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)

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