Bible Philemon

Background Study on the book of Philemon

A couple years ago I wrote a series of blog posts about the Apostle Paul and how he displayed specific leadership characteristics in the book of Philemon. However, looking back on those posts now, I do not believe that I provided adequate background information on the Apostle Paul. Because of that, some of the leadership principles might have been missed.

Background Information on the Apostle Paul and His Leadership in Philemon

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A. Paul’s Family Heritage

Paul was a Roman citizen (Acts 16:38-39) who grew up in Jerusalem (Acts 22:3). His parents, a family of Pharisees of the tribe of Benjamin, probably taught him about the law and prophets as well as the Hebrew and Aramaic languages.[ref]Philip W. Comfort and Walter A. Elwell, eds., Tyndale Bible Dictionary: A comprehensive guide to the people, places, and important words of the Bible (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2001), 996.[/ref]

B. Paul’s Educational Background

Paul was one of the most educated Pharisees who knew the laws and prophets extremely well. He was educated and carefully trained in Jewish laws and customs in Jerusalem (Acts 22:3) by Gamaliel, the grandson of Hillel, who founded a Pharisaic school. In this context, Paul greatly advanced his studies past his fellow students.[ref]Philip W. Comfort and Walter A. Elwell, eds., Tyndale Bible Dictionary: A comprehensive guide to the people, places, and important words of the Bible (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2001), 997.[/ref]

C. Paul’s Occupational Skills

Paul was a tent maker while in ministry until he was placed in prison in Rome (Acts 18:3).[ref]Philip W. Comfort and Walter A. Elwell, eds., Tyndale Bible Dictionary: A comprehensive guide to the people, places, and important words of the Bible (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2001), 997.[/ref] Paul’s main occupational skill was to deliver God’s message to Gentiles, kings, and the people of Israel (Acts 9:15). He did this with other believers whom he coached and mentored while doing ministry together (examples are Barnabas, Priscilla and Acquilla, Timothy, and Titus).

D. Paul’s Cultural Advantages

Paul had many ways to build connections to kings, Jews, and Gentiles. This was because he was a Roman citizen, a Jew, and was also a Pharisee before becoming a follower of Jesus. Knowledge of the Scriptures and different cultural connections allowed Paul to explain God’s truth and revelation to people in a variety of different contexts.

E. Paul’s Religious Experiences

Paul’s ministry was marked by his conversion while traveling on the road to Damascus to persecute Christians (Acts 9). Jesus appeared to Paul (then known as “Saul”) revealing himself to Paul and asking why Paul was persecuting him. This led to Paul being consecrated for God’s “special work” (Acts 13:1-3) along with the receiving of the Holy Spirit (Acts 13:9). This led to Paul participating in tremendous evangelism efforts to both Jews and Gentiles, assisting in the planting of churches, and teaching of proper doctrine to new and established churches. Before Paul’s conversion he had a strong influence as a Pharisee persecuting Christians (Acts 9:13-14) and he used that influence to drag followers of Christ out of their homes and to prison (Acts 8:3).

Knowing the cultural background of a biblical text is essential to properly understanding the meaning of the text and how it relates to our current world. In an effort to bring as much meaning as possible to a previous series of blog posts I wrote about the apostle Paul and his leadership (see the links at the bottom of this post) I am sharing some crucial cultural background information about slavery in the book of Philemon.

The focus of this background information is on slavery and the context of slavery in Paul’s time: the first century world of Rome. The biblical book of Philemon was an original letter written by the apostle Paul, to a man named Philemon. The short letter was designed to encourage Philemon to graciously accept Onesimus, a previous runaway slave, and to put Onesimus to work in God’s ministry.


Here are five essential cultural background information questions and answers that bring new leadership meaning to the biblical book (or the letter to) Philemon.

A. How were runaway slaves treated?

Punishment for a runaway slave was up to the sole discretion of the slave’s owner because slaves were considered the property of their owner.[ref]Matthew Bunson, Encyclopedia of the Roman Empire (New York: Facts On File, 1994), 391.[/ref] Runaway slaves were considered “fugitives.” Because of the high incidence of runaway slaves in ancient Rome, Romans hired professional slave-catchers.

These slave-catchers would post information about runaway slaves in public places to advertise which slaves had run away and what the reward was for their capture. Common ways that runaway slaves were punished were beating, branding, and inscripting with metal collars as a way to prevent them from future escape.[ref]Lesley Adkins and Roy Adkins, Handbook to Life in Ancient Rome (New York: Facts On File, 1994), 342.[/ref]

B. How did Christianity affect slavery? (What changes in people or the system of slavery?)

According to the Tyndale Bible Dictionary, Christian doctrine was opposed to slavery, but the early church did not directly confront slavery nor did the early church emphasize the aspect of Christian doctrine that would be against it.

An example might be from the apostle Paul who never directly opposed slavery, but he attempted to have Onesimus (a slave) freed from his owner (Philemon). This might have been because the first century Christian church was primarily concerned with its own survival.[ref]Bunson, Encyclopedia of the Roman Empire, 391.[/ref] A direct confrontation to an essential and deeply entrenched economic activity in the Roman culture might have extinguished Christianity. One of the main changes that affected slavery was when the Roman Empire became fully Christianized.

C. Was it abolished? If not, did the early church have any impact on the practice of slavery? What impact?

Eventually, Christianity took steps to completely end slavery in the Roman Empire.[ref]Ibid.[/ref] This was led by Christian leaders and writers who openly discouraged slave owners from continuing the practice of slavery.

Officially, the church did not issue a statement against slavery, but Jesus’ gospel and his new teachings of equality, justice, and love changed the way slave owners and slaves interacted. The fact that Jesus Christ’s life and his teachings were against Judaistic slavery, Roman slavery, and any form of human slavery led to the eventual decline and abolishment of slavery.

D. How does all of this information affect the situation of Philemon and Onesimus?

All of this information affects the situation between Philemon and Onesimus because Philemon had the ultimate authority to decide what punishment Onesimus would receive. Philemon and Onesimus needed to figure out how to live out their new found faith in a culture that did not match that faith.

Slavery had a long history of what it had done (both in Roman culture and Judaistic culture) and how it had treated runaway slaves. Now, Philemon and Onesimus were forced to figure out how to reconcile the tension that not only existed between the past criminal activity that caused Onesimus to run away, but they also had to wrestle with how to live out their faith in light of the new Christian teachings of the first century and the unique and counter cultural teachings of Jesus. The fact that Onesimus could have been useful to Philemon in the past as a worker in agriculture, a factory, or in a mine made the decision of what to do even more difficult.[ref]Adkins, Ancient Rome, 342.[/ref] Philemon’s release of Onesimus as a slave could mean the loss of a worker and the loss of money spent to purchase Onesimus as a slave.

E. What is significant or surprising about Paul’s request to Philemon?

Other slave owners in the region would have wanted Philemon to severely punish Onesimus for committing a criminal act and then running away. Philemon accepting Onesimus without any punishment and making Onesimus a free man would not be a favorable action in the eyes of Philemon’s fellow slave owners.

Another thing that is surprising is that Paul asked Onesimus to be allowed to be useful in the Lord’s work of spreading the gospel (vv. 14-16). It is also significant to note that Paul appealed to Philemon and everyone in Philemon’s house. Paul realized that this decision would be a model for others to follow, and because of that he addressed his letter to others so that Philemon would be accountable to others to make the right decision. Finally, Paul decided to use this difficult situation to cause Philemon to think through his faith as it related to not just the ownership of a slave, but to the status of a slave in a spiritual sense (as a brother in the faith) and in civil status (in the flesh).


As I have spent time revising, updating, and adding information to my series of blog posts (see links below) about the book of Philemon I have realized that an updated review of who the letter was written to is required. Why? Because who a letter is written to dramatically impacts how we interpret the meaning of the letter. And if we are gong to interpret this letter with a leadership focus we must know who the letter was written to.

In order to bring the utmost accuracy to my series of blog posts about the apostle Paul’s leadership style displayed in the letter to Philemon, I would like to share some important background information about the audience to which the book of Philemon was written to.

A. People

This letter is written to Philemon (who Paul calls a “co-worker”), Apphia (whom Paul calls “our sister”), Archippus (whom Paul calls “our fellow soldier”), and the people of the church which met at the house of these people (Phlm 1:2-3). These people were probably Jews who had a faith in Jesus Christ as Paul references that he keeps “hearing about [their] faith in the Lord Jesus” (Phlm 1:5).

B. Location 

The people this letter was written to were located in the city of Colosse. Colosse was a small town in the Roman province of Asia (which is now Eastern Turkey) about 100 miles east of the city of Ephesus.[ref]Roger Mohrlang, “Study Notes” in New Living Translation Study Bible, (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2008), 2076.[/ref] There were many Jews living in Colosse; however their faith was not very strict as they were known to also worship angels.

C. When the Book was Written

This letter was written during Paul’s first imprisonment sometime between 58 AD and 64 AD.[3] Other possible dates could be 61 AD or 62 AD. The specific date is not as important to know as is the fact that Paul was in prison in Rome at the time of the letter’s writing.

D. The Recipient’s Problems

People were faced with the dilemma of what to do with this runaway slave who might have stolen money from them. There were specific customs and laws of culture that dictated what type of punishment would normally happen to a slave in this circumstance. Philemon and the church needed to decide how to deal with Onesimus in light of their new faith which embodied grace and forgiveness while also balancing how slaves normally would have been treated in that environment.

E. Purpose of the Book

Paul writes this letter so that Onesimus would be welcomed back and put to good use for the Lord, instead of being punished and prevented from spreading the gospel. Onesimus was useful to help spread the gospel and Paul did not want to see that opportunity squandered. Therefore, this letter was written to intercede for Onesimus.

By Christopher L. Scott

Christopher L. Scott serves as senior pastor at Lakeview Missionary Church in Moses Lake, Washington. Through his writing ministry more than 250,000 copies of his articles, devotions, and tracts are distributed each month through Christian publishers. Learn more at