by Harry Stueber

Philemon and Restorative Justice

Restorative justice is a contemporary movement seeking to reform present judicial systems away from a punitive approach to justice focused on the restoration of relationships where crimes have been committed. [1]

According to Braithwaite, the concept of restorative justice is a contemporary movement of reform which

… is not simply a way of reforming the criminal justice system, it is a way of transforming the entire legal system, our family lives, our conduct in the workplace, our practice of politics. Its vision is of a holistic change in the way we do justice in the world.[2]

Professor Christopher D. Marshall of Victoria University, Wellington New Zealand, defines restorative justice

as a way of responding to wrongdoing and conflict that seeks, above all else, to repair the harm suffered, and to do so, where possible, by actively involving the affected parties in mutual dialogue and decision-making about their needs and obligations.[3]

He persuasively argues that restorative justice has much in common with Christian understandings of justice, stating,

the first Christians experienced in Christ and lived out in their faith communities an understanding of justice as a power that heals, restores, and reconciles, rather than hurts, punishes, and kills, and that this reality ought to shape and direct a Christian contribution to the criminal justice debate today.[4]

In Compassionate Justice, Marshall explores the two great parables of Jesus—the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son—noting how they embody the ideals of restorative justice. Intriguingly, in Beyond Retribution, in which he looks at Paul’s concept of justice, he does not cite Philemon at all. Neither is Philemon mentioned in Compassionate Justice.[5] With this gap in mind, in this paper I will look at Philemon, showing that Marshall’s claim concerning Christian views of justice is upheld in Paul’s response to the situation between Philemon and Onesimus. From this short letter, we get a great feel for the Apostle Paul’s perspective on justice within the first-century Christian community in the Greco-Roman world.

The Situation

While some in the past have disputed Philemon as mere romantic fiction,[6] there is today little dispute over the authenticity of Philemon; it being the shortest of Paul’s undisputed letters—335 words long and arranged in one chapter of twenty–five verses.[7] Due to the reference to Onesimus in Colossians 4:9, we can be confident that Philemon is situated in Colossae. He here hosts a church, likely with his wife Apphia (Phlm 1). While Paul is clearly in prison at the time of writing (Phlm 1, 9, 10, 13, 23), scholarship is split over whether Paul is imprisoned in Ephesus between AD 53–55 or Rome in the first two years the 60s.[8] Although I prefer the Roman hypothesis that Philemon was written from the imprisonment which ends Luke’s narrative in Acts 28:29–31, deciding between the two is not important for this discussion. Although, if Rome is the point of writing, the great effort required to travel between the two cities (1,930 km/1,200 mi), rather than the shorter distance between Colossae and Ephesus (160 km/100 mi), does give more prominence to the sacrifices involved in Paul’s efforts at reconciliation between Philemon and Onesimus.[9] The letter recipients are clearly named: Philemon, Apphia, Archippus, and the church that meets in the home of Philemon. While attempts have been made to interpret Philemon as an example of deliberative rhetoric,[10] with Dunn, I prefer to see the epistle as a typical personal letter, perhaps a letter of recommendation, or even better, a letter of mediation.[11]

From the letter, we can deduce that Philemon is a Christian, a gospel worker, and a man of prayer who is much loved by Paul (v. 1). He is likely a convert of Paul directly, although he may have converted through Epaphras during the establishment of the Colossae church which likely came about as a result of Paul’s Ephesus’ ministry (v. 19; Col 1:6; Acts 19:1–10).[12] Assuming “your house” in v. 1 refers to Philemon’s home, he is a wealthy man who owns a substantial property including a guest room (vv. 1, 22), slaves (v. 16), and in which he hosts a church (v. 1). Although wealthy, he has been and is generous in his love toward other Christians (vv. 5–6) and toward Paul (vv. 7, 17–20, 22).

One of the slaves he owns is Onesimus (v. 16).[13] It is difficult to psychologise Philemon’s relationship with Onesimus before his departure to Paul. Onesimus’ departure could suggest Philemon is a harsh master. Conversely, Onesimus may have been a particularly difficult slave to manage as he is described as “useless” in v. 11.[14] It is feasible Philemon is a generally good fellow, as the letter indicates, who had done his best to manage Onesimus. Whichever is the case, for some reason, Onesimus and Philemon have fallen out, and the slave leaves looking for help.

The occasion for the problem between master and slave is found in vv. 8–20. Paul writes not to command Philemon, but to appeal to him out of love, on behalf of Onesimus (vv. 8–9). Onesimus has left his master, Philemon, for reasons unknown; a “prodigal slave” we might call him. There is a range of views on his doing so and connecting with Paul.

The traditional view is the fugitivus hypothesis which holds that Onesimus was a runaway slave (servus fugitivus, cf. Justinian, Inst. 1.8.1). For some reason, he has fled Philemon and Colossae to Rome (or Ephesus),[15] has contacted Paul in prison,[16] and has become a Christian under Paul. Paul has sent him back with the letter.[17]

A second possibility is the amicus domini hypothesis (“friend of the master”) proposed by Peter Lampe.[18] Lampe argues Onesimus left Philemon to find an amicus domini, a “friend of the master” to help resolve the differences between Philemon and Onesimus. Such a situation is found in Roman law and correspondence.[19] If so, Onesimus is not a runaway slave in the sense of a fugitive but has legitimately left Philemon seeking a means of resolving a dispute with his master. Perhaps knowing Paul from previous visits, he may have considered Paul the ideal person to act as mediator. This idea has been critiqued as lacking sufficient legal evidence. However, it does explain how Onesimus found Paul. As such, a number of scholars find this the best explanation for the situation.[20]

A third main suggestion is the “support for Paul hypothesis.” As in the case of the aid given to Paul by the Philippians (Phil 2:25–30; 4:10–20), Wansink suggests Onesimus was sent to Paul to assist him in prison.[21]However, there is evidence in Philemon that in some way Onesimus has wronged Philemon; particularly vv. 18–19. Further, unlike Philippians which explicitly speaks of the Philippians sending Epaphroditus with support (Phil 2:25–30; 4:10–19), the letter says nothing about his being sent to Paul to help him. Critically, as Onesimus became a Christian under Paul and was formerly useless to Philemon, it is hardly likely that Philemon, who has closely supported Paul in the past, would have sent a “useless” person to support Paul. Such an act would seem more an act of sabotage! The evidence of the letter does not support this option. Other even more unlikely possibilities include: that Onesimus and Philemon are blood brothers and Onesimus seeks out Paul for help in resolving their family differences; or, that Philemon sent Onesimus as his emissary.[22]

The most likely option is the first. Early writers like John Chrysostom and Jerome who lived in a Roman world of slaves and masters took it this way.[23] The parallel letter of Pliny the Younger to Sabinianus is different in a variety of ways.[24] As Witherington writes, “The legal language of wronging Philemon (v. 18) seems to suggest a more serious situation than just a domestic dispute over something (e.g., that the slave has been indolent or useless).”[25] As such, I will work with the hypothesis that Onesimus is a runaway slave who knows Paul from his encounters with Philemon and seeks him out to help him.[26] The reasons for his departure are unclear. However, if he was of little use as a slave, he may have experienced serious hard work as a punishment.[27] Yet, even with such treatment, slaves would not often flee due to strict laws against flight and the subsequent dangers involved and the careful planning required.[28] As such, it is likely that “Onesimus may have acted out of sudden and sheer despair … mutual disappointment, hatred and contempt between master and slave may have been so intense that, just as among estranged married couples, coexistence under one roof was no longer humanly bearable.”[29]

Space does not permit a full discussion of Roman slavery and the potential issues which concern the situation.[30] However, assuming a fugitive reading, some comments are appropriate. As Philemon’s slave, Onesimus was not only Philemon’s property but was a member of his household (cf. Col 3:18–4:1; Eph 5:21–6:9) (see Aristotle, Pol. 1.2). As such, he could not leave without permission. As his slave, Philemon was legally allowed “to mistreat or kill his slave without real repercussions.”[31] Indeed, “[t]he alternative of life or death rested solely with Philemon, and slaves were crucified for far lighter offences than his.”[32] As a fugitive, a warrant for the arrest of the slave could be taken out containing such things as the details of the slave’s appearance, clothing, possessions, and the promise of reward.[33] The types of punishment inflicted on a runaway could include Onesimus being “resold to a harsher master, scourged, branded, cut, made to wear an iron collar, crucified, thrown to beasts, or killed by some other means.”[34] Barth and Blanke note that “[s]ometimes punishments were performed in public; a slave might be beaten and chased across the market by fellow slaves.”[35] They also suggest that some were thrown to the wild beasts or forced to become gladiators, while crucifixion was used for slaves who killed their master.[36] Some slave traders assisted runaways to gain their freedom or resale.[37] If he had harbored Philemon’s property (Onesimus), Paul himself was in danger of being accused of harbouring a fugitive which was seen as theft.[38] As he was in prison, “the last thing Paul needed was to give his own captors another reason to prosecute and possibly execute him.”[39] With the owner’s consent, a third party could assist a slave to purchase (peculium) his or her freedom.[40]

Assuming Onesimus is a fugitive, we have an intriguing judicial situation. If Paul retains Onesimus, he becomes guilty of harbouring a known criminal and theft against Philemon. Onesimus is a criminal who is “stealing” from his master by leaving without permission and depriving his master of his services (even if he isn’t much use while there). Paul, in a Roman prison at the time, would have been well within his legal rights to report Onesimus to the authorities and have him punished accordingly. The option of punitive justice is wide open to him. However, Paul opts for restorative justice.

Paul’s Response—Restorative Justice

The first thing to note is that Paul does not come to Philemon from a position of authority and domination. He chooses to speak to him not as an Apostle of Christ Jesus, but as Christ’s prisoner. He uses a creative play on ideas—he is bound to his prison guards’ patterns of dealing with conflict (v. 1). He describes Philemon in the most glowing terms: as beloved and as a coworker, a term reserved for his closest fellow gospel ministers including Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke in v. 24.[41] Although Paul addresses Apphia, Archippus, and the church in the home, from this point on Philemon is his target. In v. 3, he offers all the recipients his common binitarian grace and peace greeting (eight times in Paul). With the appeal for reconciliation in the body of the letter, the greeting has real power—may the Lord generate in you grace to receive back Onesimus as a brother; may the Lord establish peace between you (and so with me).

Paul’s thanksgiving in vv. 4–7 is very personal and glowing—he thanks God always as he remembers Philemon in prayer. The basis of his gratitude is Philemon’s love and faith toward God and all God’s people. He thus appeals to Philemon based on his prior commitment to restoration. In v. 6, he anticipates the appeal to come, praying for Philemon that he would be even more effective in the fellowship coming from his faith. He reminds Philemon of the great joy he has had with him due to his generous ministry toward the saints.

The body of the appeal is found in vv. 8–21. Paul begins specifically stating his refusal to use domination to achieve restoration, even though he is not without the courage to do so. Rather, he appeals for love’s sake—although his purpose is a restoration of the relationship with his runaway slave, he will not force this on him. A core principle of restorative justice is the willing participation of the victim (in this case Philemon and Apphia) with the perpetrator (Onesimus). Clearly, Onesimus is an eager participant, coming with the letter to hopefully find restoration with his owner. However, Philemon may need convincing—this is what Paul seeks.

It is unclear whether Paul describes himself in v. 9 as “old” or an “ambassador,” although, in my view, the evidence favours the former. Either way, it speaks of his authority, in a culture which honored its elders. However, he refuses to appeal for Onesimus using his authority as a means of convincing Philemon.

“Whose father I became in my imprisonment” strongly suggests that Onesimus has become a Christian in prison (v. 10, cf. 1 Cor 4:15; Phil 2:22). Now useful to Paul, he is sending him back. “Sending my very heart” uses the plural of splanchnon, a word which speaks literally of the viscera, one’s gut. The associated verb splanchnizomai is frequently used in the Synoptic Gospels of Jesus’ compassion toward those in need. It also invokes the idea of being moved deeply in one’s inner being on behalf of the other—deep affection or compassion. It also recalls the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:33, further below). Here, it speaks of Paul’s deep affection for his new convert. In this description of Onesimus as “his very heart or affection,” Paul here embodies the kind of attitude that he wants Philemon to embody toward his returning slave.

In vv. 13–14, although Paul would have loved to retain Onesimus’ services, he states his refusal to assume to do so. Rather, he wants any such service to be a result of Philemon’s willingness rather than compulsion. Again, we see Paul refuse to exert any authority over Philemon, despite his position. Further, he refuses to exploit Onesimus knowing he must face justice for his crime. However, Paul hopes not for punishment but restoration. He also does not want to hold onto Onesimus while his situation with his master is unresolved.

In vv. 15–16, Paul expresses his high view of the sovereignty of God seen in his penchant to find God at work in the worst situations (e.g., Rom 8:28), and suggests that this separation of slave and master has had a positive outcome; that Onesimus would return to Philemon forever. The use of aiōnios speaks not merely of their restoration in the present but plays on the idea of eternal relationship. Returning as a Christian, whatever their relationship, their relationship is now eternal as he returns as a beloved brother in Christ.

Verse 17 is effectively an appeal that Philemon not apply punitive justice to Onesimus, although, as his master severely wronged under Roman law, he has every right to do so. Noticeably, Paul urges him to “receive him as you would receive me.” Paul here invokes memories of being welcomed into Philemon’s home with lavish hospitality and generosity, recalling v. 7. Indeed, his relationship with Philemon is that of brothers (vv. 7, 16, 20). Onesimus is to be received as if he is the Apostle himself. Seeing Onesimus in this way is an astonishing statement, blowing apart notions of status and rank. In Philemon’s eyes, aside from Christ himself, Paul is of the highest status, the Apostle to the Gentiles, who gives his life in service to the gospel, and through whom he came to know the Lord. To receive Onesimus back as Paul himself is not to welcome him as a slave in the household, but to welcome him as an esteemed brother and superior, greeted warmly and with lavish hospitality. Paul does not use punitive language in any sense, but restorative justice where an apology is given, forgiveness is reciprocated, the relationship reconciled and going as far as the victim treated as an honoured leader and family member.

The warm reception resonates with the father’s welcome to the Prodigal Son in Luke 15. Despite his having every right under Jewish law to punish the son, the father welcomes him back with feasting, celebration, and great honour. Paul invites Philemon to do the same here for his Prodigal Slave, now turned brother.

There is still, however, the problem of possible costs caused by Onesimus’ flight, which is dealt with in verses 18–19 where Paul offers to pay any charges accrued. It is not clear what these are aside from the cost of his lost service; although, if he was “useless” as stated earlier, these might not be great. Perhaps he had taken money and/or property when he fled.[42] In reality, we do not know.[43] Paul here calls to mind the Good Samaritan.[44] Unlike the priest and Levite, he helped the man by the road. At great personal cost, he used his oil and wine for healing. He left aside his agenda and gave time and effort to transport the injured man to an inn. He paid two denarii for his accommodation, and offered to return and pay any further cost. Here, Paul functions as a Good Samaritan figure in the life of Onesimus; he was “lying beside the road” so to speak, and Paul has restored him and is paying any charges. At a deeper theological level, as with the Good Samaritan who emulates Christ (even if we should not allegorise him as such), Paul functions as a Christ-figure, offering to pay the costs incurred. As Christ paid “the wages of sin” for transgressing humanity (Rom 6:23), Paul will pay the consequences of Onesimus’. By writing with his own hand, Paul effectively signs an open cheque—a statement of trust and commitment. Paul again embodies the attitude he wants from Philemon; that he would pay the cost of his losses, that he would emulate the Father in the Prodigal, and welcome his slave home.

In v. 19, Paul bases his appeal not on his apostolic authority, but on their past relationship, where Philemon, like Onesimus, has come to Christ through him (v. 19). He expresses his desire to come and experience benefit and refreshment—both as he stays with Philemon, but more, through Philemon’s warm reception of his brother in Christ, Onesimus. Paul ends his appeal for Onesimus in v. 21 with a statement of his confidence that Philemon will yield to his appeal, and do even more.

Paul then speaks of his hope to come and stay with Philemon. If this was written from Rome in the early 60s, this is an astounding statement, considering that Paul had earlier expressed his plan not to go east from Rome, but to head further west to evangelise Spain (Rom 15:24, 28). It is possible, then, that Paul put off his great dream of completing his mission to the ends of the earth in the west to travel east to Colossae to resolve this issue. If so, we see through the letter the extraordinary lengths he was prepared to go to ensure that the health of the Christian communities. We also see this sort of commitment in Philippians (see also Phil 1:19–26). One of the great challenges of restorative justice is the cost it places on those who seek to facilitate it. The sort of commitment Paul makes is what can bring it to pass.


This short analysis demonstrates many of the core principles of restorative justice. Although a justice issue from former times, we have a perpetrator of a crime (Onesimus) and in the first-century social setting, a victim (Philemon). Paul acts as a facilitator of reconciliation; he is prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to encourage restoration. We get insight into the essential attitudes that facilitate restorative justice—love, compassion, repentance, forgiveness, hospitality, grace, honour, welcome, and peace-making. We see how restorative justice can work, as an offender turns from their crime and seeks forgiveness. Then, the victim, despite being on the side of the law and in a position of moral and judicial dominance and power, does not merely forgive, but refuses to inflict punishment on an offender. We see a third party acting as a facilitator of reconciliation (s.a. Phil 4:3); Paul working with the offender and urging the victim to forgive and restore relationships. He does so at great cost, changing his travel plans and prepared to pay any additional costs. We see him emulate Jesus who acts to restore human relationships to God by not punishing sinful humanity but taking that punishment on humanity’s behalf to restore the relationship of Creator and the created. If the tradition that Onesimus later became Bishop of Ephesus is to be believed, Paul’s efforts were likely successful.[45] In line with the NT vision, we should all be inspired to work for restorative justice in our Christian churches, and in the wider communities in which we participate.

Mark Keown is the co-editor of Stimulus and New Testament Lecturer at Laidlaw College. 

[1] Pete Willis and Barbara Tudor, The Pocket Guide to Restorative Justice (London and Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley, 2008), 13 succinctly note, “Western-style justice carefully measures the ‘seriousness’ of the offence, based on the harm caused, and inflicts and equivalent amount of harm on the offender through punishment: original harm + punishment = harm doubled ... restorative justice offers the victim and offender an opportunity to close the gap between them through communication, allowing as much of the harm to be repaired as possible and relationships to be restored: original harm + restoration = harm reduced or repaired.”

[2] John Braithwaite, “Principles of Restorative Justice,” in Restorative Justice and Criminal Justice: Competing or Reconcilable Paradigms, ed. Andrew von Hirsch, Julian V. Roberts, Anthony Bottoms, and Kent Roach, Mara Schiff (Oxford and Portland, Oreg.: Hart Publishing, 2003), 1.

[3] Christopher D. Marshall, Compassionate Justice: An Interdisciplinary Dialogue with Two Gospel Parables on Law, Crime, and Restorative Justice (Eugene, Oreg.: Cascade Books, 2012), 5.

[4] Christopher D. Marshall, Beyond Retribution: A New Testament Vision for Justice, Crime, and Punishment (Grand Rapids; Auckland; Sydney, Mich.: Eerdmans; Lime Grove House Publishing, 2001), 33.

[5] Philemon is not referenced in the Scripture Indices in these books nor in Christopher D. Marshall, The Little Book of Biblical Justice: A Fresh Approach to the Bible’s Teachings on Justice, The Little Books of Justice and Peacebuilding (Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 1989).

[6] F. C. Baur, Paul, the Apostle of Jesus Christ: His Life and Work, His Epistles and His Doctrine (London: Williams & Norgate, 1875), 84 believed Philemon was a second century “Christian romance serving to convey a genuine Christian idea,” explaining how to deal with slavery. This is rejected today.

[7] The mention of Timothy in the prescript (see also 2 Cor 1:1; Phil 1:1; Col 1:1; 1 Thess 1:1; 2 Thess 1:1) can indicate he is co-sender rather than co-writer (e.g. F. F. Bruce, The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians (NICNT; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans., 1984), 205; S. M. Ehorn, Philemon (EEC; Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2011), no page, Logos edition. J. D. G. Dunn, The Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon: A Commentary on the Greek Text (NIGTC; Grand Rapids, MI; Carlisle: Eerdmans; Paternoster, 1996), 311) shows openness to the idea that Timothy may be the author on Paul’s behalf, or a co-author. B. Witherington, III, The Letters to Philemon, the Colossians, and the Ephesians: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on the Captivity Epistles (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 53 sees Timothy as co-sender and possibly amanuensis.

[8] See on the possibilities of Colossae (AD 57–59), E. Lohmeyer, Der Kolosser- und der Philemonbrief (MeyerK 9, 13th Edn; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1964), 172–73. However, this is not really taken seriously today.

[9] On Ephesus as the point of writing see E. Lohse, Colossians and Philemon (tr. W. R. Poehlmann and R. J. Karris; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1971), 166–67; R. P. Martin, Colossians and Philemon (NCB, 3rd ed; London: Oliphants, 1981), 30; N. T. Wright, Colossians and Philemon: An Introduction and Commentary (TNTC 12. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1986), 170; M. F. Bird, Are You the One Who Is to Come? The Historical Jesus and the Messianic Question (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009), 15; Ehorn, Philemon, ‘Dating,’ no page, Logos edition. For my views on provenance, see Mark J. Keown, Exploring the New Testament (Lexham Press), forthcoming. See also Some who consider Rome as the point of origin include F. F. Bruce, The Epistles, 193–96; O’Brien, Colossians, Philemon, xlix–liv; Dunn, The Epistles, 41; Witherington, The Letters, 22–24; D. J. Moo, The Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon (PNTC; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008, 368–69).

[10] S. S. Bartchy, ‘Philemon, Epistle to’ in ABD, 5.306 who sees vv. 1–7 as the exordium “for setting up the fitting mood and winning the favor of the hearer through praise and then linking that praise to the subject at hand.” He sees vv. 8–16 as ‘the main body or proof: for making the aforementioned appeals to honor and advantage.” He sees the peroratio in vv. 17–22. Witherington, The Letters, 19, similarly. arranges it his way: Prescript and Greeting (vv. 1–3); Thanksgiving Prayer/Exordium (vv. 4–7); Propositio —an Appeal in and on the Basis of Love (vv. 8–11); Probatio —the Rationale for the Return (vv. 12–16).

[11] Dunn, The Epistles, 308. In my view, there are three sections: 1) Prescript (Address and Greeting): a) Author/senders (v. 1a–b); b) Recipients (v. 1c–2); c) Greeting (v. 3); 2) Thanksgiving, Prayer, and Assurance: 1) Thanksgiving (vv. 4–5); b) Prayer (vv. 6); c) Assurance (v. 7); 3) Letter Appeal: Receive Onesimus back as a brother (vv. 8–21); 4) Subscript: a) Travel plans (v. 22); b) Final greetings (v. 23–24); c) Salutation (v. 25).

[12] “… your owing me your own self” could point in either direction.

[13] Some have attempted to argue Onesimus is not Philemon’s slave. However, this is unconvincing (e.g. A. D. Callahan, Embassy of Onesimus: The Letter of Paul to Philemon (Valley Forge: Trinity, 1997).

[14] Phyrigian slaves had a very negative reputation (see J. B. Lightfoot, Saint Paul’s Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon. 8th ed. Classic Commentaries on the Greek New Testament. London; New York: Macmillan and Co., 1886), 310 n. 1, 2; Witherington, The Letters, 28 n. 72).

[15] Rome is a natural place to flee to with its big population giving ample opportunity for hiding (Lightfoot, Saint Paul’s, 310 n. 4).

[16] Ehorn, Philemon, ‘Occasion and Setting,’ no page, Logos edition suggests four proposals as to how he met Paul: a) he ran into Epaphras who recognized him and took him to Paul; 2) he sought out Paul’s charity in his difficult situation; c) he had a change of conscience and sought Paul’s help; 4) he was captured and imprisoned.

[17] Ehorn, Philippians, ‘Occasion and Setting,’ no page, Logos edition notes a range of scholars holding this view including Vincent, Lightfoot, Jülicher, Lohmeyer, Lohse, Stuhlmacher, O’Brien, Bruce, Witherington, and Moo. Ehorn notes most Romans proponents prefer this option. See also M. Barth and H. Blanke, The Letter to Philemon: A New Translation with Notes and Commentary, Critical Eerdmans Commentary (Grand Rapids; Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2000).

[18] P. Lampe, “Keine ‘Sklavenflucht’ des Onesimus,” ZNW 76 (1985) 133–37. See also R. Goodenough, “Paul and Onesimus,” HTR 22 (1929) 181–83; Fitzmyer, Philemon, pp. 17–24, Dunn, The Epistles, 301–308.

[19] Ehorn notes Justinian, Dig.;;; and Pliny the Younger, Epist. 9.21, cf. 9.24.

[20] Ehorn, Philemon, “Amicus Domini Hypothesis,” no page, notes these scholars who prefer this option. Dunn, Fitzmyer, I. H. Marshall, and Bird. Ehorn himself prefers this option. See also B. M. Rapske, “The Prisoner Paul in the Eyes of Onesimus,” NTS 37.2 (1991): 187–203. Ehorn notes most Ephesus proponents prefer this option. However, Witherington, The Letters, 17–29 critiques this view noting the early Christian writers saw Onesimus as a fugitive, rejects the parallel with Pliny’s letter to Sabinianus, notes Onesimus faces more trouble than a mere amicus domini situation. Barth and Blanke, Paul’s Letter to Philemon, 28–29 notes that a runaway could seek this kind of help, or go to a temple for refuge.

[21] C. S. Wansink, Chained in Christ: The Experience and Rhetoric of Paul’s Imprisonments (JSNTSup 130; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996), 198–99.

[22] Moo, The Letters, 364–69 notes these other ideas. Callahan has argued that Philemon and Onesimus are physical brothers who have quarrelled and Paul is seeking to reconcile them. However, this is very unlikely (see Moo’s critique). However, this is very unlikely as ‘brother’ and ‘slave’ are used consistently. See Allen Dwight Callahan, “Paul’s Epistle to Philemon: Toward an Alternative Argumentum,” HTR 86 (1993), 357–76; idem, Embassy of Onesimus: The Letter of Paul to Philemon (The New Testament in Context; Valley Forge, Pa.: Trinity Press International, 1997). Sara Winter has argued that Philemon has sent Onesimus, his slave, to Paul as his emissary. Paul writes to request that Onesimus stay with Paul as a freeman. However, as with Wansink’s idea, this fails to account for the problems between Onesimus and Philemon in the letter (see Sara C. Winter, “Paul’s Letter to Philemon,” NTS 33 (1987), 1–15. See also, sometimes in modified form, Schenk, “Der Brief des Paulus an Philemon,” 3466–75; R. E. Glaze Jr., “Onesimus: Runaway or Emissary?” TTE 54 (1996), 3–11).

[23] John Chrysostom, Homilies on Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Thessalonians, Timothy, Titus, and Philemon in NPNF 1.1, 545; Jerome, “The Letters of St. Jerome,” in NPNF 2.6, 101.

[24] Witherington, The Letters, 28–30 notes the differences: it speaks not of a slave-master relationship but that of a patron-client relationship; Pliny letter includes a deprecatio, a plea for mercy, however, there is none in Philemon; there is no reference to repentance in Philemon; Pliny’s is a personal letter, whereas Philemon is written to a wider group; Onesimus is in more trouble than an amicus domini situation; the situation seems more grave than a mere dispute (Onesimus could have gained help from other Christians in the region, he travels to Rome); Onesimus appears to owe Philemon something; Phrygian slaves had a reputation for being unsatisfactory or even useless, which is a term Paul uses here, and in fact the name Onesimus was used of Phrygian slaves.

[25] Witherington, The Letters, 28.

[26] See Moo, The Letters, 368 who writes, “But we lean slightly toward the runaway slave hypothesis because it better explains two points in the letter.”

[27] Barth and Blanke, The Letter to Philemon, 15–16.

[28] Barth and Blanke, The Letter to Philemon, 27. They note that runaways were shunned and were considered “an outlaw who could be caught, starved, beaten, raped, and killed by anyone met anywhere, day or night.”

[29] Barth and Blanke, The Letter to Philemon, 145.

[30] See especially Barth and Blanke, The Letter to Philemon, 3–102.

[31] Witherington, The Letters, 27. Barth and Blanke, The Letter to Philemon, 15–16 notes that the most common form of punishment in daily life was beating with whips, goads, and sticks and this could be crippling. They also note that the one who returned of his own volition “might be whipped or beaten until he was a cripple; he might be branded on his head or arms; the skin under his feet might be burned off by glowing iron plates; a metallic collar with his name and address might be fixed around his throat; he might even be killed as a warning to fellow slaves” (p. 30).

[32] Lightfoot, Saint Paul’s, 312. He notes Juvenal, Sat. 6.219; Plautus, Mil. Glor. 2.4.19, Noli minitari: scio crucem futuram mihi sepulcrum: Ibi mei sunt majores siti, pater, avos, proavos, abavos.

[33] J. Fitzmyer, The Letter to Philemon (New York: Doubleday, 2000), 26–27.

[34] Witherington, The Letters, 27 who notes see P. Oxy. 14.1643. See also Barth and Blanke, The Letter to Philemon, 16 who notes branding was employed in the western Roman Empire particularly. Similarly, an iron collar may be put on the neck, or torture through exposure to cold, heat, or starvation.

[35] Barth and Blanke, The Letter to Philemon, 16 noting Seneca, De ira 3.3.6.

[36] Barth and Blanke, The Letter to Philemon, 16. One slave owner even fed his slaves to his luxury fish (pp. 16–17). The right to throw the slave to beasts was removed in AD 19 but reinstated under Nero in 61 (p. 21), around the time of Philemon’s writing.

[37] Witherington, The Letters, 27 noting D. Daube, “Dodges and Rackets in Roman Law,” Proceedings of the Classical Association 61 (1964): 28–30.

[38] Witherington, The Letters, 27 noting P. Oxy. 12.1422; Digest 11.4.1.

[39] Witherington, The Letters, 29.

[40] Witherington, The Letters, 27.

[41] Others labelled as co-workers include Prisca and Aquila (Rom 16:3), Urbanus (Rom 16:9), Timothy (Rom 16:21; 1 Thess 3:2), Titus (2 Cor 8:23), Epaphroditus (Phil 2:25), Euodia, Syntyche, and Clement (Phil 4:3), Aristarchus, Mark, and Justus (Col 4:10–11), (cf. 1 Cor 3:9; 2 Cor 1:24; 3 John 8).

[42] He may have used his accrued peculium, their payment, to pay for his trip to Rome (on the peculium, see Barth and Blanke, The Letter to Philemon, 14).

[43] See Barth, The Letter to Philemon, 13 notes that it was expensive to buy a slave and took a while to get the money back. With a useless slave, this was especially difficult. His absence would intensify this problem.

[44] This is not to say that Paul knows the Parable, however, in light of his close relationship with Luke (as evidenced in the we-passages, Acts 16:10–40; 20:6 – 21:16; 27:1 – 28:16) and engagement with Peter, James, and John in Jerusalem, he may well have (Gal 1:18 – 2:10).

[45] See Lorne A. McCune and Derek R. Brown, “Onesimus,” in the Lexham Bible Dictionary, no page, Logos Edition who note that the name Onesimus appears as Bishop of Constantinople (64–68), Boroea in Macedonia, and as is most commonly held, Ephesus (see Ignatius, Eph. 1:3; 2:1; 6.2). Lightfoot, Philemon, 316 n. 2 consider this possible and Bruce, Philemon, 201–202 not improbable.