Most biblical scholars agree that Paul’s letter to the Colossians is likely a forgery, unlike the letter to Philemon, which is generally accepted as genuine. But there are some hidden similarities between these two letters that challenge this belief. These connections revolve around similar situations and people mentioned in both letters. All this info comes from William Paley’s Horae Paulinae.
Let’s focus on the evidence that links Onesimus to Colossae. In the letter addressed to Philemon, we learn that Onesimus was actually a servant or slave of Philemon. So where did Philemon live? Oddly enough, the letter doesn’t directly say where he was from. But there’s a clue – Philemon seems to be connected to a well-known Christian named Archippus from the same place.
In Philemon 1:2, we read: “Paul, a prisoner of Jesus Christ, and Timothy our brother, to Philemon our beloved co-worker, and to our dear Apphia, Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house.” Now, if we backtrack to the letter to the Colossians, we find that Archippus is specifically greeted by name among the Christians in that church, along with an instruction: “Tell Archippus, ‘See to it that you complete the ministry you have received in the Lord.'” (Colossians 4:17).
The idea that Onesimus was from the same city as Philemon seems to be either a consistent detail between the texts or a complex network of forgeries that strangely fit together.
Paley argues that intentionally creating this connection seems unlikely. Not only would most readers miss the intended point of saying “he is one of you” in our letter, but the steps needed to connect Onesimus to Philemon, Philemon to Archippus, and Archippus to Colossae are too complicated. Would a forger really expect readers to dig through multiple letters to make these connections? All of this is needed to confirm that Onesimus had a connection to Colossae.
This alignment isn’t just about confirming Onesimus’s link to Colossae; it also reveals several related details.
- In Philemon 1:10-12, Philemon is being asked to take Onesimus back, implying that Onesimus had probably been sent to Colossae during that time. The Epistle to the Colossians holds clues supporting this idea: “Tychicus will tell you all the news about me. He is a dear brother, a faithful minister, and a fellow servant in the Lord. I am sending him to you for the express purpose that you may know about our circumstances and that he may encourage your hearts.” (Colossians 4:7-9).
- Philemon is encouraged to welcome Onesimus, whom Paul fondly calls “my very heart,” and Paul indicates that he became like a son to him during his imprisonment (Philemon 1:12). So, from that earlier mention, it seems Onesimus was around when Paul wrote the Letter to the Colossians. Paul wrote that letter while in prison, as he talked about it in Colossians 4:3: “And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains.”
- Paul asked Philemon to get a guest room ready, hoping that, with their prayers, he’d soon be free. This lines up with his expectation of getting out soon, which he mentioned in another letter written while he was in prison: “I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon, that I also may be cheered when I receive news about you.” (Philippians 2:23-24).
- Since Paul wrote letters to Philemon and the Colossians at the same time, both delivered by the same person—one addressed to an individual and the other to the whole Colossian group—it’s expected they’d include similar people sending their regards. And yep, we see names like Aristarchus, Mark, Epaphras, Luke, Demas, and Timothy in both letters (Philemon 1:23-24). But here’s the catch: while these names appear in both, there’s a difference. In Colossians, Aristarchus is called a fellow prisoner (Colossians 4:10), but in Philemon, he’s mentioned without this title. Instead, the term “fellow prisoner” is used for Epaphras.
In comparing the two letters, it’s worth noting that this isn’t a case of deliberate gaps in a real document that a forger might try to fill. Nor does it reference an existing document being imitated, like the apocryphal “Epistle to the Laodiceans.”
Paley suggests that if the Colossians letter were indeed a forgery, it seems disconnected from Paul’s genuine writings. In Colossians, Philemon isn’t mentioned, and details about Onesimus as a servant, his mistakes, escape, or conversion aren’t brought up. If the Colossians letter were fake, it missed a chance to make clearer connections with Philemon.
New Testament scholar Craig Blomberg takes things a step further. He agues that if we establish Philemon as genuine and note its close ties with Colossians through shared names of Paul’s friends and companions, then the relationship between Ephesians and Colossians becomes significant. Both mention Tychicus as the letter carrier, a detail found nowhere else. Interestingly, the strongest verbal similarity between these two letters lies in Ephesians 6:21–22 and Colossians 4:7–8, containing a sequence of thirty-two consecutive words that are identical in the standard Greek New Testaments.
Suppose these three letters were dispatched by Paul via Tychicus from Rome at the same time. In this scenario, Ephesus would have been a logical stop on the way to Colossae, enabling all necessary deliveries.
Most scholarly tend to doubt Paul wrote the letter to the Colossians (and even more so for Ephesians), but not everyone agrees on this. Still, when we observe the casual links between Philemon and Colossians—Onesimus’s journey to Colossae, shared people like Aristarchus and Epaphras, and the common theme of Paul’s imminent release from prison—it’s hard to chalk it all up to forgery. What’s more intriguing is that the forger seems not to have pulled much from Paul’s genuine writings, weakening the argument for deliberate deception. These subtle connections give weight to the idea that both letters might genuinely be from Paul’s hand during his imprisonment in Rome.
Erik is the creative force behind the YouTube channel Testify, which is an educational channel built to help inspire people’s confidence in the text of the New Testament and the truth of the Christian faith.