What are your sources for connecting Philemon to the letter from Laodicea?


I am fascinated by your analysis regarding Philemon and Laodicea.  Did you find some of this in Lightfoot? I see no footnotes, and wonder whether this approach has been observed (or clues or hints) in earlier literature.  Your presentation, from a careful reading, and context, makes this an impressive argument - and I might add, faith-strengthening. 

If I quote anything about this, I'd like to know the original source, other than, of course, the most important, the Bible itself. I have Jeffrey Khoo's exposition on Philemon (Far Eastern Bible College) which is excellent, with ample footnotes to Lightfoot and many others, but no attempt to make the connection to Laodicea. The New Bible Commentary (Eerdmans, 1958) states simply, "Lightfoot, for example, favours Laodicea." Have you had any responses from readers, pro or con, that would be meaningful, and if so, are you willing to share the thread? I will appreciate anything you can share about this connection, Philemon, the most likely 'lost' letter "the one from Laodicea" of Colossians 4:16.


I was reading an article by Jay Horsley, titled "And Say to Archippus ..." in Expository Files, July 2002. Brotherly Horsely made many fine points which I wanted to bring to the congregation here, but one was that Philemon was the letter from Laodicea. I had been asked somewhere in that same time frame about what happened to the letter from Laodicea and the thought was fascinating.

What you see, is a result of my studies to see what evidence I could find to connect the two letters. I don't have Lightfoot's commentaries, so that wasn't a source. Whether brother Horsley used Lightfoot, I cannot tell you. I did learn in my research that Matthew Poole's Commentary does mention it as a possibility. I disagree with his ultimate conclusion, but he does mention some of the arguments raised. I generally don't document the commentaries I consult unless there is a quote I wish to use. In this particular case, I remember reading many commentaries which assume that the letter was lost or was the letter to Ephesus, but often there would be a mention of some other idea that they had dismissed. Those often gave me clues to things to research deeper.

I know from a scholar's viewpoint, documenting sources of ideas is important. From a preacher's point of view, who says something carries no weight (I Peter 4:11). Truth isn't established by tracing the origin of an idea or declaring that a well-known scholar agrees with you. It all revolves around whether this is what can actually be found in the Bible. What you see is the analysis both why it does make sense and a consideration of the many objections I ran into and why I concluded they weren't solidily based on the Bible. In other words, I'm presenting what I became convinced of as being the truth. I wasn't persuade because brother Horsley said it, or any scholar thinks so. I was persuaded by what I found in my Bible and I want others to make their conclusion from the Bible as well.

In regards to responses. I publish what I get in the questions and answers section of this site. The few things I don't publish are: thinly veiled attempts to teach a false doctrine or promote a false teacher, answer to questions already answered, trash talk, and a few people who ask me not to post their questions because of the personal matters they contain.

Thank you so much for your detailed response. I am in complete agreement, and am encouraged by not only your conclusions but also by your approach.

A scholarly friend has circulated among a close circle of friends a copy of a letter purporting to be the lost letter. He was not convinced of the validity of the claim and wanted feedback. It was clear to me upon reading it that although it had no contrary teachings, it was apparently not by Paul, but by a later hand, probably in a misconceived attempt to fill a perceived void – and possibly to counter some other (Marcion?) purported letter, now fortunately lost, which had contrary ideas.

I am copying him on this, which I hope explains why I am going to greater length in writing to you.

Searching on the Internet to find what others had written about this, I stumbled across your insightful article. By the second reading of it I was convinced you had it right. This was one of those rare eye-opening events. It made me love Paul even more, seeing, as you described, the many ways he was looking out for this lowly slave, now a brother. Your presentation, calling for a more careful reading of both Colossians and Philemon, made me wonder: How could I have not made the connection before? In the intervening hundreds of years has anyone else come to the same conclusion? Not that any commentary could be more meaningful than the Scriptures, but one cannot help but wonder.

Curiosity aroused even more, and in gratitude, I wrote to you. Now I have read Jay Horsley’s exposition (And say to Archippus…) which aided you on your journey. His is also very convincing and faith inspiring. (If you are in touch with him, he might want to change paragraph 8 to read ‘Philemon’ instead of ‘Philippian’, although the meaning is still clear.) At www.earlychristianwritings.com/goodspeed/ch09.html I was happy to see Professor Goodspeed, whose translation I have often used, had concluded as early as the mid 1930s that the letter to Philemon is the Pauline Laodicean letter.

A footnote lead me to a John Knox 1935, similar conclusion, but with much conjecture and positing a few problems. On the Roman road from Ephesus one would come to Laodicea before arriving at Colossae. I do not see this as a problem, as I can imagine Tychicus and Onesimus delivering first the letter to Philemon, requesting permission from Philemon for them to proceed to Colossae as Paul requested, with Onesimus then returning to his master. This would have been another protection desired by Paul. Conjecture, but a possible explanation not requiring surreptitiously passing Laodicea to arrive at Colossae first.

My question: It appears from Colossians 4:14 that the congregation in Laodicea customarily met in the house of Nymphas. So if Philemon lived in Laodicea, and we know the congregation met in his house, do we have two meeting places in the same albeit larger town? Either that, or maybe ‘Nymphas , and the church which is in his house’ was in Hieropolis (v. 13)

In your research, has this Nymphus question come up?

The story of Amazing Grace, the writer of the song, and the recent movie of that title about William Wilberforce, is a continuing thread of mercy emanating from the comparatively merciful laws on servitude in the Mosaic Law, and elevated to even higher principle by Christ’s apostle to the nations, as evidenced by his letters to the brothers in Colossae and Laodicea. Seeds of freedom.

Almost certainly, the letter to Philemon is the Laodicean letter.

Thank you for placing your sermon in a place where it can be faith strengthening to many. Your congregation must look forward eagerly to your lectures and Bible discussions.

Since Matthew Poole mentions the possibility of Philemon being the letter to Laodicea in his commentary that was published in 1685, the idea certainly isn't new.

In response to another question about the Letter to Laodicea, I wrote this:

Let us now consider the verse prior to verse 16. "Greet the brethren who are in Laodicea, and Nymphas and the church that is in his house" (Colossians 4:15). Many have assumed that it was the church in Laodicea which met in Nymphas' house. However, read the verse more carefully and you will realize that Paul is sending greetings to two groups of brethren, not one. He greets the brethren in Laodicea and he sends greetings to the church that meets in Nymphas' house. Back up to verse 13, "For I bear him witness that he has a great zeal for you, and those who are in Laodicea, and those in Hierapolis." Three congregations are mentioned in this verse: the Colossians, the Laodiceans, and those in Hierapolis. Pull out a map and you will see that Hierapolis is six miles from Laodicea. The two towns were in viewing distance of each other across a valley. The city of Colosse is eleven miles from Laodicea and thirteen miles from Hierapolis. It makes much more sense to assume that Nymphas lived in Hierapolis and the church in Hierapolis met in his house.