This blog, by Richard Fellows, discusses historical questions concerning Paul's letters, his co-workers, Acts, and chronology.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Vicky Balabanski on the destination of Philemon

Here I review Vicky Balabanski, "Where is Philemon? The Case for a Logical Fallacy in the Correlation of the Data in Philemon and Colossians 1.1-2; 4.7-18" JSNT 38(2) 131-150 (2015).

Balabanski argues that Philemon was not a resident of Colossae, as is normally supposed. She then goes on to suggest, more controversially, that this view is consistent with the view that Paul wrote Colossians. She imagines Paul writing, from Rome, to Philemon, whom she locates in or near Rome. Then she imagines Paul writing to the Colossians, from Rome, a year or two later.

The problems Balabanski seeks to solve
She collects a few interesting arguments against the usual assumption that both letters were (putatively or actually) written at the same time and sent by the same letter carrier (Tychicus) to the same city (Colossae):

1. Onesimus was a new Christian in Phlm 10, but Col 4:9 seems to take it for granted that the recipients already knew that Onesimus was a believer.

2. Philemon fails to mention Tychicus. "If these letters had been drafted and sent together, one would expect some words about Tychicus as the letter bearer and as the one responsible for the return of Onesimus." (p136)

3. Philemon's home seems closer to Paul than Colossae was to Paul. In Philemon it seems that Onesimus has sought out Paul as a mediator and it is unlikely that he would travel far. Also, if Philemon was written from Rome to Colossae, Paul would not have planned to visit Philemon (Phlm 22) because his intention was to go west to Spain. Col 4:7-9, by contrast, implies that Colossae had a "greater isolation" from Paul (p143).

4. In Col 4:10 Aristarchus is Paul's fellow-prisoner, but in Phlm 23 Epashras has the role.

5. "Archippus is among the recipients of Phlm (Phlm. 2), whereas he is not expected to be among the direct recipients of Col (Col. 4.17)." Perhaps.

6. She writes, "If Philemon were the patron of the Colossian house-church, why would Paul - or a pseudepigraphical author of the greetings we find in Col. 4 - fail to include greetings in Col. 4 to Philemon, and also Apphia?" (p134). I find this argument week. We have no evidence that Philemon was a particularly prominent Christian leader, so his absence from Colossians is not surprising. It is true that Paul mentions "the assembly in your house" (Phlm 2), but that assembly probably consisted of just Philemon's household. See the discussion here. It is also true that Paul calls Philemon his "co-worker", but this should not be taken literally, for it is just a piece of "idealized praise" designed to cajole him into behaving like a co-worker (see Phlm 17).

These are some of the difficulties of correlating Philemon and Colossians. To these we can add the fact that Paul seems to know Philemon well (Phlm 1, 17, 19, 22), but had not been to Colossae.

Problems with Balabanski's solution
1. The greeters in Philemon are Epaphras, Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke. Colossians sends greetings from the same people (as well as the mysterious "Jesus called Justus". This implies that these five men knew both Philemon and the Colossians, which strongly suggests that Philemon lived in or near Colossae. Greetings, in the ancient world, as today, are sent by people who know the recipients. If the two letters were sent to very different locations, it would be a remarkable coincidence that the same five men knew both sets of recipients. If Philemon was in or near Rome and Colossians is genuine, why does Paul not send greetings to Philemon from anyone in Rome who had no special interest in the Colossians?

2. Archippus was in or near Colossae (Col 4:17) and he was also with Philemon (Phlm 2). Balabanski (p137-8) suggests that Archippus may have been sent by Paul to Colossae (or nearby) in the interval between the writing of the two letters. This would be another remarkable coincidence.

3.  Col 4:9 has Onesimus travel to Colossae, and Phlm 12 sends Onesimus to Philemon. Onesimus was Philemon's slave and Col 4:9 presents him as a Colossian ("one of you"). Balabanski (p138-41) suggests, without evidence, that Onesimus may have been a resident of Colossae at an earlier time than his residence with Philemon near Rome. Another remarkable coincidence.

So, all 7 men who are associated with Philemon (Epaphras, Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, Luke, Archippus, and Onesimus) were also associated with Colossae in Colossians. We can therefore be confident that Philemon was in or near Colossae, if Colossians was written by Paul.

4. The 7 volumes of the Lexicon of Greek Personal names lists 62 women called Apphia between 100BC and 200AD. All but 4 of these are in the two volumes that cover coastal Asia minor (inland Asia minor is not yet available). Colossae itself has not been excavated, but from nearby Aphrodisias we know of 89 women in the time period, and 13 of them were called Apphia. That is a staggering 15%. Lightfoot wrote, "It is impossible to doubt that Apphia is a native Phrygian name." The spacial distribution of the name Apphria is a further connection between Philemon and Colossae, or at least its province.

I cannot think of a way to overcome these 4 problems simultaneously, but perhaps someone else can.


  1. Vicky Balabanski has responded to this blog post here. See also my comment there.

  2. It's clear that Philemon and Paul have friends in common and that Philemon is close to Paul (I hear about your love...), but I think that Philemon was written from Ephesus, not from Rome. Therefore, Philemon's house is probably near Ephesus, but not in Colossae.