The Place and Date of Writing Colossians and Philemon

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PLACE AND DATE OF WRITING

Paul wrote both Colossians and Philemon from prison (Col. 4:3, 18; Philem. 1), but he was imprisoned on multiple occasions (see 2 Cor. 11:23). Scholars have identified the following three primary options for when and where the letter was written: first, that Paul wrote from Rome in A.D. 60–62; second, that Paul wrote from Caesarea in A.D. 57–59; or third, that Paul wrote from Ephesus in A.D. 52–55.[1] All three arguments have their strengths and weaknesses, which we will survey here, and in the end, deciding between them largely depends on which seems the most likely place for Onesimus to have traveled in his flight as a run- away slave.

Rome

Paul may have written during his well-known and lengthy imprisonment in Rome near the end of his life (A.D. 60–62; cf. Acts 27:16–31). The location of Rome is supported by early manuscripts of Colossians which include subscriptions stating that Paul was writing from Rome (Metzger, 1994, 589–90). The late date proves favorable for those modern scholars who see Colossians as the apex of Paul’s theology and who understand his theology to have developed linearly over the course of his life. Further, Rome may have been an optimal destination for Onesimus if he was fleeing from Philemon without intention of returning, for in Rome Onesimus could have easily blended into the diverse melting pot of the immense population.[2] Aristarchus was also with Paul in Rome (Acts 27:2; cf. Col. 4:10; Philem. 24). For these reasons, Rome has been a popular choice of provenance for many scholars (Foster, 2016, 73–78).

However, a Roman provenance does not solve every problem. In the first place, when Paul arrived in Rome, he desired to travel west to Spain (Rom. 15:22–29) rather than east to Colossae, as in Philemon 22. Also, Luke describes Paul having great freedom during his Roman imprisonment—which was really more of a house arrest—for preaching the gospel (Acts 28:16, 30), but in his letters Paul describes himself in chains that are restricting his ability to proclaim the gospel (Col. 1:24; 4:3, 9, 18; Philem. 1, 9, 22). We may further wonder whether Rome really served as a probable destination for Onesimus, considering the arduous length of such a journey. And if Onesimus did intend to disappear into Rome, then his encounter with Paul under house arrest seems all the more improbable, since a runaway slave would hardly have happened upon Paul, a Roman citizen, in his house arrest.

Caesarea

Paul may have written during his previous imprisonment in Caesarea (A.D. 57–59). Bo Reicke suggests this provenance makes the best sense of several features of the letters (Reicke, 1970). First, Paul was traveling with several Gentile believers when he was arrested in Jerusalem and transferred to Caesarea, and he was arrested partially because he had brought them into the temple in Jerusalem (Acts 21:27– 29). Some of his companions at the time of this arrest overlap with those mentioned in Colossians and Philemon, including Aristarchus, Timothy, and Tychicus (Acts 20:4; Col. 1:1; 4:7, 10; Philem. 1, 23–24) as well as Luke, who is the presumed author of Acts writing in the first person at this point (cf. Col. 4:14; Philem. 24). Second, Paul intended to travel to Rome from Caesarea, a journey that would have taken him through Asia Minor, from where he could have easily made the trip to Colossae as he hopes in Philemon 22. Finally, Paul seems to suggest he has only recently become a prisoner (Philem. 9), and Caesarea was the beginning of his long imprisonment.

However, this view creates additional challenges regarding the story of Onesimus. Like Rome, Caesarea was a very long journey by land, or an expensive and exposed journey by sea, where capture was likely. If Onesimus was going to undertake such a long journey, he was more likely to head east toward Rome, where he had a better chance of blending into obscurity. In the end, beyond the fact that some of Paul’s companions overlap with the time of this imprisonment, the Caesarean provenance has relatively little additional evidence to argue for it (so Pao, 2012, 23).

Ephesus

Third, Paul may have written the letters during an imprisonment in Ephesus. The primary problem with this view emerges immediately, namely that such an imprisonment is never explicitly mentioned in Acts or Paul’s letters. However, Paul does mention additional afflictions and perhaps even imprisonments that he experienced in and around Ephesus (2 Cor. 1:8–9; cf. 1 Cor. 15:32), and we know that the time he spent in Ephesus resulted in riots and conflict with city officials (Acts 19:21–41). We may easily presume that he was arrested on occasion and may have served one or more terms of imprisonment while in Ephesus.

An Ephesian provenance resolves some key problems related to the letter. First and most importantly, this view best accounts for the success of Onesimus’s flight. He only had to travel about 100 miles to Ephesus, and this would have been a reasonable trip for a run- away slave. Further, because Luke does not mention an Ephesian imprisonment in Acts, we may presume any such imprisonment was likely short in duration, and this would explain Paul’s optimism about being released and visiting Colossae (Philem. 22), even as he suffered in chains (Col. 4:18; Philem. 9, 22). Finally, the movements of Paul’s coworkers back and forth between Paul and Colossae are best explained if Paul was in Ephesus, especially since Aristarchus, Paul’s “co-prisoner” (Col. 4:10), also ran afoul of legal authorities there (Acts 19:29). Paul seems to presume a close proximity between himself and Colossae, so that Epaphras has traveled to and from Paul with reports (Col. 1:7–8) and Tychicus and Onesimus can travel at Paul’s behest without apparent trouble (Col. 4:7–9).

However, weighing most heavily against this view is the stubborn fact that no direct evidence attests to Paul actually being imprisoned in Ephesus. Also, a presumably short incarceration may not have afforded enough time for all that Paul has accomplished, including bringing Onesimus to faith in Christ (Philem. 10), establishing a close relationship with him (Philem. 12–13), and convincing him to return with two newly written letters.

Conclusion

Fortunately for us, the provenance of the letter has only minimal bearing upon the interpretation of the letter. In the end, we find the proximity of Ephesus to be the most compelling argument in that it best explains the various movements of Paul’s associates as well as Paul’s own desire to soon visit Colossae, and it also seems most plausible that Onesimus would have successfully reached Paul in Ephesus and was intentionally seeking him. Therefore, we cautiously conclude that Paul most likely wrote from Ephesus during an otherwise unspecified and likely brief imprisonment during his time there in A.D. 52–55.


[1] F. F. Bruce provides a full timeline of Paul’s life and ministry, including the dates referenced here (Bruce, 1977, 475).

[2] To this end, Lightfoot colorfully describes why a runaway thief and slave such as Onesimus would flee to Rome. “Rome was the natural cesspool for these offscourings of humanity. In the thronging crowds of the metropolis was his best hope of secrecy. In the dregs of the city rabble he would find the society of congenial spirits” (Lightfoot, 1981, 312).


This post is adapted from the newest addition to our Kerux Commentaries series Colossians and Philemon, written by Adam Copenhaver and Jeffrey D. Arthurs. If you are interested in adopting this book for a college or seminary course, please request a faculty examination copy. We will also consider requests for your blog or media outlets.

Kerux Commentaries enable pastors and teachers to understand and effectively present the main message in a biblical text

Each volume uniquely combines the insights of an experienced Bible exegete (trained in interpretation) and a homiletician (trained in preaching). These two authors work together to explain the essential message for the original listeners or readers, unpack its timeless truth, and then provide a contemporary restatement and communication insights for the key biblical concept.

Each volume uniquely combines the insights of an experienced Bible exegete (trained in interpretation) and a homiletician (trained in preaching). These two authors work together to explain the essential message for the original listeners or readers, unpack its timeless truth, and then provide a contemporary restatement and communication insights for the key biblical concept.

Based on the Big Idea preaching model, Kerux enhances the reader’s ability to deliver a message that is biblical, cohesive, and dynamic.

Colossians and Philemon were penned at roughly the same time to an overlapping set of recipients. Paul, writing out of great concern, urges his fellow believers to make Jesus Christ the foundation of their lives. By expounding on the divine person, finished work, and exalted position of Christ, the apostle entreats his readers to stand against false teaching, pursue reconciliation, and be united with Christ. In Colossians and Philemon, Copenhaver and Arthurs combine exegetical precision with homiletical care, helping preachers and Bible teachers take Paul’s message–a plea for walking together in a manner worthy of Christ–to the church today.


Authors:

Adam Copenhaver (PhD, University of Aberdeen) pastors Mabton Grace Brethren Church in Mabton, Washington, and teaches biblical studies courses for the Ezra Bible Institute. His recent publications include Reconstructing the Historical Background of Paul’s Rhetoric in the Letter to the Colossians.
Jeffrey D. Arthurs (PhD, Purdue University) is Robinson Chair of Preaching and Communication and Dean at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, S. Hamilton, Mass. He is an active scholar, regularly presenting papers at conferences and writing articles for several leading periodicals. His other books include Preaching With Variety and Devote Yourself to the Public Reading of Scripture.
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About Author

Adam Copenhaver (PhD, University of Aberdeen) pastors Mabton Grace Brethren Church in Mabton, Washington, and teaches biblical studies courses for the Ezra Bible Institute. His recent publications include Reconstructing the Historical Background of Paul’s Rhetoric in the Letter to the Colossians.

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