The Structure and Purpose of the Letter to Philemon
and the Status of Onesimus

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You may wish to read Chiastic Structuring: An Introduction first.
Chiastic Structure
Two Genesis settings for Paul as an "old man"
Onesimus’ situation before and after the letter
(Individual footnotes are also hyperlinked)

John Knox (1) has argued that the central purpose of the letter to Philemon is to persuade the addressee to send Onesimus back to Paul. (Knox also argued unpersuavively that the one addressed was Archippus, not Philemon.) On this basis Philemon's forgiveness of Onesimus and his accepting him as a brother in Christ are, so to speak, only necessary preliminaries, with the unspoken further possibility of manumission. This same conclusion was reached by P. N. Harrison. (2) Théo Preiss (3) takes it as nearly indisputable that Paul clearly intends that Onesimus be sent back to him for the service of the Gospel. By demonstrating that Philemon has a chiastic structure and a likely Genesis background that takes the meaning of πρεσβύτης (v. 9) as "old man" seriously, the present essay is intended to add weight to Knox's contention.

1. The Chiastic Structure
        Below is the Letter to Philemon laid out chiastically, using the translation in E. Lohse's Hermeneia commentary (4) and modifying it where appropriate.

1 Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and  Timothy, the brother, to Philemon,    25 May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.
our beloved fellow worker (συνεργῷ),  24  as do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers (συνεργοί).
2-3 and Apphia our sister, and Archippus, our fellow soldier (συστρατιώτῃ) and the community in your house:  grace be with you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 23   Epaphras, my fellow prisoner (συναιχμάλωτός) in Christ Jesus, greets you,
4 I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers (προσευχῶν);  22   At the same time prepare a guest room for me, for I hope that, thanks to your prayers (προσευχῶν) I shall be granted unto you.
 for I hear of your love and your  faith in the Lord Jesus and for all the saints.  21 Confident of your obedience, I am  writing to you; I
6a May your sharing  in the faith become effective  know that you will do more than I say.
6b-7a in the knowledge of all the good  that is in us for Christ. For I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, 20c   in Christ.
7b because the hearts (σπλάγχνα) of    20c   my heart (σπλάγχνα)
7c   the saints have been refreshed  (ἀναπέπαυται)  20b Refresh (ἀνάπαυσόν)
7d  by you, brother  (ἀδελφέ).  20a  Yes, brother (ἀδελφέ), let me have profit  (ὀναίμην) of you in the Lord.
Therefore, although I have full  authority in Christ to command you to do what is required, (5) 19c    you owe me your very life besides.
9a  I prefer to beseech you for love's sake.  19b    not to mention to you that
9b  Since this is what I am, "Paul, [as] an old man" (ὡς Παῦλος πρεσβύτης), and moreover now a prisoner of  Christ Jesus, 19a  I, Paul (ἐγὼ Παῦλος), am writing this with  my own hand, I will make compensation for it;
10 I beseech you for my child, whom I  have begotten in prison, Onesimus, 18 charge that to my account.
11a who was formerly of no value  (ἄχρηστον) to you (6)   18b   or owes you anything,
11b   but now indeed is of good value  (εὔχρηστον) to you 18a If he has wronged you
11c and to me.   Receive him as you would receive me.    17   Now then, if you consider me your partner,
12a Him I am sending back to you, him,  16c     but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.
that is, my very heart (σπλάγχνα):  I (ὲγὼ) would have liked to keep with me,  17 Now then, if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me.
13b   so that he might serve me in your place  in the bonds of the gospel.   15b- 16a is that you might have him back for ever,  no longer as a slave, but as one who is much more than a slave,
14a But without (χωρὶς  15a For, perhaps, the reason he has been separated (ἐχωρίσθη) from you for a while,
14b   your consent I would do nothing  14 but from your own free will.
14c so that your good deed might not   14d   stem from compulsion,

        Words occurring twice only and in corresponding positions in the letter are συνεργός (vv. 1, 24), προσευχῶν (vv. 4, 22) and ἀναπαύειν (vv. 7, 20).  Words occurring three times but with two in chiastic relationships are σπλάγχνα (vv. 7. 20, plus v. 12) and Παῦλος  (vv. 9, 19, plus v. 1).  Note the singular related occurrences of χωρὶς  (v. 14a) and ἐχωρίσθη (v. 15a). Of the four occurrences of ἀδελφός (vv. 1, 7, 16, 20) the two occurrences in the vocative, ἀδελφέ (vv. 7, 20), correspond chiastically.  The two additional συν- words, συστρατιώτης (v. 2) and συναιχμάλωτος (v. 23) also match each other in location.  This is enough verbal data in a letter of only 335 words (7) to establish the chiastic structure and to warrant examining what content parallels are thereby revealed.

        As can be seen, the chiastic structure throws up the content parallels so that they reinforce and illuminate each other. As Philemon has acted in the past toward the saints in terms of love, faith and fellowship (vv. 5-6a), Paul is confident that he will now obey even beyond what Paul says (v. 21). As Philemon's love in Christ for the saints has given Paul joy and comfort in the past (vv. 6b-7), so he is now urged to act in similar vein toward Paul himself (v. 20). Paul has every right in Christ to order this (v. 8) since Philemon owes his very self to Paul (v. 19c), but Paul will not do so (vv. 9a, 19b). Paul makes his personal appeal (v. 19a) as an old man and prisoner for Christ's sake (v. 9b), balancing his account (v. 18c), to which Philemon stands in debt, with his request for his newly-begotten child, Onesimus (v. 10).  Onesimus as the one who once was worthless but now is of real worth to Philemon (11ab) is balanced by any present debt owed or past wrongdoing done by Onesimus (v. 18ab).  Paul's bond with Onesimus (v. 11c: "and to me") is such that it is as if he is sending his very self (v. 17: "receive him as myself"), which he obviously cannot do since he is in bonds (v. 10).  In sending Onesimus physically back (vv. 12a , 16c ), Paul has, with reluctance, sent his own heart (v. 12b-13a with the emphatic ego), his especially beloved brother (v. 16b).  Onesimus, bonded in the gospel might serve Paul in Philemon's stead (v. 13b), to whom Onesimus may now be more than a slave, forever linked to Philemon - in the gospel, we may assume (vv. 15b-16a).  At the very centre Paul asks for the expression of Philemon's freely-given goodness (v. 14a-c, balanced by vv. 14d-15a). Here is the main point of the letter, and its immediate context concerns Onesimus serving Paul, so on the basis of how chiasmus is used to highlight the main concern at its centre, thus the decision that Philemon is being asked to make is to send Onesimus back to Paul.
.(8) That Philemon as a literate man of the first century CE could readily be aware of this structure and its import has been shown by Augustine Stock. .(9)

        This in turn is reinforced by the "economics" of the letter: Philemon owes his very self to Paul (v. 19c), and any debts of Onesimus' are to be put against Paul's account (v. 18). Philemon and Paul have now realized some profit in the person of Onesimus (v. 11), and since Paul wants some profit/joy in the Lord from Philemon (?να?μην, v. 20), the obvious way to give Paul the profit is to send Onesimus back.

        It is noteworthy that the opening salutation and the closing greetings each involve several named persons, so that this letter and knowledge of its contents are not for Philemon's eyes alone (cf. ?μ?ν[v. 3] and ?μ?ν 22, 25]), even if the remainder of the letter is addressed to Philemon in the second person singular. (11 A. Wilson (12) has highlighted the politeness strategies employed in this letter, which on the one hand would appear to give Philemon greater freedom to respond without being under duress. But what we might call "the cloud of witnesses" that Paul has brought in at the beginning and the end would seem to put pressure on Philemon to fulfil Paul's wish or run the risk of losing face.  As Petersen says, "Philemon is on a very public spot." (13)
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2. Two Genesis Settings for Paul as an "old man"

        Paul's appeal in verse 9 is made on the basis of describing himself thus: τοιοῦτος ὢν ὡς Παῦλος πρεσβύτης, "being such a one as Paul, an old man". Πρεσβύτης means an "old man", but it can be found as a variant spelling of "ambassador". (14)  Which is it to be? When J. B. Lightfoot (15) proposed translating πρεσβύτης as "ambassador", he stated the issue thus: "It is more difficult to understand how St Paul should make his age a ground of appeal to Philemon who, if Archippus was his son, cannot have been much younger than himself." But Paul does not simply say he is an old man, but describes himself as (ὡς) an old man. Thus the age motif not only may not have been meant literally, but also τοιοῦτος would have suggested a meaning beyond the literal one in any case. Even exegetes such as C. F. D. Moule (16) and J. L. Houlden (17) who have taken the return of Onesimus as the nub of the letter have opted for "ambassador" on the grounds that it gave Paul's plea greater leverage. However, keeping the meaning of "old man" gives as much or even greater leverage that is consonant with the underlying purpose of the letter, as we shall see. As N. R. Petersen has said regarding πρεσβύτης, "... it is the context that we introduce as the basis for our interpretation which is critical." (18)

        This letter is clearly addressed to an ecclesial setting (v.2) centred on Philemon's house. It is obvious that when the church gathered in that house, the scriptures were read and expounded. If this were not the case, Paul would have no basis for referring to them in his letters.
(19) Philemon as the host of the congregation could be expected to be familiar with them even if he were a gentile rather than a Jewish Christian.

        Now, when one hears the author describe himself "as Paul, an old man" (v. 9) who has "begotten a child" (v. 10), whom he counts as "beloved" (v. 16), whom he has sent reluctantly (vv. 12-13), and with whom he wishes to be re-united, there are two Genesis stories that immediately spring to mind. One is the case of Abraham whose beloved son of his old age is restored to him by God (Gen 22). The other is the case of Jacob, the grey haired one, who reluctantly allows his youngest son, Benjamin, to be taken to Egypt, hoping he will be sent back, and then is reunited with him by Joseph (Gen 44-45). In effect, Paul is asking Philemon to be as magnanimous as God was to Abraham, as Joseph was to Jacob, and restore Onesimus to him. In effect, Paul is asking Philemon to be as magnanimous as God was to Abraham, as Joseph was to Jacob, and restore Onesimus to him. It needs to be said that this does not preclude taking πρεσβύτης as a double entendre, with the plea of the "old man" and the implied command of the "ambassador". In the present writer's judgement this answers Lightfoot's question more than adequately, and I would be most surprised if, in the face of the chiastic structure of the letter centering on Philemon's freedom to choose to send Onesimus back, the "cloud of witnesses", the debt owed by Philemon to Paul and the Old Testament typologies, Philemon did anything other than send Onesimus back to Paul.

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3Onesimus' situation before and after the letter

        If the above has increased the likelihood that the main purpose of the letter is to have the person addressed send Onesimus back to Paul, then what is likely to have been the position of Onesimus before the letter was sent and after its consequences?  Recently J. G. Nordling (21) has argued that Onesimus was a runaway slave, but if he really was a fugitivus, that is, a slave who ran away with the intention of leaving his master, then anyone who harboured him was liable to punishment, as shown by J. M. G. Barclay. (22)  But while he has been with Paul, he has become a Christian and has served so well that Paul wants to keep him.  This argues for his having been with Paul for quite some time, so if he was a fugitivus the situation would have been very dangerous and hence highly unlikely. Since Paul was in what we might call a "house arrest" situation, this is neither a place where Onesimus would have been interned if apprehended nor a place where he might seek asylum, since Paul would not have a household shrine for Onesimus to cling to.  So how he would get to Paul in the first place is difficult to explain satisfactorily.  B. M. Rapske, (23) on the other hand, noting that a slave could flee temporarily if subject to unduly harsh treatment (and thereby keeping his master's chattel, i.e., himself, in good condition until his temper cooled down), has argued that Onesimus came to Paul as a person of note known to the household in Colossae and asked him to plead his cause as his master's friend, an amicus domini.  But this, too, does not allow for the time needed for Onesimus' conversion and service.  S. C. Winter (24) argues for Onesimus having been sent from Colossae to serve Paul's needs.  She follows Knox in taking Archippus to have been the slave's owner, noting that the fairly uncommon term συστρατιώτης, "fellow-soldier", which is applied to Archippus, appears in contexts where it is "apparently used for someone who gives aid, particularly financial", (25) and this would be consistent with the business terms of the letter . (26) But, assuming the letter is addressed to Philemon, there is another way (apart from any demands of structuring the letter in a chiastically balanced fashion) of understanding why Archippus and not Philemon is described as a "fellow-soldier" with its apparent overtones of one who gives aid. Following Petersen's delineation of the multiple inter-relationships between Paul, Onesimus and Philemon, (27) "fellow-soldier" as an accolade may be a title that Paul will confer upon Philemon as well if he will only give the aid (i.e. Onesimus) for which Paul is asking.  If Onesimus had been sent to minister to Paul's needs, this would certainly allow time for his conversion and service.  But this in turn raises the question of Paul's puns of ἄχρηστον/ εὔχρηστον (useless/useful), with η sounding like ι in Hellenistic Greek (28)) against Χριστός.  If Onesimus was of little worth to begin with, why would he have been sent to Paul's aid in the first place?  My guess is that Onesimus was probably young and very green, perhaps even gawky and clumsy, when sent to Paul, quite possibly on what was intended to be a brief errand.  Under Paul he has improved in more ways than one, and now Paul wants him to stay at Ephesus permanently.  If this is the case, then how does one explain Paul's offering to pay whatever Onesimus owes, for how would he owe anything?  As Barclay (29)
has indicated, the unauthorised absence of a slave might entail expense on his master's part, since someone would have to do the slave's duties.  If Onesimus stayed with Paul longer than his owner originally intended, then this could explain Paul's offer.

        On balance, I believe Paul not only wants Onesimus sent back to him, but he also wants to have Onesimus manumitted, the better to serve both Paul and the gospel.  Barclay (30) and Barton (31) have pointed out the dilemma facing Onesimus' owner if he frees him, for this would not only look like unfairness or weakness to the other slaves of the household, but it might lead to a rash of conversions ("rice Christians", so to speak) by slaves expecting to gain their freedom thereby.  

    But there may be a way around this, as illustrated by the following story I once heard from an Indian Church historian. In Kerala in southern India the Syrian Catholics (Uniates) and their Hindu neighbours were at one time all high caste and kept up full social contact. Then came orders from Rome that they must accept all converts without regard to caste. This would have meant an end to all social contact with the high caste Hindus. For a while they were able to sidestep this problem by sending all non-high caste converts to other parts of Kerala where they were not known and passing them off as high caste.

    Thus I think it is quite possible that Onesimus' owner sent him back to Paul manumitted, but only privately. There are at least two other possibilities which I have never seen mentioned. One is that Onesimus was given to Paul, who could then have manumitted him himself. The second is that Philemon could have sold Onesimus to Paul for a nominal amount, and then Paul could have manumitted him if he decided to do so. Any one of these three, but especially either of the latter two courses would have placed no strain on the household structure at Colossae, but would have achieved the same end. It is also evident that for the manumission not to have placed a real strain on Philemon's household structure Onesimus must be sent away, namely, back to Paul.

        In his article, Barclay asked, "Is there a clear message here for Philemon which we simply fail to pick up because of our cultural and linguistic distance?"
(32) This study has been intended to supply some grounds to indicate that the answer to his question is, "Yes", both with regard to (the chiastic) structure and the (likely scriptural) context. (33)
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1 J. Knox, Chapters in a Life of Paul (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1935). The revised edition (London: Collins, 1960) is the one cited below. See also his commentary on Philemon in The Interpreter's Bible, Vol. XI (New York and Nashville: Abingdon, 1955) 555-573. (Back to text)
2 P. N. Harrison, "Onesimus and Philemon", ATR 32 (1950) 268-294. (Back to text)
3 Théo Preiss, Life in Christ (SBT 1/13; Chicago: Allenson, 1954) 36. (Back to text)
E. Lohse, Colossians and Philemon (Hermeneia; Phildelphia: Fortress Press, 1971). (Back to text)
5 That τὸ ἀνῆκον has here the force of "duty" see BAG -XXXX 2; Knox, IB XI, 564; Lohse, Colossians and Philemon, 198. (Back to text)
J. Duncan M. Derrett ("The Functions of the Epistle to Philemon" ZNW 79 [1988] 63-91) states categorically that Onesimus was a Phyrgian gentile slave, since, he notes, Phyrgian slaves were reputed to be the worst: Dio Chrys. 10.4 (p. 67 and n. 25). (Back to text)
R. Morgenthaler, Statistik des Neutestamentlichen Wortschatzes (Frankfurt am Main: Gotthelf-Verlag Zürich, 1958). (Back to text)
F. F. Church ("Rhetorical Structure and Design in Paul's Letter to Philemon" HTR 71 [1978] 17-33) relates the letter to the structure of deliberative rhetoric with its three divisions of exordium, main body or proof, and peroration.  He takes the thanksgiving (vv. 4-7) as functioning as the exordium, verses 8-16 as the proof, and verses 17-22 as the peroration. The chiastic structure would appear to indicate that verses 17-19 belong to the middle section; although including an initial element of request, they are still setting forth grounds (i.e. proof) on which Paul can make his main request for "profit" and obedience from Philemon. The three divisions would then be verses 4-7, 8-19 and 20-22 respectively. (Back to text)
A. Stock, "Chiastic Awareness and Education in Antiquity" BTB 14 (1984) 23-27.) (Back to text)
Knox, IB XI, 557, says, "As a matter of fact, the constant recurrence in the brief letter of words which had a definitely established legal or commercial connotation is itself enough to suggest that Paul's request had at least a quasi-business character." Knox in particular points out ἀνέπεμψα (used for sending up to a higher court or authority, v. 12), κοινωνός (in the sense of business partner, v. 17), and the phrase "I, Paul, write this" (v. 19) as being the regular form, for a legal bond. (Back to text)
That those addressed in v. 2 will be aware of the letter's contents and have influence on Philemon's decision is noted by Lohse, Colossians and Philemon, 187, 190, and Knox, Philemon Among the Letters of Paul, 2 52. N. R. Petersen, Rediscovering Paul: Philemon and the Sociology of Paul's Narrative World (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985) 267, notes this with regard to both those named at the beginning and at the end of the letter. (Back to text)
A. Wilson, "The Pragmatics of Politeness and Pauline Epistolography: A Case Study of the Letter to Philemon," JSNT 48 (1992) 107-119. (Back to text)
Petersen, Rediscovering Paul, 269. Petersen also sees Paul's hope to visit soon (v. 22) as potentially a threat that Paul will come with severity even to the extent of excommunicating Philemon if the latter's response does not accord with membership in the Body of Christ (p. 268). (Back to text)
Lohse, Colossians and Philemon 199, n. 17, notes 2 Macc 11.34; LXX 2 Chr 32.31 (B); 1 Macc 14.22; 15.17 (Sinaiticus). (Back to text)
J. B. Lightfoot, Saint Paul's Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon, New Edition, 1979 (London: Macmillan and Co., 1892) 337. (Back to text)
In Peake's Commentary on the Bible, ed. by M. BLack & H.H. Rowley (London: Nelson, 1962) 994 (§868c). (Back to text)
J. L. Houlden, Paul's Letters from Prison (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970) 232 on v. 21.
18 Petersen Rediscovering Paul 126. (Back to text)
The index of citations and allusions in the Nestlé-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece25 (1979) indicates that in Paul's Hauptbriefe, Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians and Galatians, Genesis is quoted 17 times plus 31 allusions. This total of 48 is only less than Psalms (86) and Isaiah (72). Overall totals are 146 in the Torah, 141 in the Prophets (17 Former; 129 Latter), a further 43 in the Writings, plus 76 in the Apocrypha and 44 in the Pseudepigrapha. This is a representative rather than an exhaustive list. That Paul expects the teaching/preaching ministry to be dominantly exercised by Jewish believers appears to be the force of Rom 3.2, where, since he never makes a second point, the force of πρῶτον appears to be "above all": "Above all, they were entrusted with the oracles of God". Whether or not Philemon was Jewish, as Derrett thinks most likely ("Functions" 67), he certainly had been regularly exposed to the scriptures and their exposition. (Back to text)
Knox, IB XI, 557, notes that the letter's preservation is itself an indication that the request was granted. (Back to text)
J. G . Nordling, "Onesimus Fugitivus" JSNT 41 (1991) 97-119. (Back to text)
J. M. G. Barclay, "Paul, Philemon, and the Dilemma of Christian Slave-Ownership" NTS 37 (1991) 161-186. (Back to text)
23 B. M. Rapske, "The Prisoner Paul in the Eyes of Onesimus" NTS 37 (1991) 187-203. (Back to text)
S. C. Winter, "Paul's Letter to Philemon" NTS 33 (1987) 12. (Back to text)
Winter, "Paul's Letter" 2. (Back to text)
Winter lists fourteen terms in the letter which pertain to commercial and legal usage ("Paul's Letter" 2). (Back to text)
Petersen, Rediscovering Paul 89-199. A partial list of relationships Petersen highlights are given in his Introduction: "... [Paul,] the father/brother/slave/prisoner/ambassador/partner wrote a letter to his child/brother/partner [Philemon] on behalf of [Onesimus,] the slave/child/brother/servant in the names of their common master, the slave/son Jesus Christ, and of their common father, God, a slave/brother/son of nobody, appealing to him to receive his slave/brother as he would receive Paul himself...." (p. 2). (Back to text)
Lohse, Colossians and Philemon 200, who cites Justin, Apol. 1.4.1, 5; Athenagoras, Supplicatio pro Christianis 2 and Tertullian, Apol. 3.5. (Back to text)
Barclay, "Paul, Philemon and the Dilemma" 165, n. 16. A similar point is made by Lohse, Colossians and Philemon 204. (Back to text)
Barclay, "Paul, Philemon and the Dilemma" 175-180. (Back to text)
S, Barton, "Paul and Philemon: A Correspondence Continued" Theology 90 (1987) 98-99. (Back to text)
Barclay, "Paul, Philemon and the Dilemma" 175. (Back to text)
D. Daube ("Onesimus" HTR 79 [1986] 40-43) points out (p. 40) that in Judaism and up to the present day a convert is assigned the position of a "child just born", referring to b. Yebam 22a. (Derrett, "Functions" 77-78, makes a similar point).  Daube takes Paul's reference to Onesimus as "my child whom I have begot" as an echo of the rabbinic idiom. He goes on to say (p. 41):
        The very body that was once subject to Philemon is no more;
        the present Onesimus is a different being in every respect.
        In any case the main point of the letter opens with the
        reminder that Paul could simply direct Philemon in Christ to
        renounce his hold.
In this understanding then, we have further grounds for concluding that Paul intends that Philemon follow a course of action that will lead to the manumission of Onesimus.
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