The Letter to Philemon
Publisher Yale University Press
The apostle Paul's letter to his friend and fellow Christian Philemon, which focuses on the question of slavery, has long inspired debate. Onesimus, one of Philemon's slaves and a Christian himself, has left his master's house and sought refuge with Paul. In a letter to Philemon, Paul assures his friend that he is sending Onesimus back into captivity, but pleads for mercy on the slave's behalf, asking Philemon to treat him as a beloved brother and as he would treat the apostle.Examining Paul's letter within the context of the social, political, and economic realities of the times, Fitzmyer sheds light on the question of whether Paul was suggesting that Onesimus be granted freedom from slavery or whether he was simply advocating a lenient treatment of this particular slave. His insights not only clarify Paul's position but show why the letter is relevant in the Church today.
This book appears in the following featured collections.
- Favorite Advanced Commentaries (NT) by Jeremy Pierce (parableman)
- Recommended NT Commentaries by Denver Seminary Journal
- New Testament Commentaries & Monographs by Princeton Theological Seminary
Standard academic commentary by a renowned Roman Catholic NT scholar. [Full Review]
Philemon is so often treated as an appendix to Colossians, and gets a few dozen pages at the back of another commentary which focuses much more attention and space to Colossians (obviously Colossians will require more pages given the difference in length, but I find many Philemon commentaries treat it as less important). The Anchor Bible editors made the welcome, but bold choice to have a separate volume dedicated to Philemon, and should be applauded for allowing this potent little letter to be handled well, and given full attention by a gifted scholar. Fitzmyer has published in the AB series several times, and so is able to work well in a format which isn't as user friendly as some others, so in this case the layout doesn't become distracting. The detailed intro gives a solid overview of the history of interpretation and the difficulties of reconstructing the situation the letter is addressing. Although AB is a more critical and academic series, this volume is still relevant for pastors. Most of the difficult issues of the historical situation is in the intro, so Fitzmyer's exegesis of the text doesn't get sidetracked. At just over 120 pages (before indexes) it feels like the right length for an in depth, but still usable treatment. Highly recommended.
Unlike Barth and Blanke, Fitzmyer’s commentary on Philemon is more or less the length that one would expect. At only 138 pages (78 of which are introduction), the commentary is tiny in comparison to Barth and Blanke’s girth. Fitzmyer was chosen to replace Barth who died before completing the commentary on Philemon. Fitzmyer had written the article on Philemon for both the Jerome Bible Commentary in 1968 and the revised New Jerome Bible Commentary in 1990, so he was prepared to expand his work for the Anchor volume. His introduction has a mere 8 pages on slavery, but it is enough to set the context of the letter. More important is Fitzmyer’s survey of the occasion and purpose of the letter. Fitzmyer argues that Paul is serving as a friendly intermediary (amicus domini), attempting to exert some influence over Philemon and reconciling him with Onesimus. As evidence, he includes several letters from Pliny which serve a similar purpose. This explanation of the letter has been widely accepted. The body of the commentary begins with a fresh translation, followed by comments and notes. He treats the Greek through transliteration, commenting on lexical and syntactical matters, as well as text-critical issues. As with Fiztmyer’s other commentaries for the Anchor series, he concludes each section with a bibliography which includes English and international scholars. [Full Review]
Stand alone commentaries on Philemon are few and far between (Barth & Blanke being another), which has caused Fitzmyer's work to fall between the cracks. Fitzmyer offers some interesting thoughts regarding the occasion of the letter. He argues that Onesimus has not run away from Philemon, but rather is seeking Paul to intervene on his behalf, though the letter doesn't tell us what problem arose between Onesimus and Philemon. Paul is writing from an Ephesian imprisonment, probably a few years before he writes Colossians (where Onesimus is mentioned as a faithful brother). He also has an informative discussion on slavery in Paul's time. If you're working through Philemon or even studying the institution of slavery in NT times, you should definitely consult Fitzmyer.