The book of Philemon (Philemon 1)

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Paul’s authorship of this letter is virtually unquestioned. The apostle was apparently in prison in Rome when he wrote to Philemon (Philemon 9), and a composition of this letter around the same time as Colossians, about A.D. 60, seems reasonable.

Paul wrote this letter primarily to Philemon, a believer in Colosse, but it is also addressed to Apphia (possible Philemon’s wife), Archuippus (see Colossians 4:17) and the members of the church in Colosse (Philemon 2).

This is a personal letter, in that Paul wrote to Philemon to plead with him to be lenient with his runaway slave, Onesimus. Under Roman law Philemon could have punished Onesimus with almost any degree of severity, including death, but Paul wanted Philemon not only to forgive Onesimus but to grant him manumission (14-16, see also  Slavery in the Greco-Roman world also under Philemon 1). Paul had not visited Colosse but seems to have been responsible  for Philemon’s conversion (19). Onesimus had apparently robbed Philemon and made his way to Rome, where he had confessed his crimes and himself been converted.

As you read, look for glimpses into Paul’s relationships with Onesimus and Philemon. Note the way Paul described the transformation that occurs in a person’s relationships when he or she becomes a believer (16-17). Examine Paul’s view of Onesimus, and consider how radical it must have seemed in Paul’s day (see 16).

Did you know that approximately one-third of the first century Roman population was made up of slaves (12)? Did you know that 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 to the mines or sentenced to death (14)? Did you know that the aristocratic historian Sallust described the Rome of Paul’s day as “the common cesspool of the world” (24)?


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