The letter to Philemon
Who is the Author?
The letter to Philemon immediately mentions Paul as the author of this personal letter:
“Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our beloved brother and fellow worker, and to Apphia our sister, and to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ”.
Muratorian fragment (170 AD)
So while there are uses of Philemon early on and throughout the church father era, the Muratorian Canon was also written. This document dating to the late second century gives us Paul’s stamp of the letters he has written according to early church tradition. We see here it affirms Paul’s authorship: “As for the Epistles of (40-1) Paul, they themselves make clear to those desiring to understand, which ones [they are], from what place, or for what reason they were sent. (42) First of all, to the Corinthians, prohibiting their heretical schisms; (43) next, to the Galatians, against circumcision; (44-6) then to the Romans he wrote at length, explaining the order (or, plan) of the Scriptures, and also that Christ is their principle (or, main theme). It is necessary (47) for us to discuss these one by one, since the blessed (48) apostle Paul himself, following the example of his predecessor (49-50) John, writes by name to only seven churches in the following sequence: To the Corinthians (51) first, to the Ephesians second, to the Philippians third, (52) to the Colossians fourth, to the Galatians fifth, (53) to the Thessalonians sixth, to the Romans (54-5) seventh. It is true that he writes once more to the Corinthians and to the Thessalonians for the sake of admonition, (56-7) yet it is clearly recognizable that there is one Church spread throughout the whole extent of the earth. For John also in the (58) Apocalypse, though he writes to seven churches, (59-60) nevertheless speaks to all. [Paul also wrote] out of affection and love one to Philemon, one to Titus, and two to Timothy; and these are held sacred (62-3) in the esteem of the Church…”
F. C. Baur’s extreme Hegelianism as applied to the NT prevented him from seeing Philemon as authentic. Instead, he regarded it as a second-century document which was intended to show the church how to deal with slavery. Virtually no one today would follow in Baur’s train of thought.
Even though this letter is a brief, personal note to a friend, it shows up in the early canon lists (Marcion’s and the Muratorian). Further, the ancient church never doubted its authenticity. Internally,
“it breathes the great-hearted tenderness of the apostle and its dealing with an intensely difficult situation points to an author of much experience in handling social problems.”1 Guthrie, 664.
Paul is seen by scholars across the board as the author. There is certainly nothing linguistically, historically, or theologically against this supposition.
Manuscript evidence for Paul’s authorship, Papyrus 87
Papyrus 87: Philemon 13-15 , 24-25
The manuscript is the earliest manuscript eyewitness to date found of the original text with an early date of 200-300AD. It is written on two sides: Philemon 13-15 on the front and Philemon 24-25 which tells us this was written on an early codex (as it’s double sided). Considering the average deterioration rate of a Papyri manuscript to be within a few hundred years, this manuscript is very impressive in it’s preservation and clear on its structure being that of Philemon.
Paul was a writer/composer
Here church fathers make reference to Paul passing on commands or writing letters (with or without a scribe, likely with a scribe for all of them?). It is an additional factor for all Paul’s epistles that he was known as someone who wrote, taught truth and passed on commands, given an authority the first disciples did not possess. See two references below to this.
Ignatius wrote to the Romans ca. 105-107 AD: “I may be found a sacrifice to God. I do not, as Peter and Paul, issue commandments unto you. They were apostles of Jesus Christ, but I am the very least [of believers]: they were free,”
Polycarp in his letter to the Philippians ca. 115 AD: “For neither I, nor any other such one, can come up to the wisdom of the blessed and glorified Paul. He, when among you, accurately and steadfastly taught the word of truth in the presence of those who were then alive. And when absent from you, he wrote you a letter,”
Peter endorses Paul’s writings
If 2 Peter is written in the first century (though sceptical scholars have been known to attribute it to someone in the second century) this passage would bear the mark that Peter endorses Paul writing letters also
“Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.”2 Peter 3:15-17
Audience & purpose
Paul’s message to Philemon was a simple one: based on the work of love and forgiveness that had been wrought in Philemon’s heart by God, show the same to the escaped and now-believing slave Onesimus. The apostle’s message would have had extra force behind it because he knew Philemon personally. Paul had explained the gospel to Philemon and had witnessed the profound result: new life blossoming in a once-dead heart (Philemon 1:19). Paul knew that conversion is nothing to trifle with, but that it should be honored and fostered.
So Paul made a request. He wanted Philemon to forgive Onesimus, to accept the slave as a brother in Christ, and to consider sending Onesimus back to Paul, as the apostle found him useful in God’s service (1:11–14). Paul did not minimize Onesimus’s sin. This was not some kind of cheap grace that Paul asked Philemon to offer. No, there was sacrifice required in this request, and because of that, Paul approached the topic with gentleness and care (1:21). His letter to Philemon presents in full color the beautiful and majestic transition from slavery to kinship that comes as a result of Christian love and forgiveness.
The letters to the Colossians and Philemon should be considered together. Both letters are written from “Paul and Timothy” (Col 1:1, Philemon 1). The returning runaway slave Onesimus, now a believer, is the central figure in Philemon. Paul is sending him back (Philemon 12) in Philemon, and in Colossians he is also returning (Col 4:9-10). This seems to indicate that Colossians and Philemon were written and delivered together to the church in Collosse, along with a letter we no longer have to the Laodiceans (Col 4:16). Other characters appear in the same geographic location in both books: Archippus (Philemon 2, Col 4:17) is greeted, while Luke (Philemon 24, Col 4:14), Aristarchus (Philemon 24, Col 4:10), and Epaphras (Philemon 24, Col 4:12) are with Paul. Mark (Philemon 24) is also with Paul, but may come later to Colosse (Col 4:10).
Colossians is written while Paul is in prison (Col 4:10, 4:18). The bearer of the letters was apparently Tychicus (Col 4:7), and the collection of letters he was carrying probably included Ephesians (Eph 6:21-22). Mark has obviously now been reconciled with Paul, unlike the situation at the beginning of Paul’s second missionary journey (Acts 15:26-31). Demas (Philemon 24) is still with Paul, though later he will “forsake” him (2 Tim 4:10). The question as to the date of the letter thus comes down to which prison – Caeserea or Rome? It is impossible to be dogmatic, but the fact that Paul has few Jewish companions (Col 4:11) seems more likely in Rome than in Caesarea, which is in the land of Israel. Also, the work and gospel of Mark is connected to Rome, and since Mark is with Paul when this letter is written, a Roman origin seems more likely. This would place the letters of Colossians and Philemon at the same time, around 61-62 A.D.
What was the acceptance rate of Titus as canonical by those early and later witnesses of the text? Marcion is the first figure to alert us to the presence of Titus in his early second century canon. He rejects the book however as he does with all the pastoral epistles as some of the text is irreconcilable. Marcion infact throws out all of the pastoral Epistles. Irenaeus onwards we have a continuous chain of acceptance without question. Why was it not used by Polycarp or Ignatius? Perhaps they simply didn’t need it for the letters they wrote that we have preserved.
See this table for a list on who recognised each book as canonical (key(s) below)
It does not mention every Church Father who used the New Testament books, this is just a survey of some of the most known
- Ig = Ignatius
- Po = Polycarp
- M = Marcion
- Va = Valentinus
- JM = Justin Martyr
- IR = Irenaeus
- C = Clement of Alexandria
- T = Tertullian
- MC = Muratorian Canon
- O = Origen
- E = Eusebius
- CS = Codex Sinaiticus
- A = Athanasius
- D = Didymus the Blind
- P = Peshitta (Bible of the Syrian church)
- V = Latin vulgate
taken from ntcanon.org/table.shtml
Jesus, nor the apostles, nor Polycarp, Clement or Irenaeus left much for us to work with in terms of a formal “ok so here’s the rules of determination”. But what they did do is inform us that they had an informative way of knowing what was truth and what was not. And the truth had to have a connection to eyewitnesses.
For we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.2 Peter 1:16
2“So now we must choose a replacement for Judas from among the men who were with us the entire time we were traveling with the Lord Jesus— from the time he was baptized by John until the day he was taken from us. Whoever is chosen will join us as a witness of Jesus’ resurrectionActs 1:21-22
One of the soldiers, however, pierced his side with a spear, and immediately blood and water flowed out. (This report is from an eyewitness giving an accurate account. He speaks the truth so that you also may continue to believe.)John 19:34-35
“God raised Jesus from the dead, and we are all witnesses of this.Acts 2:32
You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead. And we are witnesses of this fact!Acts 3:15
We are witnesses of these things and so is the Holy Spirit, who is given by God to those who obey him.”Acts 5:32
“And we apostles are witnesses of all he did throughout Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a cross,but God raised him to life on the third day. Then God allowed him to appear, not to the general public, but to us whom God had chosen in advance to be his witnesses. We were those who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. And he ordered us to preach everywhere and to testify that Jesus is the one appointed by God to be the judge of all—the living and the dead. He is the one all the prophets testified about, saying that everyone who believes in him will have their sins forgiven through his name.”Acts 10:39-43
[Paul] With Christ as my witness, I speak with utter truthfulness. My conscience and the Holy Spirit confirm it.Romans 9:1
I passed on to you what was most important and what had also been passed on to me. Christ died for our sins, just as the Scriptures said. He was buried, and he was raised from the dead on the third day, just as the Scriptures said. He was seen by Peter and then by the Twelve. After that, he was seen by more than 500 of his followers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died.Then he was seen by James and later by all the apostles. Last of all, as though I had been born at the wrong time, I also saw him. For I am the least of all the apostles. In fact, I’m not even worthy to be called an apostle after the way I persecuted God’s church.1 Corinthians 15:3-9
And now, a word to you who are elders in the churches. I, too, am an elder and a witness to the sufferings of Christ. And I, too, will share in his glory when he is revealed to the whole world. As a fellow elder, I appeal to you:1 Peter 5:1
Caius the church father in 200AD writes how they knew of two fake letters circulating in Paul’s name.
“There are also in circulation one to the Laodiceans, and another to the Alexandrians, forged under the name of Paul, and addressed against the heresy of Marcion; and there are also several others which cannot be received into the Catholic Church, for it is not suitable for gall to be mingled with honey”.Caius, Church leader
How did they work this out? How did they know what was the divinely inspired word of God? We can thank Eusebius for beginning to help us clear up this territory. In his Ecclesiastical History, he mentions his four categories of books with descriptions as to why some were accepted, disputed, rejected and seen as heretical from his survey of the church fathers history going back and into the apostolic age. This is the structure we will take when we assess the books of the New Testament and this includes investigating the books the church rejected.
So these summarised standards are these:
- Apostolicity. Was it written by an Apostle or one of their colleagues?
- Orthodoxy. Was the teaching orthodox? Consistent with Old Testament and the Christian worldview?
- Catholicity. Not the Catholic Church (that doesn’t exist for a few hundred years yet!)… This meaning widely agreed upon
- Relevance. Was it relevant to the church? Or does it seem completely detached from what we already have in the canon? (I.e. everything Gnostic)
- Inspiration. Did it have the ring of truth, the life changing power within?
We see in 2 Peter 3:15-17 accredit the works of Paul as scriptures, and Peter, being the lead apostle, can testify to apostolicity. Elsewhere in Paul’s letters, Paul has called himself inline with the apostles (Romans 1:1 for example) and several times in 1 Corinthians. In 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 we see Paul associate himself with the Apostles as those to whom the risen Jesus appeared to. So Paul is an apostle and in Galatians 2:6 the Apostles Peter and James reviewed what Paul was preaching and added nothing to his message, meaning what he was preaching was inline with them.
We have no early opposition to the authorship of Philemon, nor any early documents to say this document was not written by Paul or is heretical. Marcion uses the document but, as always, he modifies it to his own desires. So we stand by Paul being the author and fulfilling the apostolic criteria based on the best historical data we have pointed in his direction.
As stated on the exchange in the beginning of Galatians 2, Paul got his message verified by the apostles. Paul also has a consistent message in Philemon with Jesus. The forgiveness of a brother in Christ and embracing them in the faith is a common Christoligical statement.
There has been no challenge by the early church fathers to Philemon. There is a strong church agreement on from Tertullian all the way through the church fathers (Even Peter as we’ve discussed affirms Paul’s writings as scripture), and in the Muratorian fragment.
The relevance in a culture where slaves and worker divides were still very much a thing, Paul here is telling his friend Philemon to bridge this socio-status gap and treat Onesimus as his equal. There are cultures today which need to hear this message, to bridge these gaps beyond slavery such as class, race and other such divisions. This letter may be personal but speaks to the wider relevance on the early church and the churches of today.
Paul is called by God (Acts 9), claims in many of his letters to be sent as an Apostle for Christ Jesus (Romans 1 for example). He has the mandate also of the Apostles (Galatians 1:17 – 2:6; 2 Peter 3:15-17) and is considered by the church Canonical, with it being in all the Christian lists of New Testament books. They could additionally as with all New Testament books recognise the ring of truth within that shows the readers of the text that it is inspired. Philemon falls into this bracket. Paul claims in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 that all scripture is God breathed (and elsewhere we argue for Paul’s authorship of that letter) and Paul, also being the author of this letter is sharing God’s instruction as God’s messenger to us (Acts 9:15). So if Paul is the author, then authority and inspiration to which Paul is given on behalf of God is one we should follow. Simply put, If Paul is the author, it is an inspired work.