Paul The Letter Writer

Paul's Persuasive Prose: The Case of Philemon

by Dr. Jeffrey A.D. Weima

❧ Illustration:
● Letter to Jack from Jill
“Dear Jack: I am so busy here! The
professors give us tons of readings
and assignments—way more than we
ever had in high school. I have hardly
any free time to spend with my new
friends. Last week my dorm mate and
I went to a cool concert….Well, got to
go. Love Jill.”


“Once the letter-writing conventions
which Paul used are understood, the
alert reader will also find clues to Paul's
intent in his creative use of those
conventions as well.”
Calvin J. Roetzel, The Letters of Paul.
Conversations in Context (Atlanta: John Knox
Press, 1975, 1982) 30.

Form of Paul
s Letters

  • The Letter Opening
  • The Thanksgiving 
  • The Letter Body
  • The Letter Closing

The Sender/Author

The Recipient

The Opening Greeting

1. The Sender

A. Its Form

Consists of 4 Formal Elements

i) Name

• always “Paul”

• occurs first in keeping with practice of ancient Greek letters

• only in letters of petition, when writing to someone in a position of authority did the recipient’s name come first

ii) Title

  •  two titles commonly used:
  • “apostle”: all but 4 letters: so Rom; 1 Cor; 2 Cor; Gal; Eph; Col; 1 Tim; 2 Tim; Tit (plus also “servant”)
  • “servant”: so Phil; Rom (both); Tit (plus also “apostle”)

iii) Short Descriptive phrase, indicating source of the title

  •  two phrases typically used:
  • “of Christ Jesus”: 1 Cor; 2 Cor; Phil; Phlm; Gal; Rom
  • sometimes a qualifying prepositional phrase is added: “through the will of God”; 1 Cor; 2 Cor; Eph; Col; 2 Tim

iv) Co-sender

Paul typically includes co-sender

Name of co-sender typically given last (after the full description of Paul’s name, title and source) and is identified as “brother” in distinction from Paul who normally identifies himself with a more authoritative title (but see Phil 1:1)

in secular letters co-senders occur sometimes in business or official letters but rarely in personal or familial letters

function of including co-senders not clear

The Sender

Luther Stirewalt Jr. proposes that it has an authenticating function:

“A convincing accounting for the use both by Paul and by the secular writers is to identify co-senders as personnel who were informed participants in the letter-event and who supplied the requirements for witness to the written message. Thus Timothy, Sosthenes, and Silvanus could at any time authenticate a letter, its origin, and its content” (page 44)

Paul the Letter Writer (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003)

Summary: The form of a typical “sender” formula in Paul’s letters is:

i) Name

ii) Title

iii) Short, Descriptive Phrases

iv) Co-sender


1. The Sender

B. Its Significance in Philemon

Text: “Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother”

Unique formal feature: 

  • use of the title “prisoner” to identify himself
  • every other letter Paul uses the title “apostle” and/or “servant”; this is only place where “prisoner” is used

What does Paul do in the letter opening?

  • Paul changes expected title of “apostle” to that of “prisoner”

  • Point: “Paul changed the title to ‘prisoner’ due to the simple fact that he was a prisoner!”

  • Counterpoint: Paul also was a prisoner while writing Philippians, Ephesians, Colossians, and 2 Timothy, and yet title “prisoner” is not used in any of these letters
  • Issue: What is the reason for the change?

st Significance of title prisoner:

Title “prisoner” was chosen because of its “emotive and persuasive power” (Dunn,Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon, 311)

  • Paul’s imprisonment functions as an important backdrop to the letter as a whole
  • Paul refers to his imprisonment no less than five times within this very brief letter:
  •   v 1: Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus”
  •  v 9: Paul writes that he is currently a prisoner of Jesus Christ (“I, Paul, … now a prisoner of Jesus Christ”)
  • v 10: Onesimus was converted by Paul while he was in prison (“whose father I have become in prison”)
  •  v 13: Paul hopes to keep Onesimus so that he may continue to help Paul while he is in prison (“in order that he might serve me on your behalf in my imprisonment for the gospel”)
  •  v 23: Epaphras, “my fellow prisoner

nd Significance of title prisoner:

  • Term “prisoner” foreshadows the letter’s implied request
  • V 21b “knowing that you will doeven beyond the things that I amsaying”
  • V 13: Paul expresses his strong desire to have Onesimus stay withhim and help him carry on hisgospel ministry while under house arrest: “…whom I was wanting tokeep for myself in order that onbehalf of you he might serve me inmy imprisonment for the gospel” (note the emphasis heregiven by addition of personal pronoun “I” and use of imperfect)

“The substitution of the expected title ‘apostle’ with the designation ‘prisoner’ highlights at the very opening of the letter Paul’s imprisonment—an imprisonment that he repeatedly refers to throughout the rest of the letter (vv.—in order to foreshadow the implicit request to have the slave owner send Onesimus back to serve as the apostle’s helper” (“Paul’s Persuasive Prose: An Epistolary Analysis of the Letter to Philemon,” Philemon in Perspective, 35)

2. The Recipient

A. Its Form

Consists of Two Formal Elements: i) Designation of Recipient

  • Typically “church” + name/region where the church is located
  • Few letters have “to all the saints” + name/region where saints are located

2. The Recipient

A. Its Form

ii) Positive Descriptive Phrase

Paul’s letters typically add a short descriptive phrase that positively describes the readers’ relationship to God and/or Jesus

  • “in God (our) Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess 1:1; 2 Thess 1:1)
  • “in Christ Jesus” (Phil 1:1; Col 1:2)
  • “loved of God, called to be holy” (Rom 1:7)

2. The Recipient

B. Its Significance in Philemon

(1) “beloved friend”: term “beloved” (ajgaphtov~) is key term in letter

Deposit of praise #1: v 1b “beloved” Deposit of praise #2: v 5b “your love for all

the saints” Deposit of praise #3: v 7 “Your love…”

Withdrawal: v 9  “I appeal to you more because of love

Key request: v 16 “no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a beloved brother”

(2) Other recipients:

  • Paul includes a number of other people as recipients
  • Paul thus not so subtly lets Philemon know that his request is not simply a private matter between the two of them but a public matter in which other people will be aware of the situation and expect resolution of the problem

Copies sent to secondary recipients

• Request made in public is harder to reject than one made in private

Norman Petersen:

“Social pressure on Philemon is secured most conspicuously by Paul’s addressing his letter not only to Philemon but also to Apphia, Archippus, and the entire church that meets in Philemon’s house” (page 99)

3. The Opening Greeting

A. Its Form

Consists of Three Elements:

i) Greeting/Wish: “Grace and peace”

  • Greek letters of that day typicallyopened with word chairein = literally “rejoice” but colloquially “greeting”
  • Paul apparently “christianizes” the secular Greek greeting of chairein into the Christian greeting charis (“grace”)
  • “peace” taken from the typical Jewishgreeting shalom, used not only inspeech but found also in Semitic letters
  • Thus Paul seems to be incorporating ina unique way a typically Greek greetingand a typically Jewish greeting

ii) Recipient

• “to you”

iii) Divine Source

  • “from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ”
  •  found in all letters except Colossians which has only “from God our Father”
  • from … the Lord Jesus Christ"

3. The Opening Greeting

B. Its Significance in Philemon

Text:  “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ”

Unique Formal Features:

  • None in the opening greeting of Philemon.
  • See Galatians 1:3-5 where Paul has added phrases that highlight Christ’s redemptive work as a pre-emptive strike against a Judaizing theology that undermines the sufficiency of Christ’s work of salvation)

Form of Pauls Letters

  • The Letter Opening
  • The Thanksgiving
  • The Letter Body
  • The Letter Closing

The Thanksgiving Section


The Function of the Thanksgiving Section


a. Pastoral Function:

The thanksgiving re-establishes Paul's relationship with his readers by means of a positive expression of gratitude to God for their work, growth, and faith. This is important if Paul wants his letters to be accepted and obeyed by his readers. The thanksgivings also reveal Paul’s deep pastoral concern for his readers, as evidenced in the fact that he regularly prays for them.

b. Exhortative Function:

The thanksgiving is “implicitly or explicitly parenetic” (Schubert, 26, 89; O'Brien, 141-144, 165, 262-3). In other words, even though Paul is expressing his thankfulness to God, there is an implicit (or explicit) challenge to Paul’s readers to live up to this praise (persuasion through praise).

c. Foreshadowing Function:

The thanksgiving foreshadows (1) the central themes and issues to be developed in the body of the letter as well as (2) the letter’s style and character.

3. The Thanksgiving Section in Philemon (vv 4-7)

Text: “4I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, 5because I hear about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints. 6I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ. 7Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the saints.”


a. Exhortative (Parenetic) Function: Paul’s thanksgiving for Philemon being the kind of person who demonstrates “love for all the saints” implicitly exhorts Philemon to keep acting this way toward fellow Christians--including his runaway slave Onesimus, whom Paul has not yet mentioned.

b. Foreshadowing Function:

(1) Theme of “love”

v 5b: “hearing of your love

v 7: “For I have much joy and comfort because of your love

both occurrences highlight love that Philemon demonstrates not so much to God and/or Christ but towards other Christians: “your love…which you have…for all the saints” (v 5b); his love results in the “hearts of the saints” being refreshed (v 7b)

these deposits of praise add to the identification of Philemon in letter opening as one who is “beloved” (v 1b)

foreshadows appeal of v 9: “because of love more I appeal” (note word order which emphasizes “love”)

foreshadows request of v 16: “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother”

(2) Theme of “refreshing the heart(s)”

  • verb "ajnapauvw" here with Paul does not have its common meaning of “rest” but the distinctive sense of “refresh”
  • noun splavgcna (“inward parts, entrails”) a rarer and more emotive term than kardiva (“heart”)
  • v 7b: “the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you”
  • foreshadows description of slave Onesimus in v 12 as “this one is my very heart
  • echoed by closing command in v 20b “Refresh my heart


1. The “Appeal” Formula

A. Form: Four basic elements

Example: Romans 12:1 “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship”

  1. The verb: “I appeal”
  2. The recipients: “to you, brothers”
  3.  Prepositional phrase: “by the mercies of God”
  4. The content of the appeal: “that you present …”


B. Function

Primary function:

- to indicate a major transition in the text

- formula marks transition either from the end of the thanksgiving to the beginning of letter body (1 Cor 1:10; Phlm 8-9) or, as more typically happens, a transition within the body of letter (Rom 12:1;
15:30; 16:7; 1 Cor 16:15; 2 Cor 10:1; Phil 4:2; 1 Thess 4:1; Eph 4:1)


C. Appeal Formula in Philemon

“Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and command you to do what you ought to do, more because of love I appeal —I, Paul, an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus —I appeal to you concerning my child, to whom I gave birth in prison, Onesimus…” (vv 8-10)

Despite the more user-friendly appeal formula (used twice), Paul still implies his authority over Philemon:

  • v 8: “although in Christ I could be bold and command you to do what you ought to do…”
  • • note also later references in the letter:
    • v 14: “…in order that your good work might not be by necessity but by your free will”
    • v 21: “Confident of your obedience …”


2. Other (Non-Epistolary) Persuasive Techniques in the Letter Body

A. Pathos Appeal (v 9)

-“being such a person as Paul,but now an old man and prisoner of Christ Jesus”

-Paul’s reference to himself as an old man may be intended to evoke sympathy

-Paul more likely is using his old age to evoke respect and obedience

-Lev 19:32 “Stand up in the presence of the aged, show respect for the elderly”

-Sirach 8:6 “Insult no man when he is old”

B. Pun on Onesimus Name (v 11)

-text: “Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me

-Pun draws attention to the change in status from Onesimus’ previous value (“useless”) to his current value (“useful”)

-Paul thus minimizes not only the financial loss that Philemon experienced by Onesimus’ absence (thereby making it easier to forgive him: explicit request) but also makes it less costly for the owner to send his slave back to Paul to help the apostle in his prison ministry (implicit request)

Onesimus = “useful”

C. Use of Divine Passive” (v 15)

-text: “he was separated (ejcwrivsqh) from you”

-Paul employs the “divine passive,” i.e., God is the unspoken agent, to reframe the situation as being part of God’s providential plan

-Gen 50:20 “You intended to harm to me, but God intended it for good”

-Rom 8:28 “We know that God works all things for the good of those who love him”

IV. Letter Closing

The letter closing is the “Rodney Dangerfield” section of Paul’s letters: It doesn’t get any respect!

Many believe that the closings (along with the openings) are primarily conventional in nature and function merely to establish or maintain contact in contrast to the thanksgiving and body sections of the letter which deal with specific issues and thus are judged to be more important.

1. The Letter Closing: Its Form

A detailed study of Paul’s letter closings reveals that they contain several epistolary conventions, all of which exhibit a high degree of formal and structural consistency, thereby testifying to the care with which these final sections of the letter have been constructed.

The pattern of a typical Pauline letter closing is as follows:

Pauline Letter Closing

1. Peace Benediction

2. Hortatory Section

3. Greetings

a. 1st, 2nd, 3rd Person Types

b. Kiss Greeting

4. Autograph

5. Grace Benediction

2. The Letter Closing: Its Function

Jeffrey A. D. Weima:

“It [the letter closing] is a carefully constructed unit, shaped and adapted in such a way as to relate it directly to the major concerns of the letter as a whole, and so it provides important clues to understanding the key issues addressed in the body of the letter. Thus the letter closing functions a lot like the thanks-giving, but in reverse. For as the thanksgiving foreshadows and points ahead to the major concerns to be addressed in the body of the letter, so the closing serves to highlight and encapsulate the main points previously taken up in the body” (page 22)

1. The Autograph

A. Form

-term: “self” = autos; “writing” = graphe -thus refers to Paul writing himself rather than through a secretary/amanuensis

-not common in secular letters to refer explicitly to change of handwriting, because reader could easily see this; however, this is not possible for Paul’s letters which were read publicly in context of worship

-Rom 16:22: explicit reference to the secretary Tertius

-5x: “in my own hand”: 1 Cor 16:21; Gal 6:11; 2 Thess 3:17; Phlm 19; Col 4:18a

B. Function

-autograph was a fixed literary custom of Greco-Roman letters to indicate commitment of author to its contents

-Paul somewhat similarly uses the autograph to add emphasis to the content of his letters: -Gal 6:11 “See with what large letters I write to you in my own hand”

-2 Thess 3:17 “I, Paul, write this greeting in my own hand, which is the distinguishing mark in all my letters”

-1 Cor 16:21 “I, Paul, write this greeting in my own hand”

C. Autograph in Philemon (v 19)

-text: “I am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back —not to mention that you owe me your very self”

-function: the autograph, with its promise of payment, echoes in an official or legally binding manner Paul’s promise of the previous verse (v 18) to reimburse Philemon for any debts he may have as a result of Onesimus’ flight

-legal function of autograph confirmed by use of verb ajpotivnw commonly found in papyri as legal, technical term meaning “make compensation, pay the damages”

-additionally Paul’s presence (and thus his authority) is made more direct by means of writing in his own hand

-text: “I am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back—not to mention that you owe me your very self”

-function: the autograph, with its promise of payment, echoes in an official or legally binding manner Paul’s promise of the previous verse (v 18) to reimburse Philemon for any debts he may have as a result of Onesimus’ flight

-legal function of autograph confirmed by use of verb ajpotivnw commonly found in papyri as legal, technical term meaning “make compensation, pay the damages”

-additionally Paul’s presence (and thus his authority) is made more direct by means of writing in his own hand

-parenthetical comment of v 19b: “—not to mention that you owe me your very self”

-paraleipsis: a rhetorical device that allows a speaker or writer to address a subject that they outwardly claim does not need to be addressed

-this rhetorical device “is here used to transform Philemon’s position from creditor to debtor and so to put him under a limitless moral obligation to comply with Paul’s requests” (J. M. Barclay, “Paul, Philemon and the Dilemma of Christian Slave-Ownership,” NTS 37 [1991] 172; also Petersen, Rediscovering Paul, 74-78)

2. The Hortatory Section

A. Form

-every closing has some final command(s) or exhortation(s)

-this material is the least formally structured of all the closing conventions

-however frequently introduced by:

(1) “finally”: 2 Cor 13:11; Gal 6:17; Phil 4:8)

(2) “brothers: Rom 16:17; 2 Cor 13:11; Phil 4:8;            

 1 Thess 5:25; Phlm 20

 B. Function

-Paul wants to issue final exhortation(s) to his readers

C. Significance in Philemon (v 20)

-text: “Yes, brother, I do wish that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ”

-v 20a: pun on Onisemus’ name: verb “benefit” in Greek is from the same root as Onisemus’ name: literally, “may I have some ‘Onisemus’ from you”

-v 20b: command to “refresh my heart” echoes his earlier description of Philemon as one who has “refreshed the hearts of the saints” (v 7b) and his description of Onesimus as one “who is my very heart” (v 12b)

3. The Confidence Formula

A. John White, The Body of the Letter (Missoula: Scholars, 1972) 104-106

-proposed 4 standard elements:

(1) Emphatic use of first person pronoun “I” (ejgwv)

(2) Perfect form of verb expressing confidence (pevpoiqa)

(3) Reason(s) why speaker is confident

(4) Content of what speaker is confident about

3. The Confidence Formula

B. Stanley N. Olson, “Epistolary Uses of Expressions of Self-Confidence,” JBL 103 (1984) 585-597

-also his “Pauline Expressions of Confidence in His Addressees,” CBQ 47 (1985) 282-295

-argues against fixed “formula” and for “expression of confidence”

-demonstrated parallels in papyri letters of that day, contra White who claimed formula was a Pauline invention

3. The Confidence Formula

C. Function

-formula exerts pressure on letter recipients to live up to the confidence that the speaker has in them

-Stanley Olsen: “The evidence of a variety of parallels suggest that such expressions [of confidence] are usually included to serve the persuasive purpose. Whatever the emotion behind the expression, the function is to undergird the letter’s requests or admonitions by creating a sense of obligation through praise” (“Pauline Expressions of Confidence in His Addressees, CBQ 47 [1985] 289)

3. The Confidence Formula

D. Significance in Philemon (v 21)

-text: “Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask”

-Paul uses the confidence formula here in a positive fashion to exert further pressure on Philemon by praising him in advance for his expected obedience

-Stanley Olsen: “In Phlm 21 the confident of compliance functions to reinforce the appeal of the whole letter”

-confidence formula also recalls earlier material in the letter by claiming that Philemon “will do even more than I ask”

-Other examples: Gal 5:10; 2 Thess 3:4

4. The Apostolic Parousia

Robert W. Funk, “The Apostolic Parousia: Form and Signifi­cance,” in Christian History and Interpretation: Studies Presented to John Knox

(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967) 249-268.

4. The Apostolic Parousia

A. Form

Greek parousiva (parousia) has two meanings:

(1) coming/arrival

(2) presence (parav + ou\sia) Apostolic parousia = “presence of an apostle” Refers to a section of the letter where Paul attempts to make his presence more powerfully felt

Does this by three possible means: Paul refers to …

(1) his future visit

(2) the future visit of his emissary

(3) the act of letter writing

4. The Apostolic Parousia

B. Function

Robert Funk:

“All of these [three means] are media by which Paul makes his apostolic authority effective in the churches. The underlying theme is therefore the apostolic parousia— the presence of apostolic authority and power” (“Apostolic Parousia,” 249)

John L. White: 

“How does he [Paul] purpose to rectify, if inadequate, or to reinforce, if right-minded, his recipients present status? By referring to one or another aspect of his apostolic authority and presence.

“New Testament Epistolary Literature in the Framework of Ancient Epistolography,” ANRW 2.1745

4. The Apostolic Parousia

C. Significance in Philemon (v 22)

Text: “And one more thing: Prepare a guest room for me, because I hope to be restored to you in answer to your prayers”

• James D. G. Dunn: wrongly refers to this verse as a “throwaway remark” given “in the more relaxed mood of the conclusion” (pages 347, 345)

C. Significance in Philemon (v 22)

Jeffrey A. D. Weima: “In the context of the letter closing of Phlm, Paul’s statement about an upcoming visit functions as indirect threat: The apostle will be coming to the Lycus valley and see first-hand whether Philemon has obeyed his request” (“Paul’s Persuasive Prose: An Epistolary Analysis of the Letter to Philemon,” Philemon in Perspective, page 57)

5. The Greetings

B. Function

-to maintain or even establish Paul’s relationship with the readers

C. Significance in Philemon (vv 23-24)

-text: “Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, send

you greetings. And so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke, my fellow workers”

-mention of five people in closing greetings again (see co­sender and multiple recipients) makes the request of the letter a public matter and so exerts further pressure on


-modern analogy: “cc:” at bottom of letter

-mention of Epaphras first and his title is significant 

Last modified: Monday, August 6, 2018, 12:37 PM