Archive for the ‘Philemon’ Category

What Happened to Onesimus?

I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a sermon on Philemon until the other day.  In fact, I think the only time I’ve ever heard it referenced is using v6 (“I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith”) to support evangelism, which sounds like a reasonable application in some English translations (notably the NIV), though probably not the actual meaning.  At any rate, until I heard a two-part Doug Moo sermon, I’d never heard someone exposit the text.

There are probably a couple reasons for this: it’s very short, Paul doesn’t outright condemn slavery like we might want him to, and we don’t know the ending to the story.  We have no biblical reference to Philemon’s reaction to Paul’s letter.  Did he take advantage of the Roman laws which would permit him to punish severely, even with death?  Did he set Onesimus free?  Did Onesimus return to his position as slave, but with the fellowship of his newfound brothers and sisters in Christ?  All of these, and probably more, are possibilities.

I don’t think we can come to a strong conclusion to this question, though I think I lean toward Onesimus being set free by Philemon.  I’ll look at 3 points of evidence, though the 3rd is the one that is most intriguing to me.

  1. Toward the end of his letter to the Colossians, Paul tells them that he is sending Tychicus to them (probably the letter carrier), along with Onesimus.  Let’s assume for a second that this is the same Onesimus we encounter in Philemon.  Is this a clue that he was set free and became a part of Paul’s ministry team?  That’s possible, though I tend to think that Philemon and Colossians were sent together (notice that many of the same people send their greetings at the end of both letters).  I should note that it is possible that Philemon was written earlier, and Colossians would be evidence that Philemon was emancipated.  I just don’t think that’s the most natural way to understand this connection.
  2. Ignatius, writing sometime around 110AD, refers to the bishop in Ephesus, Onesimus.  Is this the same Onesimus?  That certainly is possible.  If Onesimus was a fairly young man when Paul wrote to Philemon, it is possible that this could be the same man, though 50 years older.  Unfortunately, there is no certainty these refer to the same person.  Onesimus was a relatively common name, though I think more study can be done on this (maybe it has been, I don’t know).  Onesimus means “useful” or “profitable,” which makes sense since he was a slave.  Were most people with the name “Onesimus” slaves?  If so, what are the chances there would be a bishop with that name?  If it is a slave name, then I’d argue this makes the likelihood of them being the same person greater (though I wouldn’t die on this hill).
  3. One thought I’ve had but have never really encountered (but I may have forgotten) is considering the implications of the very existence of the letter.  If Philemon rejected Paul’s request to accept Onesimus back as a brother (even if he didn’t grant him full emancipation), would this letter still exist?  Would it have been copied and circulated?  It’s not as if this were a public letter in the sense of 1-2 Corinthians or Galatians (though Philemon apparently wasn’t the only person to read it).  One of those letters would have been much more likely to be copied, even if it didn’t have the effect Paul would have liked.  All it would take would be for one house church to agree with it, copy it and distribute it.  Paul’s letter to Philemon, on the other hand, would probably not exist if Philemon refused to grant Paul his wish.

We still cannot say for sure what happened.  I suppose it’s possible that someone else had access to this letter and copied it, though I still think the same issue applies: if the situation ended poorly, why would anyone keep it?  I think the evidence points toward there being a “happy ending.”  What exactly that “happy ending” is… well… that’s harder to tell.  Was he returned to Paul?  Was he granted freedom and stayed with Philemon and his household?  Was he kept on as a slave, albeit with an entirely different relationship to his master?  We’ll never know, but I’m betting he ended up with a far better result than if Paul had never written the letter to begin with.

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