Who Was Onesimus?
That is a good question. It has caused some debate among Bible students. The traditional and majority opinion is that he was a runaway slave belonging to Philemon. Philemon lived in
and Onesimus ran away, perhaps stealing money from his owner (verse 18). He
ended up in Colossae ,
and was converted to Christ through the ministry of Paul (verses 9-10). He uses
the image of Onesimus as his son, just as he does with Timothy (cf. 1 Cor.
4:17). This view has been questioned because of the following reasons: First,
nowhere is Onesimus called a fugitive. Second, we are seemingly told only of
the possibility that he wronged Philemon (verse 18). Rome
What does the epistle itself tell us? In reality, very little. First, that he was a slave (verse 16). Second, he had a relationship with Philemon of some type, but it is not defined. Third, he was looked upon in the past as unprofitable (verse 11). Fourth, there was a change in Onesimus that turned him into an asset (verse 11). He evidently wronged Philemon in some way (verse 19). He was converted to Christ through Paul (verse 10). Sixth, nowhere is he said to be a runaway, but there was a separation between the two (verse 15). If one looks honestly at the text, there is much that is ambiguous about the details behind what is revealed. Of course, part of that may be that these details were not ambiguous to Philemon, and he would have known what we not are told.
Because of the ambiguous element in the epistle, some other views have emerged. These include:
Messenger View. This view holds that Onesimus was a sent messenger from the church to minister to Paul. He was sent to minister to Paul and bring supplies or support to Paul from the church. He therefore is considered a slave or servant of the believing community in
This view is hard pressed to explain for the following reasons: First, why he
referred to as useless up to this
point. Why would they have sent a useless servant to aid Paul? Second, the
phrase “separated from you” indicates
more than just absence, but suggest being gone without consent. Third, the term
anapempo has the contextual meaning of being sent back; not that it refers to a higher authority. This is a historical
statement (cf. Colossians 4:9) of what actually happened. Colossae
Unknown Reason View. This view holds that Onesimus was not a fugitive, but no real reason as to why he left
is stated. The reason is unknown to the readers. Colossae
Family View. This view holds that Onesimus was not a slave of Philemon, but was in fact a brother of Philemon. This comes from verse 16 with the argument that they were physical brothers. This view confronts us with some problems between being a slave and a brother. It sets up a contradiction in verse 16, that says do not accept him any longer as a slave, but as a brother. This view causes a murky interpretation of verse 16. I agree with Moo, that this “is the most improbable of all the options.”
Of these views, the traditional and the unknown views are the most acceptable. The unknown reason has it merits. However, I still hold to the traditional view. The reasons for this are:
· It is tolerable to the data and tone of the text.
· It conforms to the historical setting where runaway slaves sought freedom as a common occurrence in the
Roman Empire. It
clearly speaks of him as a slave.
· In conformity of Roman law, Onesimus was sent back to his master.
· The possible wrong doing was stealing, which was common among runaway slaves. This scenario fits with the request of charging Paul’s account for that which was taken.
· One of the clear purposes for the epistle is reconciliation between Onesimus and Philemon (verses 12, 15).
· There seems to be an appeal for Philemon to give Onesimus his freedom (verse 14).