Who wrote Philemon? Paul is clearly the main voice behind the letter (1, 19).
For whom was it written?
Philemon is the primary recipient (verse 1). The letter to Philemon is unique in this sense: “it is the only genuinely personal, that is, person-to-person letter” throughout the New Testament (Dunn, Colossians and Philemon, 299).
Philemon’s church is likely located, again, in Colossae (Col 4.9, “Onesimus, who is one of you”). Tychicus and Onesimus likely carried the more “general” letter of Colossians along with this more personal letter to Philemon (Col 4.7-9).
That said, the letter was also written to “Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier—and to the church that meets in your home” (v. 2). Thus, while the letter is more personal—intended to address a specific matter between two individuals—the wider community is also in view making it a community affair.
Circumstances of Writing (place, date, and historical reconstruction)?
The circumstances of Philemon are closely tied to the circumstances of Colossians. In our study there, we concluded that Paul wrote Colossians during his first Roman imprisonment (Acts 28.11-31; Col 4.3, 18), approximately a.d. 60-61. Paul likely penned the Letter to Philemon during this same imprisonment (Phlmn 1, 10, 22; see also Col 4.9; Ephesians in the early to mid 50’s would be the best alternative).
While there are many attempts to reconstruct the historical situation behind the letter, only two views prove the most convincing. The traditional understanding is that Onesimus was a runaway slave who’d pilfered some goods from Philemon (18) and then bolted to Rome or Ephesus to take refuge. While in hideaway Onesimus, through some series of events, met up with Paul and became a follower of Christ (10-11). Paul therefore writes to Philemon in order to reconcile the runaway slave to his master.
In recent years a similar yet alternative theory has gained considerable support. Under this hypothesis, Onesimus was not fleeing from his master but was intentionally seeking out Paul, his master’s well respected friend, to mediate on his behalf. Scholars in favor of this view cite other first century parallels of the practice of slaves who would seek out a third party to plead their case in hopes that they might be restored to the offended master.
While the traditional understanding is plausible, I slightly favor the alternative theory, mainly because the traditional theory has to account for a chance run-in between Paul and Onesimus, which would be very unlikely if they were in fact in Rome. Secondly, I find the parallels of the practice of writing letters of mediation convincing. In addition, Paul’s failure to mention any remorse that Onesimus has for his theft or offense would be strange if he was in fact a runaway slave. This suggests to me that Onesimus may have felt that he wasn’t entirely at fault. As Moo states, “. . . as is often the case in such situations, there may be fault on both sides, and Paul may for strategic reasons be reluctant to suggest blame” (368; though Moo ultimately sides, albeit hesitantly, with the traditional understanding).
The difficulty becomes determining why Onesimus chose to travel all the way to distant Rome (nearly a thousand miles away), when he could have chosen someone much closer to Colossae. Though perhaps Onesimus, who had presumably been at many of the house church meetings, recognized Paul’s importance to Philemon and his community—He knew that appealing to Philemon’s Christian character would be the most effective way to restore their relationship.
This all makes things fun, because in interpreting the letter, we get to tell a story. We’ll do this in due time.
Purpose: Since Paul is so vague in his request, it’s hard to determine just what Paul wants from Philemon. The situation obviously called for delicate handling. But one thing is clear: Paul wants Philemon to “welcome him as you would welcome me” (17). Thus, the primary objective of the letter is to bring reconciliation to Philemon and Onesimus, to move their relationship to a new level, one in which they will relate to each other no longer as master and slave but as brothers in the Lord (16).
Yet notice also Paul’s (not so subtle) hint in verse 21, “Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask.” What do you suppose Paul expects him to do? Does he expect Philemon to set Onesimus free? Or that he’ll return him to Paul for ministry purposes? What?