Paul's Letter to Philemon
by Felix Just, S.J., Ph.D.

Introduction | Outline | Themes | Questions | Bibliography

[still under construction]


An Outline of Paul's Letter to Philemon:

Note: Since this letter is so short (only one "chapter"), references to Philemon normally indicate only the verse number(s), without a chapter number (e.g., not 1:3 but simply 3; not 1:6-8 but simply 6-8)

  1. Letter Opening (1-7)
    1. Sender & Recipient (1-2)
    2. Formulaic Greeting (3)
    3. Thanksgiving for Philemon's faith and love (4-7)
  2. Letter Body (8-22)
    1. Paul appeals to Philemon on behalf of Onesimus, who is now a beloved brother in Christ (8-16)
    2. Settling "accounts" between Philemon and Paul, which will settle Onesimus' account as well (17-22)
  3. Letter Closing (23-25)
    1. Individual Greetings from Epaphras and four co-workers in Christ (23-24)
    2. Final Blessing (25)

Major Issues and Themes 

The Historical Context: From Where, To Where, and When?

The Social Context: Slavery & Prisons in the Roman Era

Interpreting the Letter's Purpose:

Traditional Interpretation Contemporary Interpretation
Onesimus was a "runaway slave" who had fled from his master, Philemon. Onesimus, a slave, had been sent on a mission by his master, Philemon.
He was caught and put into the same jail as Paul by coincidence. Philemon had sent Onesimus to assist and care for Paul in jail.
Onesimus begged Paul to write to Philemon, to ask Philemon not to punish the runaway slave further after he is returned home. Paul takes the initiative in writing to Philemon, to ask Philemon to set the slave free so he can become a Christian missionary.
He was also a thief who had stolen something from his master, Philemon. He was not a thief, but probably a debt slave; thus Philemon would lose out if he set Onesimus free.

Onesimus' Later Life as a Christian:

Questions for Review and Discussion:

For Further Reading and Study 

Electronic New Testament Educational Resources

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This page was last updated on February 17, 2012
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