Historical Background on the Book of Philemon

While there are many better and greater summaries on the book of Philemon, this is just my attempt as a first year seminary student to capture the essence of Philemon. The task of this assignment was to know more about the writing, i.e. who was the author, what was their experience and background, who was the book intended for and why, and what is the purpose of this book. Part of this assignment is to look at various commentaries/encyclopedias/dictionaries and provide a synopsis of the relevant material. Philemon is one of the shorter books in the Bible but it is full of some wonderful words of wisdom, especially applicable for today regarding how to glorify God the Father while working in a corporate setting.

HISTORICAL BACKGROUND OF PHILEMON

  • Author
    • Family heritage
      • Paul, originally named Saul, was born of a Pharisee in the Gentile city of Tarsus which is part of Cilicia between the years A.D. 0 and A.D. 5.[1]
  • Educational background
    • Though born in Tarsus, Paul mentions in Acts that we was “brought up” in Jerusalem, where learned “at the feet of Gamaliel,” who was one of the most eminent teachers of the law at that time.[2]
  • Occupational skills
    • At Tarsus he learned the trade of “tent-maker” which he would occasionally use after his conversion to make a living.[3] He was known in Jerusalem as a student. He knew Aramaic as well as Greek (and Latin), and could speak Aramaic well enough to attract the attention of a Jewish audience.[4]
  • Cultural advantages
    • Paul was born with the freedom of a Roman citizen in Tarsus, a city known for its distinguished philosophy and education. Paul also had Greek citizenship which included advantages such as, “adaptability, curiosity, alertness, love of investigation… He learned to speak the vernacular like a native.”[5] In Jerusalem, he was fully immersed in the Jewish culture and learned the law from one of the greatest Jewish teachers.
  • Religious experiences
    • Saul grew as a Pharisee and became a zealot, a persecutor of Christians until a life-changing journey to Damascus. After a vision of Jesus Christ, he became one of the greatest followers of Christ. Traveling on three missionary journeys, he took the Gospel of Christ to all parts of the known world. He discipled and mentored young pastors like Timothy, started churches, performed miracles, was persecuted, imprisoned and almost killed multiple times yet continued to preach the Gospel. He is one of the most important figures in Christianity, especially in the early church.
  • Audience
    • The people—believers/unbelievers, Jews/Gentiles, etc.
      • This was a private letter to Philemon, a fellow worker and convert of Paul, in regards to his slave, Onesimus.[6] Philemon, along with his wife Apphia and son Archippus, would lead of group of Christian converts at their home in the Gentile city of Colosse.[7]
    • Location—where are they? Provide information about their locale.
      • The Letter to Philemon was written by Paul to Philemon who lived in Colosse. A city of Phrygia in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) on the Lycus River, a branch of the Meander. Hierapolis and Laodicea were in its immediate neighborhood.[8]
    • When was the book written?
      • The beautiful and intimate letter to Philemon is one of the four captivity letters, the others being Ephesians, Colossians and Philippians, that Paul wrote during his first captivity in Rome, which most believe was written around A.D. 63 or early A.D. 64.[9]
    • Their problems—social, spiritual, etc.
      • Onesimus, which means “useful,” a slave under Philemon, had run away from him or possibly robbed Philemon as implied in verse 18.[10] Onesimus fled to Rome where he was converted by Paul. Onesimus, had become a great help to Paul, but Paul knew it was right for Onesimus to return to Philemon.

The purpose of the book

  • “Paul writes this letter of intercession for Onesimus; having returned to God, he now returns to his master, who will have more service and better hold of him than ever-by conscience of his duty and faithfulness in it to his life’s end; his interest therefore it will be now to receive him.”[11] Paul seeing the usefulness of Onesimus and wanting to keep him as a helper, understands the importance of reconciling the relationship. Paul, not wanting to use his authority over Philemon pleads for him to take Onesimus back not as a slave but as a brother in Christ, even willing to assume the financial responsibility for Onesimus’ wrongdoing.[12] The book of Philemon shows the tender appeal of forgiveness.

[1] William Smith, “Smith’s Bible Dictionary: Entry for Paul,” Bible Study Tools, Internet, available from http://www.biblestudytools.com/dictionaries/smiths-bible-dictionary/paul.html, accessed on 2 March 2014.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] James Orr, “Paul the Apostle,” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Internet, available from http://www.internationalstandardbible.com/P/paul-the-apostle-4.html, accessed on 2 March 2014.

[5] Ibid.

[6] James Orr, “Philemon, Epistle to,” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Internet, available from http://www.internationalstandardbible.com/P/philemon-epistle-to.html, accessed 2 March 2014.

[7] Ibid.

[8] William Smith, “Smith’s Bible Dictionary: Entry for Colosse,” Bible Study Tools, Internet, available from http://www.biblestudytools.com/dictionaries/smiths-bible-dictionary/colosse.html, accessed on 2 March 2014.

[9] Smith, “Smith’s Bible Dictionary: Entry for Colosse.”

[10] Frank Thompson, The Thompson Chain-Reference Study Bible, (Indianapolis: B.B. Kirkbride Bible Co., Inc, 1990), 1678.

[11] Matthew Henry, “Matthew Henry Commentary on the Whole Bible (Complete): Entry for Philemon,” Bible Study Tools, Internet, available from http://www.biblestudytools.com/commentaries/matthew-henry-complete/philemon/1.html, accessed on 2 March 2014.

[12] Orr, “Philemon, Epistle to.”

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Henry, Matthew. “Matthew Henry Commentary on the Whole Bible (Complete): Entry for Philemon.” Bible Study Tools. Internet. Available from http://www.biblestudytools.com/ commentaries/matthew-henry- complete/philemon/1.html, accessed on 2 March 2014.

Orr, James. “Paul the Apostle.” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. Internet. Available from http://www.internationalstandardbible.com/P/paul-the-apostle-4.html, accessed on 2 March 2014.

Orr, James. “Philemon, Epistle to.” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. Internet. Available from http://www.internationalstandardbible.com/P/philemon-epistle-to.html, accessed 2 March 2014.

Smith, William. “Smith’s Bible Dictionary: Entry for Colosse.” Bible Study Tools. Internet. Available from http://www.biblestudytools.com/dictionaries/smiths-bible-dictionary/colosse.html, accessed on 2 March 2014.

Smith, William. “Smith’s Bible Dictionary: Entry for Paul.” Bible Study Tools. Internet. Available from http://www.biblestudytools.com/dictionaries/smiths-bible-dictionary/paul.html, accessed on 2 March 2014.

Thompson, Frank. The Thompson Chain-Reference Study Bible. Indianapolis: B.B. Kirkbride Bible Co., Inc, 1990.

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