• When and Where
Once thought to have been written in Rome, scholarly consensus is now that Paul wrote both these letters during an imprisonment in Ephesus in the mid-50’s. There were Roman prisons and “imperial guards” throughout the empire, and especially in provincial capitals.
We don’t know for sure what happens next between Philemon and Onesimus, although early Christian tradition reports that Onesimus eventually became Bishop of Ephesus.
Philippi was the capital of ancient Macedonia, in northern Greece. According to Acts 16 it was the first city in Europe where Paul founded a Christ-community after leaving Asia Minor in the late 40’s.
• Key Insights
Philemon is the only letter in the NT addressed to a single, specific person (although note it too was obviously intended to be read aloud to the Christ-community that likely met at Philemon’s house). The letter is highly persuasive, some even say manipulative. A runaway slave (a very serious offense) has become Christian and Paul now instructs Philemon to free his new brother in Christ. Note how the family / relational theme of our recent readings leads to specific application here. How does life “in Christ” change things?
The letter to the Philippians is the most consistently affectionate of Paul’s epistles. Note that while Paul hopes to be freed at the end of Philemon, here he is uncertain here and may even be executed… yet the letter is positively joy-filled. It may well have been intended as a sort of last testimony. Many favorite passages are to be found here. See how the “Christ crucified” from 1 Corinthians is crystalized in beautiful, hymn-like language here (perhaps written by Paul, perhaps quoting an early hymn) and how recognition of God’s acts in Christ lead to changed lives; having the “mind of Christ,” humility, and the peace of God.
• Big Picture
In the canonical order, Philemon is the last of the 13 letters attributed to Paul, because at 25 verses, it is the shortest. But in chronological order it comes early, in the middle of the 7 letters scholars are sure Paul wrote himself. Paul is a polarizing figure, in part because of writings attributed to him on slavery (slaves obey your masters) and women. We don’t have room here to follow the full reasoning, but if you’re interested, Borg and Crossan’s book The First Paul use Philemon as a case study to demonstrate how Paul himself was a “radical visionary” but over time the growing Church tamed that message, likely so as to better coexist in Roman society. Our struggle with challenging and accommodating culture is nothing new.
Blessings on your reading!