Historical Background on Philemon

CHAPTER #

 

 

 

HISTORICAL BACKGROUND ON PHILEMON

 

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A Paper

Presented to

Dr. Mark Bailey

Dallas Theological Seminary

 

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In Partial Fulfillment

of the Requirements for the Course

BE5101 Bible Study Methods

 

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by

Ken Suanjong Yeo

October 2020

 


HISTORICAL BACKGROUND ON PHILEMON

Author

 

The apostle Paul identified himself as the author at the beginning and the end of this letter (Phlm 1:1, 19). Although he also included Timothy as the coauthor, Paul was the primary author. We know this because except for verse 1, Paul used the first-person singular pronoun instead of the plural in the rest of the letter to identify the author. There has been no serious challenge to Paul’s authorship in the history of the church.[1] Paul probably included Timothy to inform the readers that Timothy was with him, and to let Timothy know that Paul considered him as part of his coworker, as he has done in 2 Corinthians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians.

Paul’s Family Heritage

 

Paul was born in Tarsus in Cilicia (Acts 22:3) into a Jewish family from the tribe of Benjamin (Phil 3:5). We know that his parents were observers of the Jewish law because he was circumcised on the eighth day (Phil 3:5). Jerome reported that Paul’s parents came from Gischala in Galilee[2]. If Jerome was correct, Paul could have spoken Hebrew or Aramaic instead of Greek at home. Luke informed us that Paul was fluent in Hebrew or Aramaic (Act 21:40). Additionally, since he spent part of his childhood at Tarsus, he was also fluent in Greek.

 

Paul’s Educational Background  

 

During Paul’s time, Tarsus was under Roman control and was a major intellectual center of Roman’s empire.[3] Regardless of when left Tarsus for Jerusalem (Acts 22:3), he had spent significant time in that city. We know this because Paul was identified as Paul of Tarsus multiple times in the scripture (Acts 9:11; 11:25; 22:3). We are not told in scripture what kind of education he received while in Tarsus, but it is clear that Paul was familiar with the Greek culture of his days (Acts 17).

 

Paul, later on, moved from Tarsus to Jerusalem (Acts 22:3) and was educated under the feet of Gamaliel, a famous Judaism teacher at that time. Gamaliel was either the grandson or son of the renowned Hillel, who was the father of the exegetical methods in interpreting scriptures. Paul’s exegetical skills of the old testament as seen in Romans may be partly due to his training. He was trained as a Pharisee (Phil 3:5), zealous for God, and strict in observing the law of his fathers (Acts 22:3).

Paul’s Occupational Skills

 

Because Paul was trained by Gamaliel, he had access to one of the best Jewish teachers at that time. Paul also had strong reasoning skills. He frequently used his reasoning skills to persuade others to believe in Jesus Christ (Acts 18:7). Other than that, Paul was also skilled in tent making, during his mission journey, he made tents to support himself when necessary (Act 18:3).

Paul’s Cultural Advantages

 

Paul was born in Tarsus; thus, he was a Roman citizen by birth (Acts 22:28). His Roman citizenship gave him a great advantage when he was faced with judgment from Roman soldiers. While in Jerusalem at the end of his third missionary journey, Roman’s tribune wanted to flog Paul but stopped once he found out that he was a Roman citizen (Acts 22:27). And in another time, when the Roman proconsul Festus wanted to send Paul from Caesarea to Jerusalem to be judged by the Jews, Paul took advantage of his Roman citizenship to appeal to Caesar’s court in Rome (Acts 25:10).

 

Since Paul spent part of his childhood in Tarsus, an important cultural and education hub at Asia minor at that time, he was fluent in the Greek language and understand the Greek culture well. His ability to converse fluently in Greek and understanding of the Greek culture gave him a great advantage to preach the gospel to the Greek in Athens (Acts 17:22), and in other cities where Greek was the common language and Greek culture was the dominate culture of Roman’s empire.  

Paul’s Religious Experiences

 

Before Paul believed in Jesus Christ, he is a zealous Pharisee who was advancing in Judaism beyond many people at his age (Gal 1:14) When Stephen was stoned to death in Jerusalem, Paul was there, and he was glad of the execution (Acts 7:60). He persecuted the church violently (Gal 1:13, Phil 3:6) and sent many Christians into the prison (Gal 8:3).

 

When he was on the way to prosecute the Christians at Damascus, he had a dramatic encounter with Jesus. The Lord Jesus revealed himself to Paul (Acts 9:5), and through a man named Ananias in Damascus, called Paul to preach Jesus’s name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel (Acts 9:15). Since that experience, Paul became an evangelist who brought the gospel to Asia Minor, Macedonia, and eventually to Rome, where he was martyred based on the witness of the Church.

Readers

Who is the audience?

 

This letter was written primarily to Philemon, although Apphia, Archippus, and the church that met at the home of Philemon were also mentioned alongside Philemon. Philemon was Paul’s friend and fellow worker of the gospel (Phlm 1:1). Apphia is a woman’s name, she might be Philemon’s wife. Archippus was mentioned by Paul in Colossians (Col 4:17), where Paul encouraged Archippus to be faithful to fulfill the ministry, which means Archippus was one of the preachers who served the church in Colossae.

 

Where are they located?

 

This letter did not mention the place of the recipient; however, most scholars think that Philemon lived in Colossae because of the similar names that are mentioned in Colossians and Philemon.

 

First, Paul mentioned six names, namely Epaphras (Col 1:7; 4:12), Onesimus (Col 7:9), Aristarchus, Mark the cousin of Barnabas (Col 4:10), Luke and Demas (Col 4:14). They were with him when he wrote Colossians. All of these brothers were also with Paul when he wrote Philemon (Phlm 1:10,23-24).

 

Second, Paul encouraged Archippus who served in Colossae to be faithful in fulfilling the ministry that Archippus had received from the Lord (Col 4:17), Archippus was mentioned alongside Philemon as one of the recipients of this letter.

 

Therefore, it is clear that Philemon lived in Colossae, and a group of Christians regularly met at his house to worship the Lord.

When did the writing take place?

 

Paul indicated he was a prisoner at the time of writing (Phlm 1:1-2,10,23-24), most scholars[4] think Paul wrote this letter during his first imprisonment in Rome[5], in the year AD 60-61. He may have written this letter at the same time he wrote Ephesians and Colossians, and have asked Tychicus (Eph 6:21, Col 4:7) to bring the letters to the recipients. Tychicus, together with Onesimus, delivered the letters to the churches at Ephesus and Colossae, and the personal letter to Philemon.

What is their situation?

 

Slaves are common in Paul’s time, some estimated one-third of a city like Colossians would be slaves[6]. Slaves are the properties of their owners; they did not have the freedom to travel without some sort of supervision. Slaves were frequently tattooed or given a “dog-tag” to show that they were owned by another person.

 

Philemon had a conflict with his slave, Onesimus. Onesimus is a Greek name, it means “useful”, it may be a demeaning name. It was common for masters to give names to slaves that made a joke about a slave’s virtue.[7] Perhaps that was the reason why Paul had a wordplay with Onesimus’s name in this letter, he said that formerly Onesimus was useless to Philemon, but he became useful to Philemon and Paul (Phlm 1:11).

 

Paul mentioned that he had wronged Philemon, what he meant is not clear, he might have stolen something from Philemon, or he might be in debt to Philemon just simply because he was a runaway slave that had no freedom. If Onesimus has stolen something and later was discovered by Philemon, it explained why he ran away from his master because under Roman law, stealing was punishable by death.[8]

 

He ended up meeting Paul who was imprisoned in Rome, he heard the gospel from Paul and became a follower of Jesus Christ (Phlm 1:10). why did Onesimus go to Rome, which is 1700 miles away and how did Onesimus meet Paul in a city as big as Rome has puzzled Bible students throughout the church history. We could make many guesses, but in the end, the scripture did not tell what how they met, we just have to settle that we do not know exactly how but God was in control and He arranged for them to meet.[9]

 

Although Paul wanted to keep Onesimus by his side so that Onesimus can serve him, he decided to send him back to Philemon because Onesimus was still a slave for Philemon, Paul did not want to keep Onesimus without Philemon’s content (Phlm 1:14).  

What is the purpose of the book?

 

Paul’s purpose in writing this letter is that Philemon would forgive Onesimus and receive Onesimus as a brother in Christ (Phlm 1:16). Paul could have demand Philemon to accept Onesimus based on his apostle authority (Phlm 1:8), he did not do that. Instead, he asked Philemon to consider Paul as his partner and to receive Onesimus as Philemon would have received Paul (Phlm 1:17). Paul even offered to pay back to Philemon whatever Onesimus has wronged him.

 

Paul asked Philemon to treat Onesimus not only as a slave but treat him as a brother in Christ (Phlm 1:16). Paul did not ask Philemon to release Onesimus as a slave, for that may not be a desirable thing to do in that culture. Moo quoted Thompson: “If a Christian owned a slave, the highest duty to which that master could be called was not to set the other free but to love the slave with the self-giving love of Christ.”[10]

 

Did Philemon reconcile with Onesimus and accepted him as a brother in Christ? Although we cannot tell from this letter or the rest of the scripture, the fact that this personal letter was preserved in the church is a strong indication that they did reconcile.[11]

 

Church traditions say that Onesimus, later on, became a bishop in Berea[12] or Ephesus[13]. However, because Onesimus is a very common name at that time, we are not sure whether one of those bishops was the same Onesimus in this letter.

 

There are two main lessons we can learn from this short letter. First, acceptance and fellowship of Christians are based on our common identity in Christ regardless of our social status, or any conflicts we may have.  

 

Second, this story is a wonderful image of the salvation work of the Lord Jesus Christ. Although it was not Paul but Onesimus who had wronged Philemon, Paul chose to pay for the debt on behalf of Onesimus. Similar to Onesimus, although it was not Christ but we who have sinned against God, Jesus Christ chose to pay for the debt on our behalf. Paul wrote to Philemon, “Charge that to my account” (Phlm 1:18)! What a great image of what Christ had done for us: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” (Luke 23:34). Christ asked God the Father to forgive those who had wronged Him, and He paid the price for us on the cross. That is the redemption theme echoing brightly in this short letter.

 

 


Bibliography

 

Barry, John D., David Bomar, Derek R. Brown, Rachel Klippenstein, Douglas Mangum, Carrie Sinclair Wolcott, Lazarus Wentz, Elliot Ritzema, and Wendy Widder, eds. The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016.

 

Beitzel, Barry J., Jessica Parks, and Doug Mangum, ed. Lexham Geographic Commentary on Acts through Revelation. Lexham Geographic Commentary. Lexham Press, 2019.

 

Halley, Henry Hampton. Halley’s Bible Handbook with the New International Version. Completely rev. and Expanded. Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan Publishing House, 2000.

 

Hawthorne, Gerald F., Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid, eds. Dictionary of Paul and His Letters. Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 1993.

 

Moo, Douglas J. The Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon. The Pillar New Testament Commentary. William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2008.

 

Wright, N. T. Colossians and Philemon: An Introduction and Commentary. Vol. 12. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries. InterVarsity Press, 1986.

 



[1] Douglas J. Moo, The Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2008), 361.

[2] W. G. Morrice, “Jew, Paul The,” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, ed. Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid, (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 504.

[3] Jamen-Francois Racine, “Tarsus”, in Lexham Bible Dictionary, The Lexham Bible Dictionary, ed. John Barry, David Bomar, Derek R. Brown, Rachel Klippenstein, Douglas Mangum, Carrie Sinclair Wolcott, Lazarus Wentz, Elliot Ritzema, and Wendy Widder, (Lexham Press, 2016).

[4] Douglas J. Moo, The Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2008), 364.

[5] Alan H Cadwallader, “Chapter 45: Onesimus and the Social and Geographical World of Philemon”, ed. Beitzel, Barry J., Jessica Parks, and Doug Mangum, ed., Lexham Geographic Commentary on Acts through Revelation, Lexham Geographic Commentary. (Lexham Press, 2019), Logos Bible Software. The other minority views are Ephesus and Caesarea Maritima, Alan Cadwallader preferred Ephesus. One of his reasons is that Ephesus is 120 miles and a six-day direct walking distant to Colossae, whereas Rome is 1780 miles and ninety-seven days walking distant or 2160 miles and forty-nine days of sea travel from Patara on the south coast of Asia Minor. It is a lot easier for Onesimus to travel to Ephesus instead of to Rome.

[6] Douglas J. Moo, The Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2008), 371.

[7] Alan H Cadwallader, “Onesimus and the Social and Geographical World of Philemon”, ed. Beitzel, Barry J., Jessica Parks, and Doug Mangum, ed., Lexham Geographic Commentary on Acts through Revelation, Lexham Geographic Commentary. (Lexham Press, 2019), Logos Bible Software.

[8] Henry Hampton Halley, Halley’s Bible Handbook with the New International Version, Completely rev. and expanded. (Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan Publishing House, 2000), 852.

[9] Moo, Colossians and to Philemon, 367-368. Another possible scenario is Onesimus purposely seek out Paul as his mediator.

[10] Douglas J. Moo, The Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2008).

[11] N. T. Wright, Colossians and Philemon: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 12, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (InterVarsity Press, 1986), 174.

[12] Henry Hampton Halley, Halley’s Bible Handbook with the New International Version, Completely rev. and expanded. (Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan Publishing House, 2000), 852.

[13] Moo, Colossians and to Philemon, 364.

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