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The Catholic Study Bible A special version of the New American Bible, with a wealth of background information useful to Catholics.

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Philemon

Carolyn Osiek

Before Beginning…

Paul's letter to Philemon is a gem of early Christian exchange, and the only true personal letter that we have from Paul. No one seriously challenges Philemon as an authentic Pauline letter and an integral part of the New Testament. As contrasted with an “epistle” that embodies more stereotypic, stylized forms and features (for instance, Romans), Philemon appears to be a letter between individuals, dealing with a very concrete matter rather than with generalized, abstract theological principles. Neither Paul nor the early Christian community intended to attack slavery directly, so we may well wonder why this letter was preserved at all and why it might be significant for us.

Despite its brevity and apparent succinctness, Paul's letter to Philemon is full of interpretive problems and has been intensively studied in recent years. The traditional story line behind it since the fourth century has been that Onesimus, a slave, had run away from his master, Philemon, and had come to Paul for protection. Paul had converted Onesimus to Christianity, and now sent him back to Philemon, carrying this letter. But more recently, this interpretation has been questioned and several other possible scenarios proposed. One is that, according to Roman law, a slave who goes to a third party to mediate a dispute with his or her owner is not to be considered a fugitive. If one reads the letter from this perspective, it also fits. A third argument is that Onesimus is not a slave at all, but Philemon's brother, whom Philemon is treating like a slave ( Phlm 16 ). Paul asks him to reconcile and treat him as he deserves. The interpretation that Onesimus is indeed a slave is the majority one, but why he went to Paul remains an open question, as does what Paul really wants Philemon to do. But it is clear that the relationship between Philemon and Onesimus is not good, and Paul is trying to patch it up.

The informal conversational tone does not detract from the letter's impressive significance within the Christian context. Each part of this letter underscores its ecclesial or community context and gives us a glimpse into the structure of relationship and exchange in the early Christian church. Because nearly all the names mentioned in the letter also occur in Colossians, the usual supposition is that Philemon's house church is located in Colossae.

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