The Occasion For Philemon

         Philemon is the smallest book in the Pauline corpus, consisting of 335 words in the Greek text. As minute as the book is, much attention and controversy has surfaced from scholars over the text. Among the topics of debate are the destination of the text, place and date of composition (specifically, during which prison episode it was written, if written during one of Paul's imprisonments), purpose of the letter, identification of Onesimus' master, and most importantly for the current writing, the occasion for the epistle.

         Philemon is unquestionably the product of Paul. Unfortunately, narrowing down the date of composition and sitz-im-leben for Paul has remained speculative. The main theories are all anchored with one of Paul's prison visits, either Rome, Caesarea, or even the proposed Ephesus imprisonment. All are possibilities for Paul's flagrant imprisonment references in Philemon (vv. 1, 9, 10, 13).[1] Consequently, the epistle is grouped together with Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians under the favored title "prison epistles." The epistle is distinct in that the personal focus of the letter is unique in the Pauline corpus; it is addressed specifically to Philemon, Apphia, Archippus, and the group that meets at Philemon's house. However, the singular references after the initial greeting indicate that Philemon is the primary recipient. Archippus is mentioned in Colossians 4:17 and it is not unreasonable to draw the conclusion that just as Archippus, Philemon is a Colossian.

Onesimus’ Life Before Paul

         Onesimus was the slave of Philemon, the head of a house-church in Colossae.[2] At first glance, readers notice the pun Paul plays with Onesimus’ name in verse 11, when he says “Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.”[3] The Greek name Onesimus means useful, and was a common name for slaves concurrent with the Roman empire whose population has been estimated to have consisted of between 16-33% slaves (about 60,000,000). Onesimus was most likely a Phrygian slave, and was formerly useless and unprofitable before the events recorded in the book of Philemon.[4] A useless slave was an embarrassment and waste of time and effort, and was even condemned by Jesus on multiple occasions (Matt 25:30; Luke 17:10). Harrison even goes as far as to say this about Onesimus,

Love of freedom and hatred of bondage were in his blood. But he had not yet learned the hard lesson that release from servitude can only be earned by zealous, uncomplaining service. So far from making any effort to anticipate his master's wishes, he could not even be trusted to do as he was told, unless somebody stood by to see him do it.[5]

With Philemon being a Christian, commended by Paul for his love and pursuit of high Christian ideals, it is difficult to imagine that he had mistreated Onesimus since Christian masters were given direct commands regarding their dealing with slaves (Eph 6:9; Col 4:1). Any disobedience to these Christian guidelines would surely have been extinguished by Paul (cf. Gal 2:11-21 and Paul’s critique of Cephas). Therefore, Onesimus was the one who disobeyed his master and was, in some way, not conforming to the expectations of slaves. This blatant disobedience on Onesimus' part was not out of the ordinary; slaves often disobeyed their masters in the Roman empire. Nordling draws connections between four non-biblical accounts and Philemon showing a significant background for runaway slave accounts: Pliny (Epist. 9:21), UPZ 121 (dated 156 BC), P. Oxy. 1643 (dated 298 AD), and P. Oxy 1423 (dated 4th century AD).[6]

The Two Traditional Views Of Occasion

         There have been two primary views regarding the occasion for Philemon: the runaway slave account and the benevolence of Philemon account. The runaway slave account is the more generally accepted of the two views and has dominated the field of biblical research.

         The runaway slave view suggests that Onesimus, being an unruly slave, left his master and fled for Rome to hide in the population. Through some means, Onesimus came into contact with Paul, spent time with him, was converted, and aided Paul in some fashion (v 11). Barclay further suggests that Paul had not recognized Onesimus as the slave of Philemon until Epaphras came and exposed Onesimus as Philemon’s slave.[7] Paul then sent Onesimus back, with a letter, imploring Philemon to consider the new circumstances of Onesimus‘ conversion. This letter was multifaceted in purpose: to acknowledge the new Onesimus as a Christian, ask forgiveness for any previous wrongs, and indicate the usefulness of Onesimus now that he had been baptized. There are several variations in this view, but the most notable is the implication of verse 18. In this verse, Paul asks forgiveness if Onesimus has done any wrong or has a debt and, if this is the situation, to charge it to Paul’s account. Immediately, readers notice a problem: Paul is under arrest, and therefore has no way of repaying any debts or any ability to harbor a runaway slave.

         When referencing the “benevolence of Philemon view,” it is meant that Philemon sent his slave, Onesimus, to comfort Paul while he was imprisoned and Onesimus had overstayed his time in completion of this task. One noticeably strong argument backing this view is that the absence of Onesimus outside of the allotted time for comforting Paul would have incurred a profit-loss for Philemon. As Tenney puts it:

Since current Roman law required that whoever gave hospitality to a runaway slave was liable to the slave’s master for the value of each day’s work lost it may be that Paul’s promise to stand guarantor (v 19) is no more than the assurance to Philemon that he will make up the amount incurred by Onesimus’ absence from work.[8]

Since Onesimus was converted during his stay with Paul, leaving was a burden he was not able to bear. He had already begun to be of service to Paul and the furtherance of the Gospel - much more than his previous “uselessness” as a slave of Philemon.

Dealing With The Problems Of These Two Views

         There are several distinct problems for the two traditional views. As aforementioned, the runaway slave hypothesis fails to explain how Paul, under arrest, could have harbored a runaway slave or even claim to repay any debts for Onesimus. A suggested resolution to this problem is that Paul’s arrest was more of a house arrest than a true imprisonment. This hypothesis hints at resolution, but falls short in key areas. Even if Paul had some personal sway with the praetorian guard, a deliberate disobedience to Roman law would not be tolerated. Consequently, Onesimus would not have stayed long enough to be converted and begin serving the Gospel. In regards to the failures of the second traditional view, Onesimus’ deliberate disobedience in staying passed his allotted time would have labeled him as a runaway. Any news of this to the praetorian guard would have immediately invoked the Roman law for fugitive slaves. Onesimus would have been punished immediately by having his legs broken, being branded on the forehead with the letter F for fugitivus, beaten, or even killed.[9] The threat of these possible punishments and the lack of act by the praetorian guard suggests that there was another possibility for Onesimus’ finding Paul.

A Third Possibility

         There is a third possibility for the occasion; Onesimus ran away to search out the gospel from Paul specifically. Immediately, a critique is noticeable - why was the church at Philemon’s house unaccommodating for Onesimus? A reasonable solution is that Onesimus felt he could learn more, be more active, and possibly even be manumitted by Paul. His zeal, despite sure punishment, is respectable and gives a more positive light to the book. Also, Onesimus’ devotion keys in on an important theme in the Bible: to seek the Truth even if it will bring harsh trials to one’s life. This view harmonizes the two traditional views, building on their strengths while limiting their weaknesses.

         Onesimus was likely aware of the possibility of asking Paul, a friend and the very person who had converted Philemon, to write a letter of forgiveness. This is the more positive of the two choices Paul had in dealing with the runaway slave, as described by Philo’s blending of Roman and Jewish law stating that:

If a third-generation slave of another man, says Moses, because of the threats of his master, or because of his consciousness of some offences [which he has committed], or in case he has done nothing wrong but is only subject to a savage and harsh master, shall in terror flee to thee to get thy help, do not reject him. For to deliver up a suppliant is not pious, and even a slave is a suppliant when he flees to thy hearth as to a temple, where he ought rightly to have asylum either until he be brought into open and complete reconciliation [with his master], or until, failing that, as a last resort he be sold. For the consequences of any change of masters are of course uncertain, but an uncertain evil is better than a certain one.[10]

In any case, Paul, the discoverer of a runaway slave, now had to choose one of two types of action: either return Onesimus or sell him. Paul implores Philemon to take Onesimus back as a brother (v 16) as he would accept Paul; it was perhaps for this reason that they had been separated for a time, so Philemon could have him back forever (v 15).

Concluding Remarks

         In this seemingly insignificant record of Paul’s dealing with a runaway slave lies one of Paul’s most theologically profound epistles. Onesimus, despite the certain threat of punishment, even the possibility of crucifixion, sought out the gospel from Paul, and desired to become a new man. Onesimus was formerly a useless slave and became a soldier for Christ by his desire to search out the word. Paul saw this desire and motivation, diligence and pursuit, and, as Nordling says, "He wanted gently to persuade, not force, Philemon to attend to that which is necessary (v. 8), an expression which, under the circumstances, may well have referred to Philemon's complete pardon and forgiveness of Onesimus, the returned runaway."[11] The only proper course of action for Philemon would be to see Onesimus as a fellow brother, to respect him, to acknowledge the legitimacy of his conversion, and ultimately manumit him.[12] As Freedman puts it, “by making Onesimus his freedman, he would have created a far more credible basis for functioning as his “brother” and “partner” (v 17) in the new kinship group they shared, their Christian community.”[13] Although Paul does not specifically require that Philemon set Onesimus free, he does make the implication through his terminology in the letter. Social distinctions were of no more consequence for Christians (1Cor 12:13; Gal 3:28; Col 3:11); however, Paul recognizes that any outright condemnation of slavery would be adverse to the ideals of Christianity in that anarchy would arise if slaves were told they were not slaves anymore. Also, Paul states that, “each one should remain in the situation which he was in when God called him. Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you—although if you can gain your freedom, do so.”[14] Tradition suggests that Philemon released Onesimus, and some even conclude that Onesimus became bishop of Berea or Ephesus, an itinerant preacher in Spain, or even a celebrated Christian teacher in Sicily and Italy.[15] It would be interesting if any of these suggestions were true, but all that is certain is that Onesimus became a respectable man. He was a slave of Philemon, ran away for the Gospel, was converted, was forgiven by Philemon, and was probably even manumitted. Onesimus had Paul to thank for writing the epistle to show Philemon the usefulness of his newborn Christian brother and implied request for the manumission of Onesimus in order that he could be used for the Gospel.


[1] The idea has been proposed that Paul’s prison language should be taken figuratively, but the mere presence of multiple claims, as well as, Paul’s prison stays make it more probable that the references should be taken literally. This would be consistent with the similar claims of tribulation Paul references in 2Cor 11:16-33 in his boasting monologue.

[2] This is the traditional view, some have taken to the well argued hypothesis, mainly the result of John Knox, that Archippus was the master of Paul and Philemon was the head of the church. This theory also alleges that Philemon was addressed to the church at Laodicea (cf Colossians 4:16) and was a problem the church needed to deal with. Although this is a reasonable argument to analyze (with the Greek verb anapempein suggesting the church as recipient), the focus of this paper is to see why Onesimus left his master, not who or where his master was or if the church is the focus of the letter).

[3] Phlm 11 NIV.

[4] C. Hanson. “A Greek Martyrdom Account of St. Onesimus,” Greek Orthodox Theological Review 320.

[5] P. Harrison. “Onesimus and Philemon,” 269.

[6] J. Nordling. “Onesimus Fugitivus: A Defense of the Runaway Slave Hypothesis in Philemon,” JSNT 41 (1991) 99-105.

[7] W. Barclay, The Letters to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon. DSB. (Westminster Press 1960) 309.

[8] “Epistle to Philemon” in M. Tenney, ed., Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible (Zondervan 1978) IV:754.

[9] Barclay, The Letters to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon 310-1.

[10] De Virtutibtfs, 124.

[11] Nordling. “Onesimus Fugitivus: A Defense of the Runaway Slave Hypothesis in Philemon,” 118.

[12] J, Rutherford. “Epistle to Philemon” in J. Orr, ed., International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Eerdmans 1939) IV:2194.

[13] “Epistle to Philemon” in D. Freedman, ed., Anchor Bible Dictionary (Doubleday 1992) V: 309.

[14] 1 Cor 7:20-21 NIV.

[15] Hanson, “A Greek Martyrdom Account of St. Onesimus“ 321.