Paul’s Epistle to Philemon is the shortest of the apostle’s letters preserved in the Bible. It is comprised of just one chapter which spans 25 verses. Written from a prison in Rome, it broaches a very sensitive subject: the delicate case of Philemon’s runaway slave, Onesimus (Philemon 1:10-21).
Despite the epistle’s title, Paul addresses the letter not only to Philemon but to three individuals and their church (Philemon 1:1-2).
Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,This marks the last reference to a house church in the New Testament.
To Philemon our beloved brother and fellow worker, and to Apphia our sister, and to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house. (Philemon 1:1-2 NASB)
Philemon’s co-recipients, Apphia and Archippus, are obscure (Philemon 1:2). Mitzi J. Smith (b. 1957) speculates:
Archippus and Apphia may function as two witnesses (as freed or freeborn persons) to the reconciliation that Paul proposes and signs (Philemon 1:19). Slaves could function as witnesses only under torture. (Carol A. Newsom [b. 1950], Sharon H. Ringe [b. 1946] and Jacqueline E. Lapsley [b. 1965], Women’s Bible Commentary: Revised and Updated, 606)Though it is not stated in the text, traditionally Apphia and Archippus are thought of as Philemon’s wife and son respectively. Paul’s silence on the matter has led to much speculation. As countless situations comedies have demonstrated, the number of possible connections between two guys and a girl is virtually limitless.
Carolyn Osiek (b. 1940) surveys:
It is possible that Apphia is Philemon’s wife and Archippus his brother, or that all three are unmarried siblings in the same household, or if married, their spouses do not share the faith. It is less likely that Apphia is the wife of Archippus, since wives would not normally be named before their husbands (but see Prisca and Aquila in Acts 18:26; Romans 16:23; II Timothy 4:19 in contrast to I Corinthians 16:19). Of course, it is also possible that only one of the three hosts the house-church and the other two are the only other members of it that Paul knows. If Onesimus is Philemon’s brother as Allen Dwight Callahan [b. 1957]...argues, the addressees would be aware that his name is conspicuously missing from the list. Perhaps the two men, Philemon and Archippus, have a history of apostolic work known to Paul that Apphia does not share for Paul is not reluctant to name women who have worked in ministerial roles (e.g., Romans 16:3, 6, 12; Philippians 4:2-3), and his title for her is the simple way he would address any female believer. What we can say for certain is that the house is in the name of one person, most likely Philemon, since the house is referred to in Philemon 1:2 as “your (singular) house.” (Osiek, Philippians & Philemon (Abingdon New Testament Commentaries), 134)The tradition that Philemon and Apphia are husband and wife has persisted for centuries. In his first homily on Philemon, John Chrysostom (347-407) preaches:
It seems to me that she [Apphia] was his [Philemon’s] partner in life. Observe the humility of Paul; he both joins Timothy with him in his request, and asks not only the husband, but the wife also, and some one else, perhaps a friend. (Chysostom, “Homily I”, Saint Chrysostom’s Homilies on Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Thessalonians, Timothy, Titus and Philemon (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Volume 13), 547)The traditional explanation that Philemon and Apphia are married is unsubstantiated but is a natural reading of the text. As such, the majority of contemporary commentators accept it and none can refute it. If this interpretation is correct, like Aquila and Priscilla, Philemon and Apphia are co-hosts of a house church (Romans 16:3-5; I Corinthians 16:19).
Apphia appears only here in the Bible (Philemon 1:2) making her one of only two women to be directly addressed in a New Testament epistle (Philemon 1:2; II John 1:1).
Richard R. Melick, Jr. (b. 1944) introduces:
The second addressee is Apphia, “our sister.” The name occurs often in extra-biblical sources and was a distinctively Phrygian name. She obviously had a Christian commitment since Paul called her a “sister.” From the way he addressed her, apparently she was well-known to him also. Could she have served with Philemon and Paul? Apphia was probably Philemon’s wife. Two factors suggest that: the warm, personal tone of the letter, which addresses house matters, and the close contextual connection with Philemon. (Melick, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon (The New American Commentary), 350)The name Apphia is Phrygian (present-day Turkey) in origin and is found frequently in western Asia Minor, including Colossae, where tradition holds that Philemon resided.
F.F. Bruce (1910-1990) reviews:
The name Apphia (not to be confused with the Roman Appia) is well attested in Phrygia and elsewhere in Western Anatolia: one Apphia of Colossae is commemorated on a tombstone set up by her husband Hermas. (Bruce, The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians (New International Commentary on the New Testament), 206)Paul distinguishes Apphia as “our sister” (Philemon 1:2). James D.G. Dunn (b. 1939) analyzes:
She is called literally “the sister” (as Timothy was called “the brother”). This presumably means that she also was a Christian, “our sister”...In contrast to the masculine ἀδελφος [“brother”]...the feminine is rarely used for members of religious associations. This is surprising, since women were active in religious cults of the time, particularly that of Isis. Nevertheless, the designation of a woman who also believed in Christ as “sister” seems to have been particularly characteristic of Christianity (Romans 16:1; I Corinthians 7:15, 9:5; James 2:15; Ignatius, Polycarp 5:1; II Clement 12:5, 19:1, 20:2; The Shepherd of Hermas, Visions 2.2.3, 2.3.1). Although the masculine still predominates in the New Testament and is often used in the plural when a congregation made up of both sexes is addressed (as in Colossians 1:2), the fact that the feminine is used, as here, does suggest that a serious attempt was made (and not least within the Pauline circle) to treat women as individuals and Christians in their own right. (Dunn, The Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon (New International Greek Testament Commentary, 311-12)Bonnie B. Thurston (b. 1952) and Judith M. Ryan (1952-2010) add:
She, like “the brother” Timothy (Philemon 1:1) is similarly introduced as tē adelphē, best translated as “our sister” as it is modified by the possessive pronoun hēmōn (“our”) that also modifies “our fellow soldier.”...Even if Apphia had been Philemon’s wife with management over the household, the use of tē adelphē could serve to focus attention on Apphia’s role as a Christian of influence within the local church that is to welcome Onesimus back home. Deliberate placement of “the sister” in tandem with “the brother” for Timothy could suggest some parity with respect to the importance and/or influence within the community. Like Phoebe, who is also described as adelphē (Romans 16:1), Apphia is thought to be among Paul’s coworkers...A few manuscripts such as D, and a number of miniscules either replace “sister” with “beloved” or, like manuscript 629, add beloved to sister adelphē tē agapētē. Such changes could reflect assimilation to “beloved” in the previous verse...“Brother” and “sister” are the forms of expressions Paul normally employs to describe both his own coworkers and Christians in general (e.g, Romans 8:29; I Corinthians 3:1). With already existing roots in the Old Testament tradition (Deuteronomy 15:3) and especially given Jesus’ own emphasis (Mark 3:34)...such familial terms are likely to be the earliest ones used by Christians in distinguishing themselves as followers of Jesus Christ. This is certainly a traditional understanding Paul builds upon in forming such close-knit communities (Romans 8:14-16; Galatians 4:5-7). (Thurston and Ryan, Philippians and Philemon (Sacra Pagina), 212)As Thurston and Ryan allude, some manuscripts identify Apphia as “beloved sister” which would parallel “beloved brother” Philemon (Philemon 1:1, 2).
Conjecture has derived from Apphia’s designation as “our sister” (Philemon 1:2). Ross S. Kraemer (b. 1948) shares:
Mary Rose D’Angelo [b. 1946] has suggested that “sister” may sometimes designate the female partner of a female-male missionary team. Read from this perspective, Apphia might have been part of such a team, perhaps with Philemon, affiliated with the church in Archippus’s house. (Carol L. Meyers [b. 1942], Toni Craven [b. 1944] and Kraemer, Women in Scripture: A Dictionary of Named and Unnamed Women in the Hebrew Bible, the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books, and the New Testament, 53)The one conclusive fact that can be drawn from Paul’s use of “sister” is that Apphia is a believer.
The most common status given Apphia is the traditional belief that she is Philemon’s wife. As the epistle speaks to a domestic matter, if Apphia is indeed Philemon’s wife, Paul addresses her not only as a matter of courtesy but also practicality.
David E. Garland (b. 1947) construes:
As the paterfamilias, the male head of the family, Philemon had absolute authority over all others in the household, and Paul need only deal with him. But since wives were charged with running the affairs of the household, Apphia would have a stake in the disposition of the case concerning their slave. Apphia must also be convinced that this is the right thing to do. (Garland, Colossians, Philemon (NIV Application Commentary), 317)Sabine Bieberstein (b. 1962) finds the inference that Apphia is Philemon’s wife to be biased:
It is true that the text does not completely rule out this interpretation, but, on the other hand, neither does it give the interpretation any sign of support...The text...has no interest in identifying Apphia as Philemon’s wife. This interpretation is more in keeping with an androcentric way of characterizing women. It involves the danger of reducing women to the functions they perform in a patriarchal household, underestimating their independent role in the early churches and construing their significance as merely derivative. (Luise Schottroff [b. 1934] and Marie-Theres Wacker [b. 1952], “Philemon: A Reading under Apphia’s Critical Eyes”, Feminist Biblical Interpretation: A Compendium of Critical Commentary on the Books of the Bible and Related Literature, 849-50)Archippus’ relationship to his fellow addressees is even more tenuous than is Apphia’s. In lieu of the presumed family context, some have assigned him the role of Philemon’s son.
Archippus’ name means “commander (or master) of the horse” and he is deemed a “fellow soldier” (Philemon 1:2). Isobel A.H. Combes prefaces:
Archippus is mentioned again in Colossians 4:17. Here he appears as a follower of Epaphras and some ancient authorities hold that he succeeded Epaphras as bishop—he is mentioned in the Apostolic Constitutions 7.46 as the bishop of Laodicea. The designation fellow soldier is unusual for Paul and only used by him in one other place (cf. Philippians 2:25). (Craig A. Evans [b. 1952], Acts-Philemon (Bible Knowledge Background Commentary), 693)The appellation “fellow soldier” is unique. James D.G. Dunn (b. 1939) inspects:
We must assume at least that he [Archippus] is mentioned here either because he was a member of Philemon’s household or because he was the only other member of the church currently in Colossae to be active in ministry, at least so as to warrant the title “fellow soldier”...The designation “our [Paul’s and Timothy’s] fellow soldier” is applied only to Ephraphoditus elsewhere in the Pauline corpus (Philippians 2:25). Paul does not use military metaphors for Christian service as much as is sometimes assumed: only, strictly speaking, in II Corinthians 10:1-6, itself not particularly typical of Paul’s concept of mission (Otto Bauernfeind [1889-1972], TDNT 5.710-11). The image evoked by the use of συνστρατιώτης (“comrade-in-arms,” NEB/REB) here and in Philippians 2:15, therefore, is probably more that of dedication and discipline than of fierceness and warlike behavior. It probably indicates not that Archippus had been one of Paul’s mission team as such (“fellow worker”), but that he had, like Epaphroditus, served under the banner of the gospel in a more independent commission, perhaps in Laodicea...though in a cooperative and mutually supportive role with Paul. (Dunn, The Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon (New International Greek Testament Commentary, 312-13)Robert McLachlan Wilson (1916-2010) supplements:
Archippus is addressed in Philemon 1:2 as συνστρατιώτης [“fellow soldier”], and in Colossians 4:17 is charged to look to the διακονία [“ministry”] which he has received. This would seem to imply some degree of seniority, which in turn would mean, if he was Philemon’s son, that Philemon himself would be fairly well on in years. J.B. Lightfoot [1828-1899]...suggests that Archippus was a presbyter, or perhaps ‘belonged to the order of “evangelists”’, and locates his ministry at Laodicea; but this is inference, and...not explicitly stated in the text. (Wilson, Colossians and Philemon (International Critical Commentary), 319-20)There are many traditions concerning Archippus’ identity. Marianne Meye Thompson (b. 1954) relays:
On the assumption that Philemon and Apphia are husband and wife, Archippus is sometimes identified as their son, an assumption wryly characterized by J.L. Houlden [b. 1929] as “an instance of legend active when history fails.” Other early commentators thought of Archippus as “one of the clergy” (Chrystostom [347-407])...the bishop of the church at Colossae (Jerome [347-420]) and a deacon of the church (Pelagius [354-420]). Archippus is surely the one to whom is given the cryptic instruction “See that you complete the task that you have received in the Lord” (Colossians 4:17). Paul’s further reference to him as “our fellow soldier,” a term used of Epaphroditus in Philippians 2:25, suggests a joint effort in the service of the gospel. So Archippus was apparently a coworker of Paul with some responsibility in the affairs of the house church in view here. (Thompson, Colossians and Philemon (Two Horizons New Testament Commentary), 209)John Knox (1900-1990) provocatively propagated a theory that Archippus, not Philemon was the intended recipient of the Epistle to Philemon, which Knox argues is the lost letter from Laodicea (Colossians 4:16). Knox posits that Archippus leads the church in Colossae and is Onesimus’ master and that Paul is soliciting funds from Philemon and Apphia to influence Archippus. The theory has become widely known but largely discredited.
Markus Barth (1915-1994) and Helmut Blanke (b. 1955) summarily reject:
In the middle of the nineteenth century, and most vigorously since 1927, it has been proposed that Archippus rather than Philemon was the owner of Onesimus, and that Philemon lived in Laodicea, a major center with which the tiny and insignificant Colossae never could compare. Bold and interlocking reasons are proffered by John Knox in his book Philemon among the Letters of Paul, 1935...in favor of these two theories...It would be completely unusual to mention in Philemon 1:1-2 the real addressee only at the third place, after Philemon and Apphia. There is no solid evidence to demonstrate that Archippus was the main person addressed by Paul. (Barth, The Letter to Philemon (Eerdmans Critical Commentary), 127-28)Those seeking to find family links between the three recipients of the Epistle to Philemon may be barking up the wrong family tree. The relationship that Paul accents is not their connection to each other but rather to the church. The broader Christian family is the family being emphasized.
David W. Pao (b. 1966) notes:
While the household setting may point to the possibility of a family relationship among these three persons, the way they are introduced focuses on their standing within the church...“Our sister”...highlights her [Apphia’s] independent standing as a Christian and possibly as a leader of the church. The fact that she is specifically mentioned may even point to her status as a patron of this Christian community (cf. Romans 16:1)...In this context...“fellow soldier” highlights Archippus’s involvement in the work of ministry...Moreover, the presence of the singular pronoun (“your house”, οἰκον σου) may argue against seeing Philemon, Apphia, and Archippus as family members since one would have expected a plural pronoun as is found in a papyrus letter: “Apollonios to Hippalos and Sarapion and Berenike and Pyrrhos and to all in their house, greetings.” (Pao, Colossians and Philemon (Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament), 364-65)Sandra Hack Polaski (b. 1964) concurs:
Apphia may...be related by marriage or blood to either Philemon or Archippus...but her familial or marital relationship is not what is of primary importance to Paul. Nor is there any indication that Onesimus was specifically a house-servant, such that her involvement as “lady of the house” would be necessary in determining Onesimus’s disposition. Rather, Paul addresses her as “our sister,” a title that strongly suggests...that she is being addressed as a member of the Christian community. Her leadership within that community, then, would be logically deduced from two facts. She is named along with one or two male leaders of the community (depending on whether the slaveowner is also church leader), and the rest of the church is mentioned without singling out individuals...Apphia’s inclusion in the salutation, then, indicates that she is a person of influence in that community, or, to put it briefly, a leader of the church. (Polaski, A Feminist Introduction to Paul, 44)In this instance, a person’s inclusion in the Christian community is as significant as membership in her biological family.
Does it matter if Philemon, Apphia and Archippus are related; would it alter the interpretation of the epistle in any way? Do you consider your fellow church members to be family? Do you identify yourself most as a Christian or as a member of your family? Why does Paul include Apphia, Archippus and the church in a letter that is addressing a personal matter?
While the Epistle to Philemon is personal in nature, it is certainly not private as it is addressed not only to Philemon, Apphia and Archippus but also to their church (Philemon 1:2). Philip L. Tite (b. 1969) sees their inclusion as reflecting status:
The inclusion of Apphia and Archippus suggests that these two individuals were also prominent members of the community; but even they are secondary to Philemon. With the individuals included in the adscriptio, this letter takes on a more than private letter function; Philemon represents the community under his leadership, and is a person of authority worthy of Paul’s respect. This broader social dynamic for the letter (even though the letter is likely written for a single recipient) certainly suggests that Paul places Philemon in a position of high regard as a fellow Christian leader. (Stanley E. Porter [b. 1956] and Sean A. Adams, “How to Begin, and Why?: Diverse Functions of the Pauline Prescript Within a Greco-Roman Context”, Paul and the Ancient Letter Form, 71-72)Ben Witherington III (b. 1951) asserts:
All the audience is addressed in Christian terms and Paul stresses the co-laborer aspect of his relationship with Philemon. As G.B. Caird [1917-1984] and others have rightly stressed, this is most certainly not a private letter, even though its message is directed at Philemon. Nor is it written simply to a family...The reference to the church at or in Philemon’s house rules out the notion that this is a letter written just to a family, and as Sara C. Winter [b. 1945] remarks this reference cannot be reduced to the idea of the household at worship. Non-household members are among the addressees of this letter. (Witherington, The Letters to Philemon, the Colossians, and the Ephesians: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on the Captivity Epistles, 54)There are advantages to broaching the subject publicly. Jeffrey A.D. Weima (b. 1960) poses that Paul is exerting social pressure:
While Apphia may well have been Philemon’s wife, there is no conclusive evidence that Archippus was his son and it can hardly be the case that everyone in the church that met in his house was related to him such that “courtesy demanded” their inclusion among the letter recipients. The more plausible explanation for Paul including all these people in the recipient formula is that he deliberately makes the letter’s request a public matter, thereby giving his correspondence greater persuasive power. As any recruiter or fundraiser today knows full well: A request made in public is harder to turn down that one made in private. (D. Francois Tolmie, “Paul’s Persuasive Prose: An Epistolary Analysis of the Letter to Philemon”, Philemon in Perspective: Interpreting a Pauline Letter, 38)For Paul, Philemon’s treatment of Onesimus is a matter that concerns the entire church. Douglas J. Moo (b. 1950) evaluates:
The mention of Apphia and Archippus may have been little more than a courteous gesture, but the mention of the entire church cannot function in quite this way. Moreover, Paul gives indications in the letter that he has a larger audience in view. For while the bulk of the letter is addressed to the individual, with second-person singular forms, Paul also uses second-person plural forms [Philemon 1:3, 22, 25]...These references seem to imply that the whole community would have been present as the letter was publicly read. By making the issue of Onesimus a public one, Paul increases pressure on Philemon to respond as he wishes. But we should not view the public nature of the letter as simply a lawyer’s tactic to win his case; it rather reflects the corporate nature of early Christianity, in which no matter was “private” but inevitably affected, and was affected by, one’s brothers and sisters in the new family of God. The Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon (Moo, Pillar New Testament Commentary), 383-84)Joseph A. Fitzmyer (b. 1920) argues:
Paul is concerned that the whole community that gathers in prayer at Philemon’s house be involved in the way Onesimus is to be welcomed back by Philemon. This concern thus gives to the Letter to Philemon a dimension that transcends that of private correspondence...This has to be recognized even if, once the prescript comes to an end, one hears no more in the letter about the household church. For Paul is trying to get Philemon to recognize the symbolic integrity of that congregation, which is made up of brothers and sisters who go beyond the intimate family or household of Philemon. (Fitzmyer, The Letter to Philemon (Anchor Bible), 81)Richard B. Hays (b. 1948) cites:
The letter to Philemon, confronting an issue that might have been considered a private personal matter, is addressed not just to Philemon but also to Apphia and Archippus and to “the church in your house” (Philemon 1:2). Paul insists on laying the decision-making process open to the community’s scrutiny. (Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, New Creation, A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics , 57)Paul’s inclusion of Apphia, Archippus and their church implies that there are at least times when what a church member does in private is the entire congregation’s business.
Why does Paul take the case of Onesimus before the church? Does he triangulate? What makes Onesimus’ predicament a church issue? Do you think that Paul treats Philemon fairly or is the apostle airing dirty laundry in public? How does Paul’s handling of Philemon compare to Jesus’ strategy for church conflict resolution (Matthew 18:15-20)? When should a personal matter become a community issue?
“No man should advocate a course in private that he’s ashamed to admit in public.” - George McGovern, 1922-2012