The addressee was a young, well-to-do, respected Christian of a town in the Lycus Valley of Asia Minor, probably Colossae. Paul greets him along with Apphia (probably Philemon’s wife) and Archippus (their son?), and ‘the church that meets in your house’ (2). Philemon was apparently converted by Paul (19), possibly in Ephesus. Onesimus was a Colossian, a slave of Philemon. Some are suggesting that he would have helped Paul in evangelization and would have eventually become the bishop at Ephesus (see Ignatius, Eph 1:3–6:2).
The slave Onesimus had run away, having caused his master considerable damage (11, 18). In his flight he came to where Paul was imprisoned, perhaps knowing the esteem his master held for Paul. Somehow Paul managed to give him refuge and ultimately converted him to Christianity (10). Paul learned that Onesimus was Philemon’s slave, and though he wanted to keep him with himself for help in evangelization, he recognized Philemon’s right and decided to send Onesimus back (14, 16). Paul asked Philemon not to inflict on Onesimus the severe penalties permitted by law and promised to restore the damage that Onesimus had caused – how he would do this from prison is not said. Paul further suggested that he would like to have Onesimus come back to work with him (20).
The scholar do not question the authencity of this letter. Paul wrote it from prison (1, 9–10, 13, 23), but it is almost impossible to say where that imprisonment was. The traditional view makes it the Roman house-arrest (AD 61–63). More recently, commentators have been favoring the Ephesian imprisonment of Paul (AD 56–57). This last opinion has the advantage of keeping Philemon (in Colossae) and Paul (in Ephesus) within a plausible range (about 108 miles). It also explains more easily Paul’s plan to visit Philemon (22), which is difficult for the Roman hypothesis.
Many commentators wondered why such a private letter should enter the Canon. The only answer that can be given is that the Philemon is addressed to the church gathered in the house of Philemon and that it embodies an attitude towards slavery. First, it manifests Paul’s pastoral and warmhearted affection for Onesimus. Second, in sending him back, Paul does not try to change the existing social structure. Third, Paul’s own solution was to transform or interiorize the social structure (see 1 Cor 7:20–24; 12:13). He urges Philemon to welcome Onesimus back as a ‘brother,’ for he is ‘freedman of the Lord’ (1 Cor 7:22), especially in view of what Paul teaches in Gal 3:27–28. Moreover, this plea is made ‘for love’s sake’ (8), but it took centuries for the Pauline principle to be put into practice, even in the Christian West.