Who wrote the book of Philemon?
September 1991

“Who wrote the book of Philemon?” Ensign, Sept. 1991, 61–62

The ending of the book of Philemon in the King James Version seems to indicate that “Onesimus, a servant” wrote the book. But verse nineteen claims that Paul is the writer. Which is correct?

Max H Parkin, instructor at the Institute of Religion adjacent to the University of Utah. The problem in the subscription at the end of Philemon is caused by the translation of the Greek word dia—rendered as “by” in English—which suggests that Onesimus may have composed the letter. Actually, in the context of this Greek passage and in its genitive case, dia means “through” or “by means of” Onesimus.1 Hence, the subscription in Greek does not state that Onesimus composed the letter (which would contradict verse nineteen), but that the letter was written by means of or through Onesimus—as Paul’s amanuensis (a secretary or copyist to whom he may have dictated the letter) or at least as his messenger who delivered it.

This subscription, as well as those after Paul’s other letters, was not a part of the letter when it was first drafted, but was an addition supplied by a later copyist. In fact, the twenty-seven books that make up the New Testament did not originally bear their present titles, chapter divisions, and headings. To understand why current editions of the New Testament appear as they do, we need to understand how the New Testament text was written, transmitted, and translated.

Writing, Transmitting, and Canonizing the New Testament. Each of the Gospels, the letters of Paul, and the other parts of the New Testament were written separately, generally during the second half of the first century A.D., by well-known Church authorities who usually did not sign their manuscripts.

The Church leaders who wrote the books, and others who copied and preserved them, used writing forms and materials common in their day. The texts were written in the Koiné, or common Greek language, on papyrus sheets, which were pasted together into strips and rolled up for storage. A typical large roll or scroll accommodated only a single text the size of one of the Gospels or the book of Acts.

The fragile nature of papyrus rolls increased the need for periodic copying to preserve the text. Near the end of the second century, Christian scribes utilized a new book-type record. At first made of papyrus, this invention was soon constructed of more durable parchment sheets, folded in the middle, stacked, and stitched together at the folded edge. This leaf-style book, called a codex, allowed the collection of several of the larger books of the New Testament.

Such a volume prompted scribes to add titles and other literary aids to help identify the works therein and to facilitate their reading. In the earliest codices, for example, the four Gospels were bound together and collectively named “the Gospel.” The four parts were then simply titled “according to Matthew,” “according to Mark,” and so on. Likewise, in a later collection of Paul’s writings, scribes created titles for his letters, such as “to Romans.” They also added subscriptions to Paul’s letters—many of which reflect traditions that were popular in their day.

Editorial elaborations followed. Scribes or their patrons enriched the titles, presumably to glorify the lives of the Apostolic authors.

Even the title “New Testament” was a scribal addition—one created to identify the whole textual collection. Tertullian, a Christian Latin scholar at Carthage who died about A.D. 222, was the first to use the phrase “New Testament,” taken from the Latin Novum Testamentum, which means “testament” or “will,” rather than using the Latin equivalent for the more-precise Greek word for “covenant,” which the Apostles used.2

By the middle of the fourth century, all twenty-seven books of the New Testament had been published (along with other Christian writings) in a single Greek codex. Separately or in groups, the books of the New Testament had been accepted as scripture for centuries, but councils at Hippo (in A.D. 393) and at Carthage (in A.D. 397) codified for the first time the twenty-seven books that became the New Testament canon.

Developing the King James Version. Today, more than five thousand Greek manuscripts help to authenticate the New Testament. These manuscripts include early fragments dating from the second century, and other manuscripts dating from as late as the fifteenth.3 These New Testament documents are usually classified into four groups, or textual “families.” Those of the Byzantine group form the textual basis for the King James Version. This group consists of an array of parchments copied mainly during the tenth through twelfth centuries that contain many editorial aids, including the subscriptions associated with Paul’s letters.

Antecedent to the King James Version, fifteen manuscripts of the Byzantine group were integrated into a Greek New Testament by a French scholar, Robert Estienne, or Stephanus.

Stephanus’s third (1550) edition became the standard Greek text scholars in England used. This edition and later ones based on it were popularized as the “text received” by the people—hence the name Textus Receptus. Then, using the works of Stephanus, the Reformation scholar Theodore Beza published several editions of his own. Beza’s fourth (1598) edition was the Greek text the translators of the 1611 King James Version used as a basis for their translation.4

The scholars who translated the King James Version avoided the use of many of the earlier scribal enrichments (such as marginal notes) that had been perpetuated in the Textus Receptus, but they preserved the subscriptions. These scholars also incorporated the chapter divisions created by a thirteenth-century clergyman, Stephen Langton, and verse divisions provided by Stephanus, as we have them in our current Bible.

The Origin of the Subscriptions. The subscriptions in the Byzantine manuscripts—contained in the Textus Receptus and carried into the King James Version—can be traced to their possible creation in the fourth century. Some mid-fourth-century Greek manuscripts of Paul’s epistles contain a compilation of textual notes—the works of a Christian scribe known as Euthalius (or Evagrius). It was Euthalius who composed many editorial aids to the manuscripts during that century and who possibly added “the subscriptions attached to the Pauline Epistles and retained in the King James Version,” says Bruce M. Metzger, a Greek palaeographer at Princeton Theological Seminary and an accomplished New Testament textual specialist.

Metzger believes that the subscriptions at the end of six of Paul’s letters—which he attributes to Euthalius—are either false or implausible when judged against the letters’ content.5 But Metzger does not cast the same doubt upon the one at the end of Philemon and the other six. (The subscriptions are all retained in the 1979 LDS edition of the Bible, to preserve the heritage of the King James Version.)

In his letter to Philemon, Paul, who wrote from Rome, informed Philemon, a Church leader of Collosae in Asia Minor, about one Onesimus, a runaway slave, whom Paul had converted to Christianity in Rome and whom he was returning to his master, Philemon.

Most scholars agree that Paul wrote at least part of the letter, pointing principally to the statement in verse 19—“I Paul have written it with mine own hand”—which refers specifically to the promissory note in the previous verse, if not to the entire letter.6 Onesimus may have been a secretary to whom Paul dictated the letter. Since Paul composed the letter to Philemon at the same time that he produced one for the Colossians, Paul dispatched the two letters together, with Onesimus and Tychicus as messengers. (See Col. 4:7–9.) Hence, at the end of the letter, the added subscription reads: “Written from Rome to Philemon, by [means of] Onesimus, a servant.”


  1. William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, trans., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1957), p. 179.

  2. James C. Turro and Raymond E. Brown, “Canonicity,” in The Jerome Biblical Commentary, ed. Raymond E. Brown, Joseph A. Fitzmeyer, and Roland E. Murphy, 2 vols. (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1968), 2:530; and Merrill C. Tenney, New Testament Survey, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. Eerdman’s Publishing Co., 1961), p. 123.

  3. Bruce M. Metzger, Manuscripts of the Greek Bible (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1981), p. 54.

  4. Frederic Kenyon, Our Bible and the Ancient Manuscripts, rev. ed. (New York: Harper & Row, 1958), p. 161; and F. F. Bruce, History of the Bible (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1978), p. 127.

  5. Metzger, Manuscripts of the Greek Bible, pp. 40, 42. See also William F. Orr and James Arthur Walther, I Corinthians, Anchor Bible Series (New York: Doubleday, 1976), p. 366.

  6. For the two views on whether Paul wrote all or part of the letter, see George Arthur Buttrick, et al., The Interpreter’s Bible, 12 vols., (New York: Abingdon Press, 1962), 11:571; and Henry Alford, Alford’s Greek Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Guardian Press, 1976), 3:434.