The shortest of Paul’s extant letters; it is an appeal to Philemon, written while Paul was in prison, begging Philemon to be merciful to the runaway slave Onesimus, who had been converted to Christianity (verse 16) and sought refuge with Paul. Onesimus had come with stolen property (verse 18) and the prospect of returning was appalling. The penalties for slaves who absconded were severe and Paul not only pleads for gentle treatment by Philemon but also seems to hint that Onesimus might be spared for service to himself (verse 13)! Philemon is urged to go the extra mile (verse 21, cf. Matt. 5: 41), and not to exact the penalties (which might include death), which under Roman law he was fully within his rights to impose. (An alternative explanation is that Onesimus had been enslaved by reason of bankruptcy, and had been sent by Philemon to serve the incarcerated Paul, during which time he was converted to Christianity.) A bishop of Ephesus of the name Onesimus (which means ‘useful’, hence Paul’s paronomasia in verse 11) is mentioned by Ignatius (107 CE), and the theory has been proposed, but not generally accepted, that Onesimus was responsible for making a collection of Paul’s epistles.
Philemon lived at Colossae, and some have held that this is so much nearer to Ephesus than Rome that it was more likely that the letter was sent together with the epistle to the Colossians (with which it is closely associated) from Ephesus; but the only evidence for Paul’s imprisonment in Ephesus are the vague generalizations in 1 Cor. 15: 32 and 2 Cor. 11: 23. It has also been suggested that the slave owner was actually Archippus (verse 2), rather than Philemon. In this case, the letter’s purpose was different: possibly it was the very ‘letter from Laodicea’ (Col. 4: 16); and if Philemon was a prominent member of that Church, he is being urged by Paul to use his influence in the Church with Archippus. Could the Church allow Onesimus to remain in Rome and care for Paul? The prisoner seems able to pay the legal fee to secure the slave’s freedom (18). Thus, it was not a matter of Onesimus being sent back to his master. What is, however, perfectly clear from the letter is that Paul is trying to involve the whole local Church (verses 1 and 23); it is not a private matter; for the risks being taken by Onesimus and urged on Philemon, and indeed accepted by Paul, were very considerable. It is also clear that the institution of slavery as such is not condemned, though the common Christian faith of slave and owner requires a totally transformed relationship.