Philemon, Epistile to
Philemon, Epistile To.
This is the shortest and (with the exception of Hebrews) the last of Paul's letters as arranged in most editions of the N.T. In the following treatment of it we combine the Scriptural statements with modern researches.
I. Authorship. — That this epistle was written by the apostle Paul is the constant tradition of the ancient Church. It is expressly cited as such by Origen (Homil. 19 in Jer 1:19, ed. Huet.); it is referred to as such by TertullianL (Nov. Marc. 5:21); and both Eusebius (Hist. Eccles. 3:25) and Jerome (Prooem. in Ep. ad Philemon. 4:442) attest its universal reception as suich in the Christian world. The latter, indeed, informs us that some in his day deemed it unworthy of a place in the canon, in consequence of its being occupied with subjects which, in their estimation, it did not become an apostle to write about, save as a mere private individual; but this he, at the same time, shows to be a mistake, and repudiates the legitimacy of such a standard for estimating the genuineness or authority of any book. That this epistle should not have been quoted by several of the fathers who have quoted largely from the other Pauline epistles (e.g. Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, and Cyprian), may be accounted for partly by the brevity of the epistle, and partly by their not having occasion to refer to the subjects of which it treats. We need not urge the expressions in Ignatius, cited as evidence of that apostolic father's knowledge and use of the epistle; though it is difficult to regard the similarity between them and the language in 5:20 as altogether accidental (see Kirchhofer, Quoellensammlung, page 205). The Canon of Muratori, which comes to us from the 2d century (Credner, Geschichte des Kanons, page 66), enumerates this as one of Paul's epistles. Tertullian says that Marcion admitted it into his collection. Sinope, in Pontus, the birthplace of Marcion, was not far from Colossse where Philemon lived, and the letter would find its way to the neighboring churches at an early period. It is so well attested historically, that, as De Wette says (Einleitung ins Neue Testament), its genuineness on that ground is beyond doubt.
Nor does the epistle itself offer anything to conflict with this decision. It is impossible to conceive of a composition more strongly marked within the same limits by those unstudied assonances of thought, sentiment, and expression, which indicate an author's hand, than this short epistle as compared with Paul's other productions. Paley has adduced the undesigned coincidences between this epistle and that to the Colossians with great force, as evincing the authenticity of both (Horae Paulinae, c. 14); and Eichhorn has ingeniously shown how a person attempting, with the Epistle to the Colossians before him, to forge such an epistle as this in the name of Paul, would have been naturally led to a very different arrangement of the historical circumstances and persons from what we find in the epistle which is extant (Einleit. ins N.T. 3:302).
Baur (Paulus, page 475) would divest the epistle of its historical character, and make it the personified illustration from some later writer of the idea that Christianity unites and equalizes in a higher sense those whom outward circumstences have separated. He does not impugn the external evidence. But, not to leave his theory wholly unsupported, he suggests some linguistic objections to Paul's authorship of the letter, which must be pronounced unfounded and frivolous. He finds, for example, certain words in the epistle which are alleged to be not Pauline; but, to justify that assertion, he must deny the genuineness of such other letters of Paul as happen to contain these words. He admits that the apostle could have said σπλάγχνα, but thinks it suspicious that he should say it three times. A few terms he adduces which are not used elsewhere in the epistles; but to argue from these that they disprove the apostolic origin of the epistle is to assume the absurd principle that a writer, after having produced two or three compositions, must for the future confine himself to an unvarying circle of words, whatever may be the subject he discusses, or whatever the interval of time between his different writings. The arbitrary and purely subjective character of such criticisms can have no weight against the varied testimony admitted as decisive by Chriiaan scholars for so many ages, upon which the calnonical authority of the Epistle to Philemon is founded. They are worth repeating only as illustrating Baur's own remark that modern criticism in assailing this particular book runs a greater risk of exposing itself to the imputation of an excessive distrust, a morbid sensibility to doubt and denial, than in questioning the claims of any other epistle ascribed to Paul. SEE PAUL.
II. Person Addressed. — The epistle is inscribed to Philemon; and with him are joined Apphia (probably his wife), Archippus (his son or brother), and the Church which is in their house, though throughout the epistle it is Philemon alone who is addressed. Philemon was a personal friend and apparently a convert of the apostle (verses 13, 19); one who had exerted himself for the cause of the Gospel and the comfort of those who had embraced it (verses 2-7). His residence was probably at Colossae (comp.
Col 4:9,17); but whether he held any office in the Church there remains uncertain. In the Apostolical Constitutions (7:46) he is said to have been ordained bishop of the Church, but this is not sustained by any other testimony, and is expressly denied by the author of the commentary on St. Paul's epistles ascribed to Hilary. SEE PHILEMON.
Wieseler is of opinion that Philemon was a Laodicean; and that this epistle is that mentioned (Col 4:16) as sent by the apostle to the Church in Laodicea. His ground for this is that the epistle is addressed to Archippus as well as Philemon, and he assumes that Archippus was bishop of the Church at Laodicea; partly on the authority of Theodoret, who says he resided at Laodicea; partly on that of the Apostolical Constitutions (7:46), which say he was bishop of the Church there; and partly on the connection in which the reference to him in Col 4:17 stands with the reference to the Church at Laodicea, and the injunction given to the Colossians to convey a message to him concerning fidelity to his office, which it is argued would have been sent to himself had he been at Colossae. But the authorities cited have no weight in a matter of this sort; nor can the mere juxtaposition of the reference to Archippus with the reference to the Church at Laodicea prove anything as to the residence of the former; and as for the injuncton to counsel Archippus, it is more likely that it would oe given by the apostle in a letter to the Church to which he belonged than to another Church. On the other hand, supposing Philemon to have been at Laodicea, it is not credible that the apostle would have requested the Colossians to send to Laodicea for a letter addressed so exclusively to him personally, and relating to matters in which they had no immediate interest, without at least giving Philemon some hint that he intended the letter to be so used. The letter to the Church at Laodicea was doubtless one of more general character and interest than this. SEE LAODICANS, EPISTLE TO.
III. Time and Place of Writing. — This is generally held to be one of the letters (the others are Ephesians, Colossians, Philippians, and Hebrews) which the apostle wrote during his first captivity at Rome. The arguments which show that he wrote the Epistle to the Colossians in that city and at that period involve the same conclusion in regard to this; for it is evident from Col 4:7,9, as compared with the contents of this epistle, that Paul wrote the two letters at the same time, and forwarded them to their destination by the hands of Tychicus and Onesimus, who accompanied each other to Colossse. A few modern critics, as Schulz, Schott, Bottger, Meyer, maintain that this letter and the others assigned usually to the first Roman captivity were written during the two years that Paul was imprisoned at Cesarea (Ac 23:35; Ac 24:27). But this opinion, though supported by some plausible arguments, can be demonstrated with reasonable certainty to be incorrect. SEE COLOSSIANS, EPISTLE TO THE.
The time when Paul wrote may be fixed with much precision. The apostle at the close of the letter expresses a hope of his speedy liberation. He speaks in like manner of his approaching deliverance in his Epistle to the Philippians (Php 2:23-24), which was written during the same imprisonment. Presuming, therefore, that he had good reasons for such an expectation, and that he was not disappointed in the result, we mav conclude that this letter was written by him early in the year A.D. 58.
IV. Design and Effect. — Our knowledge respecting the occasion and object of the letter we must derive from declarations or inferences furnished by the letter itself. For the relation of Philemon and Onesinmus to each other, the reader will see the articles on those names. Paul, so intimately connected with the master and the servant, was anxious naturally to effect a reconciliation between them. He wished also (waiving the ἀνῆκον, the matter of duty or right) to give Philemon an opportunity of manifesting his Christian love in the treatment of Onesimus, and his regard, at the same time, for the personal convenience and wishes, not to say official authority, of his spiritual teacher and guide. Paul used his influence with Onesimus (ἀνέπεμψα, in verse 12) to induce him to return to Colossae, and place himself again at the disposal of his master. Whether Onesimus assented merely to the proposal of the apostle, or had a desire at the same time to revisit his former home the epistle does not enable us to determine. On his departure Paul put into his hand this letter as evidence that Onesimus was a true and approved disciple of Christ, and entitled as such to be received, not as a servant, but above a servant, as a brother in the faith, as the representative and equal in that respect of the apostle himself, and worthy of the same consideration and love. It is instructive to observe how entirely Paul identifies himself with Onesimus, and pleads his cause as if it were his own. He intercedes for him as his own child, promises reparation if he had done any wrong, demands for him not only a remission of all penalties, but the reception of sympathy, affection, Christian brotherhood; and, while he solicits these favors for another, consents to receive them with the same gratitude and sense of obligation as if they were bestowed on himself. SEE ONESIMUS.
The result of the appeal cannot be doubted. It may be assumed from the character of Philemon that the apostle's intercession for Onesimus was not unavailing. There can be no doubt that, agreeably to the express instructions of the letter, the past was forgiven; the master and the servant were reconciled to each other; and if the liberty which Onesimus had asserted in a spirit of independence was not conceded as a boon or right, it was enjoyed at all events under a form of servitude which henceforth was such in name only. So much must be regarded as certain; or it follows that the apostle was mistaken in his opinion of Philemon's character, and his efforts for the welfare of Onesimus were frustrated. Chrysostom declares, in his impassioned style, that Philemon must have been less than a man, must have been alike destitute of sensibility and reason (ποῖος λίθος, ποῖον θήριον), not to be moved by the arguments and spirit of such a letter to fulfil every wish and intimation of the apostle. Surely no fitting response to his pleadings for Onesimus could involve less than a cessation of everything oppressive and harsh in his civil conditioun, as far as it depended on Philemon to mitigate or neutralize the evils of a legalized system of bondage, as well as a cessation of everything violative of his rights as a Christian. How much farther than this an impartial explanation of the epistle obliges us or authorizes us to go has not yet been settled by any very general consent of interpreters. Many of the best critics construe certain expressionms (τὸ ἀγαθόν in verse 14, and ὑπὲρ ὃ λέγω in verse 21) as conveying a distinct expectation on the part of Palll that Philemon would liberate Onesimus. Nearly all agree that he could hardly have failed to confer on him that favor, even if it was not requested in so many words, after such an appeal to his sentiments of humanity and justice. Thus it was, as Dr. Wordswomrth remarks (St. Paul's Epistles, page 328), "by Christianizing the master that the Gospel enfranchised the slave. It did not legislate about mere names and forms, but it went to the root of the evil, it spoke to the heart of man. When the heart of the master was filled with divine grace, and was warmed with the love of Christ, the rest would soon follow. The lips would speak kind words, the hands would do liberal things. Every Onesimus would be treated by every Philemon as a beloved brother in Christ." SEE SLAVERY.
V. Contents. — The epistle commences with the apostle's usual salutation to those to whom he wrote; after which he affectionately alludes to the good reputation which Philemon, as a Christian, enjoyed, and to the joy which the knowledge of this afforded him (verses 1-7). He then gently and gracefully introduces the main subject of his epistle by a reference to the spiritual obligations under which Philemon lay to him, and on the ground of which he might utter as a command what he preferred urging as a request. Onesimus is then introduced; the change of mind and character he had experienced is stated; his offence in deserting his master is not palliated; his increased worth and usefulness are dwelt upon, and his former master is entreated to receive him back, not only without severity, but with the feeling due from one Christian to another (verses 8-16). The apostle then delicately refers to the matter of compensation for any loss which Philemon might have sustained, either through the dishonesty of Onesimus or simply through the want of his service; and though he reminds his friend that he might justly hold the latter his debtor for a much larger amount (seeing he owed to the apostle his own self), he pledges himself, under his own hand, to make good that loss (verses 17-19). The epistle concludes with some additional expressions of friendly solicitude; a request that Philemon would prepare the apostle a lodging, as he trusted soon to visit him; and the salutations of the apostle and some of the Christians by whom he was surrounded at the time (verses 20-25).
VI. Character. — The Epistle to Philemon has one peculiar feature — its aesthetical character it may be termed — which distinguishes it from all the other epistles, and demands a special notice at our hands. It has been deservedly admired as a model of delicacy and skill in the department of composition to which it belongs. The writer had peculiar difficulties to overcome. He was the common friend of the parties at variance. He must conciliate a man who supposed that he had good reason to be offended. He must commend the offender, and yet neither deny nor aggravate the imputed fault. He must assert the new ideas of Christian.equality in the face of a system which hardly recognised the humanity of the enslaved. He could have placed the question on the ground of his own personal rights, and yet must waive them in order to secure an act of spontaneous kindness. His success must be a triumph of love, and nothing be demanded for the sake of the justice which could have claimed everything. He limits his request to a forgiveness of the alleged wrong, and a restoration to favor and the enjoyment of future sympathy and affection, and yet would so guard his words as to leave scope for all the generosity which benevolence might prompt towards one whose condition admitted of so much alleviation. These are contrarieties not easy to harmonize; but Paul, it is confessed, has shown a degree of self-denial and a tact in dealing with them which, in being equal to the occasion, could hardly be greater. This letter, says Eichhorn, is a voucher for the apostle's urbanity, politeness, and knowledge of the world. His advocacy of Onesimus is of the most insinuating and persuasive character, and yet without the slightest perversion or concealment of any fact. The errors of Onesimus are admitted, as was necessary, lest the just indignation of his master against him should be roused anew; but they are alluded to in the most admirable manner: the good side of Onesimus is brought to view, but in such a way as to facilitate the friendly reception of him by his master, as a consequence of Christianity, to which he had, during his absence, been converted; and his future fidelity is vouched for by the noble principles of Christianity to which he had been converted. The apostle addresses Philemon on the softest side: who would wilfully refuse to an aged, a suffering, and an unjustly imprisoned friend a request? And such was he who thus pleaded for Onesimus. The person recommended is a Christian, a dear friend of the apostle's, and one who had personally served him: if Philemon will receive him kindly, it will afford the apostle a proof of his love, and yield him joy. What need, then, for long urgency? The apostle is certain that Philemon will, of his own accord, do even more than he is asked. More cogently and more courteously no man could plead (Einleit. ins N.T. 3:300).
There is a letter extant of the younger Pliny (Epist. 9:21) which he wrote to a friend whose servant had deserted him, in which he intercedes for the fugitive, who was anxious to return to his master, but dreaded the effects of his anger. Thus the occasion of the correspondence was similar to that between the apostle and Philemon. It has occurred to scholars to compare this celebrated letter with that of Paul in behalf of Onesimus; and as the result they hesitate not to say that, not only in the spirit of Christian love, of which Pliny was ignorant, but in dignity of thought, argument, pathos, beauty of style, eloquence, the communication of the apostle is vastly superior to that of the polished Roman writer.
VII. Commentaries. — The following are the special exegetical helps on this epistle: Jerome, Conmmentarii (in Opp. 7:741); also Pseudo-Hicron. id. (ibid. 11); Chrysostom, Homiliae (in Opp. 11:838; also ed. Raphelius, in the latter's Annotationes, 2); Alcuin, Explanatio (in Opp. I, 2); Calvin, Commentarius (in Opp.; also in English, by Pringle, in the latter's Comment. on Tim. and by Edwards, in the Bib. Repos. 1836) ; Brentz,
Commentarii (in Opp. 7); Pamelius, Commentlriolus (Rabani Mauri, Opp. 5); Major, Enarratio (Vitemb. 1565, 8vo); Danatus, Commentarius (Genev. 1579, 8vo); Hyperius, Commentarius [includ. Timothy and Titus] (Tigur. 1582, fol.); Feuardant (R.C.), Commentarius (Paris, 1588, 8vo); Rollock, Commentarius (Genev. 1602, 8vo)); Attersoll, Commentary (Lond. 1612, 1633, fol.); Gentilis, Commentarius (Norib. 1618, 4to); Dyke, Exposition (Lond. 1618, 4to; also in Dutch, in his Wercke, Amst. 1670, page 793); Rapine (R.C.), Exposition [French] (Par. 1632, 8vo); Jones, Commentary [includ. Heb.] (Lold. 1635, fol.); Himmel, Commnentarius (Jen. 1641, 4to); Vincent (l.c.), Explicatio (Par. 1647, 8vo); Crucius, Verklaaring (Harlem, 1649, 8vo); Habert (R.C.), Expositio [includ. Timothy and Titus] (Par. 1656, 8vo); Franckenstein, Observationes (Hal. 1657, 4to; Lips. 1665, 12mo); Taylor, Commentarius (Lond. 1659, fol.); Hummel, Explanatio (Tigur. 1670, fol.); Fecht, Expositio (Rost. 1696. 4to); Schmid, Paraphrasis (Hamb. 1704, 4to, and later); Smalridge, Sermon (in Sermons, Oxf. 1724, fol.); Lavater, Predigt. (St. Gall, 1785 sq., 2 volumes, 8vo); Klotzsch, De occasione, etc. (Viteb. 1792, 4to); Niemeyer, Program. (Hal. 1802, 4to); Wildschut, De dictione, etc. (Tr. ad Rh. 1809, 8vo); Buckminster, Sermon (in Sermons, Bost. 1815); Hagenbach, Interpretatio (Basil. 1829, 4to); Parry, Exposition (Lond. 1834, 12mo); Rothe, Interpretatio (Brem. 1844, 8vo); Koch, Commentar (Zur. 1846, 8vo); Kuhne, Auslegung (Leips. 1856, 8vo) ; Ellicott, Commentary (Lond. 1857, 8vo); Hackett, Revised Translation (Amer. Bible Union, 1860, 12mo); Bleek, Vorlesungen [includ. Ephesians and Colossians] (Berl. 1865, 8vo); Lightfoot, Notes [includ. Colossians] (Loud. 1875, 8vo). SEE EPISTLE.