Who was Onesimus really?
By Carolyn Putt, reprinted with permission
I don’t find anything about thieving, fleeing, rebellion or disobedience in this small book.
The book of Philemon was written as a personal letter, when the apostle Paul was in prison in Rome, with Epaphras (Phile 23). It is Paul’s penultimate imprisonment; the last one being when he was alone with Luke and when he wrote to Timothy, asking him to “Do thy diligence to come before winter.” (2 Tim 4:11 and 21.) We know Philemon is a ‘prison letter’, because of many verses (for eg - Eph 3:1, 4:1, and 6:20, Col 4:3 and 4:18, Phile 9, Philip 1:7-16, and Heb 10:34, and 13:3 and 24.) All of them mention Timothy except Ephesians, two say Timothy is soon to be released, three mention Paul should soon be released, two of them mention Epaphras, 2 mention Marcus, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke, and three of them mention Tychicus and Onesimus.
It is a very small book, and my question is, who really was Onesimus, and did he really do the things he is often accused of?
Many preachers and writers teach that Onesimus was a runaway slave, who had stolen from his master Philemon, and who had fled to Paul in Rome to ask him to help him, to perhaps mediate, and that he got converted to Christianity while he was there.
However, Paul’s actions in sending Onesimus back, and that the text says
“If he hath wronged thee, or oweth thee ought, put that on mine account..” (Phile 18), are they really enough to convict the poor man? We know Paul was a man of independent living, not wanting to take from the churches when he ought not, but there is nothing in the scriptures that show Onesimus was a thief or a runaway, if you check carefully.
The Bible tells us that Onesimus is actually the author of Colossians and Philemon. Would a slave have had these literary skills in those days?
Colossus was also (according to google) 1,311 miles from Rome. If Onesimus came from Colossus, that would explain why he is writing and returning these two letters with him when he goes back, and also why Paul describes him as “one of you” in Col 3:9. Would a runaway slave easily have had the means to travel that far? And would it make sense for a fugitive to run into the arms of the law in a Roman prison? Maybe he had heard of Paul and really wanted to be saved. Or maybe he was already a saved member of the church in Colossus and was just going all that way to minister to poor Paul? (After all, Paul does describe Onesimus in Col 3:9 as “a faithful and beloved brother, who is one of you.” (Already a church member or just from the same city?) Historically, slaves were viewed as less than humans - a commodity only to be bought and sold. But Paul describes Onesimus as “above a servant, a brother beloved” and “a faithful and beloved brother.” (Col 4.) Does this sound like a thieving runaway who had just arrived in Rome to ask Paul for help?
The Bible tells us that Onesimus is actually the author of Colossians and Philemon.
Would a slave have had these literary skills in those days?
Out of interest, the NIV calls Onesimus a “slave.” The ESV calls him a “bondservant.” The Message calls him a “mere slave.” But Paul calls him in our precious KJV a “servant”. Although there are two other places in the New Testament which describe a physical slave as a servant (1 Tim 6:1-2 and 1 Cor 7:20-24), a servant is more often used to describe a minister, a willing and voluntary helper who serves, as was Joshua of Moses in Josh 1:2, Moses was of the Lord in Deut 34:5, and even Christ himself was in Is 42:1 and Philip 2:7.) Paul describes himself as a servant, as do Peter, John, James, Timothy and Jude.
A couple of final things I noticed which might mean Onesimus wasn’t who we are often led to believe he was:
In Phile 10-13, Paul uses the word “whom” three times in describing Onesimus. But, if Paul is actually talking about his chains, his imprisonment, his “bonds”, as being “WHICH in time past was to thee unprofitable to thee and to me” it makes sense that the change in the passage from “whom” to “which” would be grammatically correct. Why else would Paul suddenly change mid-passage to use ‘which’ instead of ‘whom’? Which is a thing, whom is a person! (It may be argued that Peter uses “which” instead of “whom” in 1 Peter 2:9-10, but this is also a case where “which” is actually used correctly, as it is referring to a collective noun - “generation”, “priesthood”, “nation”, and “people”; not to a named person.) So this might retract the accusation that Onesimus was “unprofitable” (useless? Disobedient?) at all.
Last of all, I argue that since we are told in the first few lines of this personal letter that Philemon is “our dearly beloved” and that he has a “church in thy house”, would it really make sense to believe that Onesimus was his slave, who stole from him and ran away, if he was Philemon’s actual, real, blood brother? It clearly says in Phile 16 - “Not now as a servant, but above a servant, a brother beloved, specially to me, but how much more unto thee BOTH IN THE FLESH and in the Lord?”
Paul writes in Phile 9 that Philemon himself is “aged” as he himself is, and we believe Paul was in his 60s at this point, so perhaps Onesimus was really a faithful member of the church in Philemon’s home, and his beloved brother of a similar age?
I don’t find anything about thieving, fleeing, rebellion or disobedience in this small book. So perhaps it is actually in the New Testament as an honour to one of our greatest early church leaders ever! Paul liked to shorten names (out of fondness, as we do today?) -
He changed John Mark to Marcus, Epaphraditus to Epaphras, Priscilla to Prisca, so IF Paul means Onesimus when he writes about Onesiphorus, look at what he writes about him in 2 Timothy 1:16!
On a personal note:
Although the order of the king James is laid out in a pre-mill order, and I'd always heard of the 'right before Hebrews the slave gets called back to his master' line to prove it, I wonder if based on Carolyn's findings (which blew me away and are very hard to refute!) what it really means is that a decent Bible-believing-rapture-ready-christian is looked at in a completely vilified way (like a slave wouldve been in roman times) before the rapture as typified in the book of Hebrews being next. That would make sense.