of composition depends on where Paul is thought to have been imprisoned at the time, but, in any case, the purpose of the letter is to request that Philemon be generous and compassionate in welcoming back a slave, Onesimus, whom he probably believes has wronged him. Beyond this, the letter hints strongly that Philemon allow Onesimus to return to Paul.

Scholars often examine this letter as a paradigm for rhetorical strategies, noting the measures Paul takes to persuade Philemon to do as he wishes. The letter is also the focus of attention concerning Paul’s attitude toward slavery. Paul was bound by Roman law to return Onesimus if in fact the latter had run away from his master, but there was also provision in Roman law for such a slave to seek sanctuary with a master’s friend, which may be what Onesimus has done with Paul. Most scholars think that Paul probably found slavery in principle to be antithetical to the Christian gospel, but they acknowledge that Paul does not seem to have condemned the institution outright or to have prohibited it among Christians.

Study Questions

  1. Summarize the story that apparently lies behind Paul’s letter to Philemon: What has happened regarding the slave Onesimus? Why is Paul now writing this letter to Onesimus’s master?

  2. What was slavery like in the Roman world, and what provisions did Roman law offer a slave who was on the outs with his or her master?

  3. How does Paul seek to persuade Philemon to do as he wishes? List at least four “persuasive tactics” Paul employs to influence Philemon’s compliance.

  4. Discuss Paul’s attitude toward slavery, based on this letter and other references to slavery in Pauline epistles.

Video: Slavery in the New Testament World