How does an understanding of Roman Slavery in the first century help one understand what Paul is saying in the book of Philemon?

Yesterday I posted the Historical Background of  Philemon, but you may have noticed there was something missing. Clearly, the issue of slavery is central to the book of Philemon and I included very little information about that institution in the Roman Empire at the time of Paul. I did this intentionally, to single out this issue and approach it with a narrowed focus.

The Roman law of slavery at this time was extremely intricate, and slaves were regularly treated inhumanely and the average condition of a slave was horrendous.[1] Considering the average condition of a slave being horrendous, one can conclude from the following papyrus quote from AD 298 that no practical limits existed for slave masters to express their anger on runaways. “[A]nd when you a [slave-catcher] find him [a fugitivius] you are to deliver him up, having the same powers as I should have myself, if present to […], imprison him, chastise him, and to make an accusation before the proper authorities against those who harbored him, and demand satisfaction.”[2]

We can see in the New Testament that slavery was not yet abolished or opposed by Christians, at this time. Paul instructs both slaves and masters on how to work and behave in Colossians 3:22-4:1: “Slaves, in all things obey those who are your masters on earth, not with external service, as those who merely please men, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord. Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance. It is the Lord Christ whom you serve. For he who does wrong will receive the consequences of the wrong which he has done, and that without partiality. Masters, grant to your slaves justice and fairness, knowing that you too have a Master in heaven. ” As you can see, Paul doesn’t suggest slavery should be banned, nor does he really state he’s opposed to it. He tells the church that slaves should obey and serve both their masters and the Lord. He also tells the church that the masters should treat their slaves justly and fairly, like God treats them.

Given the disrespect paid to slaves by the secular, Roman culture and even the Christian view of slavery; for Paul to request that Onesimus not only be freed, but seen as an equal brother in Christ, (Philemon 16) would have been radical in Roman society at that time.

                [1] McNaughton, Ian S. Opening up Colossians and Philemon. Opening Up Commentary. Leominster: Day One Publications, 2006.

                [2] Cho, B. “Subverting Slavery : Philemon, Onesimus, and Paul’s Gospel of Reconciliation.” Evangelical Quarterly 86, no. 2 (2014): 99-115. New Testament Abstracts, EBSCOhost (accessed October 27,

Historical Background of Philemon

The need for researching and the benefits of understanding the historical background helps inform a proper interpretation of the text of Scripture.

Here I have researched the historical background of Philemon that sets the stage for other studies of Philemon I’m going to post later on.


About the Author: Paul

Family Heritage:

  • His parents were strictly observant Jews living in the city of Tarsus, the prosperous capital of Cilicia, a province of the Roman Empire.
  • His Jewish name was “Saul”.

Educational Background:

  • He could write Greek and probably knew Hebrew or Aramaic.
  • In his adolescence, Paul studied the Jewish scriptures under famous Jewish rabbi Gamaliel.
  • He knew the scriptures well enough to quote them by memory.

Occupational Skills:

  • Paul was a tent maker.

Cultural Advantages:

  • Paul was not just a resident but a citizen of Tarsus, which suggests that his family was wealthy. He also claimed Roman citizenship by birth, a status that carried considerable prestige.

Religious Experiences:

  • He declared that he was “a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees.” (Acts 23:6, NASB)
  • He stated that he was “advancing in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries among my countrymen, being more extremely zealous for my ancestral traditions.” (Galatians 1:14, NASB95)
  • His religious zealotry led him to persecute Christians.
  • At one point, Paul was determined to go to Demascus to persecute more Christians: “Now Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest, and asked for letters from him to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, both men and women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.” (Acts 9:1–2, NASB95)
  • On the way to Demascus, Paul was confronted by Jesus and blinded by Him. This experience showed Paul that the claims that Jesus was the Messiah and rose from the dead were true. During this confrontation, Jesus gave Paul instructions to fulfill a radically different mission in life. That mission was to preach the Gospel of Jesus.
  • Paul continued to Demascus and was healed of his blindness, baptized, and then began to preach the Gospel in the Jewish synagogues.
  • Paul began traveling around the region preaching the Gospel and even returning to check on some of the new Christian communities he planted.
  • Paul also wrote letters to churches and individuals, including Philemon. Paul ended up writing more books of the Bible than any other author.
  • While living out his new mission, he faced remarkable persecution that included house arrest and several imprisonments. The book of Philemon was written during one of his imprisonments in Rome.

About the Audience:


Who is he?

  • Philemon was the host of a house church in Colossae and used his own house as their meeting location. (vv. 1–2)
  • Philemon is the slave master of Onesimus.

Where is he located?

  • The probable location of Philemon is Colossae.

When did the writing take place?

  • The epistle was written about the time when Paul was imprisoned in Rome (A.D. 63-65).

What is his situation?

  • It is believed that Philemon’s slave, Onesimus had either run away or had done something to cause Philemon to be upset with him.

Apphia & Archippus

People associated with Philemon. (vv. 1-2)

Colossae Church

Paul is referring to the Christians who were meeting in Philemon’s house at the time. (vv. 1-2)

Observational Chart of Habakkuk

One of the things I’ve learned to do when reading the Bible is charting a passage or book. Here I have observed the entire book of Habakkuk and recorded my observations in the form of a chart. This Bible study technique is helpful to get all your observations organized so you can see how the narrative connects in the big picture. I hope you enjoy.

Observational Chart of Habakkuk

Habakkuk 2:4

Why Surrendered and Free?

I’m a Christ-follower and my story is the story of both surrender and freedom. I have grown up in the church and made the decision to get baptized in high school. That was my first moment of surrender, but I have come to find there are multiple levels of surrender when it comes to following Christ; and with each new level of surrender comes a new level of freedom. My next pivotal moment of surrender came when I was in Israel. After a series of events, I knew that I was trying too hard to control my life. Thankfully, when this dawned on me, I was at a point in the trip where we were visiting the Jordan River. I made the decision to become re-baptized in the Jordan River and surrender my control to God. When I came up out of the water, it was like I was taking my first breath as a brand new, more purposeful follower. This feeling came with so much freedom because I knew I had given everything to God and He was big enough to handle it. That new level of surrender, and new level of freedom started a major domino affect in my life. When I got back from the trip, one thing lead to another and I have found myself enrolled as a student at Dallas Theological Seminary and pursuing a ministry career. A lot of people ask me how seminary is going and what I’m learning. My goal for this blog is to share a little bit of what I’m learning along the way. My prayer is that this information leads to someone else’s transformation; and someone else can reach a new level of surrender and freedom in Christ.