The Epistle of Paul to Philemon: Interpretation | Free Essay Example

The Epistle of Paul to Philemon: Interpretation

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Topic: Religion


The Epistle of Paul to Philemon (otherwise known as Philemon) is a book included in the Christian New Testament. The most common interpretation of the book was that Paul wrote a letter to Philemon on behalf of Onesimus, who was a runaway slave that had wronged his owner. Throughout his writings, Paul used the language of slavery versus freedom. As at the time of the writing’s setting, slavery was very common, the letter tried to alleviate the suffering of some slaves since Paul put a pastoral focus on the problem.

Social-scientific criticism of the Philemon is the most suitable approach to hermeneutics since it is concerned with the understanding of political, cultural, social, and religious dynamics of the text as perceived by the original audience of the writings. Since the book of Philemon includes the language of slavery versus freedom as a metaphor, analyzing this biblical text with the help of social-scientific criticism will hold the most ground.

Thesis and Points to Back It Up

Because modern views on slavery are completely different to the ones that existed in the ancient Roman society, analyzing Paul’s Letter to Philemon from the standpoint of social-scientific criticism is the most practical approach that reveals the peculiarities of both views:

  1. Slavery was institutionalized in the ancient Roman society, although society considers it unacceptable today;
  2. The modern reader will not agree with Paul’s stance nor will he or she will understand the contradictions in the Letter to Philemon;
  3. ‘Emic’ and ‘etic’ of the Letter to Philemon do not coincide.

The Aim of Social-Scientific Criticism, and the Impact of This Approach on the Interpretation of the Text

Social-scientific criticism (SSC) of the Bible is a hermeneutical method which constructs an interpretation of the Biblical text by considering its social and cultural nuances, therefore putting the interpretation into the environmental context; this is done by employing models, theories, and methods of research that are typical of the social sciences.1

It should be stressed that, due to the fact that SSC is an element of the historical-critical method of exegesis, SSC views the Biblical texts as meaningful configurations of language which were utilized as a means of creating communication between the readers of the text and its authors. Consequently, social-scientific criticism examines the following aspects of the texts from the Bible:

  1. The social issues pertaining to content and form, as well as the factors that have an impact on the results of the process of communication;2
  2. The presence and nature of the connection between such elements of the texts as its linguistic, social, theological, and literary components;
  3. The manner in which the textual communication taking place between the creator of the text and the text’s audience can be viewed as a response to a particular socio-cultural environment, and how the text was created as a means of transferring the information from the book’s author to its reader. 3

The interests of historians and hermeneutics specialists are usually limited to the ideas and the concepts of theological thought. It is important to mention that the criticism of Biblical text requires considerations of relationships and connections between behaviors and beliefs – relationships between beliefs existing in the culture and the social and economic context within which that culture exists.

SCC makes an attempt to analyze the mentioned issues both at textual and social context levels, thus requiring that the condition that the communication in the text was informed by the cultural conditions in which it took place is met. Consequently, it is needed to employ a method that may permit identifying and analyzing the cultural and environmental conditions that played a critical role in determining the way in which the communication in question took place.4

Social-scientific criticism may be aligned with the contextual analysis of the biblical text as it considers the aspects of social, historical, political, and other factors that determine the context and the setting of the text.5 Since the beginning of the 1970’s, more historians and specialists in the sphere of hermeneutics have been using the social science theory in order to explain biblical texts as well as the social interactions described within them. Wayne Meeks, Gerd Theissen, John Gager, Fernando Belo, and others have pioneered the application of the social-scientific criticism of biblical text and established a foundation upon which an expanding stream of hermeneutical approaches along with the social-scientific directions have started to build.

It should be pointed out that the critics who employ the method of the social-scientific analysis usually take as an assumption that all the knowledge has its roots in the society, and that without such an assumption, the hermeneutics of the Biblical texts may be considered impossible, as it might be impossible if no religious assumptions are made.6 It has also been suggested that the interpretation of the contents of the Bible ought to provide the clarification of the social position of the interpreters, not only of the social location of the text’s authors.7

The Relation of the Social-Scientific Interpretation of the Text to the Christian Tradition and to the Contemporary Context, and its Application to the Modern Issues

When it comes to social-scientific criticism of biblical texts, it is also necessary to distinguish between the emic (existing within a social group) and the etic (existing from an observer’s perspective).

In hermeneutics, the emic denotes the ancient sources such as the Bible itself, whereas the etic refers to the scholars and readers of these sources who live today; discerning these two notions permits for creating an awareness of the fact that there exist numerous gaps which separate the today’s world from the situations described in the literary sources of the past, which, in turn, prompts the individuals who engage in the interpretation of these sources to consider the “plausibility structures” 8 which make a contribution to the development of those notions and beliefs existing in the test which strike the contemporary readers as superstitious, bizarre, and/or counter-scientific. Thus, it is clear that introducing this distinction allows for lowering the amount of ethnocentric and anachronistic assessments of the Biblical texts.

In addition, it may permit for limiting the eager and inappropriate use of the texts originating in the ancient times for the purpose of analysis of the ethical issues which exist nowadays. To give an example of such an inappropriate use employing the example of the Letter to Philemon to this discussion, it would be inappropriate to judge the institute of slavery that existed at the time of the writing from the modern perspective, according to which slavery is wrong. Similarly, it would be ineffective to apply the contemporary views of freedom and equality to the non-egalitarian society of the ancient times.

Formal Analysis

The main body of the letter to Philemon from Paul deals with a specific crisis. In the case of the text, the crisis was not associated with either confused or doctrinal morality. While Paul was always concerned with strengthening the ideas of Christian faith, in this letter, he was interested in strengthening the relationships between two people. The formal analysis of Paul’s showed a conventional pattern of deliberative requests addressed to persuade a person to a specific point while maintaining the integrity of all parties involved in a crisis.

Initially, the “exordium” prepared the reader of the letter to hear out the first request by creating an atmosphere of friendship, respect, and brotherhood.9 The second section of the letter demonstrates that Paul had the best intentions at heart when appealing to Philemon. His appeal was supported by providing reasons why Philemon would benefit from the decision to take Onesimus back – a highly diplomatic move.

Furthermore, Paul made an appeal to Onesimus only after developing a relationship with Philemon that was not coercive: “I appeal to you my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains.”10 The final part of the letter contains the deliberate rhetoric of “peroration”11 during which the author repeated his initial appeal on a more personal basis: “Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask.”12

Social-Scientific Criticism as Applied to the Book of Philemon: Historical and Contextual Analysis

When interpreting Paul’s Letter to Philemon from the social-scientific perspective, it is crucial to understand that the background of slavery in the ancient world is the most prominent theme.13 It should be noted that at the time which is described in the text, masters owned their slaves; however, it is also important slaves could sell themselves into slavery from their own initiative, earn wages for their work, buy themselves out of slavery and become, and purchase other slaves for themselves even while still being slaves. Because slaves came from a variety of backgrounds, many of them were doctors, artists, and philosophers.

In the society of the Ancient Rome, slavery was not related to racism, as it was in 17-19 centuries in America; on the other hand, it was simply viewed as an instrument for dealing with manual labor. This context may explain the contents of the letter to Philemon. For instance, if a critic does not apply the stereotype of American slavery and gets an understanding of slavery at the time of the text’s setting, everything will make more sense. For instance, answering the question of “Why did not Paul advocate for the freeing of all slaves?” will be possible by stating that at that time, the system had been not as abusive or cruel as it used to be, for instance, in the 18th and 19th centuries in the United States.

Because the modern interpretations of slavery are different from the ones that existed in the ancient society, it is not surprising that Paul does not argue for or against slavery. Because slavery was deeply integrated into the society, its abolition could have had an unthinkable political effect.14 Paul did not question whether slavery was right or wrong, although, he did state that slavery was a human institution, which he believed would fade away like many other human institutions. It could be so that Paul had faith in the coming return of Jesus. Thus, it can be concluded that Paul saw his present as something that would pass.

Slavery is one of the most disputed topics among historians and those interested in the social-scientific aspect of interpretation. When applying the Letter to Philemon to the discussion about slavery, it is evident that the author of the text neither encouraged slavery nor spoke against it, which reflects his diplomatic intentions that will be discussed further. For instance, while Paul encouraged Philemon to take Onesimus back as a friend and not as a slave, he still told Philemon that he could give orders to Onesimus, which is quite paradoxical.

When looking at the Onesimus’ situation, Paul believed that Onesimus had to return to Philemon not as a slave; rather, under a bond of respect and love. Moreover, Paul did not suggest that the slave had to be punished, although the Roman law allowed slave owners to be extremely brutal, going as far as execution. For this reason, Paul wrote to Philemon and asked him to accept Onesimus back for the sake of reconciliation and forgiveness. By doing so, Paul attempted to diminish the social barriers that divided people in the society of that time. For Paul, the movement to freedom was associated with the shift to standing under the lordship of Jesus Christ, which, in this case, would mean that Christ had a claim to the obedience of Onesimus, as opposed to Philemon.15

Overall, the issue of slavery in the context of Paul’s Letter to Philemon remained unresolved and understudied given the circumstances during which the text had appeared. Verses presented too little information about the wrongdoing of Onesimus as well as whether he owed money to his owner. Nevertheless, the tone in which Paul appealed to Philemon showed that the composer of the letter played a role of an advocate and a diplomat who wanted to be neither “for” nor “against” slavery, which reflects the structure and the ways in which the Roman society of that time operated.

To the modern reader, the position of Paul can seem contradictory and unclear: if he intended to free Onesimus, a “brother,” why nothing was said against slavery, and why was Paul so polite? Based on the social-scientific interpretation of the text, the structures and the institutions of the Roman society of that time did not require an abolition of slavery, and the modern perspectives on this matter are completely different from those existing in Ancient Rome.

Detailed Analysis of the Text, and Its Interpretation Using the Social-Scientific Approach

Paul’s Letter to Philemon dealt with three requests (favors) the text’s composer was trying to ask the recipient. The first request was associated with asking Philemon to accept his slave back: “If then you regard me a partner, accept him as you would me.”16 Martin Luther successfully pointed this request out and stated that Paul acted as he was Onesimus himself who had wronged his master.

It may be assumed that what Christ did for the sake of humanity was similar to Paul’s actions towards Onesimus and Philemon. The second request was also linked to an if-then statement. He asked Philemon to charge him for the wrongdoing of Onesimus, thus acting as a guarantor for the relationship between Philemon and his slave. The third request to Philemon was to “refresh my heart in Christ,”17 which was a plea for forgiveness and renewal of relationships.

From a social-scientific perspective, Paul’s approach can be regarded as somewhat political or diplomatic because he acted in the interests of one person while building relationships with another individual.

Despite the fact that modern diplomacy is not grounded on the ideas of religion and faith in Jesus Christ or any other deity, Paul’s Letter to Philemon is unique in its approach towards new opportunities of reconciliation between two parties that had a misunderstanding. Book of Philemon can also teach much about the way human relationships were handled in the Roman society of that time. The fact that one person played a role of an advocate for the interests of another without pursuing any personal gain is surprising, especially given that the modern society operates on the basis of personal interests, gains, and monetary values.

Importantly, Onesimus was indeed a fugitive from justice.18 It should also be stressed that Paul did not seek to minimize the sins of the runaway slave; rather, he asked Philemon for forgiveness on Onesimus’ behalf. Thus, the letter can be regarded as a diplomatic piece of writing composed by a brother, to another brother, on behalf of another brother19. In the context of the letter, Paul set aside his own rights and acted on behalf of another person. Verse nineteen is the most pivotal section of the letter; in the verse, Paul offered to pay whatever Onesimus owed to Philemon as if he was the one that accrued debts himself20.

The Relationship Between the Social-Scientific Interpretation of the Text and Non-Denominational Christianity

When it comes to the alignment of the social-scientific approach towards text interpretation and the non-denominational faith tradition, it should be stressed that the non-denominational Christian faith does not stand closely to the traditions of confessionalism and creedalism. Therefore, it can fully accept the untraditional perspectives offered by the social-scientific interpretation of religious writings. Thus, it is possible to conclude that non-denominational Christianity and the social-scientific interpretation of the Epistle of Paul to Philemon are not contradictory, and may contribure to one another without a conflict.


While Paul’s Letter to Philemon is concerned with one of the most controversial topics of history, slavery, the stance the author had can be considered diplomatic: Paul did not speak against slavery nor did he support it. The social-scientific approach towards the interpretation of the letter revealed that the modern perspective on slavery is completely different to the way the ancient Roman society regarded it.

Although the social-scientific interpretation of the Letter to Philemon does not align completely with the Christian tradition of biblical text analysis, it is applicable to the contemporary views on slavery. With regards to the application of the social-scientific approach to Philemon’s interpretation within the context of current issues, it is evident that the etic and the emic of the text do not align: while the Roman society of that time regarded slavery as normal, modern readers see this practice as unconstitutional and immoral.

In conclusion, it is imperative to mention that the social-scientific interpretation of Paul’s letter to Philemon shed light on how the ancient Roman society viewed such social institutions as slavery as opposed to how the modern reader perceives them today. Paul’s Letter to Philemon is a piece of literary work written by a true diplomat who neither supported nor disproved opinions held by the proponents of different views. While the contextual and historical analysis showed that the ancient and modern views on a certain social institution differed drastically, the formal analysis showed that the intention of the letter to Philemon was not to support either opinion, but rather to bridge the gap between two individuals who found themselves in a situation of a relationship crisis.


Bible Gateway. “Paul’s Request.Biblegateway. Web.

—. “Philemon.” Biblegateway. Web.

Dabbs, Matt. “Paul’s Letter to Philemon – Historical Background.Mattdabbs(blog). 2009. Web.

Elliot, John. “Social-scientific Criticism: Perspective, Process and Payoff. Evil Eye Accusation at Galatia as Illustration of the Method.” Theological Studies 67, no. 1 (2011): 1-10.

Gaventa, Beverly, and David Petersen. The New Interpreter’s Bible. Nashville, TN: Abington Press, 2010.

Gorman, Michael. Elements of Biblical Exegesis: A Basic Guide for Students and Ministers. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2010.

Knoles, John. “Philemon: Christian Diplomacy.Nativemarriage. 2017. Web.

Redd, Scott. “Literary Analysis of Paul’s Letter to Philemon: An Analysis of Paul’s Use of Poetic Devices to Appeal to Philemon Conscience.Thirdmill. 2017. Web.

Ryan, Judith. Philippians and Philemon. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2009.


  1. John Elliot, “Socal-scientific Criticism: Perspective, Process, and Payoff. Evil Eye Accusation at Galatia as Illustration of the Method.” Theological Studies 67, no. 1 (2011): 2.
  2. Elliot, “Socal-scientific Criticism,” 2.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid., 4.
  5. Michael Gorman, Elements of Biblical Exesis: A Basic Guide for Students and Ministers (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2010), 67.
  6. Elliot, “Socal-scientific Criticism,” 5.
  7. Ibid., 5.
  8. Ibid., 5.
  9. Bible Gateway, “Paul’s Request,” Biblegateway. Web.
  10. Bible Gateway, “Philemon,” Biblegateway. Web.
  11. Bible Gateway, “Paul’s Request.”
  12. Bible Gateway, “Philemon.”
  13. Matt Dabbs, “Paul’s Letter to Philemon – Historical Background,” Mattdabbs(blog). Web.
  14. Beverly Gaventa and David Petersen, The New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville, TN: Abington Press, 2010), 78.
  15. Judith Ryan, Philippians and Philemon (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2009), 47.
  16. Scott Redd, “Literary Analysis of Paul’s Letter to Philemon: An Analysis of Paul’s Use of Poetic Devices to Appeal to Philemon Conscience,” Thirdmill. Web.
  17. Redd, “Literary Analysis of Paul’s Letter.”
  18. John Knoles, “Philemon: Christian Diplomacy,” Nativemarriage. Web.
  19. Knoles, “Philemon: Christian Diplomacy.”
  20. Ibid.