Paul of Tarsus and Philemon

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Paul’s Letter to Philemon

The book of Philemon is an Epistle written while Paul was imprisoned. The letter to Philemon is the shortest of all Paul's writings and deals with the practice of slavery. The key personalities of Philemon are Paul, Philemon, and Onesimus. It was written to Philemon as a plea to request forgiveness for his runaway servant Onesimus, who was a new believer in Jesus Christ. Joseph A. Fitzmyer, author of The Letter to Philemon, goes into great detail within the context of the societal, political, and economical realisms of the time. His understandings prove why the letter, while discussed later, is relevant in the Church today. Before beginning, as a broader overview, in verses 1-7 Paul gives his greetings to Philemon and presents his appreciation and gratitude for him as a brother and worker in Jesus Christ. Philemon was most likely a wealthy member of the church in Colossae. It seems Paul begins by alleviating up Philemon, as to prepare him initially, before mentioning Onesimus his runaway slave, because he was apparently angry with his absent slave. Paul says, “I pray that the fellowship of your faith may become effective through the knowledge of every good thing which is in you for Christ’s sake” (Philemon 1:6). Continuing on, verses 8-25 consist of Paul’s appeal of Onesimus, who had run away and traveled to Rome where he met Paul. While there, Onesimus surrendered his life to Christ. Philemon, under Roman law, could execute his slave for fleeing; however, Paul pleas with Philemon to accept his servant. Paul goes one-step further and asks Philemon not only to accept his slave, but also to accept him as a brother in Christ and to overlook his faults and errors. “For perhaps he was for this reason separated from you for a while, that you would have him back forever, no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother, especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord” (15-16). Before analyzing the initial writings of Paul, one must first delve into the title. While most commonly referred to as simply the “Book of Philemon,” this letter is known in all Greek manuscripts as Pros Philēmona, or “To Philemon” (Fitzmyer 7). Likewise to the text, the title has only been slightly modified in different manuscripts to include “written from Rome” or “written from Rome from Paul through Onesimus, the house servant” (7). Throughout the last two millenniums, Philemon has been translated with remarkable consistency. Of the twenty-five verses, eight are free from variance and according to Fitzmyer, “The ancient Latin and Syriac versions also reflect the stability of the original Greek texts” (7). One of the most debated issues of Philemon is the authorship. Because Philemon lacked any “doctrinal content” it was at times neglected in the ancient church. Marcion, a bishop in early Christianity who typically rejected many books, was one who did in fact accept Paul as the primary author of Philemon. He argued that the “language, vocabulary, style, and structure are Pauline” (Fitzmyer 8). This was generally accepted and not questioned again until the 19th century when F.C. Baur regarded it as a “second-century Christian romance composed to explain how post-Pauline Christianity should deal with slavery.” A major argument against Baur’s claim is that in verse 19 of Philemon, Paul states “I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand…” Fitzmyer, on the other hand argues that while Paul could very well of written the entire twenty-five verses of Philemon, he could of also only written a small segment of the book (8). This argument can be supported by the fact that in Paul’s Epistle to the Colossians, which also mentions Paul’s name, Paul is also a prisoner and Onesimus is mentioned. Timothy is also a co-sender of this Epistle as well. Not only that, but five of whom send greetings in the Letter of Philemon, “Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends you greetings. And so...
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