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Onesimus

ONESIMUS (ō-nĕs'ĭ-mŭs, Gr. Onesimos, profitable). Probably a common nickname for a slave. Paul plays on the word onesimos in Phlm.1.11 and again in Phlm.1.20. A plain reading of the letters to Philemon and the Colossian church leads to the conclusion that Onesimus was a slave of Philemon of Colosse. He robbed his master and made his way to Rome, the frequent goal of such fugitives, the “common cesspool of the world,” as the aristocratic historian Sallust called the city. Some Ephesian or Colossian person in Rome, perhaps Aristarchus (Acts.27.2; Col.4.10-Col.4.14; Phlm.1.24), or Epaphras (Col.1.7; Col.4.12-Col.4.13; Phlm.1.23) seems to have recognized the man and brought him to Paul in his captivity. Onesimus became a Christian and was persuaded to return to his master. From that incident came the exquisite letter of Paul to Philemon, which demonstrates so vividly the social solvent that Christianity had brought into the world. It appears that Onesimus left Rome in company with Tychicus, carrying the letter to Philemon and also Paul’s letters to the Ephesian and Colossian churches. Nothing more is known about Onesimus. The tradition that Onesimus became the martyr bishop of Berea is of doubtful authenticity.——EMB


ONESIMUS ō nĕs’ ə məs (̓Ονήσιμος, G3946, profitable). Onesimus was the slave on whose behalf Paul wrote his letter to Philemon. The name, which means “useful,” was a common one in NT times, esp. for a slave. From Paul’s letter it appears that Onesimus had run away from his master, possibly taking money from him as he left. In the place of Paul’s imprisonment, Rome or possibly Ephesus (see Philemon), Onesimus was brought in touch with the apostle, and was converted to Christ. Paul wrote to Philemon, sending Onesimus no longer as a slave merely, and unprofitable at that, but as “a beloved brother.”


Onesimus was referred to as “the faithful and beloved brother, who is one of yourselves” (Col 4:9). These words, and the reference to Archippus (Col 4:17) connect Philemon and Colossians, and also provide evidence that Onesimus was a man of Colossae.

Contrary to the generally accepted view of the relationships between Onesimus and Philemon and of their residence at Colossae, J. Knox (in his book Philemon among the Letters of Paul, 1960 ed.) has set forth a carefully sustained argument to the effect that Archippus was the master of Onesimus. He believes that Paul’s special concern was that he should set Onesimus free for the work of God. He finds reference to this commission in Colossians 4:17, and with regard to the previous verse understands Philemon as the letter that the Colossians were to receive from Laodicea. Knox suggests that Philemon, who had been a fellow-laborer with Paul, was now the overseer of the church in the great center of Laodicea. Onesimus was sent back via Philemon at Laodicea for him to see that Archippus in nearby Colossae fulfilled this duty in respect of his former slave. Knox’s case is brilliantly argued, but greater probability would seem to lie in seeing Philemon as the key person in the letter in which he is first named, in understanding the “ministry” (Col 4:17) as a more general one in the life of the church, and in doubting whether the letter to Philemon should be read among the Christians in general in Colossae (Col 4:16).

Finally, it may be noted that Ignatius some fifty years later spoke of an Onesimus as bishop of Ephesus. There is no certain indication that this was the same man. It is possible that the terms in which Ignatius wrote concerning him (Eph 1:1) suggest it (see J. Knox, op. cit. pp. 89 ff.); one cannot be sure. Both Knox and E. J. Goodspeed (e.g. see The Key to Ephesians, 1956) suggest that this identification would account for the preservation of the little letter to Philemon. Goodspeed in particular makes much of the suggestion that Onesimus was the author of Ephesians, and the key figure in the collection and publication of the corpus of Pauline writings. Against this are what many feel to be the weighty arguments for the authenticity of Ephesians (see Ephesians), and alternative views of the way in which the Pauline letters came to be gathered together. At best the theory can be regarded only as an interesting speculation.

Bibliography

The books of Knox and Goodspeed as above; J. Lightfoot, Saint Paul’s Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon (1875); C. F. D. Moule, CGT on Colossians and Philemon (1957); H. M. Carson, The Epistles of Paul to the Colossians and Philemon (1960).

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

(Onesimos, literally, "profitable," "helpful" (Col 4:9; Phm 1:10)):

1. With Paul in Rome:

Onesimus was a slave (Phm 1:16) belonging to Philemon who was a wealthy citizen of Colosse, and a prominent member of the church there. Onesimus was still a heathen when he defrauded his master and ran off from Colosse. He found his way to Rome, where evil men tended to flock as to a common center, as Tacitus tells us they did at that period. In Rome he came into contact with Paul, who was then in his own hired house, in military custody.

What brought him into contact with Paul we do not know. It may have been hunger; it may have been the pangs of conscience. He could not forget that his master’s house in Colosse was the place where the Christians met in their weekly assemblies for the worship of Christ. Neither could he forget how Philemon had many a time spoken of Paul, to whom he owed his conversion. Now that Onesimus was in Rome--what a strange coincidence--Paul also was in Rome.

The result of their meeting was that Onesimus was converted to Christ, through the instrumentality of the apostle ("my child, whom I have begotten in my bonds," Phm 1:10). His services had been very acceptable to Paul, who would gladly have kept Onesimus with him; but as he could not do this without the knowledge and consent of Philemon, he sent Onesimus back to Colosse, to his master there.

2. Paul’s Epistles to Colosse and to Philemon:

At the same time Paul wrote to the church in Colosse on other matters, and he entrusted the Epistle to the Colossians to the joint care of Tychicus and Onesimus. The apostle recommends Onesimus to the brethren in Colosse, as a "faithful and beloved brother, who is one of you," and he goes on to say that Tychicus and Onesimus will make known to them all things that have happened to Paul in Rome. Such a commendation would greatly facilitate’ Onesimus’s return to Colosse.

But Paul does more. He furnishes Onesimus with a letter written by himself to Philemon. Returning to a city where it was well known that he had been neither a Christian nor even an honest man, he needed someone to vouch for the reality of the change which had taken place in his life. And Paul does this for him both in the Epistle to the Colossians and in that to Philemon.

With what exquisite delicacy is Onesimus introduced! `Receive him,’ says the apostle, `for he is my own very heart’ (Phm 1:12). "The man whom the Colossians had only known hitherto, if they knew him all, as a worthless runaway slave, is thus commended to them, as no more a slave but a brother, no more dishonest and faithless but trustworthy; no more an object of contempt but of love" (Lightfoot’s Commentary on Col, 235).

(1) Onesimus Profitable.

The apostle accordingly begs Philemon to give Onesimus the same reception as he would rejoice to give to himself. The past history of Onesimus had been such as to belie the meaning of his name. He had not been "profitable"--far from it. But already his consistent conduct in Rome and his willing service to Paul there have changed all that; he has been profitable to Paul, and he will be profitable to Philemon too.

(2) Paul Guarantees.

Onesimus had evidently stolen his master’s goods before leaving Colosse, but in regard to that the apostle writes that if he has defrauded Philemon in anything, he becomes his surety. Philemon can regard Paul’s handwriting as a bond guaranteeing payment: "Put that to mine account," are his words, "I will repay it." Had Philemon not been a Christian, and had Paul not written this most beautiful letter, Onesimus might well have been afraid to return. In the Roman empire slaves were constantly crucified for smaller offenses than those of which he had been guilty. A thief and a runaway had nothing but torture or death to expect.

(3) The Change Which Christ Makes.

But now under the sway of Christ all is changed. The master who has been defrauded now owns allegiance to Jesus. The letter, which is delivered to him by his slave, is written by a bound "prisoner of Jesus Christ." The slave too is now a brother in Christ, beloved by Paul: surely he will be beloved by Philemon also. Then Paul intimates that he hopes soon to be set free, and then he will come and visit them in Colosse. Will Philemon receive him into his house as his guest?

(4) The Result.

It cannot be imagined that this appeal in behalf of Onesimus was in vain. Philemon would do more than Paul asked; and on the apostle’s visit to Colosse he would find the warmest welcome, both from Philemon and from Onesimus.

John Rutherfurd