PHILEMON 02 - Reconstructing the Historical Background

Introduction to Interpretation
  • The second step of Inductive Bible study is Interpretation.
  • Interpretation (as used in the inductive method) means: What did this mean to the original hearers or readers? What did those who first got this letter understand when they read it?
  • In order to answer that question, quite a bit of “preparation” is needed, reconstructing the situation this letter was written to, the author, the audience, the situation of each, the historical background, etc.
  • We will ask one Interpretation Question after the other and so construct the historical background we need to understand the letter of Philemon better.
  • At the end a more comprehensive List of Interpretation Questions will be given.

1 Interpretation Question: Who is the author?

  • We found during Observation that according to Phm 1 the author of the letter is the Apostle Paul.
  • Who was Paul? To reconstruct Paul’s life and to understand his character better, it would be good to read all the 156 verses of the New Testament where his name is mentioned and all the surrounding verses that speak about him.
  • Since this would require reading all of Acts and many of Paul’s letters, we will for now rely on a basic summary of Paul’s life as reconstructed from the New Testament.
  • This will give us the frame in which to place the letter to Philemon:
34ADPaul’s conversionJerusalem to Damascus
34-?ADPaul in seclusion (?)Arabia, Tarsus
?-47ADPaul’s ministry with BarnabasAntioch in Syria
47-48AD1st missionary journeyCyprus, Galatia
49ADApostle’s CouncilJerusalem
50-52AD2nd missionary journeyGalatia, Macedonia, Greece, 1 ½ y Corinth
53-56AD3rd missionary journey2 ½ years Ephesus, Greece
57-59AD2 y imprisonmentCaesarea
59ADprisonerCaesarea > Rome
60-62AD2 y light imprisomentRome
62-64AD4th missionary journey?
64-67ADheavy imprisonment, deathRome

2 Interpretation Question: Who are the original readers of this letter?

  • We have learned from our Observation that this letter is addressed to Philemon, Apphia, Archippus and the church in their house.
  • How can we find out more about them?
  • The first step is to check whether we find a description of  this church, its founding and a mention of its people in Acts.
    • In this case we do not know the location of the church.
    • When doing a word search we find that the names of Philemon, Apphia, Archippus or Onesimus do not appear in Acts.
  • A second step is to check, whether we find the names of Philemon, Apphia, Archippus or Onesimus anywhere else in the New Testament.
    • When doing a word search we find that the names of Philemon and Apphia do not appear anywhere else in the New Testament.
    • But, luckily, the names of Archippus and Onesimus appear in another letter Paul wrote, and they appear together: Onesimus in Colossians 4:9 and Archippus in Colossians 4:17.


  • Read Col 4:7-9 carefully.
  • Who is Tychicus?
  • Who is he in relation to the Colossian letter?
  • Who does he travel to the Colossians with?
  • What is the significance of calling Onesimus “one of you”?


  • Tychicus is a co-worker of Paul, whom he has sent as the bearer of this letter to the Colossians.
  • Tychicus will give the Colossians news about Paul by mouth and also hand over the letter of Colossians to them.
  • Tychicus travels with Onesimus, who is therefore also traveling from Paul to the Colossians.
  • Onesimus is “one of you”, meaning he is originally from the city of Colossae.
  • Since Onesimus was or is Philemon’s slave (Phm 16), and since slaves worked and lived in the houses of their masters, Philemon therefore lives in Colossae.
  • The church that is meeting in Philemon’s house (Phm 2) is therefore the church of Colossae, or maybe a house church belonging to the church of Colossae.
  • Philemon, Apphia and Archippus are Colossians, and they are addressed in not only the letter of Philemon but also in the letter to the Colossians.


  • Read Col 1:1 and 4:7-17 and compare the people mentioned with those mentioned in Phm 1-2 and 23-24.
  • Who is mentioned in both letters?
  • Who is mentioned in Philemon but not in Colossians?
  • Who is mentioned in Colossians but not in Philemon?
  • What do you think such a strong overlap of people means?


  • Only Philemon and Apphia are not mentioned in Colossians, but other than that all.
  • Colossians adds a bit a broader picture:
  • with Onesiums (who carries the letter to Philemon) travels with Tychicus, who carries the letter to the  Colossians.
  • We find out that besides the church in Colossae are two closely related churches, Hierapolis and Laodicea. Also there is a house church lead by a woman called Nympha.
  • The church in Philemon’s house could be the main Colossian church of another house church like that of Nympha. One person more is mentioned to give greetings, Jesus-Justus.
  • The very high overlap of people indicates that the letter of Philemon and Colossians are highly linked, and that both letters were written at the same time.

Please find below a table of the people mentioned and also a visual showing the overlap between the letters.










































1:7, 4:12











Church founder



Runaway slave





Prisoner of Christ

Our brother

Fellow prisoner

Fellow worker

Fellow worker

Fellow worker

Fellow worker

Before: useless

Now: useful

My own heart

A brother


dear friend, love for believers, faith, refreshed believers

Our sister

Our fellow sol-dier



One of you, servant of Jesus, always praying for you, working hard for you

May visit,


Fellow prisoner



Be-loved physician

Faithful & beloved brother

Letter & news bringer

Beloved brother, faithful minister, fellow servant


                                                  Philemon only:                                                                                                        Philemon & Colossians combined:

3 Interpretation Question: What is the situation of the author?

  • Where is Paul when he writes this letter?
  • Though no geographical location is mentioned, it is clear that Paul is in jail:
    • Phm 1         Paul a prisoner
    • Phm 9         Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus
    • Phm 10      Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment
    • Phm 13      that he might be of service to me during my imprisonment for the gospel
    • Phm 23      Epaphras, my fellow prisoner
  • Paul is in prison, long enough for him to meet Onesimus, bring him to Christ, disciple him and write this letter.
  • Phm 22 makes it clear that Paul hopes to be freed soon.
  • How can we fit this with Paul’s life? When was Paul imprisoned?
  • Here is the complete listing of Paul’s jail times as reconstructed from the New Testament:



Missionary Journey


How long for



50 AD



one night only

Acts 16:23-39


54-55 AD




2 Cor 11:23-24

by implication of the plural Paul uses ‘imprisonments’

57 AD

End of 3rd



Acts 21 – 23


57-59 AD



2 years

Acts 23:3-27:1


60-62 AD



2 years

Acts 28:30-31

Light imprisonment’

  • The only imprisonments that are long enough to be reasonably possible are the ones in Ceasarea and Rome with about 2 years each.
  • What would help us to decide whether it was Ceasarea or Rome?
    Again the answer requires us to look at a bit more background:
  • Philemon is not the only letter where Paul mentions being imprisoned, actually there are five: Philippians, Ephesians, Colossians, Philemon and 2 Timothy.
  • Among these 2 Timothy is in a group of its own, with Paul speaking of his imminent death.
  • But the other four letters, commonly called “the Prison Epistles” all have features that link them:





Paul in prison

Eph 3:10

Col 4:18

Phil 1

Php 1:1, Php 1:7

Timothy with Paul


Col 1:1

Phil 1

Php 1:1

Letter deliverer Tychicus

Eph 6:21

Col 4:7


Hope for release


Phil 22

Php 2:24

Imprisonment in Rome


Php 1:13 Imperial Guard, Php 4:22 Emperor’s household


Similar to Colossians

Similar to Ephesians


People mentioned to be with Paul


Aristarchus, Mark, Jesus-Justus, Epaphras, Luke, Demas

Aristarchus, Mark, Epaphras, Luke, Demas


Mentioned people


Onesimus, Archippus

Onesimus, Apphia, Archippus

  • The many links between the four prison epistles suggest, that they were written at roughly the same time, and likely delivered by the same person, Tychicus.
4 Interpretations Question: Where is the author? When does he write this letter?
  • Philippians 1:13 and 4:22 mention an ‘imperial guard’ (the Emperor’s personal body guard) and ‘the Emperor’s household’, both strongly indicating Rome as the place where Paul is imprisoned.
  • The imperial guard and possibly the Emperor’s household could possibly move around temporarily, but the length of time needed to fit the Philemon story in is too long to make this a good option.
  • Paul very likely is imprisoned in Rome and writes the four prison epistles from his ‘light imprisonment’ there.
  • If one refers back to a timeline of Paul’s life, the dates for his light imprisonment are 60-62 AD.
  • The Roman law had a protection for its citizens (those with Roman citizenship), that a person accused of a crime could not be held more than 2 years without a proper trial.
  • Phm 22 and Php 2:24 mention Paul’s hope for a soon release. It is because of this 2 year law that Paul hopes that he will either be judged (hopefully with a good outcome) or he will be released anyway. That is why he is both requesting prayer and making travel arrangements at the same time.
  • In summary it can be said that Paul writes Philemon (together with the other prison epistles) towards the end of his light imprisonment in Rome, 62 AD.

5 Interpretation Question: How was the Colossian church founded? When was it founded? By whom was it founded?

  • Since Col 4:9 calls Onesimus ‘one of you’, meaning one of the Colossian church, we were able to conclude that Philemon, Apphia, Archippus and the church in their house is in Colossae, maybe the main church, or possibly one of the house churches of Colossae.
  • How was the Colossian church founded? Where is Colossae?
  • Also: Phm 1 and 19 seem to imply that Philemon probably became a believer through Paul’s ministry at one time, and was one of his co-workers.
  • When and where did they meet and co-work? How long is this ago?

Overview Map Mediterranean

  • Please see the map of modern day Turkey and the surrounding area.
  • Colossae was an ancient city (going back well before Roman times) on an East-West trade route.
  • By New Testament times it was part of the Roman Empire, the Province of Asia Minor (roughly today’s Turkey), the district of Asia (Western Turkey), inland from the important port city Ephesus.
  • The cities of Hierapolis and Laodicea (Col 4:16) were located in the same valley within about 10 miles of Colossae.


  • Read Col 1:5-7, 2:1 and 4:12-13.
  • What can be concluded from theses passages about the founder of the Colossian church?


  • It seems that not Paul but Epaphras was the founder of the church, of Colossae (and likely of the churches in Laodicea and Hierapolis as well)
  • Col 2:1 seems to imply that Paul has not seen the Colossians face to face.
  • Paul is not typically one to ‘work in another man’s field’ (2 Cor 10:13-14).
  • But why then does he write the letter “Colossians” to them? Why does he feel so responsible for them as to do that?


  • Read Acts 19:1, 8-10.
  • What can be concluded from these verses about Paul’s ministry in the area?


  • It seems Paul spends extensive time in Ephesus (here the time frame is 2 years and 3 months, in Acts 20:31 it is summarized as 3 years).
  • According to the Timeline of Paul’s life these are the years 53-56 AD.
  • He is evangelizing, teaching, discipling, training up workers, probably goint on mission trips himself, likely sending out teams and overseeing church planting work in the area.
  • Acts summarizes “all residents of Asia, both Jews and Greeks, heard the word of the Lord” (Acts 19:10).
  • It is very likely that Epaphras (and also Philemon) are early converts of Paul, becoming his disciples, trainees and eventually co-workers (Phm 1).
  • They seem to have carried the gospel back to ‘their own town’, Colossae and nearby Hierapolis and Laodicea.
    • Philemon, a convert of Paul (Phm 19) is a faithful worker that remains in Colossae, a servant of saints, a pillar among the believers, probably a church elder and a house church leader (Phm 1-7).
    • Epaphras, the founder of the church, now went to visit Paul in Rome, giving him an update on the current affairs of the church (and somehow gets himself imprisoned, Col 4:12-13). It is likely Epaphra’s report that results in Paul writing the letter to the Colossians. Ephaphras, unable to go back, is interceding in his Roman prison for the churches he founded.
    • It seems Archippus is also a co-worker of Paul during his Ephesus time (Phm 2), who is now in Colossae. Maybe it is to him that Epaphras handed over the responsibility for the church “see that you complete the task that you have received in the Lord” (Col 4:17). It would also make sense to refer to him (Phm 2) if he is the overseer of the church and Philemon a house church leader.
  • In summary we can say that the Colossian church was founded somewhere between 53 and 55 AD by Epaphras, under the tutelage of Paul, who is at this time making Ephesus his ministry base.
  • How much time passed between the church founding and the church receiving Paul’s letter?
  • The founding was 53-55 AD, the writing of the letter 62 AD. This would mean that the church is 7-9 years old when the letters of the Colossians and Philemon reach them.

6 Interpretation Question: What was the Historical Setting of the church?

  • Politically
    • The area is part of the Roman Empire, since about 150 years.
    • Asia Minor was a supporter of rising Rome even before becoming part of the Empire.
    • Asia Minor was a willing ally of Rome before it was a world empire and later was a willing and privileged par of the Roman empire. Romans brought good infrastructure (water systems, Roman roads), safe borders , good trade and relative prosperity.
  • Geographically
    • Colossae was once situated on the major East-West Highway of the Roman Empire, but a redirecting and reconstructing of roads left Colossae out and Laodicea became the new ‘trade hub’.
    • Colossae, whose name simply means ‘big, huge, colossal’ was a big and rich city already in Medo-Persian times.
  • Economically
    • Colossae is located in a fertile area and is quite famous for agricultural produce, like wine, sheep wool and black or purple woven cloth.
    • Colossae used to sit on a Roman crossroad, now Colossae is still part of the road network, but sidelined.
    • Colossae had banking and power to take road tolls for centuries.
  • Spiritually
    • From the West the area was influence by Greek idolatry & philosophy, from the East there was also an influence of idolatry, mystery cults and occultism.

7 Interpretation Question: What was the situation of slaves in the Roman Empire?

  • Phm 16 mentions that Onesimus is Philemon’s slave, actually (by the looks of it) a runaway slave.
  • Therefore one more important historical background needed for the book of Philemon is an understanding of Slavery in NT times.


  • When reading the following summary on Slavery in the Roman Empire, think about implications this has for the letter of Philemon.

How did a person become a slave?

  • After conquering a country, Rome would often force the captured soldiers or civilians into slavery, into forced labor (mines, rowing ships, construction, …) or sold them to private slave owners.
  • Another way people became slaves was through illegal kidnapping of normal civilians by pirates or slave traders. Slave trade was a lucrative business (as it is today).
  • In the Roman world there was a widespread practice of exposing unwanted children. These were often picked up, fed a few years and then used or sold as slaves.
  • In case of financial ruin a person could sell themselves or their children into slavery to survive.
  • Any person born to slave parents was automatically a slave of the same master.
  • There also existed people doing intentional breeding of slaves for sale.

Different degrees of severity of slavery in the Roman Empire

  • There were great variations of the severity of slavery according to country, century, place, even family.
  • Basically: slaves were the property of a master, like animals.
  • A master had full rights to demand labor, to beat, to torture, to punish, to brand, even to kill a slave.
  • Crucifixion was the normal method of death penalty for rebellious slaves.
  • Slaves had no rights in court to demand a trial or appeal.
  • The worst types of slavery were mines, ship-rowing, construction and agriculture.
  • In some of these, the average survival of a slave was less than a year.
  • Labor camps existed,  sometimes salves were killed by starvation in death camps.
  • With Rome conquering Greece (147 BC) new forms of slavery emerged: educated slaves.
  • Families would buy educated slaves to be the family’s own scribe, lawyer, teacher, accountant, businessmen. 
  • These would virtually became part of a family or family enterprise and were typically better treated.
  • The severity of slavery in the Roman Empire decreased over the centuries:
    • in the 3rd centuries BC of the Roman empire it was severe.
    • By New Testament times there were clear improvements and increasing rights of slaves (right to marriage, family, owning property, saving money, buying their freedom, treated in court like low class citizens)
  • A minimum of 70% of population in the Roman Empire were slaves, in Greece the percentage was as high as 95%.

Runaway slaves

  • The master of a runaway slave could pursue him wherever he was able to.
  • It was the duty of civil authorities to aid in the recovery of slaves when possible.
  • Some citizens made it their business to capture and return runaway slaves for a profit.
  • It was a serious criminal offense to harbor runaway slaves, and was the equivalent of being a receiver of stolen property, punished by substantial penalties.
  • Whoever gave refuge to a runaway slave was legally obliged to pay the master for each day’s work lost.
  • Runaway slaves could be punished upon return by branding, torture or ultimately crucifixion.

Termination of slavery (Manumission)

  • Slavery often lead to Roman citizenship in the 1st century AD.
  • In Greece a freed slave became a resident alien in his masters city, but no citizenship conferred.
  • As a result there was a flow of slaves towards Italy, where they could hope to obtain citizenship eventually.
  • Many slaves took on Roman names.
  • Captives were educated and trained in Roman ways before becoming citizens.
  • Slaves were made freedmen in great numbers, partially because of the relative lack of freeborn citizenry and also because as freemen could fulfill obligations to the state, most importantly military service.
  • If a master died, a percentage of slaves were commonly freed.
  • Roman Cicero said: a worthy slave could expect his freedom in about 7 years.
  • Often a freedman was established by his patron (former owner) in a business, of which the patron remained a share holder.
  • Usually the slave has learned his trade as an apprentice in the master‘s household or handicraft shop, then slowly earning his freedom by extra work or being freed by the generosity of the master.
  • Often freedmen made great wealth. They were still obliged to perform functions for their patrons, though.

We will now try to ‘reconstruct the story’ that is behind the letter of Philemon:

The story behind the letter of Philemon

  • Onesimus was once a slave in the household of Philemon.
  • For some reason he was unhappy, rebelled and fled.
  • Think about the following questions:
    • Was Onesimus a believer when he fled? or a nominal believer? Which verses in Philemon could give you a hint?
    • Was Philemon a harsh master? Or was Onesimus rather a rather irresponsible slave? Which verses in Philemon that could give you a hint?
    • Did Onesiums steal something when he left? Maybe to finance his flight? Maybe to take revenge on Philemon? Which verses in Philemon could give you a hint?
thoughts to consider
  • Was Onesimus a believer when he fled? or a nominal believer? Which verses in Philemon could give you a hint?
    • Not totally clear.
    • What is clear is that latest when meeting Paul in prison in Rome he becomes a committed believer.
    • Paul says in Phm 10 that he became Onesimus’ father in his imprisonment speaks for Onesiums becoming a believer only with Paul.
    • Paul’s metaphor ‘becoming one’s father’ – spiritual father, of course – is used not used causally by Paul and usually conotates very strong involvement (see 1 Cor 4:15, Gal 4:19).
  • Was Philemon a harsh master? Or was Onesimus rather a rather irresponsible slave? Is there any verse in Philemon that could give you a hint?
    • In Phm 11 Paul calls Onesimus ‘once useless’, though not any more.
    • It seems that the problem might have been rather with Onesimus being irresponsible than with Philemon being a problem.
    • Also Phm 4-7 makes it very clear that Philemon’s work, influence and leadership is of high quality.
    • Paul highly praises Philemon.
    • It is also clear that Paul really trusts Philemon, otherwise he would not send Onesimus back to him.
  • Did Onesiums steal something when he left? Maybe to finance his flight? Maybe to take revenge on Philemon?
    • Maybe. In Phm 18-19 Paul gives Philemon a financial guarantee for Onesimus, which could indicate that Onesimus defrauded Philemon when he left.
    • But Paul’s conditional statement in Phm 18 “if he has wronged you”, seems to indicate otherwise.
    • Paul would have made Onesimus confess past sins and make restitution as far as possible (which is why Onesimus is now returning to Philemon).
    • If Onesimus confessed to stealing, Paul would have implemented a process of restitution.
  • Think about the following questions:
    • What then does Paul mean by his sentence “if he has wronged you in any way or owes you anything, charge that to my account”? Think about the Roman Law concerning runaway slaves.
    • Why did Onesimus go to Rome? Think about the Roman Law concerning slaves.
    • How did Onesimus ever meet Paul?
thoughts to consider
  • What then does Paul mean by his sentence “if he has wronged you or owes you anything, charge that to my account”?
    • Some say that this refers to Onesimus stealing when running away. But Paul would have asked him to confess this if it so happened.
    • Therefore this probably refers to the law about one sheltering a runaway slave being financially liable to the owner of the slave.
    • Basically Paul says: ‘If you want to claim your right to repayment of the financial loss (through loss of labor by absent Onesimus) I am willing to bare this burden.’
    • But Paul also indicates that in light of Paul and Philemon’s past story together, – Philemon most likely becoming a believer through Paul – he thinks Philemon should not insist on his right in Phm 19: “I say nothing about your owing me even your own self.”
  • Why did Onesimus go to Rome?
    • We don’t know for sure, but people who ‘fall out of their normal life’ for any reason still today tend to gravitate towards the big cities.
    • Maybe it’s the anonymity of a bigger city, maybe the chance for work or a fresh start.
    • Also: remember that Italy gave Roman citizenship to freed slaves, unlike Greece, so slaves had good reasons to gravitate towards Italy.
  • How did Onesimus ever meet Paul?
    • We don’t know. All that is clear is that somehow or other Onesimus ends up in Rome.
    • Maybe he is lonely, maybe he finds people from his area, somehow he falls in with the Christians, it seems, and they take him to Paul, who at this time is imprisoned, yet in an own rented room, with relative freedom (see Acts 28:30-31). Maybe they gave him a job as a a helper for Paul, or maybe it was just a chance acquaintance.
    • While spending time with Paul, Onesimus becomes a believer (or a serious believer) and Paul starts to disciple him.
    • For Paul discipleship meant not only confession of sins, but also restitution for past wrong. Paul instructs Onesimus to ‘own up’, to go back to his former master, though not alone, with a letter of recommendation in his hand: the letter “Philemon”.

What is the relationship between the three main characters?

  • Think about and write down what you learned so far about the relationships between the main characters:
    • 1 Paul and Philemon’s relationship?
    • 2 Paul and Onesimus’ relationship?
    • 3 Philemon and Onesimus’ relationship?
thoughts to consider
  • 1 Paul and Philemon’s relationship?
    • It’s an old friendship, there is warm encouragement, honor, much trust on both sides, confidence. Both are proven persons with a track record of serving others.
    • Philemon ‘owes’ Paul, probably referring to him hearing the gospel through Paul during his time in Ephesus.
    • Paul and Philemon become not only fellow-believers but co-workers.
    • Paul feels himself free to directly ask for hospitality (Phm 22), a sign of long-standing, solid friendship and an ease between the two.
    • This is likely not the first time that Philemon co-lives with Paul, possibly they stayed together in Ephesus or did field trips together.
  • 2 Paul and Onesimus relationship?
    • Paul describes Onesimus as his own son (spiritually), his disciple, one having changed, having become useful.
    • Paul calls Onesimus “my own heart”, speaking of warm, affectionate close relationship.
    • The metaphor son-father has overtones of love, warmth, commitment, ownership, representation … it is also a relationship that is unchangeable.
    • Onesimus must have responded well to Paul’s discipleship, otherwise he would not be willing to go back to slavery (the fact that this letter is preserved proves that Onesimus did not ‘run away’ again).
    • Onesimus must trust Paul, trust Paul’s judgement, submits to his discipleship and process of restoration.
    • Onesimus obeys and at Paul’s command basically goes back to slavery, though surely this wasn’t easy.
  • 3 What is Philemon and Onesimus’ relationship?
    • Theirs is a master-slave relationship.
    • Maybe Philemon repeatedly forgave this ‘useless slave’, invested heavily into this young man but never got a good response.
    • Maybe Philemon was long trying to be gracious.
    • Maybe this is an encouragement to him to see Onesimus truly change.
    • Maybe this is a great improvement on a not good and possibly quite discouraging story.
    • The running away, the unfaithfulness could have been a great disappointment to Philemon.
    • Or possibly he feels guilt, has second thoughts, worries about what became of him.
    • There is financial damage, maybe this has been emotionally draining, causing self-doubt, frustration, resulting in household un-peace.
    • Legally speaking Philemon is being defrauded.

Having understood the background of the letter of Philemon and having reconstructed the story around it, we will now start with interpretation of the themes in the letter > see ‘Philemon 03 – Interpreting & Applying the main Themes‘.