Question: After Paul wrote the letter to Philemon, was Onesimus accepted as a brother in Christ by Philemon? Or is Onesimus mentioned again?
This question comes from the Book of Philemon, authored by the Apostle Paul. Unlike most of Paul’s letters, this one is addressed to an individual.
Onesimus was a slave who had run away from his owner, Philemon, a friend of Paul’s from his journeys. Onesimus had come to Paul who, at that time, was imprisoned in Rome. Little is known about Onesimus, but it is presumed that he was an African slave. From Paul’s statement that he (Paul) would repay anything Onesimus owed Philemon, there is also an assumption that Onesimus had stolen something from Philemon when he ran away.
Paul instructs Philemon to “accept Onesimus as a brother.” In other words, Paul’s direction was to show Christian love to his run-away salve. Many have wondered why Paul did not just come out and request that Onesimus be freed. He came close, but we have to look at this in the context of the times.
At the time of Paul’s letter to Philemon roughly one third of all the people in the Roman Empire were slaves. In the high population centers such as Ephesus, close to where Philemon is presumed to have lived, this ran as high as 70%. Slavery was a mainstay of Roman life, much as it was in the American south prior to the American Civil War. Paul would have been risking his life to openly oppose or condemn slavery.
“Onesimus” means “useful or profitable.” It is unknown whether this was the slave’s original name or if Paul changed his name to carry this particular meaning. Paul plays on this meaning in v.11 when he says “who once was unprofitable to you, but now is profitable to you and to me.”
The Bible does not tell us whether Philemon followed Paul’s request (we presume he did, but don’t know) or what happened to Onesimus after he returned. However, a second century writer, Ignatius, says that a Bishop of Ephesus by the name of Onesimus was the former slave of Philemon. There is no way to know whether this is true. This is the only mention of Onesimus I’ve been able to find that provides any kind of follow-up to Paul’s letter.
Alive in The Word
This is part of a series of blogs responding to questions that come up in Bible study classes I am either taking or facilitating. To see all of the blogs in this series, please visit: Questions from Bible Study