The Letter to Philemon
A review of Joseph Fitzmyer's, "The Letter to Philemon," by Dr. Craig Blomberg.
Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Letter to Philemon. [Anchor Bible] New York and London: Doubleday, 2000. $21.95. xvi + 138 pp. ISBN 0-385-49629-X.
Entire commentaries just on Philemon are few and far between, usually being combined with longer works on Colossians, since both epistles purport to be addressed to the church in that area. The Anchor Bible series, however, has separated the two letters, allowing one of the world’s leading New Testament scholars, Joseph Fitzmyer, now professor emeritus from the Catholic University in Washington D.C. to pen this comparatively short yet very helpful volume, Fitzmyer has already written much longer works on Luke, Acts and Romans for the same series; his volume on Romans often seems closer to Martin Luther in its perspective than to traditional Catholicism and the same is true here, though Philemon raises far fewer major theological issues.
Very cautiously, Fitzmyer favors an Ephesian imprisonment in the mid-50s over the Roman imprisonment in the early 60s with which the narrative of Acts ends as Paul’s location for writing this short letter. He suspects that the term “partner,” used in the context of vv. 17-18 of Philemon may suggest that Paul and Philemon had been business partners of some kind. V. 19 suggests that Paul led Philemon to the Lord even as v. 10 more explicitly demonstrates that Paul was Onesimus’ spiritual father. With several recent studies, Fitzmyer confesses to have changed his mind about the traditional view on Onesimus as a runaway slave (a perspective never stated explicitly in the letter) and prefers instead to see Onesimus and Philemon to have had some kind of domestic quarrel, perhaps involving Onesimus absconding with funds, which led to Onesimus traveling to Paul to request him to fill the role in the Roman culture of amicus domini (“friend of the master”) and intercede on his behalf with Philemon trying to reconcile the two. Because Paul sees Colossians and Ephesians as later pseudonymous writings he thinks Colossians 4:9 reflects a later period when Philemon has indeed set Onesimus free. With a minority of interpreters throughout church history (but including John Calvin), he also suspects that vv. 16 and especially 21 hint that Paul is requesting the converted slave be granted his liberty, in keeping with early church tradition that he did indeed become manumitted and even served as bishop of Ephesus near the turn of the century. This interpretation, like the early church tradition, could of course be true, even if Colossians and Philemon are both Pauline and sent out at the same time to Colossae.
Fitzmyer has good introductory sections as well on literary parallels, especially in the Hellenistic world both to the traditional perspective of Onesimus as a runaway and, in even more detail, complete with primary source materials in Latin and English translation, material germane to the practice of an amicus domini. He treats the vexed issue of slavery briefly but helpfully, finding Paul sowing the seeds, however implicitly, for more full-fledged emancipation at a later date. Like most of the commentaries in this series and especially those by Fitzmyer, there are voluminous bibliographies; indeed they occupy 36 of the 138 pages of main text (and indices account for another 10).
In commenting on the epistle itself, Fitzmyer notes the tact and pastoral sensitivity that Paul adopts, avoiding appeal to his apostolic authority while stressing his desire that Philemon’s co-operation be voluntary. He stresses that this is a public letter, given the address that includes Apphia, Archippus, and the church that meets in Philemon’s house, a mechanism that puts added accountability on Philemon to respond to Paul’s requests. Even in a letter this short, the thanksgiving (vv. 4-7) is unusually rich, introducing eight theological themes, four unique to this section—faith, God’s dedicated people, joy and consolation–and four of which are unpacked in the rest of the epistle–love, the Lord Jesus, sharing, and the good. Curiously Fitzmyer says there are nine altogether but lists only eight. He recognizes that v. 6 is not about evangelism (contra the NIV’s “the sharing of your faith” but rather about the warm interpersonal relationships (koinonia or “fellowship”) that Philemon’s faith produces and thus lead Paul to hope for a positive response to his letter and thus to Onesimus. Fitzmyer adopts the textual reading of presbutes—“old man” in v. 9, noting that if one follows Philo’s definitions of the various terms for men of various ages this would put Paul between 50 and 56 years of age. He suspects the work that Paul would like Onesimus to help him with is evangelization, however.
Overall, one is struck again what a rich collection of themes appears and how many at times subtle nuances of leadership, indeed even mentoring, style can be inferred from this brief letter. This commentary should take its place with Dunn’s and O’Brien’s, both attached to Colossians in the New International Greek Testament and Word Biblical commentary series, respectively, as one of the three most detailed and helpful English language commentaries on Philemon. We are grateful God has granted Fitzmyer as long, healthy and fruitful retirement as he has had thus far and wish for many additional similar years.
Craig L. Blomberg
Professor of New Testament