I love opinionated non-PC people. This blog is to vent my opinions on life, the universe and everything. Which is 42 which in gematria is "My Heart" (LBY) according to Rabbi Abulafia. The Divine Heart is the centre of everything.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

St. Paul and the Letter of Philemon: A Hellenistic Jewish Context


Philemon is the shortest letter of St Paul in the Bible however it can act as a door to understanding the much larger corpus of the Pauline Literature in its biblical and historical context. All Scripture including Philemon can be read at many levels and thus one can gain insights that relate to contemporary people and their modern concerns. However in order to read Scripture at different levels one needs to understand the literal historical level or sense first. While this historical level is primary it is not necessarily the most important or meaningful sense.[1] We all read Paul according to our own understanding or interpretation of the biblical and historical evidence and from one’s own world view and culture.

In recent years there has arisen a school of theology that is given the name of the ‘New Perspectives on Paul’ in which reference to the Jewish context of Paul is central. In fact Dunn calls this new perspective a quantum shift.[2] I would suggest that this occurred partly due to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1948. The previous theological approach used by many Protestants was of the Higher Critical School which in the 20th century was taken on by many Catholic scholars. This German theology was at its very core anti-Semitic and anti-Jewish according to a number of authors.[3] These insights of the ‘New Perspective on Paul’ have caused many to not see Paul as an antinomian rebel but as one faithful to the Torah as represented in Acts 21. Rabbi Jacob Emden (1697-1776) a leader among the Litvak Jews of Eastern Europe in his famous letter proposed an interpretation of Paul as a faithful Torah observant Rabbi who only taught that Gentiles didn’t need to be Jewishly Torah Observant but insisted on full Torah observance for the circumcised.[4][5] This was demonstrated when Paul circumcised Timothy because he had a Jewish mother.[6] Paul taught in Galatians 5:3 that one who was circumcised was obligated to keep the whole Torah.

There are many diverse opinions among scholars of the context of Paul’s Letter to Philemon. However almost everyone is agreed that the letter was originally written in Greek. Certain puns or word plays in the Greek make this clear.[7] There is a word play or pun on Onesimus’ name, which means useful, in verse 11. Marchal perceives a more sexual connotation to the term ‘useful’ in regards to the use of slaves for sexual pleasure. Is Paul by the use of this pun letting Philemon know that Onesimus has revealed something more shocking in their relationship than just simple master and slave?[8] Is this Paul’s version of Jesus writing in the sand?[9]

Even though the letter is written in Greek one of a Jewish background can’t help but perceive the Jewish expressions behind the Greek words. An example is in verse 7 where a Jewish reader may detect simcha gedola (much joy) and Chizzuk (encouragement/strength) with its deeper Hebrew meaning under the Greek equivalents. Is this because Paul comes from Tarsus and as well as being a Pharisee he is also an educated Hellenistic Jew? It is also possible that Paul speaks to them in this manner because Philemon, Apphia and Archippus are Hellenistic Jews too. Eastern Orthodox Tradition holds that Philemon, Apphia and Archippus were of the seventy apostles (Shelikhim) and thus must have been Jewish.[10] This tradition holds that Apphia was the wife of Philemon and that with Archippus they went as Shelikhim to evangelise Colossae where Archippus became the Bishop (Parnas Hegemon). These traditions also say that Philemon became the Bishop of Gaza in Palestine. Other scholars think that Archippus was the son of Philemon and Apphia. If they were Hellenised Jews then this would explain Paul’s expectation that Philemon knows the obligations of the Torah.[11]  Paul doesn’t want to appeal to what is “anekon”( דזדקן righteous according to the Torah) but to love (agape/ahavah).[12] However by even mentioning “anekon” he has indeed reminded Philemon of his moral duty (chovah musarit) according to the Torah.

Most scholars believe that the Letter was written around 60-62 AD from Rome where Paul was imprisoned. Others hold that it was written almost a decade earlier and possibly from Ephesus.[13]  While most believe that Paul was actually in prison others believe the term ‘Prisoner of Jesus Christ’ has a more spiritual rather than a literal meaning.  It is believed by most to be addressed to the Church in Colossae but it is also possible it was a personal letter that was only addressed to the three Shelikhim especially if the allusion to a sinful[14] homosexual relationship was involved as suggested by Marchal. It may have later after the death of its protagonists were dead been then read to the wider Church. In that case the mention of the “Church in your House” may refer to Archippus rather than to Philemon.[15]

The structure of this letter has also been the subject of intense discussion by scholars. Some believe that this is a letter of recommendation of the kind that a patron wrote on behalf of another that uses deliberative rhetoric. Deliberative rhetoric is that which was used when writing to convince someone to change their mind or actions. FF Church writes an interesting article about the use of rhetoric in the context of the letter to Philemon.[16] Osiek states that it is impossible to separate the indicative from the imperative in this letter.[17] Others have questioned this rhetoric approach as they don’t think it reveals the purpose of the letter. Could this be due to the hidden purpose suggested by Marchal? Is this a letter that is trying to encourage repentance by a prominent and influential leader in the Church? That Philemon is a saint of the Church and went on to be a Bishop in Gaza suggests that Paul’s purpose was achieved.[18] Frilingos stresses the use of familial language and metaphors in the letter. He sees this as part of Paul’s purpose to challenge and displace Philemon’s claim of power over his slave by the use of this familial imagery. [19] Elliot sees this as a rhetoric of tact that Paul uses to manipulate others in a demonstration of his own power and authority.[20]



However some scholars don’t believe that Onesimus is an actual slave but someone Philemon was treating like a slave. And there are many other scenarios that could be proposed. Many people have focused on the issue of slavery and perhaps read into the text the concerns of later Christians. Others have focused on the message of love, mercy and kindness that Paul seems to be proposing to those who have power over the lives of others. This letter may demonstrate that Paul practised tough love in that he lovingly corrects, admonishes and lures his fellow believers into behaving in a more Christ-like manner rooted in love. Dunham perceives the Letter as providing a model of transformation of life in the resurrected Messiah.[21]



There are many open questions regarding this Letter and its context and background, thus certain opinions cannot be held dogmatically and one needs to be open to further reflection and the insights of further scholarship. In such a small essay one cannot cover the issues presented by Paul’s Letter to Philemon adequately but I have endeavoured to briefly touch on points of interest which need further explication. At this point I incline towards believing that Philemon, Apphia and Archippus are Hellenistic Jews and that Paul and Timothy are writing to them from Rome in the early 60’s from prison. I also would at this stage accept the more traditional interpretation that Onesimus as an escaped slave who Paul is seeking to reconcile with his master and I think the Marchal’s interpretation about a sexual “usefulness” may have some merit that may explain some of the question marks about the true purpose of the letter raised by some scholars. If Paul is dealing with a more serious and scandalous situation among the higher leaders he may be using his Messiah’s advice of being as gentle as a dove and as cunning as a serpent[22] in order to correct and reconcile sinners in the Church (Kehilla). Philemon himself may be fond of Greek rhetorical approaches and Paul may be displaying his policy of being all things to all men in order to win them back (in this case) to a Christ-like way of life[23] by writing in a style that Philemon would appreciate. I think that the aspect of the New Perspectives on Paul that emphasises the Jewish context is opening fresh insights to Paul’s writings and ideas in general and to Philemon in particular.






[1] Called the Peshat level in Judaism. The other levels or senses are Remetz (analogical), Drash (moral or homelitical) and Sod (anagogical or mystical)

[2] James DG Dunn. "The new perspective on Paul." HTS Theological Studies 64, no. 4 (2008): 1956-1958 .

[3] Roy H. Schoeman. Salvation is from the Jews (John 4: 22): The Role of Judaism in Salvation History from Abraham to the Second Coming. Ignatius Press, 2003.

[4] Harvey Falk. Jesus the Pharisee: A new look at the Jewishness of Jesus. Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2003.

[5] Pawel Maciejko believes Emden drew this conclusion from an earlier Jewish work written by David Nasi in 1430. David Nasi was the brother of the famous Joseph Nasi, Duke of Naxos.

[6] Acts 16:3

[7] Robert E Dunham, “Between text and sermon: Philemon 1:1-25”.  In Interpretation: A Journal of Bible and Theology; Richmond Vol. 52, Iss. 2,  (Apr 1998): 191-194.

[8] Joseph A Marchal. "The Usefulness of an Onesimus: The Sexual Use of Slaves and Paul's Letter to Philemon." Journal of Biblical Literature 130, no. 4 (2011): 749-770.

[9] John 8:4

[10] Apostle Philemon on OrthodoxWiki

[11] See verses 8-9

[12] Verses 8-9

[13] Raymond Edward Brown, , Joseph A. Fitzmyer, and Roland Edmund Murphy, eds. The new Jerome biblical commentary. (Prentice Hall, 1990), 869-870.

[14] Perceived as sinful to Jews and Christians but not to the pagan Greeks and Romans of the Empire and possibly less so to the Hellenistic Jews especially those who had assimilated the most to Greek and Roman culture among the wealthy upper class which Philemon may have belonged.

[15] Philemon 1:2

[16] F. Forrester Church. "Rhetorical structure and design in Paul's letter to Philemon." Harvard Theological Review 71, no. 1-2 (1978): 17-33.

[17] Carolyn Osiek. "Philemon." In The Catholic Study Bible. Oxford Biblical Studies 2016.

[18] Apostle Philemon on OrthodoxWiki

[19] Chris Frilingos. “‘For My Child, Onesimus’: Paul and Domestic Power in Philemon." Journal of Biblical Literature119, no. 1 (2000): 91-104.

[20] Scott S. Elliott. “‘Thanks, but no thanks’”: Tact, Persuasion and the Negotiation of Power in Paul’s Letter to Philemon.” New Testament Studies 57 (2011): 51-64.

[21] Robert E Dunham, “Between text and sermon: Philemon 1:1-25”, 191-194.

[22] Matthew 10:16


[23] I Corinthians 9:22

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