Bible Commentaries

Greek Testament Critical Exegetical Commentary


Book Overview - Philemon

by Henry Alford





1. THE testimonies to the Pauline authorship of this Epistle are abundant.

( α) Tertullian, in enumerating the Epistles of St. Paul with which Marcion had tampered, concludes his list thus (adv. Marc. prov. 92:21, vol. ii. p. 524):

“Soli huic epistolæ brevitas sua profuit ut falsarias manus Marcionis evaderet. Miror tamen, cum ad unum hominem litteras factas receperit, quod &c.” (see the whole passage cited above, ch. vii. § i. 1. ε.)

( β) Origen, Hom. xix. in Jeremiah 2; vol. iii. p. 263:

ὅπερ καὶ ὁ παῦλος ἐπιστάμενος ἔλεγεν ἐν τῇ πρὸς φιλήμονα ἐπιστολῇ τῷ φιλήμονι περὶ ὀνησίμου· ἵνα μὴ κατʼ ἀνάγκην τὸ ἀγαθὸν ᾖ, ἀλλὰ καθʼ ἑκούσιον (Philem. Jeremiah 2:14).

And again in Matth. Comm. series, § 72, p. 889:

“Sicut Paulus ad Philemonem dicit: Gaudium enim magnum habuimus et consolationem in caritate tua, quia viscera sanctorum requieverunt per te, frater.” (Philem. Jeremiah 2:7.)

And again in id. § 66, p. 884:

“A Paulo autem dictum est ad Philemonem: hunc autem ut Paulus senex, &c.” (Jeremiah 2:9.)

( γ) Eusebius, H. E. iii. 25, reckons this Epistle among the ὁμολογούμενα.

( δ) Jerome, proœm. in Philem. vol. vii. pp. 743, 4, argues at some length against those who refuse to acknowledge this Epistle for St. Paul’s because it was simply on personal matters and contained nothing for edification.

2. That neither Irenæus nor Clement of Alexandria cites our Epistle, is easily accounted for, both by its shortness, and by the fact of its containing nothing which could illustrate or affirm doctrinal positions. Ignatius seems several times to allude to it:

Eph. c. ii., p. 645; ὀναίμην ὑμῶν διὰ παντός, ἐάνπερ ἄξιος ὦ (Philem. Jeremiah 2:20).

Magnes. c. xii., p. 672; the same expression; which also occurs in the Ep. to Polycarp, c. i., p. 720, and c. vi., p. 725.

3. The internal evidence of the Epistle itself is so decisive for its Pauline origin,—the occasion and object of it (see below, § ii.) so simple, and unassignable to any fraudulent intent, that one would imagine the impugner of so many of the Epistles would at least have spared this one, and that in modern times, as in ancient, according to Tertullian and Jerome, “sua illam brevitas defendisset.” But Baur has rejected it, or, which with him is the same thing practically, has placed it in his second class, of antilegomena, in common with the other Epistles of the imprisonment.

4. In doing so, he confesses (“Paulus, u.s.w.” pp. 475 ff.) to a feeling of subjecting himself to the imputation of hypercritical scepticism as to authenticity: but maintains that the Epistle must stand or fall with those others: and that its very insignificance, which is pleaded in its defence, all the more involves it in their fate. Still, he professes to argue the question on the ground of the Epistle itself.

5. He finds in its diction several things which strike him as unpauline(119): several which establish a link between it and those other Epistles. The latter position we should willingly grant him, and use against him. But the former is here, as so often, taken up by him in the merest disregard to common sense and probability. Such expressions, occurring in a familiar letter, such as we do not elsewhere possess, are no more than are perfectly natural, and only serve to enlarge for us the Apostle’s vocabulary, instead of inducing doubt, where all else is so thoroughly characteristic of him.

6. The contents also of the Epistle seem to him objectionable. The incident on which it is founded, he says, of itself raises suspicion. He then takes to pieces the whole history of Onesimus’s flight and conversion, and the feeling shewn to him by the Apostle, in a way which, as I observed before (ch. iii. § i. 2) respecting his argument against the Epistle to the Philippians, only finds a parallel in the pages of burlesque: so that, I am persuaded, if the section on the Epistle to Philemon had been first published separately and without the author’s name, the world might well have supposed it written by some defender of the authenticity of the Epistle, as a caricature on Baur’s general line of argument.

7. On both his grounds of objection—the close connexion of this with the other Epistles of the imprisonment, and its own internal evidence,—fortified as these are by the consensus of the ancient Church, we may venture to assume it as certain that this Epistle was written by St. Paul.



1. The Epistle is connected by the closest links with that to the Colossians. It is borne by Onesimus, one of the persons mentioned as sent with that Epistle (Colossians 4:9). The persons sending salutation are the same, with the one exception of Jesus Justus. In Colossians 4:17, a message is sent to Archippus, who is one of those addressed in this Epistle. Both Epistles are sent from Paul and Timotheus; and in both the Apostle is a prisoner (Colossians 4:18; Philemon 1:1; Philemon 1:9).

2. This being so, we are justified in assuming that it was written at the same place and time as the Epistles to the Colossians and Ephesians, viz. at Rome, and in the year 61 or 62.

3. Its occasion and object are plainly indicated in the Epistle itself. Onesimus, a native of Colossæ(120), the slave of Philemon, had absconded, after having, as it appears, defrauded his master (Philemon 1:1; Philemon 1:9). He fled to Rome, and there was converted to Christianity by St. Paul. Being persuaded by him to return to his master, he was furnished with this letter to recommend him, now no longer merely a servant, but a brother also, to favourable reception by Philemon. This alone, and no didactic or general object, is discernible in the Epistle.



1. From comparing Colossians 4:9, with Colossians 4:17 and Philemon 1:2, we infer that Philemon was a resident at Colossæ. The impression on the reader from Philemon 1:1-2, is that Apphia was his wife, and Archippus (a minister of the church there, Colossians 4:17), their son, or some near relative dwelling with them under the same roof. A letter on a matter so strictly domestic would hardly include strangers to the family in its address.

2. An hypothesis has been advanced, recently by Wieseler, that our present Epistle is alluded to in Colossians 4:16, as ἡ ἐκ λαοδικείας, and that the message to Archippus in the next verse favours the view that he, and consequently Philemon, dwelt at Laodicea. And this is corroborated, by Archippus being called bishop of Laodicea in the Apostolic Constitutions (vii. 46, p. 1056, Migne).

3. The objection to this hypothesis is not so much from any evidently false assumption or inference in the chain of facts, all of which may have been as represented, but from the improbability, to my view, that by the latter limb of the parallelism—“this Epistle,” “that from Laodicea,”—can be meant a private letter, even though it may have regarded a member of the Colossian church. We seem to want some Epistle corresponding in weight with that to the Colossians, for such an order, in such a form, to receive its natural interpretation.(121)

4. Of Onesimus we know nothing for certain, except from the notices here and in Colossians 4:9. Tradition reports variously respecting him. In the Apostolical Canons (73) he is said to have been emancipated by his master, and in the Apostolical Constitutions (vii. 46, p. 1056) to have been ordained by St. Paul himself bishop of Berosa in Macedonia, and to have suffered martyrdom in Rome, Niceph. H. E. iii. 11. In the Epistle of Ignatius to the Ephesians, we read, cap. i. p. 645, ἐπεὶ οὖν τὴν πολυπληθίαν ὑμῶν ἐν ὀνόματι θεοῦ ἀπείληφα ἐν ὀνησίμῳ, τῷ ἐν ἀγάπῃ ἀδιηγήτῳ, ὑμῶν δὲ ἐν σαρκὶ ἐπισκόπῳ· ὃν εὔχομαι κατὰ ἰησοῦν χριστὸν ὑμᾶς ἀγαπᾶν, καὶ πάντας ὑμᾶς ἐν ὁμοιότητι εἶναι. εὐλογητὸς γὰρ ὁ χαρισάμενος ὑμῖν ἀξίοις οὖσι τοιοῦτον ἐπίσκοπον κεκτῆσθαι(122). It is just possible that this may be our Onesimus. The earliest date which can be assigned to the martyrdom of Ignatius is A.D. 107, i.e. thirty-five years after the date of this Epistle. Supposing Onesimus to have been thirty at this time, he would then have been only sixty-five. And even setting Ignatius’s death at the latest date, A.D. 116, we should still be far within the limits of possibility. It is at least singular that in ch. 2. p. 645, immediately after naming Onesimus, Ignatius proceeds ὀναίμην ὑμῶν διὰ παντός (cf. Philemon 1:20; and above, § i. 2).



1. This Epistle is a remarkable illustration of St. Paul’s tenderness and delicacy of character. Dr. Davidson well remarks, “Dignity, generosity, prudence, friendship, affection, politeness, skilful address, purity, are apparent. Hence it has been termed with great propriety, the polite Epistle. The delicacy, fine address, consummate courtesy, nice strokes of rhetoric, render the letter an unique specimen of the epistolary style.” Introd. vol. iii. p. 160.

2. Doddridge (Expositor, introd. to Philem.) compares it to an Epistle of Pliny to Sabinianus, ix. 21, written as an acknowledgment on a similar occasion of the reception of a libertus by his master(123): and justly gives the preference in delicacy and power to our Epistle. The comparison is an interesting one, for Pliny’s letter is eminently beautiful, and in terseness, and completeness, not easy to surpass.

“C. Plinius Sabiniano suo S.

“Bene fecisti quod libertum aliquando tibi charum, reducentibus epistolis meis, in domum, in animum recepisti. Juvabit hoc te: me certe juvat: primum quod te talem video, ut in ira regi possis: deinde, quod tantum mihi tribuis, ut vel autoritati meæ pareas, vel precibus indulgeas. Igitur et laudo et gratias ago: simul in posterum moneo, ut te erroribus tuorum, etsi non fuerit qui deprecetur, placabilem præstes. Vale.”

3. Luther’s description of the Epistle is striking, and may well serve to close our notice of it, and this portion of our prolegomena to the Epistles.

“This Epistle sheweth a right noble lovely example of Christian love. Here we see how St. Paul layeth himself out for the poor Onesimus, and with all his means pleadeth his cause with his master; and so setteth himself, as if he were Onesimus, and had himself done wrong to Philemon. Yet all this doeth he not with power or force, as if he had right thereto; but he strippeth himself of his right, and thus enforceth Philemon to forego his right also. Even as Christ did for us with God the Father, thus also doth St. Paul for Onesimus with Philemon: for Christ also stripped Himself of His right, and by love and humility enforced the Father to lay aside His wrath and power, and to take us to His grace for the sake of Christ, who lovingly pleadeth our cause, and with all His heart layeth Himself out for us. For we are all His Onesimi, to my thinking.”