Biblical Studies Philemon
Nijay Gupta
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0310


There was something of a debate in the early church about what Paul’s short letter to Philemon has to offer in terms of theological insight and formation for the people of God. Some argued it was rather trivial and insignificant. Others, that it had much to say about Christian life in the real world—unfortunately some writers made Phlm out to be a helpful text for teaching Christian slaves not to rebel or run away. (Note that in this article, we will use the abbreviation “Phlm” to indicate the text of Paul’s letter to Philemon; we will use “Philemon” in reference to the person.) Phlm was, of course, canonized and became a standard text of study within Paul’s canonical corpus. Around the same time, patristic theologians adopted the view that Onesimus was a runaway slave who encountered Paul, accepted the Gospel, and was sent home to reconcile with Christian master Philemon. That “runaway slave” situational theory went more or less unquestioned for several hundred years until the middle of the twentieth century, when new theories emerged. Since then, Phlm has received significant attention for a number of reasons: social class in early Christianity, a history of justification of modern slavery by Christians, insight into early house church dynamics, Paul’s self-description as “prisoner” and “old man,” and the unique inclusion of a woman (Apphia) in Paul’s prescript, among other things. When it comes to analysis of the text of Phlm, much ink has been spilled on Paul’s statement about receiving Onesimus back as “more than a slave” and as a “beloved brother” (v. 16). Was Paul subtly prodding Philemon to manumit Onesimus? Or was Paul fixated on a new Christian social economy that did not necessitate legal freedom? Today, researchers benefit from detailed scholarship on Phlm, including technical (stand-alone) commentaries, monographs, topical book collections, and numerous essays and articles.

Situational Studies

In the modern study of Paul’s letter to Philemon, there has been intensive discussion of the situation behind this short epistle. For this reason, we are beginning our bibliography with the key situational academic works that have shaped the directions of scholarship. Two situational theories in particular dominate the discussions, and thus it is helpful to identify works according to these theories as we are able. The traditional approach to the situation involving the slave Onesimus and the master Philemon is that the former was a runaway who abandoned Philemon and possibly took money or valuables as well. This is known as the “runaway” (Latin: fugitivus) theory (hereafter “fugitivus”). This approach has been discussed in works on Philemon since the writings of Ambrosiaster and Chrysostom, and was the default and presumed theory for the vast majority of commentaries and other writings on Philemon until the second half of the twentieth century. The second approach, tracing back especially to the work of Peter Lampe in the 1980s (see Lampe 1985), presents Onesimus not as a runaway trying to escape slavery forever, but as someone who had fallen out of favor with his master and was seeking help from a third party to facilitate reconciliation. This is often referred to as the amicus domini (friend of the master) theory. This does not exhaust all the approaches that have been offered by scholars in the last century. We will comment on a few other plausible scenarios (for example, the possibility that Philemon, or another leader in his house church, sent Onesimus to aid Paul). But the fugitivus and amicus domini theories represent the most popular approaches found in virtually all commentaries and reference works in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries to date. If you want to read the following in a more time-linear fashion, focusing on the most influential items, I suggest Lightfoot 1875, Knox 1960, Lampe 1985, Winter 1987, Callahan 1997, Barclay 1991 (cited under Slavery in Antiquity and the New Testament), and Arzt-Grabner 2004.

  • Arzt-Grabner, P. “Onesimus erro: Zur Vorgeschichte des Philemonbriefes.” Zeitschrift für die Neutestamentliche Wissenschaft 95 (2004) 131–143.

    DOI: 10.1515/zntw.2004.003

    Arzt-Grabner, reexamining the material from Roman jurists regarding misbehaving slaves, contends that there was a difference between a fugitivus (runaway) and an erro (wandering, truant). He considers the latter more fitting in the case of Onesimus.

  • Callahan, A. D. Embassy of Onesimus: The Letter of Paul to Philemon. Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1997.

    Callahan critiques and challenges the popular fugitivus view by questioning whether Onesimus was a slave at all. He argues, based on v. 16, that Onesimus was not Philemon’s slave, but rather his biological brother. The language of slavery is not literal but metaphorical. Paul wanted Philemon to welcome back his brother and treat him as “beloved.”

  • Goodspeed, E. J. Introduction to the New Testament. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957.

    Goodspeed argued that Phlm was written to Archippus (not Philemon) who was the master of Onesimus. Paul was sending back Onesimus through Philemon. Goodspeed makes this case with reference to Colossians 4:17, taking Phlm as the letter to Laodicea. Very few scholars have accepted Goodspeed’s proposal, though Knox was influenced by Goodspeed and later vice versa. For the most relevant pages for this discussion, see pp. 222–239.

  • Head, Peter. “Onesimus the Letter Carrier and the Initial Reception of Paul’s Letter to Philemon.” Journal of Theological Studies 71.2 (2020): 628–656.

    DOI: 10.1093/jts/flaa098

    Head’s main concern in this article is to argue that Onesimus (rather than, e.g., Tychicus) is most likely the letter carrier who brought this epistle to Philemon and his church. Along these lines, Phlm fits the nature of a “letter of recommendation.” If Head is correct, this would allow for the letter to be ambiguous in specific directives from Paul, with the expectation that the carrier (Onesimus) would address details and handle negotiations in person.

  • Houlden, J. L. Paul’s Letters from Prison: Philippians, Colossians, Philemon. London: Penguin, 1977.

    In Houlden’s section on Phlm, he proposes that Philemon had sent Onesimus to Paul on an errand, and while he was there he was converted to Christian faith. Houlden intentionally offered an alternative to the fugitivus approach. But Houlden’s view did not gain much attention or traction until Winter 1987, which offered more thorough argumentation along the same lines.

  • Knox, John. Philemon among the Letters of Paul. London: Collins, 1960.

    Knox argued that Philemon was not the main recipient of Paul’s letter, but in fact Archippus, the actual master of Onesimus. Philemon, for his part, was a key member of the Laodicean church, and was meant to pressure Archippus into reconciling with Onesimus. Knox was a part of the “Chicago” school of New Testament studies at that time, and there are clear resonances with Goodspeed 1957.

  • Lampe, Peter. “Keine ‘Sklavenflucht’ des Onesimus.” Zeitschrift für die Neutestamentliche Wissenschaft 76 (1985) 135–137.

    Lampe argues that it should not be a foregone conclusion that Onesimus fled forever. He may have been seeking mediation to settle a dispute with his master. Lampe draws from the discussions of Roman jurists to note the legal importance of the motives of an absent slave. This approach, known sometimes as amicus domini ([seeking a] “friend of the master”) was later taken up and expanded by Brian Rapske, and supported and defended by James D. G. Dunn (1996) and Joseph Fitzmyer (2000).

  • Lightfoot, J. B. Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Colossians and to Philemon. London: Macmillan and Co., 1875.

    Lightfoot is often cited as a standard proponent of the fugitivus approach. He describes Onesimus as a Phyrgian slave who fell out with his master. He had “packed up some goods and taken to his heels,” fleeing to Rome to hide among the crowd of the imperial city (p. 310). There he met the imprisoned Paul, and the rest is history.

  • Nordling, John. “Some Matters Favouring the Runaway Slave Hypothesis in Philemon.” Neotestamentica 44.1 (2010): 85–121.

    Nording is the most passionate 21st-century proponent and defender of the “runaway” (fugitivus) theory. He engages with recent work of Arzt-Grabner and his erro proposal. Additionally, Nordling posits that Onesimus was possibly a managerial slave who took advantage of his privileged position and fled, having run up a debt or disappeared with valuables in hand.

  • Rapske, Brian. “The Prisoner Paul in the Eyes of Onesimus.” NTS 37 (1991): 187–203.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0028688500015654

    Rapske freshly investigates situational theories regarding Phlm. He casts great suspicion on the fugitivus view, for how did Onesimus then come to be with Paul? He refutes several other theories, including the view that Onesimus was seeking asylum. Rapske argues in favor of the amicus domini approach (supporting Lampe), pointing to evidence from Proculus, Ulpian, the story of Vedius Pollio, and the well-known case of Sabinianus’s freedman.

  • Schenk, Wolfgang. “Der Brief des Paulus an Philemon in der neueren Forschung (1945–1987).” Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt II 25.4 (1987): 3439–3495.

    Schenk engages with the Philemon scholarship of the mid-20th century. Before Philemon became a believer, he was a persecutor of Christians, and mistreated Apphia and Archippus. After coming to faith, he opened up his home to the assembly. The slave Onesimus was sent by Philemon to Paul to deliver some good news. Paul was encouraging Philemon to free Onesimus to help him in his apostolic ministry. Schenk finds it plausible that Philemon lived in Pergamum, rather than Colossae.

  • Winter, Sara. “Paul’s Letter to Philemon.” New Testament Studies 33 (1987): 1–15.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0028688500016027

    Winter proposes that Onesimus did not leave his master without permission, but rather was sent there by the Colossian church. Paul’s purpose in writing was not primarily to send Onesimus back, but to induce them to allow Onesimus to continue his service to Paul. Winter further argues that while Paul only hinted at Onesimus’s manumission in this letter, he more directly asked for it in a separate document.

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