The Letter to Philemon

This post is an exegesis of St. Paul’s Letter to Philemon from the New Testament to provide a concrete application of some of the hermeneutic principles I was laying out in this previous post. Particularly the idea that sometimes other sources of information, other angles, other methods need to be brought in for a fuller reading.

The Letter to Philemon is a perfect candidate because for one it’s short (only 25 verses). You can read the Letter here–simply input Philemon in the search box.

Now the background I’m going to employ, which no reader would be able to grasp from the letter itself is the ancient Roman system of patronage. A short brief on the social custom here. Basically there was a patron and a client, the patron protected and could support the client, in return the client publicly showed favor to the patron, admitting inequality, thereby lifting up the patron.

The background to the text is that Paul is in prison. A runaway slave named Onesimus has come to Paul looking for protection (a patron-client relationship). Onesimus’ slave owner is named Philemon (patron-client)–the man to whom the letter is addressed. Paul and Philemon have an interesting relationship. Paul as the spiritual mentor/guide to Philemon is in a sense Philemon’s spiritual patron. While Philemon is supporting Paul’s mission financially. Hence Philemon is also politically-financially the patron, Paul is the client. High level patrons seen as equals shared a bond called in Latin amicitia (“friendship”). But the two different hierarchies of patron-client (spiritual and political) come into play. Which holds more sway.

Paul sends Onesimus back to Philemon asking that he (Philemon) release the slave and give him back to Paul to help him in his evangelistic work from jail. [The reason for the running away is never discussed–i.e. did Philemon physically or sexually abuse Onesimus? Has Onesimus done something wrong for which he fears punishment? We have no idea].

Now watch how this works in the letter because it is total brilliance on the part of Paul (whether it’s manipulative brilliance or not is a separate question but no doubt it is brilliant).

In v8 Paul writes (my emphasis),

“Though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love–and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus.”

In that short sentence, he has played this patronage system to the t. Paul claims he is in the position of patron–i.e. “I am bold enough to command you to do your duty.” For a good Roman like Philemon to not do his duty is publicly shameful. Yet Paul in the very next sentence says that he would rather appeal to him on the basis of love (which as we will see very shortly means wanting a free choice not based on the patron-client duty from Philemon). Genius push-pull method he will use throughout the rest of the letter.

But then immediately Paul again using the patron-client system puts the screws to Philemon a bit. “‘I’m an old man and now a prisoner of Christ Jesus”. So Paul by referencing his prisoner status is claiming client status in society (prisoners are lower in social custom), simultaneously he is also claiming client status relative to Jesus Christ who he has elsewhere in the letter (v.3) is called Lord. So Jesus is the Highest Patron, so being the “prisoner” of Jesus is actually, paradoxically, to achieve high status (though humility).

And if Paul is old and in prison and Philemon does not help Paul he is breaking his bond as a patron–to protect and support Paul.

v.10: “I am appealing to you for my child Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment.”

So Paul here claims, sneakily perhaps, that he (Paul) is now the true patron of Onesimus (not Philemon) and therefore Philemon owes his duty to Paul–i.e. he should release the slave and give him to Paul. Since he, Philemon, is the client to Paul, the patron.


I wanted to keep him [Onesimus] with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel; but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced.

To be of service is once more a reference to the patron-client system (the client gives service to the patron and vice versa though in different ways). It is a clear reference in their world though not in ours–since we no longer have this social practice.

Onesimus is to become the servant of Paul’s in Philemon’s place–notice how Paul has subtly speculated on making a slave an equal of a Roman aristocrat. But, Paul says, again very shrewdly, “I preferred to do nothing without your conset”–i.e. Paul has returned to the place of the client invoking the beneficence of the patron Philemon. Paul is assuming the lower place.

The deed (of release) then will be free, from the majesty and august mercy of the patron–not by Paul using his patron position as power over Philemon. All of which is even more fantastically rich given that from other texts of Paul’s we know he preached that Christ Jesus “freed” Gentiles from the sin. That he (Paul) was a “Slave of Christ Jesus” and moreover the one called Lord was a publicly executed criminal (the lowest of the low in the social order of the day).

Which then leads to the verse 17:

“So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.”

After playing the patron-client in both directions (Paul patron/Philemon client; Paul client/Philemon patron) Paul now calls for equality between the two. i.e. Partnership. i.e. The relationship of amicitia.

Notice: if Philemon does not welcome Onesimus as he would Paul, Philemon then (by Paul’s standard) does not consider Paul an equal. Paul to whom Philemon owes his baptism and Christian faith. How could Philemon have the arrogance to not accept the offer of equality from a man to whom he is in debt?

A couple last ones for good measure.

v.19: I say nothing about your owing me even your own self.

Except that of course.

The client owes his entire self to the patron. Since Paul was the mechanism whereby Philemon was baptized and therefore was “born again” and received a “new self”, he owes that entire self to Paul.

v. 20: Yes, brother, let me have this benefit from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ.

Brother recalls the language of partnership/equality. It recalls that God is Father of them all–so all are equal in the sight of God (including Onesimus). And all are clients of the Master Patron, the Lord Jesus. Refreshing Paul’s heart in Christ refers back to v.7 where Paul rejoices that Philemon’s (monetary as well as spiritual) support have caused the “hearts of the saints to be refreshed by you.” The saints is Paul’s euphemism for the Christian church and Christians.

So Paul here is again referencing the patron-client system. Philemon as in the past has been a fine wonderful magnanimous Patron. If he stops now (i.e. doesn’t release Onesimus) will he no longer be refreshing to the saints?

v. 21 Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.”

Particularly now that he’s mentioned it right? After asking Philemon to consider him a partner, a brother, even assumed the lower position relative to Philemon, Paul now returns back and ends on the note of Patron/authority. “Confident of your obedience”–i.e. Philemon’s status as a client to Paul. This is the prerogative of the patron to demand such response which is why Paul is confident of the response, knowing the result.

And yet once again he says that he wants this decision to be Philemon’s.

Here endeth the reading. (Thanks be to God).

So now without knowing about the patron-client relationship, which there is no way to glean from reading the letter alone–nor from any other reading in the New Testament generally nor the Bible as a whole, how much would be loss in a reading? And the not being able to catch on to this by reading the letter alone is not a question of the ignorance or whatever of the reader. It is simply a common social custom that is so embedded and so thoroughly understood that Paul does not have to explain the system to Philemon. That doesn’t matter to them, but it does matter to us given that we can not pick up on this social custom without learning about it separately.

This is a rather dramatic case as essentially the meaning of all the subtle layers of the text and all its double and triple entendres, shades of meaning, and allusions are lost the contemporary reader and depend on learning about this social custom. Once having learned it, the references jump off the page and the text lights up in a way it would not otherwise.


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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Very cool! Fascinating!

    Thanks for posting this. There are so many things like this out there. Where do you learn this stuff? Is there one book you would recommend over others, or is it just hard work and digging all over the place?

    God’s Peace,


  2. Excellent point, imagine all of the subtle and not so subtle points missed out on, imagine all of the mis-characterizations and misunderstanding by contemporary readers and students of not just Roman social customs but Jewish social custom and terminology. Even more importantly how much is lost in translations when readers and student don’t have direct assess to the word of God and rely solely on second party and sometimes third-party translations.

    I mean even the Hebrew name of G-d has not been exempt from this, as Jehovah has been supposedly mis-pronounced by most of the Christian world for centuries now imagine terms like son of G-d and son of man.

    Amongst the Jews and the Muslims, there is a huge desire for the common people to have access to revelations as revealed by God and their communities are ripe with learning Hebrew and Arabic for adults and children. However, my observations of Christians, outside of theologians or serious students, there appears to be no motivation or emphasis on being able to read the Hebrew or Greek, which puzzles me.


  3. Cindy,

    Thanks for the kind words.

    A couple of recommendations on Paul. The whole notion of studying the Roman social, urban context is the big thing in Pauline studies right now.

    Robert Jewett: Paul Apostle to America. Which takes the scholarship and then applies it to what Paul might say to the US.

    John Dominic Crossan: In Search of Paul

    N.T. Wright: Paul In Fresh Perspective.

    Peace. CJ

  4. e,

    There are a number of evangelicals who are interested in the original Biblical languages, but so far that is still very linked to their conversion attitude. But the idea of the original language and the thought worlds those come from is starting to make inroads in the scholarship. I’m not sure it’s filtering down to the level of the people.

    One difference of Christians vs. Jews and Muslims is that we don’t have prayers in the original language and don’t read from the scriptures in church in the originals, so I think that might explain the lack of desire to learn them. Maybe?

    Peace Cj

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