|A Roman slave tag.
The inscription says, "Hold me, if I run-off, and return me to my master Viventius on the estate of Callistus."
British Museum, 1975,0902.6.
A runaway slave, in the Greek world, might take refuge in the house of someone whom he had met at his master's, and beg his new protector not to send him back. If he made a good impression, he might be a cause of some embarrassment to his protector, who would either have to keep the slave against the wishes of his former master, or send him back to certain punishment; and if the two men were friends, this might be a genuinely difficult decision. We happen to possess two letters of the Latin writer Pliny which are concerned with precisely this dilemma. Pliny, like Paul, solved it by sending back the culprit with a carefully worded letter in which he asked his friend to receive the slave kindly. This letter of Paul's is of exactly the same kind.
Yet it is not entirely personal. It appears to have been written at the same time as the letter to the Colossians, and the greetings at the beginning and end (with the addition only of an otherwise unknown Apphia (1) and of Philemon himself) make mention of almost the same names. It looks, then, as if Philemon lived at Colossae; and this is confirmed by the statement in Colossians (4.9) that Onesimus was also a native of that city. In writing to Philemon, therefore, Paul writes to him not merely as an individual friend but as a member of the Colossian church; and, like his letter to that church, his letter to Philemon opens with thanksgiving and prayer, using indeed a number of the same phrases (compare especially Philemon 4-6 with Colossians 1.3-9).
The transition to personal matters is made in verse 7. Writing in Christ (8) as an apostle to a member of a church, Paul could have used a tone of authority—I might make bold to point out your duty. But he prefers to put the matter as tactfully as he can, and even puts off mentioning the culprit's name as long as possible. He refrains from invoking the power of an apostle, or even the gentler persuasion of an ambassador ... of Christ Jesus (9).The complication here, which makes this a very different case from that of most runaway slaves, is that Paul has converted Onesimus to Christianity (a process which Paul more than once compares to becoming father of a child, as in 1 Corinthians 4.15). This makes it harder for Paul to part with him, since he now has a personal tie with him, and his conversion has made him, as his name would suggest, now useful indeed (11). (There seems to be a pun on the Greek word onesimos, "useful", though Onesimus was a common name for slaves.) But Paul would not wish to keep him without Philemon's consent, and so he adopts the only other possible course, that of sending him back (12). The remainder of the letter is a plea for humane treatment of him, not however on grounds of common humanity, but for the much more serious reason that, having become a Christian, Onesimus is now more than a slave ... a dear brother (16). Paul even offers to make good any property which Onesimus, in his flight, may have stolen from his master— though, as an apostle to a Christian convert, he hardly expects this to be required!
Philemon's answer to Paul's letter is not preserved, and we do not know the sequel. Early in the second century there was a bishop of Ephesus named Onesimus; but that it was the same Onesimus, duly reformed and reinstated, and growing up to a position of authority in the church, is no more than an intriguing possibility.