Mag. Claudia R. Wintoch
Pauline Epistles III
World Revival School of Ministry
The letter to Philemon has been listed last among Pauline letters because of its length (25 verses), while the more logical place would be before the letter to the Colossians which it is closely related to. Both letters claim to be written by Paul (Phm 1, Col 1:1), nine of the people mentioned in them are in both letters, and they are similar in style which is clearly identified as Pauline. However, at the core of the discussion of the relationship between Philemon and Colossians stands the question of authorship of Colossians, which is highly debated today. The object of this paper is to give a brief overview of modern-day scholarship relating to the letter to Philemon and its connection to Colossians.
2. Comparing Philemon with Colossians
Paul’s letter to Philemon differs a lot from the one to the Colossians in content, addressees and purpose. Colossians is addressed to the believers in Colossae, and was probably intended to be read in all the churches in the region. Paul responds to false teachings and exposes on the person of Christ. On the other hand, Philemon is mainly addressed to an individual and treating a very specific situation. Paul uses the singular you most of the time, while also mentioning Apphia and Archippus in his address. It has been speculated that those were Philemon’s wife and son (the latter being disputed because he is called fellow soldier), and that the church meeting at their house was also addressed as witnesses to the situation at hand. Onesimus, Philemon’s slave, had departed from his master and met Paul, who converted him to Christ. In his letter, Paul appeals to his friend Philemon to take back his now Christian brother and slave Onesimus. Onesimus is also mentioned in the letter to the Colossians (4:9), as a “faithful and dear brother”, who would come to Colossae with Tychicus. It is assumed that Colossians was written shortly after Philemon, and that reference in Colossians certainly points to a positive response to Paul’s letter to Philemon.
A striking similarity between the two letters is the great number of names mentioned in both: Paul, Timothy, Archippus, Onesimus, Epaphras, Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke. That indicates closeness in time, as well as geographical closeness. It is generally believed that Philemon’s home and house church was located in Colossae, “primarily on the assumption that the Onesimus of v. 10, Philemon’s (former) slave, is the Onesimus of Col. 4:9, who was so well known in Colossae (“one of yourselves”)” (Dunn 1996:300f).
The two letters also have in common that Paul was in prison, in chains (Phm 10). Three locations for Paul’s imprisonment can be taken into consideration: Caesarea, Ephesus and Rome. Support for Caesarea has been very weak, while the other two also affect the date of writing. If Paul wrote from Ephesus, which was close to Colossae, he did so in the middle of the 50s. The distance to Rome was far greater, and required Onesimus to have taken a long journey, and we know that Paul was imprisoned in Rome in the early 60s. Tradition attributes both letters to Paul’s Roman imprisonment. Dunn (1996:308) states that “if Colossians was written on Paul’s behalf during his final imprisonment (from which he was never released) and if the points of overlap between the two are to be understood as indicating one letter (Colossians) written shortly after the other, then Philemon is presumably tied with Colossians into a Roman imprisonment.”
3. Colossians Authorship Debate
The place of the letter of Philemon in the Bible has been frequently questioned over the past 2000 years. It was only in the 1800s, when the question of slavery was debated, that some relevance was found in that short letter, which was quoted by people from both sides. Some scholars believe that it was the close relationship to Colossians that made the way for Philemon to be included in the Bible. However, while the Pauline authorship for Philemon is hardly questioned, it is widely debated for Colossians. Käsemann (Barclay 1997:21) goes so far as to consider “Colossians to reflect a Christianized form of Gnostic mythology … alien to Paul.” Schenk (Barclay 1997:22) judges that “those who consider Colossians to be by Paul only show what imprecise hold they have on Paul’s theology: to add this to the list of Paul’s letters would be a quantitative gain but qualitative loss.” It is the view that the theology in Colossians can only be “post-apostolic” because different from other Pauline letters, as well as the different style, that leads to conclusions like Schenk’s.
It is surprising how many scholars believe that Colossians is pseudonymous, the author using Philemon to add credibility to the letter by mentioning the same names. However, they concede that Paul’s style might have changed at the end of his life, Colossians being “late Paulinism” rather than “post-Pauline”. And there is other evidence for the authenticity of Paul as the author.
The letter to Philemon and Colossians are unquestionably closely related. Philemon and his house church were located in Colossae. The people around Paul are very much the same at the time both letters were written, which points to a date of writing not long one after the other. Paul was in prison, probably in Rome, yet he was concerned for the church in Colossae, and spoke up on behalf of his new convert and helper Onesimus. There is no reason to question Paul’s authorship of Colossians. We need to be aware that the purpose and addressees of the letters were very different, therefore differences in style and content must be expected. Let’s believe the Word of God, when it says in Philemon 1 and Colossians 1:1, Paul, a prisoner/apostle of Christ Jesus … to …
Barclay, John M. G., Colossians and Philemon, Sheffield Academic Press: UK 1997
Dunn, James D. G., The Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon. A Commentary on the Greek Text, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company: Grand Rapids, MI 1996
Gorday, Peter (ed.), Colossians, 1-2 Thessalonians, 1-2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, InterVarsity Press: Downers Grove, IL 2000
Gould, Dana (ed.), Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, Broadman & Holman Publishers: Nashville, TN 1997
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Harris, Murray J., Colossians & Philemon, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company: Grand Rapids, MI 1991
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MacArthur, John, Colossians & Philemon. The MacArthur New Testament Commentary, Moody Bible Institute: Chicago, IL 1992
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Melick, Richard R., Philippians, Colossians, Philemon. The New American Commentary, Broadman Press: Nashville, TN 1991
Patzia, Arthur G., Ephesians, Colossians, Philemon, Hendrickson Publishers: Peabody, MASS 1990
Wall, Robert W., Colossians & Philemon, InterVarsity Press: Downers Grove, IL 1993