By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: Early Church Workers

  • Onesimus was Philemon’s slave.
  • The name, Onesimus, means “useful” or “profitable.”
  • This is what was expected of him as a slave.
  • Since there is no notation of his father, some scholars assume he was born in the home of Philemon.
  • If this is true, it is possible that Philemon was his biological father.
  • True or not, this indicates that he had no history outside the home of Philemon.
  • It is likely that he was unmarried. Scholars think he would never have left behind a wife and children, but he could not have taken them along either.
  • He was probably a young man, perhaps in his twenties, when he ran away.
  • Paul does not specifically ask for his freedom. This might be due to a law which prohibited emancipation of a slave younger than thirty years of age. ·
  • About forty years later, there will be an Onesimus who was the bishop of Ephesus. Scholars think this was probably the same individual.
  • He would then be about sixty when he was designated to be leader of the church.
  • If perchance, Onesimus had been born free, then he became a slave under horrific conditions. People were conscripted into slavery as captives of war, as debtors, or for crimes.
  • Scholars refrain from guessing about Onesimus’ education or skills or work performance.
  • Because Onesimus was “useful” to Paul, scholars think he might have known several languages or been able to read and write.
  • It is generally assumed that Onesimus was converted while in the company of Paul.
  • It is likely that his character was also transformed at this point. · Indeed, Paul is thought to be his “spiritual father.”
  • This would fit well with the gospel message of transformation from a life of sin and death to a Christian life lived in Christ.
  • Paul called him a “faithful and beloved brother.”
  • The implication is that prior to this he was more of a rogue, but scholars admit this is pure conjecture.
  • It is also not known why Onesimus ran away from Philemon.
  • It is generally thought to be due in part to mistreatment by the slave master.
  • Slaves wouldn’t be likely to run from a master who treated them with decency and respect.
  • Nor is it known how long it took him to get to Paul, if this was accidental or carefully planned.
  • There are many reasons why a slave might have looked for Paul.
  • Paul had also suffered much in his work in the gospel; a slave could relate to that.
  • Perhaps Onesimus had even received the help of other Christians.
  • Realistically, it is likely that Paul’s journey took some time and Onesimus would have been living in the shadows of society during that time. A fugitive slave was shunned by people in society, in part because laws prevented harboring and helping a runaway.
  • When he met up with Paul, Onesimus might have been a sorry sight.
  • Some scholars speculate that Onesimus might have heard Paul preach or at least heard about the gospel message and sought him out.
  • The message of freedom in Christ would have sounded very glorious to a slave.
  • We do not know how long he spent with Paul, learning at his feet.
  • Regardless of the time spent together, Paul was mighty impressed with the young man.
  • Nor is it known whose idea it was for him to return to his master.
  • Onesimus might have wanted to do right by Philemon or Paul might have wanted to be more law abiding.
  • If Onesimus had been caught in the company of Paul, there would have been huge legal consequences.
  • Paul offered to pay Philemon whatever “damages” he had incurred by the loss of Onesimus.
  • Some scholars think Onesimus stole from Philemon; Paul offered to repay that debt. Other scholars think Paul offered to pay Philemon for any lost wages.
  • It is not known how Philemon responded to this offer.
  • Even though we do not know the outcome of Paul’s letter, there is every reason to assume that Onesimus remained at Colossae, and that he was recognized as the bishop of Ephesus forty years later.


Barclay, William. "The Letters to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon." Daily Study Bible. Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press. 1975.

Barth, Markus, and Helmut Blanke. "The Letter to Philemon." Eerdmans Critical Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B Eerdmans. 2000.

Duling, Dennis and Norman Perrin. The New Testament. Proclamation and Parenesis, Myth and History. Philadelphia, PA: Harcourt Brace College Publishers. 1994.

Gaebelein, Frank. "Philemon." Expositor's Bible Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing. 1985.

Koenig, John. "Philippians, Philemon." Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing. 1985.

Martin, Ralph. "Colossians and Philemon." The New Century Bible Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B Eerdmans. 1981.

Patzia, Arthur. "Ephesians, Colossians, Philemon." New International Biblical Commentary. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson. 1988.

Bible Characters