February 03, 2005

Philemon: Background and word study

(This post is the final exam that I wrote for my Biblical Hermeneutics course last year. I decided to blog it since I did very well and it follows on last week's entry on Philemon. While I'm still satisfied with the results of the original, the answers to this exam reflect a bit more thinking about this short letter and suggest some different directions into which I could take a similar study today.)

Update (Mar. 31/05): I located the hardcopy of the exam and have added the specific questions that the exam answered.

(This blog post makes use of the BWGRKL font for some Greek text, available for download from BibleWorks at no charge.)

What can we know about the geographical and chronological setting of this letter? For example, where is Paul when he writes? Where is Philemon living? (Note: Reading Paul's epistle to the Colossians might be useful at this point.) Make sure you support your claims from the text itself, indicating biblical references.

Question 1. Paul addresses his letter to both Philemon and Archippus (Philem. 2). Paul also sends greetings to Archippus in his letter to the Colossians (Col. 4:17). If Philemon meets with the church in Archippus' home, as Paul seems to imply, then Philemon also lives in Colosse.

The epistle to Philemon is a plea on behalf of Onesimus (Philem. 10). Yet Paul sends Onesimus with Tychicus to deliver his epistle to the Colossians (Col. 4:7, 10). He also sends greetings from the same people in both letters: Epaphras his fellow prisoner (Philem. 23; Col. 4:12), as well as Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke (Philem. 24; Col. 4:10, 14). Clearly, Paul wrote both letters to Colosse at the same time - one to be read to the church, and the other a personal letter - and had them both delivered by Onesimus and Tychicus on the same trip.

When Paul writes these letters, he is on good terms with Mark. At first this suggests an early dating, before Mark abandoned Paul (Acts 15:38). However, Paul writes these letters from prison (Philem. 1; Col. 4:18), and Acts does not record Paul being imprisoned during the first missionary journey. Therefore, Philemon must be one of Paul's later letters, most likely written after the third missionary journey, after Paul had reconciled his differences with John Mark. Possibly Paul wrote the letter in Jerusalem. More likely, however, it originated in Rome, since Luke records that he and an Aristarchus accompanied Paul on his journey there (Acts 27:2), and Paul spent at least two years under house arrest (Acts 28:30). However, Demas has not yet abandoned Paul (2 Tim. 4:10), and Timothy and Mark are still with him. Therefore, although Philemon is late enough that Paul describes himself as an old man (9), it must still be somewhat earlier than 2 Timothy.

Who are the different characters mentioned? What is their relationship to Paul?

Aside from Paul, the two most significant characters are the letter's recipient, Philemon, and its subject, Onesimus. Philemon is a friend of Paul in Colosse. He is one of Paul's converts: Paul writes to him, "you owe to me even your own self" (Philem. 19). Philemon is the owner of Onesimus, a slave (16). Onesimus apparently ran away from Philemon (15) and went to Rome, where he encountered Paul and became another of his converts: Paul says he has "begotten" him (10).

Paul co-addresses his letter to Archippus, his "fellow soldier" (2). Clearly he is a Christian worker of some kind. He hosts a church in his house. Paul saw fit to make sure he read the letter as well, which suggests that he is Philemon's pastor. Possibly Apphia is Archippus' wife, and Paul extends the courtesy of including her in his greeting.

Paul's young protégé Timothy is included in the salutation (1). This suggests that he co-authored the letter along with Paul. Perhaps the addition of his name lends additional authority to the letter. If Timothy is seen as backing Paul, then Paul's request to Philemon becomes less of a mere personal favour, and more of an official request of the Christian church at large (albeit a tactfully worded one).

Other minor characters also receive mention in this letter. Epaphras is imprisoned with Paul. Mark, cousin of Luke, abandoned Paul on his first missionary journey, but at this time they are reconciled. Aristarchus accompanied Paul on the voyage from Jerusalem to Rome. Demas is another Christian worker with Paul, who would later desert him (2 Tim. 4:10). Luke is the author of the third Gospel and Acts, the "beloved physician" (Col. 4:14) who also accompanied Paul from Jerusalem (evident from the first-person narrative of the journey, e.g. Acts 27:1).

What are the natural, logical divisions of the letter? Title these divisions. Use outline form for this question, and provide the biblical references (verse numbers).

Philemon can be outlined as follows:

  1. Salutation and Blessing (1-3)
  2. Thanksgiving and Prayer (4-7)
  3. Letter Body (8-22)
    1. Paul's appeal on Onesimus' behalf (8-16)
    2. Paul's request to Philemon (17-21)
    3. Paul's hope to visit Philemon (22)
  4. Closing (23-25)
    1. Personal greetings (23-24)
    2. Benediction (25)

What does Paul mean when he writes about one "who is my very heart"? What is the meaning of the word translated as "heart" in v. 12 (NIV)? Conduct a word study of this word. . . . Limit yourself to the use of the word in the NT, but still conduct your research using appropriate tools such as Kohlenberger's Greek English Concordance to the New Testament, NIDNTT, TDNT, and BAGD (if you can access Greek). Set up a nuance chart.

The word translated "very heart" in Philem. 12 is spla,gcnon (splanchnon). The word literally means intestines or innards. Figuratively, it is used of the intestines as the seat of strong emotion. While the King James Version literally translates the word as "bowels," modern English Bibles substitute the word "heart," a more familiar idiom to contemporary English speakers who speak of emotions as coming from the heart. Sometimes the term stands for the innards as the seat of compassion; Paul uses it to refer to the emotions themselves, particularly affection. In Philemon, however, he distinctively uses the word as a metonymy standing for the whole person. When he calls Onesimus his "very heart," he is saying that Onesimus is very close to him, as it were, part of himself.

Nuance Chart for spla,gcnon

Nuance Paul Rest of NT
intestines Acts 1:18
tender mercy Luke 1:78
beloved Col. 3:12
affection 2 Cor. 6:12; 7:15; Phil. 1:8; 2:1
heart (fig. the seat of compassion 1 John 3:17
heart (fig. the whole person) Philem. 7, 20
very heart (fig. the whole person) Philem. 12

Write a summary on the principal nuances of the word, and explain which nuance best fits v. 12.

The original meaning of spla,gcnon in the fifth century b.c. was literally the entrails or viscera of a sacrificial animal. It later came to mean the sacrifice itself. In later usage, it was used to refer to the inward parts of man, subsequently the organs of procreation, and then figuratively for children, the result of procreation.1

Acts 1:18 speaks literally of Judas' spla,gna spilling out on the ground after his suicide eviscerated him.

In later Jewish thought, the viscera figuratively became known as the seat of the emotions.2 With the exception of Acts 1:18, all the uses of the term in the New Testament have some connection to this meaning.

The synoptic gospels use the verb form of the word, splagcni,zomai almost exclusively, and it is uniformly translated "to have compassion." In Luke 1:78, the only use of the noun form, spla,gcnon means "tender mercy." John uses the word in a similar sense in 1 John 3:17, where the heart or bowels are a metaphor for the seat of compassionate feelings: "the source of action that helps and relieves need."3

It is Paul's letters where spla,gcnon gets the most use. In most cases, Paul uses the word to mean "affection": specifically, fondness, tender feelings. In one case, Col. 3:12, the word means "beloved," standing for the object of God's affections.

However, in the letter to Philemon, Paul uses a distinctive nuance of spla,gcnon. Here the seat of the emotions, the innards (usually translated "heart" for a contemporary English-speaking audience), is a metonymy standing for the whole person. Thus, "refresh my heart in Christ" (Philem. 20) means "refresh me in Christ" (cf. Philem. 7). In v. 12 where Paul refers to Onesimus as his "very heart," the sense is that by sending Onesimus back to Philemon, he is sending a piece of himself back. This would appear to be the best nuance for spla,gcnon in this place. The metaphor as rendered in the NIV and other English Bibles seems a little obscure; for a contemporary audience, it could possibly have been rendered "my heart of hearts" or "a piece of myself" and still retained Paul's meaning.

Considering that Paul's letter to Philemon is a "masterpiece of tact and persuasion" steering "a delicate course between pleading and demanding" (KBH, 356), indicate how Paul's letter to Philemon might be significant to everyday life in the twenty-first century.

The situation with Onesimus and Philemon was one that, if left unaddressed, might have disrupted the unity of the church. In secular life there was a profound class difference between Philemon the slave owner and Onesimus the slave in a society where slavery was taken for granted. However, Paul had taught that in the Church these class differences did not exist, since all believers had the same standing before Christ (Gal. 3:28). This tension needed to be resolved for the good of the church. Thus, it was tantamount to a church discipline issue.

The example of Philemon demonstrates that these matters ought to be handled with grace, rather than coercion. Philemon was fully within his civil rights to punish Onesimus even to death, and a direct order from the Apostle to receive him back without consequence may have had a chilly reception. Rather than pull rank on Philemon, however, Paul's gracious letter appeals to him as a dear friend, his spiritual child, and a partner, casting his request in terms of a personal favour rather than an apostolic command.

There is also a subtext in Philemon: In the Christian community, the relationships between believers are transformed. Paul calls Onesimus his child in Christ and a brother. He appeals to Philemon to treat him as he would Paul, a partner. One who is considered a brother, a son, or a partner cannot rightly be considered a slave; the positions are antithetical. While the social institution of slavery is gone, the message of Philemon can still be applied in a general sense to lessons about loving the unlovable. For example, in the United States, which still has a relatively recent history of slavery, D. A. Carson has noted that in the classroom he uses Philemon as a starting point for serious discussion about the nature of racism.4


1 Helmut Köster, "spla,gcnon etc.," Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, tr. and ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley, vol. 7 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965) 548.

2 Köster 550.

3 Hans-Helmut Esser, "Mercy, Compassion," New International Dictionary of New Testament Terms, ed. Colin Brown, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1975) 600.

4 D. A. Carson,"Old Testament Prophecy," Heritage Expository Lecture Series, Heritage Theological Seminary, 4 Oct. 2001.

Works Cited

Bible Gateway. 1995-2003. Gospel Communications International. 5 Jul. 2004. <http://bible.gospelcom.net>.

Carson, D. A. "Old Testament Prophecy." Heritage Expository Lecture Series. Heritage Theological Seminary. 4 Oct. 2001.

Esser, Hans-Helmut. "Mercy, Compassion." New International Dictionary of New Testament Terms. Ed. Colin Brown. Vol. 2. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1975. 593-601.

Köster, Helmut. "spla,gcnon etc." Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. Tr. and ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley. Vol. 7. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968. 548-59.

The Unbound Bible. n.d. Biola University. 6 Jul. 2004. <http://unbound.biola.edu/>.

Next Thursday: Introducing Paul's letter to the Galatians.


- Posted by Scott McClare @ 1:00 PM · Permalink