The question of unity in Paul’s Letter to the Philippians has reached a stalemate. The predominate camps support either a singular, unified Pauline work or a collection of 2-3 Pauline works later edited together to form a single document. I am convinced that the epistle is a single Pauline work.

The two most persuasive arguments for fragmentation were 1) the abrupt shift in tone in chapter 3 and 2) the seemingly out of order nature of some of its pieces. While the tonal issue in 3:2 has not been accounted for by any psychological or circumstantial insight into Paul (Garland, 147), I am persuaded it can be accounted for by interpretational issues. As for the epistles adherence to standard Greco-Roman conventions and formats, I feel this can be attributed to problems we create when a generalized perspective is applied to a specific circumstance. I’m unconvinced that the epistle breaks from expected Greco-Roman format in such a way as to become evidence against a single letter.

Instead, we find that the epistolary thanksgiving in Ph 1:3-11 is connected with themes found in the parts of the letter in question. To this end, Jewett says

When one adds to his analysis the aberration that the themes of suffering (1:7), joy (1:4), and mental attitude (1:7) which so dominate the last three chapters of the letter are all announced in the epistolary thanksgiving, the letter takes on an impressive unity. (Jewett, 53)

Furthermore, the vocabulary found in the epistle helps to unify the text. Garland notes that the uncommon greek phrases found in Ph 1:27 (translated “standing firm” and “side by side,” ESV) are found again in the same uncommon Greek in 4:1 and 4:3. (Garland, 160). These rare Pauline words act to bind the letter across the most common divisions.

Outside of the actual textual criticism, we should also consider that there exists no extant MS evidence that would support the theory of a compilation of multiple individual letters. (Carter and Levine, 199).

Finally, I thought that Garland made a compelling case for interpretational issues in Ph 3:1-11. He begins by establishing that the translation “Look out for” (Ph 3:2) is misleading, and agrees with Caird that Paul wants the Jews perceived as a cautionary tale instead of strictly avoided (Garland, 166). Garland then furthers the position that Paul uses the term “dogs” in 3:2 as an inverted slur against Jews, who themselves used the term to describe non-Jews. Paul follows with “evil workers” (KJV), which Garland posits is less about evil and more about works-righteousness, which again points to Jewish belief. Paul continues this derision of Jewish culture by claiming that “we are the circumcision” (Ph 3:3). This connects well with the rest of the chapter, as Paul the former persecutor and works-righteousness Pharisee recounts that Christ is his gain.

Man is often his own stumbling block as we interpret God’s Word, and one of the primary problems we face when interpreting Scripture is leaving our bias at the door. For the last two centuries, slavery has been a hotbed of conversation, and its social costs are still being paid today. However, in the course of utilizing Philemon in this conversation, I think we must consider how the institution of slavery and Christians’ perceptions of it gave Philemon a task it could not complete.

My reading of Philemon leaves me with the impression that Onesimus is in a very real fashion indebted to Philemon, but not specifically in the manner of slavery. I take the use of the word “slave” to be figurative in the context of the epistle and to confer a discrepancy of status or balance between the two men. So then I am subscribed to a real familial relationship between these two men.

The familial relationship takes it a foothold in verse 16, where Paul encourages Philemon to accept Onesimus as a “beloved brother… both in the flesh and in the Lord.” Two men cannot become brothers in the flesh if they did not originally possess that relationship, so, therefore, the brotherhood he wishes to Philemon to re-accept is likely one that has a familial aspect to it, as well as kinship in the Lord.

The interpretation that considers Onesimus a slave via the literal interpretation of verse 16 is often accompanied by the idea that he has run away from his slavery. I find verse 18 to be problematic in that interpretation, since Paul seems to be unsure if Philemon considers Onesimus to have wronged or owe anything to him. Had Onesimus run away, he would undoubtedly know so and Paul should therefore be aware that he indeed does owe Philemon something. I do not think Paul is being coy with his words, but is honest in his inquiry and willingness to have Onesimus’ debt on his account.

In this epistle, as well as with all others attributed to him, Paul is writing both to the named recipient(s) and a wider audience. While the recipient and his admonitions are set in the historical context of the letter, the wider audience is not necessarily privy to this context. Paul seems to be aware of this as he writes his epistles, and Philemon should be no exception, given its Pauline character. In the case of taking the text of Philemon and making what would have amounted to a counterculture argument about slavery, Paul seems to have failed if that were his specific goal.

We can take Paul’s words, however, and use them for what they are: an admonition to treat our fellow heirs with love and refresh each other’s hearts in Christ.