Bible is an ancient literary work that absorbed wisdom of many generations of different people who contributed to the writing of this book, which is probably the most famous literary work of ancient times well-known throughout the world. At the same time, the structure of the Bible is quite particular and it in fact consists of different books united in a single literary work. As a result, the Bible at large represents a combination of philosophical, historical and literary works, united in this book, wholly for a significant part of mankind.
However, such a thematic diversity of the Bible is also the result that the authors who contributed to the book are not always known or there is no common views on the authorship of many books of the Bible. Obviously there are books which are clearly referred to a definite author. Nonetheless, the authorship is not the only interesting point of the books comprising the Bible all of them represent a particular literary work, which has philosophical, religious, or historic value, or even the combination of them. One of such books is the Letter to Philemon.
Authorship and authenticity
Discussing the Letter to Philemon, one of the first questions that naturally arises is the question of the authorship of the letter. Traditionally, it is estimated that the author of the letter is the Apostle Paul. One of the reasons why specialists refer the letter to the Apostle Paul is based on the fact that in his earlier extent lists of his letters hold Philemon as part of the Scripture. These two lists are Marcion’s Canon and the Muratorian fragment and both of them contain Philemon, though it is worth noting that they both omit the Pastoral Epistles.
However, the presence of Philemon in Canon was widely disputed in the 4th century AD. Despite the fact that its authenticity was not doubted but it was amply criticised for being frivolous and inconsequential. Nonetheless, most scholars “have placed a high value on the tact, grace, delicacy of feeling, and Christian affection which adorn this letter, and have regarded it worthy of canonicity in the highest sense” (Unger 1995, p.335).
Consequently, it is possible to estimate that the author of the letter is the Apostle Paul and, as for its authenticity, it is rather highly probable and basically is attributed as such.
The personal letter to Philemon indicates at the importance of this figure for the Apostle Paul and the local church. Such significance of Philemon may be explained by his relatively high social status and his support of the church since he was one of the believers. Moreover, the Colossaen church met in Philemon’s home.
By the way, the personality of Onesimus is quite interesting for he was the slave of Philemon who stole the money of his master and fled to Rome where he soon began to starve. On attempting to save his life, he recalled the Apostle Pauls whose name was frequently mentioned in Philemon’s home. Eventually, when he found Paul the latter accepted him and made a servant. Actually Onesimus served the Apostle Paul during his imprisonment and it is during this period that he “was daily exposed to the doctrinal expositions of Paul with the result that he soon attained spiritual maturity” (Bullinger 1995, p.371) and finally Paul decided that it was necessary to return Onesimus to Philemon. Besides, the names of the slave and the master are quite symbolic since Onesimus implies ‘useful’ and Philemon means ‘beloved’.
However, there is a different view on the date, according to which the letter was written seven years earlier in 55 AD. Moreover, the place may be also different, notably, if the letter is dated by 55 AD than it could be written in Ephesus. One of the main supporters of this idea and critics of the Roman origin of the letter in 62 AD is Unger who estimates that “it is very unlikely that Onesimus would have stayed in procosular Asia, knowing the stiff penalty which his defection as a slave involved” (1995, p.337).
Unfortunately, until nowadays there is no common view on the date and the place of origin of the letter. But probably it is possible to presuppose what made the Apostle Paul to write the letter. Obviously the Apostle Paul was very concerned about religious problems and, consequently, he could not ignore the fact that Gnosticism flourished in Colossae as the main religious trend. Naturally, he sent the letter to the local church and Philemon as a very influential person in the local community in order to change the situation in the city.
On the other hand, there may be another very important problem that prompted the Apostle Paul to write the letter. It is a well-known fact that slavery was widely spread in Roman empire and that was a very disturbing problem. At this respect that he chose Onesimus, the slave in fact, as a messenger is, in all probability, not occasional.
The message of the letter
On realising that the local Gnosticism and social problems, notably the problem of slavery, made the Apostle Paul writing the Letter to Philemon. At the same time it should be said that his intention to change the general religious trend in the local community is expressed in rather indirect way while the main purpose of the letter is obviously Paul’s desire to return Onesimus to Philemon “to ask Philemon to forgive Onesimus transgressions, all based on an appeal to Philemon’s faith, love, and grace in Christ” (Lightfoot 1988, p.242).
However, Paul’s ultimate goal probably went further. Taking into consideration the fact that the idea of equality of people in God’s eyes, which naturally influenced the Apostle Paul significantly, he probably asked Philemon not just about forgiveness but rather freedom of Onesimus. At the same time, it is obvious from the letter that the appeal to grace and coercion is eschewed as the completion backward principle, according to which, slavery cannot be removed by bypassing the free will of others, because this methods is exactly the same as that which it results in and creates only more slaves.
Consequently, the Apostle Paul rather appeals to Philemon’s free will when he asks him to free Onesimus. In fact, what Paul underlines as the main message of the letter is his idea that social problems cannot be solved by force or coercion. He stands on the ground that seeking for the solution of social problems by coercion provokes more and more new social problems multiplying them. According to the Apostle Paul, legislation and laws are created to protect and sustain freedom but not destroy it. In such a situation the free will is the only alternative that could solve the problems society faced.
At this respect, the social problems Paul raises in his letter gradually transform in the greater and more philosophical problem, the problem of evil since social problems, such as slavery, may be considered as social evil which has to be eliminated or counter opposed by good on the basis of individuals’ free will. In fact, the Apostle Paul strongly believed that neither violence nor legislation could really solve the problem of evil. In contrast, his main point is that the solution to evil at large, and social problems in particular, may be found in the use of personal freedom in addition to the free will mentioned above. Thus, Paul’s thesis is that “the solution resides in mankind’s soul in the form of free will” (Lightfoot 1988, p.254).
In order to better understand this thesis, it is necessary to explain that if the Apostle Paul commanded or coerced Philemon to forgive and free Onesimus, than he automatically, on freeing Onesimus, made a slave of Philemon. The reason of such a metamorphose is that such obedience makes Philemon the slave of Paul’s will and it is Paul that is the master of Philemon now but their slave-master relations are rather based on spiritual oppression than material one. Anyway, it gets to be obvious that in such a way the problem cannot be solved and, in stark contrast, it only persists and getting to be more and more serious. As a result, the only thing Paul could really do, in accordance with his views and beliefs, was to let Philemon to decide on his own, through his own free will, what was right to do.
In such a way, the Apostle Paul arrives to the concept of evil in opposition to good since “two things were here before we were; and two things will still be here after we leave: the Word of God or Bible doctrine and evil. Both can change you, but you cannot change them” (Thieme 1972, p.311) and in the context of the letter sin and slavery are parts of evil. Slavery is a social problem which, being evil, denies free will, which, in its turn, is the solution of the problem along with the God’s Word born to people.
Thus, taking into account all above mentioned, it is possible to conclude that in his Letter to Philemon the Apostle Paul, despite the fact that the date and the place, where the letter was written, are not precisely defined seem to be less important compared to the problems that he raises in his letter. These problems are both philosophical and social and they are closely interlinked and require their own solution. These problems are the problem of evil at large and the social problem of slavery as one of the forms of evil. On solving the problems, the author arrives to the conclusion that they cannot be solved by some external influence either with the help of legislation and laws or psychological or moral pressure. The only way out he sees in the individual’s free will which may be properly developed with the help of the God’s Word.
Bullinger, E.W. Figures of Speech Used in the Bible. New York: Touchstone, 1995, p.365-382.
Lightfoot, J.B. St Paul’s Epistles to the Colossians and Philemon. London: McGraw Hill, 1988, p.235-276.
Rafferty, W.E. The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia. Vol. 4, Chicago: New Publishers, 1997, p. 2817.
Thieme, R. Colossians. New York: Routledge, 1972.
Unger, M.F. Survey of the Bible. New York: McPherson Books, 1995, p. 332-349.
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