erQ 74 (2010): 289-305
Philemon in the Context of Paul's Travels
John G. Nordling
II And at the same time also, prepare for me a guest room [hotlla~E 1l0L
~Evtav]; for I expect that through your prayers [£AJtt~(J) ya.p on bLa. nov
JtPOOE1JXwv UIlWV] I will be graciously given to you [xapWe~Oollm uIlLV]"
Here Paul expresses a confidence in Philemon and in those Christians
who comprised Philemon's family and home congregation. He expects
(£AJtL~(J) that through their repeated prayers at worship he will be
graciously restored to them all as a gift (xapWe~Oollm).2 The passage
presumes both that Paul would go to where Philemon and his
congregation were located (Colossae, in southwest Asia Minor), and that
Philemon and the congregation that assembled in his IIhouse" (olKov, 2b)
would provide for the travelling apostle suitable IIhospitality" (i;Evta; Lat.
hospitium)-a word that could mean a IIguest room" in Philemon's house,3
1 As translated by John G. Nordling in Philemon (Concordia Commentary; St. Louis:
Concordia Publishing House, 2004), 148, 281. An earlier version of this article was read
at the Michigan District North and East Pastors' Conference (Bad Axe, Michigan, May 8,
2007). The article depends in large measure on ideas presented originally in Nordling,
2 Nordling, Philemon, 285-286: "In the NT xap[~o!-tm usually means 'to give freely
as a favor, give graciously' [F.W. Danker, W. Bauer, W.F. Arndt, and F.W. Gingrich,
Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3d ed.
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 1078; henceforth BDAG]. The form here is
the first person future passive. Its nuance here has been the topic of much debate.
BDAG  cites Acts 3:14, which refers to Barabbas being set free (xapLOO~vm) and
explains, 'the one who is "given" escapes death or further imprisonment by being
handed over to those who wish him freed.' The Testament of Joseph [1:6] has a similar
verb, xaprto(J): '1 was in prison, and the Savior acted graciously in my behalf [Exaplt(J)OE
!-tE]. I was in bonds, and he loosed me' [as translated by H.C. Kee in James H.
Charlesworth, ed., The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha. Vol. 1, Apocalyptic Literature and
Testaments (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1983), 819]. Thus Paul expects that in answer
to the prayers of Philemon's congregation, God will grant that 'I will be graciously
given to you.' The apostle had called himself a OEO!-tLO;, 'prisoner,' in verses 1 and 9.
Now he anticipates that he will be released from prison and thus free to visit Philemon
and his household in Colossae."
3 G. St1!hIin, "I;EVO; KtA," in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, 15 vols., ed.
GJ. Botterweck, H. Ringgren, and H. Fabry, trans. J.T. Willis, G.W. Bromiley, and D.E. Green
(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974--2006), 5:19, nn. 135-37, supposed the following terms
John G. Nordling is Associate Professor of Exegetical Theology at Concordia
Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, Indiana.
290 Concordia Theological Quarterly 74 (2010)
or the more general "hospitable reception" shown to a traveler.4 Either
way, the passage stands as a perfect illustration of the ubiquity of Paul's
travel in general,s and of the pertinence of the Pauline travel itinerary for
better understanding Paul's letter to Philemon in particular.
In this article I shall first consider the likely location of Philemon's
house-church in Colossae; second, I shall attempt to answer the question of
how the gospel first reached Philemon and his congregation through the
efforts of both Epaphras and Philemon; and third, r shall attempt to
establish a more secure context for the letter by probing social relations
Paul maintained between himself and Christians in the interior of Asia
Minor, the precise numbers of whom cannot now be accurately
determined. The likely scenario suggests that Paul's shortest letter was
more than just a communique urging reconciliation between two feuding
individuals-that is, between Philemon and Onesimus-as is all-too-often
assumed by well-meaning interpreters of the letter who stress the
forgiveness of sins in Christ Jesus, which is certainly an important
emphasis of the letter.6 Nevertheless, there must have been an
acknowledged "communal purpose" to the letter, besides the purely
personal or theological purpose of "fixing up a broken relationship
between an injured master and his slave."7 It bears stressing that Paul
were virtually equivalent to SEVLU in Philemon 22a: "inn" (nuvl)oXELOV, Luke 10:34);
"inn" or "lodging" (Ka1:UA1JI.w, Luke 2:7); "guest-room" (WtUA1JIlU, Mark 14:14; Luke
4 Cf. "hospitality" (qJLAos£vLu, Rom 12:13; Heb 13:2 FSV). Stahlin himself preferred 1 "guest chamber" as an adequate rendering of sEvLu in Philemon 22a in English ("sEvo,;
'CtA," Theological Dictionary of the New Testament 5:20).
5 Based on likely travel itineraries put forward by Luke in the book of Acts alone,
Ronald F. Hock estimated that Paul traveled nearly ten thousand miles during his
reported career, which put him on roads swarming with "government officials, traders,
pilgrims, the sick, letter-carriers, sightseers, runaway slaves, fugitives, prisoners,
athletes, artisans, teachers, and students"; Ronald F. Hock, The Social Context of Paul's
Ministry. Tentmaking and Apostleship (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980), 27. For ancient
travel in general d. Wayne A. Meeks, The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the
Apostle Paul (New Haven, CT; London, UK: Yale University Press, 1983), 16-23; also d.
Uonel Casson, Travel in the Ancient World (Reprint; Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University
Press, 1994), 128-37.
6 Cf., e.g., Nordling, Philemon, 1-2, 300-301, 345-46, etc. Also d. John G. Nordling,
"The Gospel in Philemon," CTQ 71 (2007): 71-83, especially 77, 78, 80, 81-82.
7 John G. Nordling, "Some Matters Favouring the Runaway Slave Hypothesis in
Philemon," Neotestamentica 44.1 (2010): 114. Others who have stressed the communal, as
opposed to the merely personal, nature of the letter are Sara C. Winter, "Methodological l Observations on a New Interpretation of Paul's Letter to Philemon," Union Seminaryr Quarterly Review 39 (1984): 206; Norman R. Petersen, Rediscovering Paul: Philemon and thef
Nordling: Philemon in the Context of Paul's Travels 291
would have been passionately concerned for the vitality of the larger
congregation of which Philemon and Onesimus were a part, and
doubtlessly also for the good of Christians still further removed from those
assumed by the letter-that is, of Christians known to have existed in the
Lycus river valley (where Colossae was located), and probably of
Christians who were located in Galatia still further east. Thus, some
awareness of ancient travel, the geographical location of Colossae in
relation to other cities in Roman Asia, and social networks extending far
beyond the leading dramatis personae of the letter do much to shed light on
the quite complicated reasons for which Paul wrote to Philemon and the
congregation in the first place.
I. The Location of Philemon's House-Church
Where would Philemon's house-church have been located? The
answer to this question is provided not so much in Philemon itself as in the
letter to which Philemon has most often been connected - that is,
Colossians. Many suspect a close connection between Paul's letters to
Philemon and the Colossians8 for reasons to which we cannot do full
justice here;9 let us at least consider, however, one powerful proof for the
close connection of the two letters. It happens that the epistolary
conclusions of Philemon and Colossians share five of six names listed in
the final greeting. So Philemon 23-24 records the final greetings of
Epaphras, Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke; likewise, Colossians 4:10
14 records the final greetings of Aristarchus, Mark, Jesus "who is called
Justus" (0 A€y6!!€vo~ 'Ioil(Jto~, Col 4:11a), Epaphras, Luke, and Demas.1°
Despite the absence of "Jesus who is called Justus," the final greeting in
Philemon shares five out of the six names listed in Colossians, a
remarkable correspondence between the two letters. The shared names
must indicate that the five individuals in the two epistolary conclusions
were the same people, for there could not easily have been separate
Epaphrases, Marks, Aristarchuses, Demases, and Lukes in both letters.
Thus, the five identical names, together with still other names that connect
Sociology of Paul's Narrative World (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985), 65-78; Larry J.
Kreitzer, Philemon (Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2008), 13.
8 In addition to most commentaries, d. John Knox, "Philemon and the Authenticity
of Colossians," Journal ofReligion 18 (1938): 144-160; and John Knox, Philemon among the
Letters of Paul. A New View of its Place and Importance, Rev. ed. (New York: Abingdon,
9 But d. Nordling, Philemon, 324-328.
10 Cf. fig. 11 in Nordling, Philemon, 320 ("A Comparison of Philemon 23-24 and
292 Concordia Theological Quarterly 74 (2010)
the two letters,l1 forge an "inseparable connection" between Philemon and
Colossians, the evidence of which"cannot lightly be swept aside./112
Paul apparently had not yet been to Colossae when he wrote that
Philemon should "prepare a guest room [1;EvLav]" for him in Philemon's
house (Phlm 22a). That Paul had not yet been to Colossae is supported by
two considerations. First, when Paul wrote the letter to the Colossians, he
II stated that certain Christians at Colossae and Laodicea had not yet "seen
I my [Paul's] face in the flesh [OVx Mpm:av to JtpoowJtov !lOll £v oapdr
I (Col 2:1b). This small detail indicates to many13 that while Paul was certainly known to the saints at Colossae and Laodicea, a majority of
Christians there had not actually seen Paul in the flesh, since the notion of
seeing someone's "face" (to JtpoowJtov, Col 2:1) in the Pauline corpus
expresses the immediacy of a personal encounter (d. 1 Cor 13:12; 2 Cor
10:1, 7; Gal 1:22; 2:11; 1 Thess 2:17; 3:10).14 Such instances may go back to
the biblical idiom of seeing someone "face-to-face/' such as occurs, e.g., in
Genesis 46:30: "Israel said to Joseph, 'Now let me die, since I have seen your
face and know that you are still alivelll (ESV, emphasis added).15
Second, although Acts records that Paul had passed through other
regions of Asia Minor on previous occasions,16 there is no evidence to
suggest that he had passed through Colossae itself before writing the letter
to Philemon. In Acts 16:6 Paul and his entourage were hindered by divine
impulse from preaching the Word in Asia (i.e., in Ephesus), so Paul could
not have passed through Colossae at that time. In Acts 19:1 Paul did
indeed reach Ephesus, yet he did so by way of the so-called "upper
regiOns" (tU UVWtEPLICU !lEPTJ), a phrase that probably refers to a route
farther north that skirted Colossae by about twenty-five miles.!? Perhaps
fatigue compelled Paul to traverse this northern route "over the hills"18
11 E.g., Timothy (Phlm 1; Col 1:1); Archippus (phlm 2; Col 4:17); Onesimus (phlm
10; Col 4:9).
12 Donald Guthrie, New Testament Itltroduction, 3d ed. (Downers Grove, IL: Inter
Varsity Press, 1970), 554.
13 See the list of twelve scholars in Nordling, Philemon, 20 n. 2.
14 So James D,G. Dunn, The Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon: A Commentary
on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 129, on the basis of the passages
provided in the parenthesis.
15 So Douglas J. Moo, The Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon (Pillar New
Testament Commentary; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 20OS), 164.
16 Cf. Acts 13:13-14, 51; 14:20-21, 24-25; 15:41; 16:1, 4, 7-8; 18:23.
17 So F.F. Bruce, The Acts of the Apostles: TIle Greek Text with Introduction and
Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1951), 353.
18 So A. Souter, "Roads and Travel," in Dictionary of the Apostolic Church, ed. James
Hastings, John A. Selbie, and John C. Lambert (New York: Scribner, 1918), 2:3%-397; d.
Nordling: Philemon in the Context of Paul's Travels 293
and thus avoid the more heavily congested road through Colossae farther
Nevertheless, it seems quite possible that Philemon could have seen
Paul "in the flesh" on some prior occasion (or occasions), even if the
apostle had not yet passed through the exact part of Asia Minor where
Philemon lived. Even if Paul had not seen Philemon in Colossae on an
earlier occasion, Philemon could plausibly have seen Paul in the place
where that apostle lived and taught for more than two years (Acts 19:10; d.
19:8)-namely, in Ephesus, the great metropolis of Roman Asia. Acts 19:10
does not mention Philemon by name but does state that during Paul's
lengthy sojourn in Ephesus"all [n:aVta~] the residents of Asia heard the
Word of the Lord [(u:oilom tOY A6yov toil ICUpLOU], both Jews and Greeks"
(ESV; emphasis added). By his use of the word "all" here Luke may
perhaps be engaging in overstatement,19 but his words need mean no more
than that people from throughout the entire province of Roman Asia-and
perhaps beyond-heard the gospel at Ephesus during the public lectures
Paul himself delivered in the hall of Tyrannus (6LaAEy6I-lEVO~ EV tfi oxoAfi