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An Introduction to the New Testament



Occasion. One of the chief features of life in the Roman Empire was slavery. It was everywhere and all-embracing. Christianity must have been constantly in contact with it from the beginning, but in the New Testament slavery as a living issue meets us first in the Letter to Philemon.

The Roman road that ran most directly east from Ephesus passed through Magnesia and Tralles to Laodicea, and eleven miles farther up the valley of the River Lycus reached Colossae. Six miles north of Laodicea and in full view of it, across the Lycus Valley, was Hierapolis. Hierapolis, Laodicea, and Colossae were thus very near neighbors and in constant communication. There were Christians in all three, and Epaphras who had come to Paul about the difficulties in the Colossian church felt a responsibility for them all. "I can testify," Paul wrote to the Colossians, "how anxious he is about you and the brothers in Laodicea and Hierapolis," Col. 4:13. It is clear that these Christian groups were in close relations.

Some of these Christian brothers in Phrygia were slaveowners, of course, and from one of them a slave named Onesimus had run away, taking with him such valuables as he could lay his hands on, Philemon, verse 18.


Such occurrences were frequent in antiquity. Of course, rewards were offered for the return of such runaways as Onesimus, as the Greek papyri show. Here is one circulated in Egypt in 156 B.C. :

The twenty-fifth year, Epeiph 17th. A slave belonging to Aristogenes, son of Chrysippus, an envoy from Alabanda, has run away. His name is Hermon; he is also called Nilus. He is by birth a Syrian of Bambyce, eighteen years old, of middle height, smooth face, strong calves, cleft chin, mole to the left of his nose, scar over the left comer of his mouth, two foreign letters tattooed on his right wrist. He has three minas in gold coin, ten pearls, and an iron collar with an oil-flask and shaving tools on it, and is wearing a short cloak and apron.
Whoever brings him back will receive two talents of copper; if he reports him at a temple, one talent; if with a responsible and law-abiding person, three talents. Anyone so desiring give information to the governor's representatives.
With him ran away Bion, a slave of Callicrates, one of. the chief officers at the court; short, broad-shouldered, thin legged, with light-blue eyes; when he ran away wore a cloak and slave's leathern girdle, and took a woman's cosmetic box worth six talents, and five thousand copper drachmas.
Whoever brings him back will receive the same reward as for the above mentioned. Inform the governor's representatives about this one also." [1]

Rewards were doubtless offered for Onesimus' return, but it was Paul who sent him back. He seems to have made his way as far as Rome, where he had somehow

[1] Goodspeed and Colwell, Greek Papyrus Reader (Chicago, 1935), No. 59.


gotten acquainted with Paul and become a Christian. Paul had learned that he was a slave and had persuaded him to return to his master, and when Tychicus made his journey to Colossae with the Letter to the Colossians, in A.D. 60 or 61, Onesimus went with him.

Perhaps it was the coming of Epaphras from Colossae, Col. 1:7; 4:12, 13, that had precipitated matters. He may have recognized Onesimus from having seen him in his master's house in Phrygia, at Colossae or Laodicea. He knew the Christians of all three cities. Perhaps his coming had led Onesimus to tell Paul the whole story. At any rate Paul feels obliged to send him back to his master. But he puts in his hands a letter to Philemon, intended to protect Onesimus from punishment and reinstate him with his master.

The letter is addressed to "our dear fellow-worker Philemon, and our sister Apphia and our fellow soldier Archippus, and the church that meets in your house." The "your" is singular, and it is evident that Philemon's house is meant. The usual ancient way, and certainly Paul's way, was to put the important member of a group of two or three first: Paul and Sosthenes, I Cor. 1:1; Paul and Timothy, II Cor. 1:1 and Philemon, verse 1; Paul and Silvanus and Timothy, I, II Thess. 1:1; Stephanas and Achaicus and Fortunatus, I Cor. 16:15, 17.

Philemon, it appears, has a house large enough to accommodate the meetings of a Christian congregation and so becomes, as Paul sometimes puts it, the


host of the church, Rom. 16:23. At Ephesus one congregation met in the house of Aquila and Prisca, I Cor. 16:19, Rom. 16:5. At Corinth the church met in the house of Gaius, Rom. 16:23. At Laodicea one congregation met in the house of Nympha, Col. 4:15.

Apphia is apparently the wife of Philemon, and Archippus, Paul's "fellow-soldier," is probably the minister of the church. He is also referred to in Col. 4:17, where a message is sent him by way of the Colossians: "Tell Archippus, 'See that you perform the Christian service you have been assigned.' " In the preceding lines Paul has been speaking about the neighboring city of Laodicea: "Remember me to the brothers in Laodicea. .... When this letter has been read to you, have it read to the church in Laodicea also, and see that you read the letter that is coming from there. And tell Archippus, . . . ." This plainly implies that Archippus is in Laodicea. If he were in Colossae, why should the Colossians have to "tell" him? He would be present at the meeting of the church and hear the message without being told.

But if Archippus is in Laodicea, then Philemon and Apphia are also, and so is the church that meets in Philemon's house. The letter to Philemon was a letter to Laodicea, [1] and it must not be overlooked that it was addressed not only to Philemon and Apphia but to Archippus and the church that met in Philemon's

[1] The damage done to Laodicea by an earthquake about A.D. 60, according to Tacitus Annals xiv. 27, seems to have done the city no lasting injury (W. M. Ramsay, Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia [New York, 1905], p. 173).


house. And yet it is a personal letter, for it concerns Philemon's personal affairs—his treatment of his slave Onesimus who had run away from him and was now being returned to him by Paul. The letter deals with the matter of how Philemon is to receive the runaway and what he is to do with him. Under the cruel ancient system a master could do anything he liked with a runaway slave. Slaves were regularly examined under torture and might be compelled by their masters to fight with wild animals in the arena. Slaves who provoked their masters were unmercifully beaten. The whole picture is so terrible that modern attention instinctively turns from it.

It was a very serious thing to put Onesimus once more into the power of his injured owner; Philemon could do almost anything he pleased with him and still be within the Roman law and in line with the attitude of his contemporaries. Paul is putting Onesimus in the utmost peril. Even if Philemon were himself humane and kindly, he might think he owed a duty to other slaveowners to safeguard the institution by making an example of Onesimus. He might think he had a duty to his "class." The enormous number of slaves in the Roman world made the fear of a slave uprising very real.

Of course, sending a slave back to his owner seems strange to the modern mind. We remember the Underground Railroad of the northern states of the Union, in the fifties and sixties, with its "stations" in the cellars of courageous abolitionists who abhorred slavery and sought in every way to defeat it. But slavery was


far more deeply intrenched in Paul's world than in the United States of eighty years ago. Onesimus would never be safe anywhere until his status with his master was rectified.

Paul took a fearful risk when he sent Onesimus back with Tychicus, and, while we instinctively think of Colossians as the main item in Tychicus' mission, Paul was probably much more anxious about what would happen to Onesimus when he presented himself at Philemon's door. So he puts into his hand a letter, courteously appealing to Philemon on behalf of Onesimus, especially as the young man is now a Christian and should be received by Philemon as a brother in Christ.

Contents. It is to be noted that the letter is addressed not only to Philemon, Apphia, and Archippus but to the church that meets in Philemon's house, and so the matter of the treatment Philemon gives Onesimus will have to be settled in the presence of the congregation. Paul lines up the moral sentiment of this whole Christian group in support of his appeal for Onesimus. And while he speaks throughout in a most courteous tone, the note of authority is not lacking; he does not fail to remind Philemon that he is no less an ambassador of Christ, though just now a prisoner for him, verse 9. Whatever Onesimus may have stolen Paul undertakes to make good, verses 18, 19. Dark as his position is at Rome, he still hopes to revisit Asia and come to Laodicea, verse 22. The same circle reported in Col. 4:10-14 is listed as sending greetings, verses 23,24. Only Jesus Justus is omitted.


It seems clear that this is the letter referred to in Col. 4:16 as to come from Laodicea, and that the same motive that led Paul to include the whole Christian group that met in Philemon's house in the address of that letter would lead him to wish the Colossian church to be aware of the case of Onesimus and what he had asked of Philemon. The case of Onesimus is to be settled not by Philemon alone, in private, but in the presence of the Christian congregation that meets in his house at Laodicea, and also with the full knowledge of the Colossian church as well. The social pressure of these two congregations is being brought to bear upon Philemon. And why not, if a man's life was at stake? Could Paul have done less? Had he any business to gamble with another man's life, even though that man was only a runaway slave?

Problems. This is the answer to Lightfoot's question, "Why should a letter, containing such intimate confidences, be read publicly in the Church, not only at Laodicea, but at Colossae, by the express order of the Apostle?"[1] Of course, this question is automatically disposed of by the undoubted fact that the letter, however intimate, is itself specifically addressed to "the church that meets in Philemon's house," verse 2. If it was to be read before one church, by Paul's own order, the addition of another church cannot be said to introduce any new element. Certainly Paul himself manifestly disclaims any such intimate character for the letter as Lightfoot proposed. It was no time for

[1] St. Paul's Epistles to the Colossians and Philemon (3d ed.; London, 1879), P.279.


punctilio; it was a matter of life and death. Wieseler, the leading advocate of this view, was right in describing the identification of Philemon with the Letter from Laodicea as "scarcely open to a doubt."[1] The view gains additional probability from the fact that Paul does not describe the companion letter as the Letter to the Laodiceans—it was only secondarily to them; it was primarily to Philemon, the master of Onesimus, so it is simply "the letter from Laodicea," Col.4:16.

The whole matter seems quite plain. The Colossians are to get in touch with Archippus, tell him to perform his Christian duty unflinchingly, and say that Paul wishes the Laodiceans to see the Colossians' letter and that they understand that a letter from Paul has also been received at Laodicea, which Paul wishes them to see. Col. 4:16, 17. This would inevitably lead to an exchange of letters between the two churches, just as Paul desired.

[1] "The opinion of Wieseler," says Vincent (Epistles to the Philippians and to Philemon, p. 157), "that both Philemon and Archippus belonged to Laodicea, and that the epistle was therefore sent to that place, is entitled to no weight." If, as Vincent supposed, the same persons (with one exception) were saluted in Philemon as in Colossians, it would be natural to assign the two letters to a common destination. "All the persons saluted," be declares, "are named in the salutations of Colossians except Jesus Justus" (p. 192). But the fact is, he has mistaken the middle for the passive voice. It is the persons sending the greetings that are so largely the same, so that all that they prove is that the letters came from the same circle—Paul and his friends at Rome. Philemon usually gets very little serious attention from commentators. Jesus Justus is named in Colossians (4:11), but not in Philemon.


This explanation of Philemon as the letter to Laodicea at once clears up a number of problems:

1. Why was a mere personal letter to Philemon ever included in a collection of Paul's letters to churches? The answer is plain: because it was not thought of as a personal letter but as a church letter, verse 2, the Letter to the Laodiceans.

2. What has become of the letter from Laodicea, mentioned in Col. 4:16? Linked in this way from the beginning, by Paul himself, with Colossians, how could it have disappeared? It had a double chance for preservation, for both churches must have possessed copies of it. We answer: It never disappeared but, notwithstanding its brevity and meager theological content, has always been preserved with Colossians, just as one would expect.

This explains why, from the time of Marcion and the oldest known list of Paul's letters, a tradition has existed of a Letter to the Laodiceans. It also explains the strange way in which Philemon is referred to in Colossians—"the letter from Laodicea." The Colossians are to ask for Philemon and to expect to read it; their justification is Paul's own suggestion in his letter to them that they secure it and read it, lending the Laodiceans their letter in exchange.[1] Paul does not call it a Letter to the Laodiceans, or a Letter to Philemon; he leaves the matter vague, just as he does

[1] That the letter did not long continue to bear the name of Laodicea or Laodiceans is not strange in view of the disfavor into which the Laodicean church soon fell; cf. The Letter to Laodicea in Rev. 3:15: "Since you are tepid, and neither cold nor hot, I am going to spit you out of my mouth!"


in Philemon itself. For while the Letter to Philemon is addressed to Philemon, Apphia, Archippus, and the church that meets in Philemon's house, the real recipient is addressed in the second person singular all the way through, from verse 4 to verse 24.

This also explains the strange allusion to Archippus in Col. 4:17: "Tell Archippus, 'See that you perform the Christian service you have been assigned.'" There is something almost grim in this indirect message which the Colossians are to transmit to Archippus. He is to understand that he has a special responsibility in this matter, as the nearest Christian of influence to Philemon. It is his business to see that Philemon does the Christian thing by Onesimus. Certainly every Christian minister knows that such responsibilities sometimes come to him, and what is more obvious than that Archippus had a peculiar and very grave responsibility in the present case?

So as if in the presence of the wife and the minister of Philemon, of the Christian congregation that met in his house, and of thc Christian church at Colossae, Philemon is to deal with Onesimus. There is nothing unfair or underhanded about this; Philemon, if he was the right sort, would have nothing to conceal from any of them; but if he were not the right sort, they would exercise a most salutary check on his vindictiveness or violence, and Onesimus would be saved. There was already in the social pressure of the Christian groups a safeguard that Paul, though in prison at Rome, could throw about the slave Onesimus.


About the only thing that can be alleged against these positions is the reference in Col. 4:9 to Onesimus as "of you"—"one of you," "from among you," or "one of your number." From this it has usually been inferred that Philemon was a Colossian. But that does not necessarily follow. Onesimus might have been of Colossian origin without Philemon's having lived there. Moreover Colossae, Laodicea, and Hierapolis were close together. "They are very near," says Ramsay, "Hierapolis being about six miles north, and Colossae eleven miles east, from Laodicea..... Laodicea and Hierapolis .... are in full view of one another on opposite sites of the glen."[1] They must have been in daily, even hourly, contact. And viewed from the distance of Rome, the distinctions between them would tend to disappear. Even if Onesimus were from Laodicea, Paul writing to the immediately neighboring Colossae could easily think of him as "one of you." It is much easier to think of this phrase in this way than to dispose of the Laodicean atmosphere of Col. 4:1-17. It would, moreover, be entirely natural for Paul to seek to interest the Colossians in the fate of Onesimus by reminding them that he belonged to their district—Phrygia and the Lycus Valley.

In any case, the expression "of you," or "from you" cannot be narrowly interpreted, for Onesimus was certainly not a member of the Colossian church when he robbed his master and ran away. It is certainly used in some more inclusive sense, and who can say that the sense must be extended to the city of

[1] Op. cit., p. 172.


Colossae and limited to it? Why not the general region of the cities of the Lycus Valley?

But even if 4:9 established the Colossian origin of Onesimus (cf. Rom. 9:5), it would not make Philemon a Colossian, for Archippus is definitely a third person to the Colossians and Paul (4:17); he is a townsman of Philemon and is introduced in Colossians in a connection that points unmistakably to Laodicea. There is no escaping this. Archippus is not a Colossian, and the implication of 4:15-17 is that he was a Laodicean. And he necessarily carries with him Philemon, Apphia, and the church that met in Philemon's house. It was a Laodicean church.

What was the effect of Paul's letter to Philemon? The fact that it was preserved among church letters along with Colossians shows that it reached the congregations Paul intended and that they valued it. It is altogether probable that Philemon willingly acceded to Paul's wishes and received Onesimus back into his household and into Christian fellowship.

But Paul intimated that he really wished something more. He would have liked to keep Onesimus with him. Onesimus had become useful to him, as his name, which means "helpful," suggested. He feels toward him like a father; sending him back is like sending his very heart.

I would have liked to keep him with me, to wait on me in your place, while I am in prison for the good news, but I do not wish to do anything without your consent, so that your kindness might be voluntary and not have the appearance of compulsion. .... Come, brother, let me make something out of you in a Christian sense! Cheer my heart as a Christian .... I know that you will do even more than I ask.


Dr. John Knox has recently pointed out that what Paul demands in Philemon is forgiveness and humane treatment for Onesimus; but what he earnestly desires is that Philemon will send Onesimus back to be with him. Did Philemon do both?[1]

Fifty or fifty-five years after Paul wrote this letter Ignatius, the bishop of Antioch, was being taken across Asia to Rome to suffer martyrdom there. From Smyrna he wrote a letter to the Ephesian church, in the opening chapters of which he has much to say about their bishop Onesimus. He makes a great deal of the meaning of his name and in many ways reflects acquaintance with this Letter to Philemon. We cannot be sure that Onesimus, bishop of Ephesus ca. 107-17, was the boy Onesimus whom Paul had sent back to Philemon, as the martyrologies suggest, but it is not impossible that he was; that Philemon did indeed send him back to Paul again, as Paul so much wished he would do; that he lived to become a Christian leader in his own country, Asia, and was the bishop of Ephesus when Ignatius passed through that region ca. 107-17. If it be urged, with Lightfoot, that he would be too old,[2] let it be remembered that his

[1] John Knox, Philemon among the Letters of Paul (Chicago, 1935), pp. 4-11. ' "This Onesimus seems to be a distinct person .... from S. Paul's convert the slave of Philemon, who, if still living, would be too old at this time, . . . ." (The Apostolic Fathers, II, 32). But cf. Lightfoot (Colossians, P. 314): "It is not altogether impossible therefore that the same person may be intended." For the tradition making Paul's Onesimus bishop of Ephesus, Lightfoot refers to Acta Sanct. Boll. xvi. Febr. (II, 837 f., new ed.).


colleague Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, afterward suffered martyrdom at eighty-six, and in more modern times John Voysey, at the age of one hundred and three, made way for Myles Coverdale as bishop of Exeter and resumed the office again two years later. There is not the slightest difficulty in supposing that Paul's young friend Onesimus lived to the late sixties or seventies; in 107 he would be approaching seventy. And it must be agreed that the way in which Ignatius again and again alludes to the Letter to Philemon in his Letter to the Ephesians, chapters 1-6, makes it decidedly probable, as Dr. Knox has shown, that they were one and the same. If this is true, it opens up some very interesting possibilities as to the personalities behind the collecting of Paul's letters and their first publication.

That antiquity should have kept silent about the identity of Onesimus of Ephesus with Paul's young friend, supposing they were the same individual, may be due to the fact that Onesimus appears in this connection with Paul as a thievish runaway slave—a very disreputable episode in the early life of a great churchman, which his contemporaries might well be willing to forger. On the other hand, it is at least possible that it was the interest of the runaway himself, now grown to sober middle age, that caused the letter about his youthful escapade to be included in the Pauline corpus, for the light it threw upon Paul's character


and in gratitude for the help he had had from the great apostle at the turning-point of his life. It may even have been he that instigated the collecting of Paul's letters, for that collection was made at Ephesus and the nucleus of it, as we shall see, was Philemon-Colossians. These are conjectures, it is true, and incapable of proof, but they are far from improbable. Certainly some Christian of the Lycus Valley churches kept these letters and carried them to Ephesus before the Pauline letters had begun to be published, and it would be hard to imagine anyone to whom these particular letters would mean so much as the boy they had saved and perhaps freed. Certainly no one owed more to Paul than he.

If he did indeed rise to be the bishop of Ephesus, his was very probably the hand that preserved just these two letters and carried them to Ephesus, there to become the nucleus of the Pauline letter collection. I am indebted to the work of Dr. John Knox for the suggestion underlying these conjectures and for establishing the use of Philemon in Ignatius' Letter to the Ephesians, chapters 1-6—a point which had escaped even Lightfoot himself. "Onesimus is the real subject of these six chapters."[1] If Onesimus were nearing twenty in A.D. 60, a very reasonable estimate, he would be in the early fifties when the Pauline corpus was made soon after A.D. 90, and sixty-five to seventy-five when Ignatius wrote his letter to the Ephesians, A.D. 107-17. Great things were done in Ephesus and Smyrna between A.D. 90 and 125—the writing of Ephesians

[1] Knox, op. cit., p. 53.


and of the Revelation and the Letters and Gospel of John, the publication of the Pauline corpus and the Fourfold Gospel—and personalities like Onesimus and Polycarp were unquestionably concerned in them.

Much has been said of the taste and charm of the Letter to Philemon, of its beauty, delicacy, tact, dignity, and courtesy.[1] It has been compared with Pliny's letters to Sabinianus interceding with him on behalf of one of his freedmen who had offended him.[2] But the true picture of Philemon is a far graver one. In it we glimpse for an instant the grim facts of slavery—the deepest sore on the ancient world's life.


Knox, John. Philemon among the Letters of Paul (Chicago, 1935).

Lightfoot, J. B. St. Paul's Epistles to the Colossians and Philemon (3d ed.; London, 1879).

[1]Vincent, op. cit., p. 168.

[2] Letters ix. 21, 24.

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