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The Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon (Pillar New Testament Commentary) Hardcover – 25 Aug 2008

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About the Author

Douglas J. Moo is Professor of New Testament, Wheaton College Graduate School. He is the author of numerous books and commentaries including 'The Letter of James' (PNTC), 'James' (TNTC), 'Romans' (NIVAC), 'Romans' (NICNT). --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

(Extract from) Introduction to Philemon

Most Christians have never studied Philemon; many have never heard it might or preached. It is short - in the New Testament only 2 and 3 John me shorter; it is private - addressed to a fellow worker, but in his private capacity; and it is obscure - scholars are not quite sure just what it is about. No wonder it suffers from neglect. Yet God has providentially seen to it that this short, private, and obscure letter is included in the canon of authoritative Christian Scripture. Why? What is its purpose? What was Paul asking from Philemon? And what is the significance of the letter for Christian belief and practice? These are the questions that will guide our discussion in the commentary that follows. Before turning the details of the letter, however, we need an overview.


The letter claims to be written by Paul (vv. 1, 19), and, in contrast to Colossians, there has been no serious challenge to this claim. Christian tradition (reflected in the title) has singled out Philemon, mentioned in v.1 as the recipient. Most scholars agree, although it should be noted that, in fact, vv. 1-2 appear to list four recipients: "[to] Philemon ... and to Apphia and to Archippus ... and to the church that meets in your house" (my own trans.; TNIV reflects an interpretive decision). A few scholars have argued that it is more natural to single out the last-named individual, Archippus, as the primary addressee and that it was in his house, not Philemon's, that the church Paul mentions was probably meeting. However, the pattern of ancient letters was to list the primary addressee first, and this points to Philemon. The TNIV punctuation captures the resulting sense well: "To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker - also to Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier - and to the church that meets in your home."

But why must we identify a "primary addressee"? Why don't we simply identify all three individuals and the church as the recip1ents of the letter? The first reason for focusing on an individual is the ancient epistolary convention mentioned above. The fact that Paul mentions Philemon's name first is very significant. But more significant is the fact that all the second-person pronouns and verbal forms in vv. 4-22a and vv. 23-24 are singular. This is not always clear in English translations, since modern English suffers from the handicap of not being able to distinguish second-person singular and plural forms. The body of the letter then, focuses consistently on a single individual. Moreover, although Philemon is a "fellow worker" of Paul's (v. i), the letter deals not with ministry issues but with personal matters. For these reasons, it is probably justified to think of Philemon as basically a "private" letter.

At the same time, we should not overlook the fact that Paul chooses to include two other individuals and the whole church that meets in Philemon's house in his address. And this is not just a literary convention, as the switch to second-person plural forms in vv. 22b ("your prayers") and v. 25 ("your spirit") reveals. This does not turn the letter into a "public" letter, or an official "apostolic" document. Yet it does suggest that our notion of Philemon as a "private individual" or of his handling of the Onesimus situation as a "private matter" needs rethinking We may be injecting into the first-century Christian community a contrast of "private" versus "public" that was simply not present there. Indeed, we will suggest that one of the enduring and extremely relevant teachings of Philemon is the degree to which Christians are bound to one another in all their activities through their common faith. Paul's inclusion of the whole church in the address of the letter is not simply, then, a way of putting greater pressure on Philemon ("you had better do as I say or all the church will know you have scorned me"). It is the reflection of a social and theological reality of the early Christian community. ... --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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