🔼The name Philemon in the Bible
The name Philemon occurs only once in the Bible, namely in the opening line of the book that bears his name: Paul's letter to Philemon, Apphia and Archippus and the church in his/their house (Philemon 1:1). Some commentators surmise that Apphia may have been Philemon's wife and Archippus their son, but here at Abarim Publications we find it doubtful that Paul would use his church-hosting friends' real names in a time when Christianity was illegal — after all, when Paul wrote this letter, he himself was incarcerated in Rome, and fellow Christians were fed to the lions by the wagon load.
At first, superficial, glance, the letter of Paul to Philemon appears to be mostly about a runaway slave named Onesimus who wanted to come home, but that's dubious. The Roman imperial system depended on people worshipping Caesar and State and blindly obeying both — which is what neither Christians nor Jews would do, hence the persecutions by Rome and every other totalitarian regime up to Nazi Germany, the USSR and China.
Secondly, Rome required everybody (both slaves and freemen) to uphold slavery. Only a quarter of the people in Rome were free; the rest were slaves, and Rome would immediately collapse if its slaves would successfully revolt (three so-called Servile Wars between 135 BC and 71 BC were sadly unsuccessful and bloodily terminated). Runaway slaves could subsequently count on the most severe repercussions under Roman law. The idea that Paul would thus doubly incriminate an actual human individual Christian Onesimus, who apparently served Paul right there in prison (Philemon 1:10), is simply unthinkable.
🔼What's Paul's letter to Philemon about?
Here at Abarim Publications we surmise that in stead, Paul's little letter to Philemon is riddled with literary references (as per Paul's own urging: Ephesians 5:19, Colossians 3:16) and thus expands to an elaborate plea to resist Rome peacefully and refrain from taking up arms (which the real recipients of this letter might actually have been planning, see Colossians 1:23, 2:4, 2:8, 2:18, and so on — read our article on Onesimus for further argumentation and possible real-world identification of Onesimus).
Even the name Apphia, Philemon's supposed wife, brings to mind Apion, the Egyptian grammarian who had passed away about a decade and a half before Paul wrote his letter, but who was still current enough by the end of the first century for Josephus to respond to in his famous critique Against Apion (for more on Josephus, see our article on Dalmanutha).
One of the sworn-to-be-true stories Apion was famous for was that of Androclus, also a runaway slave. After his escape, Androclus took shelter in a cave where he happened upon a wounded lion, which he healed and which became his friend. But after a few years, Androclus desired a return to civilization, set off and subsequently ended up in the Roman Circus, to be eaten alive by wild beasts. But much to the shock of emperor and audience (among whom the author, Apion), the lion who was supposed to eat Androclus didn't do so and showed only love and kisses, as it was obviously Androclus' lion friend. Androclus was pardoned and he and his lion lived happily ever after.
Whoever the intended audience of Paul's letter to Philemon was, they surely knew of this story, also because the name of Paul's listed recipient, Philemon, reflects the response of the lion to Androclus:
🔼Etymology of the name Philemon
The name Philemon comes from the noun φιλημα (philema), which is normally translated with "kiss" but which probably reflected the whole gamut of affection showing (from hugs to kisses):
🔼Who was Philemon?
There are two famous men named Philemon in classical tradition. One was an Athenian poet, playwright and most philosophical of the three great New Comedy comedians (the other two being Menander and Diphilus — the New Comedy stems from the era directly after Alexander the Great).
The other famous ancient Philemon was a literary character who under this name premiered in Ovid's Metamorphoses (Publius Ovidius Naso, or simply Ovid lived from 43 BC to 18 AD), but whose story was obviously much older. Ovid's story tells of Philemon and his wife Baucis who received and fed Jupiter and Mercury (or Zeus and Hermes in Greek) who had come to their town in the guise of ordinary humans (and this is obviously alluded to in Acts 14:11-12).
Philemon and Baucis were poor but hospitable while their rich neighbors wouldn't receive the guests, and this duly disgruntled the deities. They told Philemon and Baucis to run for the hills because they were going to destroy the city, and although their city was destroyed by a flood, their story obviously retells the much older story of Lot and the destruction of the four cities of the plain (among which Sodom and Gomorrah).
All of these allusions seem to stress that kindness in general will always pay off, albeit in often unexpected ways. But also that an armed revolt or other aggressive protest is futile and ultimately counter productive.
The prophet Micah wrote seven centuries earlier, during the equally detrimental Assyrian conquest, which many of his fellow Israelites had tried to repel by means of military intervention, and for which they had paid with their utter destruction. Micah predicted the invasion of Babylon (Micah 4:10), which would culminate in the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple of YHWH. This horrific disaster was repeated when Titus sacked Jerusalem in 70 AD, one or two years after Paul wrote his letter "to Philemon".
Still, Micah urged:
What does the Lord require of you? To do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.
Perhaps the New Comedy playwright adopted the name Philemon for its rather jocular character, as it could be taken to mean Mister Kiss or Hugging Hunk.
But, more seriously, the name Philemon could also be construed to mean He Who Shows Kindness, with the implied clause of "He who shows kindness in the face of persecution" or "He who shows kindness when he himself is mistreated" (see Isaiah 53:7).