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Paul's letter to Philemon is arguably the most intimate of all of Paul's letters. Within it we see the apostle writing in verses 1–2 to Philemon, Apphia (his wife?) and Archippus (their son?) about a delicate matter, and revealing in the process unexpected insights, not only about his own beliefs and character, but also about the hopes and expectations he has for how his fellow believers should conduct themselves. Despite the fact that it is the shortest in the collection of Paul's letters (a mere 335 words in Greek), and fails to address many of the theological ideas central to Paul's thinking (for example, justification by faith, the Jew-gentile debate, eschatology), the letter to Philemon nevertheless offers important insights into a number of other key theological topics. It has been the basis for significant contributions in New Testament scholarship, including form criticism, rhetorical-critical studies, and discourse analysis. It also has had an important role in recent attempts to reconstruct Paul's sociological world (Petersen is a case in point).

The letter to Philemon is generally regarded as a “prison epistle” (Paul describes himself as “a prisoner” in vv. 1 and 9, and speaks of his “imprisonment” in vv. 10 and 13). Most commentators agree that Philemon was written while Paul was in captivity, and several places and times for that imprisonment are possible. Three in particular have been suggested by interpreters over the years: Ephesus in 52–55 C.E., Caesarea in 58–60, and Rome in 60–62. Rome is the most commonly accepted, and it remains the default position for most commentators on Philemon. For many years views about another prison epistle, Colossians, have tended to shape the interpretation of Philemon. This presents some methodological difficulties, particularly if Colossians is deemed a deuteropauline epistle. However, many commentaries in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries have treated the letter to Philemon independently of Colossians, potentially overcoming the problem (Stuhlmacher 1975; Gnilka 1982; Fitzmyer 2000; Barth 2000; Nordling 2004 are examples).

The Traditional Interpretation: Onesimus as a Runaway Slave from Colossae.

The traditional interpretation of the letter to Philemon sees it as concerned with the story of a runaway slave named Onesimus, who for some reason had become estranged from his master Philemon. Indeed, this interpretation of the letter suggests that the very reason Paul wrote to Philemon arose directly out of Onesimus's status. The assumption is that while he was in prison Paul befriended the runaway Onesimus and was instrumental in his conversion to the faith. Verse 10 is especially important in this regard; here Paul uses family language about the father-son relationship to address Philemon about his convert Onesimus: “I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment.” Paul seems to be attempting to effect some sort of reconciliation between the wayward slave and his aggrieved master Philemon (whom Paul may or may not have known personally). In short, the apostle wrote the letter to Philemon because he desired a new relationship be forged between Philemon and his slave, one that took into account their shared commitments in Christ. This so-called “runaway slave hypothesis” goes back at least to the time of John Chrysostom (ca. 347–407 C.E.), and it continues to have advocates. The interpretation invites a particular reconstruction of the original occasion and setting of the letter, one that relies upon a close connection with the letter to the Colossians: it assumes that Philemon was from the city of Colossae, and the fact that the letter to the Colossians contains the only other biblical reference to Onesimus (4:9) is confirmation of this idea.

The Traditional Interpretation Adapted: Onesimus as Bishop of Ephesus.

In 1935 John Knox published his Philemon among the Letters of Paul, which heralded a new stage in the history of the interpretation of the epistle. Knox concentrated on two specific areas. First, he suggested a different understanding of the relationship between Philemon and Onesimus, arguing that Archippus (v. 1), not Philemon, was the owner of the runaway slave Onesimus. Second, on the basis of an intriguing reference to an Onesimus in Ignatius's Letter to the Ephesians 1:3, Knox suggested that Paul's convert Onesimus went on to become the bishop of Ephesus. Moreover, Knox linked this idea with Edgar Goodspeed's influential proposal that the letter to the Ephesians was a “cover letter” to a collection of Paul's letters, and that the epistle to Philemon was in fact the lost letter to the Laodiceans (mentioned in Col 4:16). On this basis Knox proposed that Bishop Onesimus was not only the person responsible for bringing together the Pauline collection, but that he was also the one who ensured that the letter to Philemon had a place within it.

This new reconstruction of the historical circumstances of the letter allowed Knox to offer a different interpretation of the nature of Paul's request in v. 10A (“I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus”): that Paul is here appealing not on behalf of Onesimus, but for Onesimus, that is, that the young convert might be sent to assist the apostle in his imprisonment. Knox's theory attracted a following among Pauline scholars (notably Harrison 1950), but it is not without its difficulties. For example, it is heavily dependent upon a particular understanding of the relationship between Colossians and Philemon, and it assumes that Paul wrote Colossians.

The Traditional Interpretation Challenged: Reassessing Onesimus.

In the late twentieth century several fresh challenges to the traditional interpretation of Onesimus as a runaway slave were offered. One begins by noting that the language used by Paul to describe Onesimus in v. 15 is much more subtle than this: Onesimus is never said to have run away from Philemon, but simply to have been separated from him. Thus, some interpreters (such as Rapske 1991; Dunn 1996; and Fitzmyer 2000) have suggested that Onesimus is not a runaway as such, but rather that he has sought out Paul in the hopes that the apostle might smooth out the strained relationship that Onesimus has with his master, Philemon. In other words, Onesimus has gone to Paul as a “friend of the master,” and the disaffected slave is himself attempting to effect a reconciliation with his master. There are some important parallels in the ancient Roman world for this way of reconstructing the story of Onesimus and Philemon (as Lampe has demonstrated). Indeed, such a reconstruction offers an explanation of Paul's promise to repay whatever Onesimus owes (vv. 18–19): Onesimus is thought to have stolen money from Philemon to finance his trip to Paul and, hopefully, bring about reconciliation with his estranged master.

Another reassessment of Onesimus was offered by Sara Winter in 1987, building upon Knox's suggestion that Archippus, not Philemon, was the owner of Onesimus. Winter suggests that Archippus was an important leader in the church at Colossae, and that he sent Onesimus to Paul as an envoy from the church, just as Epaphroditus was sent to the apostle by the church at Philippi (Phil 4.18).

A third reassessment of Onesimus focuses on the description of him in v. 16, that he be received “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother.” In 1997 Allen Dwight Callahan revived an idea first proposed in the middle of the abolitionist debates of the nineteenth century about the relationship between Philemon and Onesimus. He contended that Onesimus was not a slave of Philemon, but his physical brother.

It goes without saying that each of these three reassessments of Onesimus challenges in some way the traditional interpretation that he was a runaway slave. However, it is also important to note that the ambiguities of the text of Philemon are such that none of these reassessments is certain. As a consequence, some commentators have revived the runaway-slave hypothesis, arguing that it still offers the best interpretative framework for the letter (see Barclay 1991 and Nordling 1991).

The Enduring Appeal of the Letter to Philemon.

The most enduring contribution of the letter to Philemon concerns what it is thought to reveal about Paul's attitudes to the institution of slavery. Indeed, it should come as no surprise that the letter was frequently cited by both sides of the abolitionist debate in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Given its subject matter (the restoration of the relationship between a disaffected slave and his master), it is not surprising to find that the letter to Philemon has yielded a rich harvest of creative literature based on it. A number of plays, novels, and short stories have attempted to retell the story of Onesimus and Philemon and make it come alive for new readers. Modern cinema has also found the story of Onesimus a compelling one, with the potential of distilling the idea of Christian forgiveness into one readily accessible human drama. The best example of this is the feature film Onesimus, the Runaway (2006), produced in Arabic by a charitable trust based in Nicosia, Cyprus, and marketed for the Arab peoples of the Middle East and North Africa (see Kreitzer for details).



  • Barclay, John M. D. “Paul, Philemon and the Dilemma of Christian Slave-Ownership.” New Testament Studies 37 (1991): 161–186.
  • Callahan, Allen Dwight. Embassy of Onesimus: The Letter of Paul to Philemon. The New Testament in Context. Valley Forge, Penn.: Trinity Press International, 1997.
  • Dunn, James D. D. The Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon. The New International Greek Testament Commentary. Carlisle, Penn.: Paternoster, 1996.
  • Fitzmyer, Joseph A. The Letter to Philemon. Anchor Bible 34C. New York: Doubleday, 2000.
  • Gnilka, Joachim Der Philemonbrief. Herders theologischer Kommentar zum Neuen Testament 10/4. Freiburg im Breisgau: Herder, 1982.
  • Goodspeed, Edgar J. The Meaning of Ephesians. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1933.
  • Harrison, P. N. “Onesimus and Philemon.” Anglican Theological Review 32 (1950): 268–294.
  • Knox, John. Philemon Among the Letters of Paul. London: Collins, 1935.
  • Kreitzer, Larry J. Philemon. Readings. Sheffield, U.K.: Sheffield Phoenix, 2008.
  • Lampe, Peter. “Keine ‘Sklavenflucht’ des Onesimus.” Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft 76 (1985): 135–137.
  • Nordling, John G. “Onesimus Fugitivus: A Defense of the Runaway Slave Hypothesis in Philemon.” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 41 (1991): 97–119.
  • Nordling, John G. Philemon. Concordia Commentary. St. Louis, Mo.: Concordia, 2004.
  • Petersen, Norman R. Rediscovering Paul: Philemon and the Sociology of Paul's Narrative World. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985.
  • Rapske, Brian M. “The Prisoner Paul in the Eyes of Onesimus.” New Testament Studies 37 (1991): 187–203.
  • Stuhlmacher, Peter. Der Brief an Philemon. Evangelische-Katholischer Kommentar zum Neuen Testament. Zürich: Benziger, 1975.
  • Winter, Sara B. D. “Paul's Letter to Philemon.” New Testament Studies 33 (1987): 1–15.

Larry J. Kreitzer

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