By Raymond Harris
Regarding Scripture: Book of Philemon
Note to the Reader – I encourage you to invest additional time reading the Book of Philemon in conjunction with this article.
The Book of Philemon
While the book of Philemon is the shortest letter written by Paul, it contains a wealth of information that is worth our time. Because of its brevity and its lack of doctrinal insight, we might find the Philemon letter easy to overlook. Let us take this month and look at several items contained in Paul’s letter about Onesimus and see how we can be profited in our personal walk of faith.
While a prisoner of Rome, Paul had the opportunity to spend time with a runaway. Fugitives come from many backgrounds, perhaps the most heartfelt is the youth running from home life, but perhaps the best known is the convict on the run from the law, either way they are fugitive. But Onesimus fits neither of those. He is more of what our own country has historical and social familiarity with, and that is with runaway slaves. While the letter to Philemon did not specifically address the social system of slavery, the letter does inspire many concerns, possibilities and questions for Philemon and for the modern reader.
Onesimus is a slave but he is also described as a faithful beloved brother.1 What is interesting is that we know very little about Onesimus. We know that he was male and ran from Philemon, but we are not told any information about his background as to why he was a slave or why he became a fugitive. So it is difficult to understand his social situation and motives. But we do know that by “various means and for various reasons”2 people became slaves during this period in Roman history. Some became slaves because of financial debts, others became slaves of a conqueroring nation, and still others born of slave mothers were thereby born into slavery themselves.3
We are not certain of the origin for Onesimus and his slavery. It is possible that he could have been born a slave, but it is also just as possible that he became a slave because of his financial situation. The best we can do is to examine possibilities and offer speculation. However, we do know that as a slave he became a fugitive. What set his mind to this? As a Christian, was Philemon brutal, harsh or unfair, and seen by Onesimus as hypocritical causing him to rebel and run? Or as a Christian, was Philemon the best possible master Onesimus could have had and he ran anyway? It seems that this letter’s information is insufficient enough to provide an answer for either scenario; again all we can do is speculate.
But what we do know is that Philemon had rights and Onesimus had none. To us, this may or may not seem fair or right, but that is not really the issue. The issue seems to be how would Rome have viewed the matter. Rome would have found in favor of the owner, not the slave. As outlined in the next section, runaway slaves could have had a number of things done to them upon their return, from being whipped to being executed. Needless to say, if I were Onesimus and had returned to face my master, I would be praying that Philemon would accept and listen to Paul’s plea.
Before we close, let us consider some tidbits mentioned in the NIV Archeological Study Bible. These provide additional points of interest which can enrich one’s reading of the Book of Philemon. Some information regarding Philemon:4
- Approximately one-third of the first-century Roman population was made up of slaves (v. 12).
- Slaves had no legal status, and a runaway could be severely whipped, branded on the face, chained, forced to wear an iron neck collar or restrained by having his or her legs broken. Slaves could also be sold in the mines or sentenced to death (v. 14).
- The aristocratic historian Sallust described the Rome of Paul’s day as “the common cesspool of the world” (v. 24).
The letter of personal appeal from Paul to Philemon has the contents of great drama. Recognizing that neither the Old Testament nor the New condemn slavery, we are given just this one moment in time. What will Philemon do? Will he raise the bar of excellence and accept this fugitive? Or will he exercise his rights under Roman law and punish his slave? As believers, two thousands years removed and occupants of a culture that has not only denounced slavery but does not accept slavery and are moved by civil rights, we know what we want Philemon to do. But we cannot read into this epistle our culture and our expectations. Interestingly enough Scriptures do not record the history of events; we are given only this brief letter. Yet, tradition wants to reveal a positive outcome.5 What we do know is that this letter calls upon all believers to rise above social and economic class, to rise above circumstance, and to rise above legal rights in order to extend and demonstrate the beauty of being a disciple of Jesus.
1. “Beloved brother.” Colossians 4.9, NASB.
2. “Various means and various reasons.” Cultural and Historical Notes; Slavery in the Greco-Roman World; Archaeological Study Bible, New International Version, p. 1979, ISBN-10: 0-310-92605-X.
4. Introduction to Philemon; “Did You Know?” Archaeological Study Bible, New International Version, p. 1978, ISBN-10: 0-310-92605-X.
5. “Onesimus.” Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Onesimus; December 1, 2008.