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Bible Commentaries

Schaff's Popular Commentary on the New Testament


- Philemon

by Philip Schaff


1 . Unique character of the Epistle 2 . Of Philemon and the persons most closely connected with him 3 , His slave Onesimus 4 . Slavery in the Roman Empire 5 . The runaway slave at Rome 6 . Contents of the Epistle 7 . Its style compared with one by Pliny on a like subject 8 . Traditions concerning Onesimus 9 . Genuineness of the Epistle 10 . Time and place of writing.


THE Epistle of Paul to Philemon is unlike any other portion of the New Testament Scriptures. It deals with no matter which concerns either the history or the doctrines of Christianity, but exhibits by a particular example the practical effect of Christ’s religion on social life. Our Lord in His Sermon on the Mount, as well as in other places, had testified that His doctrines would make their influence felt in the family and among friends, and that such influence would often run counter to the received notions about social ties and obligations. Family ties between Christians would be made still more sacred; forgiveness of injuries would take the place of a desire for revenge; and the whole round of Christian life would demonstrate that the followers of Jesus knew that they must ‘do more than others.’ One social operation of the new doctrines may be in some degree noticed even during the ministry of Christ. The women among the Christian band were elevated to a position which it was not common for them to hold among the Jews, and at this we are told on one occasion [1] that the disciples themselves manifested their wonder. Another and even more marked working of Christian teaching is manifested in this Epistle. In our Lord’s time the institution of slavery was common among all nations. Among the Jews it lost somewhat of its horrors; but there was no principle in Judaism which, as was the case with the teaching of the New Covenant, placed the slave on a level with his master. It was long, indeed, before the Christian principle became so far accepted as to loose the bondman’s chains; but this letter to Philemon shows us that in the end it was sure to be done, whenever Christianity gained its full sway over men’s minds. For a long time, however, this Epistle was spoken of by some as unworthy to hold a place among the other writings of St. Paul. Some held its subject to be too trivial, and that if it were the apostle’s writing, yet that there was not always in all things Christ speaking within him. These objectors are noticed and answered by Jerome, [2] Chrysostom, and Theophylact, though the language used shows that even these Christian fathers did not realize [3] that slavery was doomed by Him who said, ‘One is your Father, and all ye are brethren.’ Among the lessons to be derived from the Epistle, Theophylact specifies that it teaches us to take pains for the sake of things that look worthless; and that we ought not to despise honest slaves, for Paul calls Onesimus his child; but yet he adds (and Chrysostom has a like sentence) that slaves are not to be taken from their master on the plea of piety [4] without their master’s consent. With these writers slavery was not viewed as we now view it, but neither was it by professing Christians of a much more recent date. George Whitefield, at the time of his greatest zeal for preaching the Gospel, saw no wrong in becoming a slaveholder. [5] If, therefore, the early fathers of the Church felt so feebly the evil of slavery, even while defending the Epistle as St. Paul’s composition, we need not be surprised that others, less pervaded still by the Christian spirit, found the whole letter beneath the dignity of the apostolic character

[1] John 4:27. Where the correct rendering is that of the Revised Version, ‘They marvelled that he was speaking with a woman.’

[2] See Jerome in Epist ad Philemonem (Migne, P. L. 26 coll. 599 seqq.).

[3] Cf. Chrysostom in Epist. ad Philemonem (Migne, P. G. lxii. coll. 701 seqq.); and Theophylact in tandem Epist. (Migne, P. G. cxxv. coll. 172 seqq.).

[4] ο ὺ χρ ὴ προ ϕ άσει εύλαβείας δποστ ᾶ ν δεστ ῶ ν μή βουλομένων (Theophylact, u. s.).

[5] See Tyerman’s Life of Whitefield, 1:353, 2:169: ‘The people at Charleston gave him £300, which he expended in buying land and negroes.’


Philemon, to whom the Epistle is addressed, appears to have been a native, or at all events a resident, at Colossæ. This is inferred because, in the contemporary Epistle to the Colossian Church, Onesimus, Philemon’s slave, is stated (4:9) to be one of the inhabitants of Colossæ, and the slave could hardly be a dweller elsewhere than where his master dwelt. From the language which St. Paul uses about his liberality to the Christian congregation, it is clear that he must have been a man of some wealth, having a house in which he could offer room for the accommodation of the worshippers who dwelt in Colossae. He had probably been converted to Christianity by the preaching of St. Paul at Ephesus, for to such a debt the apostle alludes (ver. 19); and it seems (Colossians 1:4; Colossians 1:8, etc.) that up to the time of writing this Epistle, St. Paul had never been at Colossæ. Ephesus, however, was near enough to be visited, for trade purposes, frequently by the dwellers in Colossæ and the neighbouring towns; and we know that though St. Paul seems to have been stationary at Ephesus during his long sojourn there, yet (Acts 19:10) ‘all they which dwelt in Asia ( i.e. Proconsular Asia) heard the word of the Lord Jesus, both Jews and Greeks.’ It was to the latter nationality that Philemon belonged, if we may judge from his name and the names of those who are mentioned in close connection with him, and Philemon is a name widely spread in the countries where Greek was spoken. [3] But of this particular Philemon we know no more than can be gathered from this Epistle, We are, indeed, told [4] that he became Bishop of Colossæ, and died a martyr; but there is no word in the Epistle to indicate that he held any ministerial position in the Church, and it is probable that his services to the cause of Christianity were rendered rather by his substance than in any other way.

Apphia, whose name occurs in close sequence on that of Philemon, was most likely his wife, and according to the best authorities she is saluted by the apostle as a member of the Christian congregation also. And because his name follows immediately afterwards, it has been conjectured [5] that Archippus was their son. If this be so, we may conclude that Philemon and his wife were no longer young, for in the letter to Colossæ (Colossians 4:17) Archippus is addressed as one who was in charge of the religious teaching of the church, and therefore himself of a sober age. It has been suggested [6] from a consideration of some mercantile expressions which are found in the Epistle (Philemon 1:17-19), that St. Paul, who, as we know, became a fellow-craftsman with Aquila and Priscilla in their trade as tentmakers, may have had some business relation or partnership with Philemon at Ephesus. From his constant determination to be no burden to any of the churches, it must have been necessary for the apostle at times, and especially during so long a visit as that which he paid to Ephesus, to have made some effort after means of income. If the word ‘partner’ (Philemon 1:17) be thus understood, it harmonizes very well with all that follows, and is consistent with New Testament usage elsewhere, and such a connection is in no way unsuited to what we know of St. Paul’s life at other times. [7]

[3] See Bishop Lightfoot’s Introduction to the Epistle to Philemon, p. 369, etc., where there is much information derived from inscriptions about the other names mentioned in this Epistle.

[4] Constit. Apostol. 7:46.

[5] By Theodore of Mopsuestia.

[6] By Prof. Plumptre in an article in the Expositor, vol. i. p. 262, ‘St. Paul as a Man of Business.’

[7] Cf. Acts 20:34; 1 Corinthians 4:12.

Of Archippus the language used is such as to indicate that he was engaged in the work of a Christian teacher. ‘Fellow-soldier’ is a term only used by St. Paul or those who, like himself, had devoted themselves wholly to the preaching of the Gospel. Agreeable to this is the exhortation which the apostle addresses to Archippus in the Epistle to the Colossians, that he should take heed to the ministry which he has received in the Lord, to fulfil it. Such language leaves little doubt that either at Colossæ or in some congregation in the neighbourhood Archippus was appointed to the oversight of the flock. And as the passage just alluded to follows close upon a message about the church of Laodicea, some have thought that Archippus was the minister of the Laodicean church. Colossæ and Laodicea were so close together, that it is not impossible that he may have been set over the church in both places.


Among his other possessions Philemon was the owner of the slave Onesimus, concerning whom the Epistle is written. The slave’s name is a significant word, meaning ‘profitable,’ ‘advantageous,’ and may have been given to him by his master. It is found as a fictitious name for a slave, [1] just as servants in English fiction are named ‘Faithful’ ‘Trusty.’ But the conduct of this slave was not such as to deserve the name he bore. He ran away from his service, and appears, from the language which St. Paul uses concerning his offence, to have stolen some of his master’s property to support himself in his flight. We have no means of gathering what was the reason for his running away, and from the character of Philemon as represented in this letter we should conclude that he would not be an unkind master. But slavery is a lot which can never be otherwise than galling, and especially so to a more noble nature. And Onesimus showed afterwards by his devotion to St. Paul that he had a spirit which was formed for other than a slave’s fortune, and which would feel keenly his fate as a bondman.

[1] On this, as well as the other names in this Epistle, see Bishop Lightfoot’s exhaustive notes in his Introduction, pp. 376 seqq.


The position of a slave in the Roman Empire was that of a mere chattel He had not the smallest civil right. [1] He might be sold, given away, or bequeathed to whomsoever his master pleased. And by both Greeks and Romans this was not felt to be any wrong done to those who were exposed to such a fate. Among the Jews even, slavery was allowed, though its hardships were greatly modified. But Aristotlel [2] contends that there is a providential distribution of the abilities of mankind, and that in every community may be found those whom the Creator has intended for slaves, by denying them all fitness for a higher position. When these were the sentiments entertained by the most enlightened of the heathen world, what can we suppose the treatment to have been to which slaves were exposed at the hands of the ordinary slaveowner? In addition to the power of transfer by sale, gift, or bequest, the master could put his slave to death whenever he pleased without being accountable for the deed; while whatever property the slave might acquire belonged to the master. Juvenal, who lived in Rome at the close of the first century of the Christian era, has given a fearful picture [3] (Sat. vi. 219-224) of the way in which a slave’s life was at the mercy of his master’s caprice, and how he was not thought of as a fellow-creature; and there is no reason to believe that his account, though in a satire, is at all exaggerated. Of course there were many good masters, and we can scarcely doubt that Philemon was one; but even where ameliorated to its utmost, the life of a slave was such that it was pardonable to break away from it at any risk.

[1] On this subject cf. Becker’s Callus, Scene 2. Excursus 2.; also Hallifax, Roman Civil Law, etc.

[2] Politics, i. 2.

[3] ‘Pone crucem servo, Meruit quo crimine servus Supplidum? quis testis adest? quis detulit? audi, Nulla unquam de morte hom inis cunctatio longa est. O demens, ita servus homo est? nil fecerit, esto: Hoc volo, sic jubeo, sit pro ratione voluntas,’


Having taken to flight, Onesimus made his way to Rome, partly perhaps because the facilities were greater for getting there than to any other great centre of life, and partly because he might hope there to find most easily some means of support for himself, and in the crowded city to hide himself without difficulty from all pursuit. At the time of his arrival St. Paul was a prisoner in Rome, and probably had been there a year or more, for in the Epistle he expresses a hope for his speedy release. It may be that by this time his name was known in some quarters of the city, and some have thought that Onesimus may have, in his master’s house at Colossae, heard of the apostle’s work and character, and have been induced to seek him out when he learnt that he was in Rome. But if he did so, he must already in some degree have repented of his flight and theft. For to come to St. Paul of his own accord would imply that he was ready to be given up to Philemon. But of such a feeling the letter of St. Paul gives no indication, and we may be sure he would have mentioned it, for it would have been a sort of extenuation of the offence of Onesimus.

It seems, therefore, more likely that when Onesimus reached the imperial city, he fell in with some who had known him aforetime, and was by them brought to St. Paul. And we find at Rome just at this date a link which connects Colossæ and its inhabitants with the imprisoned apostle. This is Epaphras, who in Colossians (Colossians 4:12) is mentioned as a servant of Christ, who is from Colossæ, and sends greetings from Rome to the church there. His interest in his fellow-townsmen is described as most lively, of course especially so in the Christian congregation there. If we may suppose Epaphras to have met with Onesimus in Rome, it is easy to understand how he was brought to St. Paul. The friend of Philemon would know that if anything was to be done for the offender, there was none so likely to prevail in such a work as that man who could say to him, ‘Thou owest unto me thine own self.’

But when he reached the apostle’s dwelling, he was not only to be won for Philemon, but also for Jesus Christ. And so effectual was the apostle’s teaching, that he gained the entire heart of the offending Onesimus, and brought him to be willing to go back to that lot from which he had lately escaped. To test his earnestness in the Christian faith, St. Paul seems to have kept him with him for some time, and during that period to have found much comfort from his aid, so that he speaks of him in the letter with all the affection of a father for his child.

Yet it was needful that the wrong done should be repaired as far as it might, and this could only be by the return of Onesimus to his master, and the letter to Philemon was written to be carried by the returning slave,


Such a letter from such a person might have been very different from what St. Paul has made it. He had been God’s instrument in the conversion of Philemon, and might have come forward with his claim of some return for so great a blessing. But he lays aside all semblance of authority. He does not even style himself an apostle, but only the prisoner of Jesus Christ. He speaks much of the good deeds of him to whom he writes, and couches his letter in the tone of entreaty. And that the petition may be the more effectual, he describes his own close union in love with him for whom he supplicates. He is his child, a child begotten in his bonds. And using the name of which the slave had not proved worthy, he owns the fault, but pleads that it has been atoned for by service to himself, and will be so by devotion in the future to Philemon. For now his work will be done for Christian love, and as service to a brother; which work in the most refined manner the apostle takes for granted will be reciprocated by brotherly goodwill of the master towards his slave, who has now become free in Christ. He does not in any way forget the fault that has been committed, but he speaks of it in words which may soften Philemon towards the offender, and he takes upon himself to defray the loss which the master had suffered by his servant’s fraud. And at the close he does not say in so many words that he will come and inquire how the offender has been received; but when he has expressed his belief that Philemon will do more than he asks, he conveys the tidings of his own coming also as a request, ‘Prepare me a lodging, for I trust I shall be given to you.’ The letter forms a most perfect specimen of a Christian gentleman’s request to his friend. It displays the most complete forgetfulness of self, though couched at times in terms which make it plain that the writer knew he might have pressed his own personal claims. The tenderness towards the offender, combined with a full sense of his fault and the need for reparation, and the high motives to which the writer appeals for the granting of his petition, make the letter a model among Christian Epistles, and as such, in modern times, [1] it has been highly extolled.

[1] For a notice of some estimates of its lofty character, see Bishop Lightfoot’s Introd. to the Epistle, pp. 383 seqq., where opinions are cited from the times of Luther to those of Renan.


Since the time of Grotius, attention has often been called to two letters written by Pliny the Consul to his friend Sabinianus, appealing, as St. Paul does, on behalf of a runaway slave. The comparison of these letters with St. Paul’s Epistle to Philemon is a very natural one. The two writers were not far removed in point of time, for Pliny was born in the year when St. Paul came as prisoner to Rome. Both were men of great culture, and both were well acquainted with the condition of the Roman Empire both in Europe and Asia. The great difference between them was that one was a heathen, while the other was a Christian. And this accounts sufficiently for the different character of their writing, Pliny writes thus: [1] ‘Your freedman, whom you lately mentioned to me with displeasure, has been with me, and threw himself at my feet with as much submission as he could have done at yours. He earnestly requested me, with many tears, and even with all the eloquence of silent sorrow, to intercede for him; in short, he convinced me by his whole behaviour that he sincerely repents of his fault. And I am persuaded that he is thoroughly reformed, because he seems entirely sensible of his guilt I know you are angry with him, and I know too that it is not without reason; but clemency can never exert itself with more applause than when there is the justest cause for resentment. You once had an affection for this man, and, I hope, will have again; in the meanwhile, let me only prevail with you to pardon him. If he should incur your displeasure hereafter, you will have so much the stronger plea in excuse for your anger, as you show yourself more exorable to him now. Allow something to his youth, to his tears, and to your own natural mildness of temper; do not make him uneasy any longer; and I will add too, do not make yourself so, for a man of your benevolence of heart cannot be angry without feeling great regret I am afraid, were I to join my entreaties with his, I should seem rather to compel than to request you to forgive him. Yet I will not scruple to do it; and in so much the stronger terms, as I have very sharply and severely reproved him, positively threatening never to interpose again in his behalf. But though it was proper to say this to him, in order to make him more fearful of offending, I do not say so to you. I may, perhaps, again have occasion to entreat you upon his account, and again obtain your forgiveness; supposing, I mean, his error should be such as may become me to intercede for, and you to pardon. Farewell.’

[1] Plinii Epistola, ix. 21. That the letters may not lose in elegance by translation, the version given is taken from Melmoth.

The friend was moved, and the offender was pardoned, as we learn from a later [2] letter of acknowledgment, which runs thus: ‘I greatly approve of your having, in compliance with my letter, received again into your family and favour a freedman whom you once admitted into a share of your affection. It will afford you, I doubt not, great satisfaction. It certainly at least has me, both as it is a proof that you are capable of being governed in your passion, and as it is an instance of your paying so much regard to me, as either to yield to my authority or to comply with my request. You will accept, therefore, at once both of my applause and my thanks. At the same time, I must advise you to be disposed for the future to pardon the errors of your people, though there should be none to interpose in their behalf. Farewell.’

[2] Plinii Epist. ix. 24.

In these letters there are several points which bear a resemblance to the Epistle of St. Paul Pliny might, like St. Paul, have spoken with authority had he been wishful so to do. He pleads, too, for one who is desirous to return to his duty, and whom he believes to be a changed character. But when we compare the letters further, we see at once how far the Christian apostle has advanced beyond the Roman Consul. To forgive now will be an excuse for greater indignation in the event of another offence, but it will also bring comfort by its exercise. It will prove, too, the power of self-restraint in anger. All this is great under the circumstances in which Pliny wrote, but how feeble when set side by side with St. Paul’s ‘For love’s sake I beseech,’ ‘Receive him that is my own heart,’ ‘Receive him as myself’! For polished speech the Roman may bear the palm, but for nobleness of tone and warmth of heart he falls far short of the imprisoned apostle.


We can hardly doubt that St. Paul’s presumption was true, and that Philemon did more than he had asked. But of this the New Testament is silent Tradition, however, relates [1] that Onesimus received his freedom, and was afterwards made Bishop of Beræa in Macedonia. But for this statement there is no more warrant than for the tradition concerning the Episcopate of his master Philemon. There is mention made, in the Epistle of Ignatius to the Ephesians, [2] of a person called Onesimus, who was Bishop of Ephesus, but this must have been at a date later than is consistent with the supposition that it was the former slave of Philemon, Nor have we any warrant for believing, as has been stated, that Onesimus died at Rome, a martyr’s death, in the persecution under Nero.

[1] Censtit. Apost. vii. 46.

[2] Tert. adv. Marcionem, v. 21.


The Epistle to Philemon is very brief, and deals in no way with questions of doctrine; we can therefore easily understand that it was not much quoted in the writings of the early Christians. But the objections, already alluded to, concerning its trivial character and unfitness to be classed among the apostolic writings, show us that it was well known even where not highly esteemed. It is included in the list of New Testament writings given in the Muratorian fragment on the Canon, the date of which cannot be much later than 170 A.D. It was contained in the old Latin version which was made before the end of the second century, and it is expressly mentioned by Tertullian at the close of that century as by its brevity having escaped the falsification of Marcion. [3] A passage is sometimes brought forward from one of the Ignatian Epistles, [4] in which the form of expression bears some resemblance to a verse of this Epistle, but whether it be derived from that source or not must remain doubtful. Origen, however, speaks of the Epistle [5] among the writings of St. Paul. So that there is evidence in abundance of its recognition, though it be not so often quoted. Paley, in his Horae Paulinae, has shown how this Epistle and that to the Coiossians are mutually confirmatory of each other’s genuineness, and the same has been dwelt on by Dean Howson in his Lectures ‘On the Character of St. Paul.’ Baur [6] is almost alone in his objections to the Epistle, and the objections themselves are of little weight. He argues, from the occurrence of some words in this letter which are not found in the other Epistles, that it is the work of another hand. But when the subject of the letter is so different from that of every other Pauline Epistle which we possess, it would be strange if we did not find in it some differences of expression. To limit the vocabulary of a writer, whatever be his subject, to a certain round of terms is as unreasonable in criticism as it would be in ordinary affairs of life to insist that a man should walk but on one road. And such criticism is the more unreasonable when it is put forward by one who objects to other Epistles on exactly the opposite ground, because they are too near in resemblance to some other Pauline writings.

[3] Ignatii Ep. ad Ephesians 2:3

[4] I gnat. ad. Eph. cap. ii.

[5] Orig. Horn. xix. in Jerem.

[6] Paulus, p. 475, etc.


The date and place of writing of this Epistle must be the same as that of the Epistle to the Colossians. Both were written by the apostle when a prisoner, and when he was surrounded by the same persons. There has never been any question raised on this point, only it has been held by some that the imprisonment at Caesarea was the time when it was composed rather than in the later imprisonment at Rome. It seems, however, very unlikely that the runaway Onesimus would have taken his road to a place of so little note as Caesarea, while St. Paul’s language about his hopes of a speedy release are inconsistent with a time when he had appealed to the Roman power, and was probably soon to be taken into Italy. The two Epistles also bear indications of a vigorous communication maintained with the Christian churches which would be possible from such a centre as Rome; but not so if the apostle had been still detained in Palestine. It seems, therefore, more natural to conclude that the Epistle to Philemon was sent from Rome; and if the hopes of the apostle were well founded, and he was soon about to be released, we must put the date of its composition somewhere late on in the period between A.D. 61-63, those being most probably the two years through which his first imprisonment at Rome lasted.