Dr. Grieb’s first book, The Story of Romans: A Narrative Defense of God’s Righteousness, was

published by Westminster/John Knox in 2002. She is presently completing a book on Hebrews

and another on the Sermon on the Mount.  Notes from class in summer of 2010, Conflict and St. Paul.


Cousar, Charles B.  Philippians and Philemon: A Commentary.  A book in the New Testament Library series edited by C. Clifton Black, M. Eugene Boring, and John T. Carroll.  Westminster John Knox Press. Louisville KY.  2009.

Fitzmyer, Joseph A.  The Letter to Philemon.  A book in the Anchor Bible Series edited by William F. Albright and David Noel Freedman.  Doubleday.  New York.  2000.

Martin, Ralph P.  Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon.  A book in the Interpretation series edited by James L Mays, Patrick D. Miller, and Paul J. Achtemeier.  John Knox Press.  Louisville , KY.  1991.

Thurston, Bonnie B. and Judith M. Ryan.  Philippians & Philemon.  A book in the Sacra Pagina series edited by Daniel J. Harrington S.J..  Liturgical Press. Collegeville, MN.  2005.


Before we start:

·        We read Philemon (9-10, 12-17) once in the Sunday lectionary – 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle C.  September 5 this year!  A longer portion, though not the whole letter, is read once every two years in our daily lectionary.

·        The conventions of Greco-Roman letters are well known (there are a great many examples):

  • From:
  • To:
  • Subject:
  • wishes for good health
  • Body
  • Closing, greetings from others
  • Benediction / blessing

·        The Mediterranean area was an “honor-shame” culture then, still is to an extent.

·        It was a culture interested in new ideas – traders brought stories, new products, new languages, new gods from place to place.

·        Theirs was a communal / family / clan culture where those groups had primary identity.  It was not, like our society, a collection of individuals.

·        Slavery was an unquestioned fact of life.  As many as 33% of the people in the area were slaves.  Slaves were known to own their own slaves.  One could be a slave and be highly educated and highly respected.  It was not at all like our American version of the practice.  HOWEVER – your time was not your own to dispose of.  It belonged to the owner – so a runaway slave was at least a thief in the sense that he deprived the owner of something that was his.  (Onesimus may have also stolen money, we don’t know.)  For a more negative reading of history see the next bullet.

·        Ryan p. 170: “The overwhelming majority of slaves were prisoners of war, captives and others who were kidnapped and separated from their families, their homeland, and even other countrymen and –women so that they would be less likely to unite and rebel.   …  Therefore in ancient times slavery was viewed as exclusively linked to revenue and not specifically to race.  …   Ancient writings also show that slaves were stereotyped as useless, lazy, and even criminal.”

·        Fitzmyer p. 25ff:  Roman proverb: “There are as many enemies as there are slaves.”  “Such slaves were bought, sold, rented out, or lent to another master, and their lives were characterized as “work, punishment, and food””

·        Ryan p. 171: slaves would be released for military conscription in times of war.

·        This was, and remains, a culture that respects the elders and relies on their wisdom.

·        Much of the above are important for this letter.


·        Paul always  mentions his co-workers, establishing that he is a team-player.  He is normally quite effusive in his praise of them.  Always a good move!

·        Paul frequently uses “fictive kinship language” – our sister, our brother, I am your father, etc..   This emphasizes we are one family together.

·        The situation behind the text:

  • There are two main camps on dating this letter.  In the first, Paul writes this letter from Rome where he is in prison.  Perhaps in 61 or 62AD, toward the end of his life and career.  Alternatively, he writes from a temporary imprisonment in Ephesus, between 52 and 54AD.  This is more consistent with the request for Philemon to have a room ready for him for a coming visit and with the dating of Colossians.
  • The recipient of the letter is Philemon – and his wife Apphia.  It is fairly likely that they lived in Colossae (in the southern part of modern Turkey, about 100 miles southeast of Ephesus).
  • The letter was also addressed to and to be read in the presence of the house church that gathered there – family and associates and hangers-on, a social unit
  • The letter doesn’t say so but it is very possible that it was carried by and even read out loud by Onesimus himself.
  • Paul was a “church-planter” (a role that has re-emerged in evangelical circles today).  Move to a new area, make friends, start a small church, nurture it for awhile, move on to the next place.
  • Paul supported himself in the above role by being a tent-maker.  Made friends at the market place and at the synagogue.
  • Cities back then were very dense, lots of business going on in the streets, travelers etc.  Houses had inner courtyards with greenery, fountains, space.  No front yards or front windows.  The early church had no buildings of its own, met in the largest house available to them from the community.

·        “Onesimus” means “useful” in Greek.

·        It is possible that Onesimus simply ran off, later encountered Paul and was converted by him while Paul was under house arrest, and is now being sent back (penalty for harboring a fugitive slave was severe in the Roman system).

·        It is also possible that Onesimus did not simply run off but had come into significant conflict with Philemon, ran to Paul directly to ask him to intervene since Philemon respected Paul.  While with Paul Onesimus converted – complicating the situation (or making it simpler?).  It is this latter explanation that it appears most modern scholars are adopting, based on other Roman examples in the literature.

After our first reading:

Segment 1 – our fellow soldier – is Paul subtly laying the foundation for Onesimus’ release to Paul by using a military analogy for missionary work?

The “you” in segment 2  is plural – “you all”.

The “you” and “your” in segment 3, all of them, are singular and refer to Philemon.   Love, occurs twice in this section – ‘agape’ love.  Note that in this section Philemon has “refreshed the hearts of the holy ones” – in segment 9 he will ask Philemon to refresh his (Paul’s) heart.

in segment 4: I could command you but …     A recognized power-differential between them – founder and first leader to his hand-picked successor, an older man to a younger one.  Or perhaps not so much – Philemon as his biggest contributor, wealthiest member.  (They are meeting in his house after all.)

“an old man” not necessarily a play for sympathy but a reminder or mention of his status – diminished or extended by his also  being a prisoner?   Prisoners then were not locked-up in jails as they are today, he was under ‘house arrest’, allowed to write, to receive guests and gifts.  Alternatively, Martin and Ryan say that the same word should  be translated as ‘ambassador’ (and is in some other letters).  This might strengthen the coming appeal – it comes to you from Jesus through me.

Ryan p. 240,241: The Greek is vague / ambiguous enough to allow two different interpretations (and even to have them be related).  Our text reads that Paul is a ‘prisoner for Christ’.  In one interpretation – held by authorities for preaching Jesus and creating a disturbance.   In another – a prisoner OF Christ – that is, fully engaged and committed to Christ, overpowered by Him and what He has done.  And then, the second makes the first possible.

In segment 5: Paul is his “father” because he converted and baptized him.  Note the pun on his name, the dramatic  transformation that baptism effects – useless to useful.  Recalling,(in the background?) something equally dramatic in Philemon’s life?

In segment 6 – “heart” occurs here and in segment 9.   “Heart was thought of as the seat of personality, the intellect, emotions, desire, and will” (Dictionary of Biblical Imagery).  Ancient prophets talked of a new covenant in which the LORD would circumcise the hearts of Israel so that they might love and follow the LORD.  Paul is not saying simply that he “loves” Onesimus but that they have become so close to one another that Onesimus IS Paul.  Note – he has been serving Paul – “on your behalf”.  The coming request, he reminds him, is to be voluntary, not commanded.

Put yourself in Philemon’s shoes, hearing all of this as a lead up, wondering – what is it that he is going to ask?  He has certainly been maneuvered by Paul’s words and approach  into a narrow range of choices!

In segment 7 – perhaps … “he was away”  somewhat like “the vase was broken”?  Paul seems to attribute Onesimus’ running away to God’s plan for all of them!  At least he is inviting Philemon to consider God’s grace in all of this.  Paul goes on to say “more than a slave, a brother”  – he doesn’t say no longer a slave.

Paul sets up some lesser/greater contrasts in this segment: a while vs. forever, slave vs. brother, beloved to me vs. especially to you, as a man and in the Lord.  Is the glass half empty or half full?  One can look at a situation and see it one way or the other.  Neither can be said to be “right” or “wrong”.  Paul invites Philemon to embrace the reality expressed by the “greater”.

Fitzmyer p. 114,115: “…a triple possibility lies open before Philemon.  He can take Onesimus back and punish him as the law would allow.  That is hardly what Paul is foreseeing.  Or Philemon can take Onesimus back as a slave, restore him to the familia, and allow him to work and do his job in faithfulness and loyalty as Col 3:22-4:1 prescribes.  Or Philemon can emancipate Onesimus and send him as a Christian freedman back to help Paul in his evangelization.”

Paul is not outraged by the institution of slavery, does not command Philemon to free Onesimus.  However – he does “reframe” the situation in such a way that Philemon is put on the spot to do so, “freely”.

Segment 8 – Welcome  this former slave of yours back, this thief (of time if not of other things as well), and treat him as you would me.  Presumably with a feast, with a good bed to sleep in, etc.  This would be a radical act of hospitality in line with what Jesus practiced.   Then, Paul turns to the finances of the situation and offers to pay with an open IOU – but remember – “you owe me your very self”. !!

Ryan p 167: “Nothing short of a radical reversal of the norm (and expectation) is requested here, as a slave owner is to warmly receive the runaway slave back into his household and house church.  Such action may be the only way for the community to fully comprehend the reality of his conversion and baptism into Christ, with the new status it creates for Onesimus as  “brother” and equal within the faithful community.”

Martin p. 136: “But for forgiveness to be shown to a criminal slave who had escaped was another matter.  Paul’s plea was a revolutionary thought in contrast with the contemporary treatment of runaway slaves whom the master could take steps to arrest and then brutally punish.  ..The master could even have the slave crucified.”

Paul’s writing in his own hand – a real IOU?  Or perhaps to emphasize that it is truly him that is asking this from Philemon – and not Onesimus the messenger and perhaps Pauls’ secretary!

Segment 9 – Paul is pretty clear in what he thinks should happen – but he leaves Philemon the room to make it happen in a face-saving way.

Grieb – This is a very carefully crafted and thoughtful letter from Paul – not all of his letters are!

Cousar p. 104: “But at heart Paul is concerned that Philemon receive  him as a brother and so be reconciled to Onesimus.  If manumission is intended, it is certainly very subtly implied.  Paul may leave the suggestion so vague because he himself does not know what is the best course of action and thus leaves it open to Philemon to discern.”

Cousar asks some interesting questions on p. 105 – What about Philemon’s other slaves????   Does converting to Christianity provide an escape route for them from slavery if it works for Onesimus?  What does all of this do to peace within his household and the house church?   What about any other slaves that members of the community might own?

Martin p. 141: “Each of the parties involved was called upon to do something difficult: on Paul’s part, to deprive himself of Onesimus’ service and company; for Onesimus, to return to his master-owner, whom he had wronged; for Philemon, to forgive.  “And each of the three is to do what he was called upon to do as a Christian.””

What did Philemon do?  In Colossians 4:7-9 (near the end of that letter)  Onesimus  is identified as a missionary companion on Paul’s team.   “Tychicus, my beloved brother, trustworthy minister, and fellow slave in the Lord, will tell you all the news of me. I am sending him to you for this very purpose, so that you may know about us and that he may encourage your hearts, together with Onesimus, a trustworthy and beloved brother, who is one of you. They will tell you about everything here.”


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