When I read Philemon, it seems overwhelming tongue in cheek, like Paul is cheerfully goading his friend, Philemon. Here's the relevant part (with my comments in italics):

8 Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, 9 yet I appeal to you on the basis of love. I then, as Paul—an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus— 10 I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. 11 Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.

Verse 8-9: I could order you but I'm strongly encouraging you to come to this decision yourself which you haven't so far without my intervention.

12 I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you. 13 I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. 14 But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do will be spontaneous and not forced. 15 Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for good— 16 no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord.

Verse 12: he means everything to me (but don't let that influence you - you come to your own conclusion; no really, I mean it...)

Verse 14: (again) I really want you to come to this conclusion all by yourself.

Verses 15-16: yep, and I think God probably agrees with me as well.

17 So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. 18 If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. 19 I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back—not to mention that you owe me your very self. 20 I do wish, brother, that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. 21 Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask.

Verse 18-19: sure, charge it to me, by the way did I mention you owe me everything?

Verse 21: yeah, you understand and you'll do even more, I'm sure of it (cough, cough).

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

Verse 22: I'll be coming to check. You are praying for me, aren't you?

Is it just my reading of it, or is it written in a friendly but manipulative way, rather mischievously?

  • It would seem to me from reading that Paul is using his influence to persuade Philemon to do what was right. Paul used this type of retorict while speaking about circumcision (Gal 5:12). – user567 May 5 '12 at 4:21
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    Wow! I really like this question. I never noticed that before. Probaly because it reads a little differently in the KJV. Still, +!. – J. Allan Sep 5 '16 at 1:46

Just for fun, I'll chip in here. I had to write a brief, final paper for a course on NT studies in which I summarized a few different hermeneutical approaches to Philemon. The purpose of the paper was to simply demonstrate/summarize the approaches and not to definitively answer all questions regarding Philemon. Caveat completed.

Paper Link

Paul is certainly using a variety of rhetorical tools to influence Philemon. I would venture to say that it's less about goading an old friend and more like how a parent speaks to their child when they know that the child knows the right thing to do, but it would be very hard for them to do. Similarly, Paul knows that such an action by Philemon toward Onesimus would be very hard, but he also knows that it's the right thing to do and wants Philemon to follow through on it. "You know what to do" and "oh by the way, prepare a room for me for when I come" are the means of accountability.

Your summaries are, in my opinion, fairly accurate. However, I'd still not quite say that it is cheerfully goading, but more likely leveraging the influence that Paul has over Philemon in order to obtain the outcome that he desires ... within the constraints of the societal norms.

  • Thanks. What do you base, "more like how a parent speaks to their child when they know that the child knows the right thing to do" on? – Reinstate Monica - Goodbye SE May 8 '12 at 12:17
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    @Wikis personal experiences in both the parenting and shepherding world --- both as the subject and object of such parental language. Finally, one of the sources cited in my paper (Frilingos) really emphasizes the parental language of Paul toward both Philemon and Onesimus. – swasheck May 8 '12 at 14:30
  • I especially liked the point about "... it would be very hard for them to do." Slaves weren't treated very good back then. Particularly, escapees. – J. Allan Sep 5 '16 at 1:48

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