corner graphic

Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament


Resource Toolbox
Additional Links


Onesimus was a Colossian (Colossians 4:9), the slave of Philemon (Philemon 1:16). The name, signifying ‘useful,’ ‘profitable,’ ‘helpful,’ was frequently and appropriately borne by slaves (see J. B. Lightfoot, Colossians and Philemon3, 1879, p. 310, who quotes numerous examples, chiefly from Muratori’s Collection of Inscriptions). C. v. Weizsäcker (Apostolic Age, Eng. translation , 1894-1895, ii. 245) regards the Epistle to Philemon as allegorical owing to the play on the name Onesimus in Phil 3, 1879:11; but on similar grounds much well-authenticated history might be rejected. Onesimus, for a time, belied his name; he absconded from his master’s house, after either robbing him or otherwise doing him ‘injury.’ In order, probably, to avoid detection and at the same time to seek his fortune, Onesimus came to Rome. (For the argument against Caesarea as his place of refuge, see Philemon, Epistle to.) There he came into relation with the apostle Paul, the spiritual father of Philemon. At this time St. Paul had not yet visited Colossae (Colossians 2:1); but Onesimus may have seen and heard the Apostle at Ephesus during the latter’s three years’ abode in that city, which was only 100 miles distant from Colossae. In any case, he must have heard much of St. Paul in Philemon’s house; and he may thus have been drawn to the Apostle’s Roman lodging by the desire to obtain help in need or to listen to teaching from one who had taken a special interest in slaves (1 Corinthians 7:21-22, Ephesians 6:7-9, Acts 16:18). Epaphras of Colossae, the Apostle’s fellow-worker in Rome (Colossians 4:12), may have been the medium of introduction. Under St. Paul’s instruction and influence Onesimus became a Christian (Philemon 1:10, ‘whom I have begotten in my bonds’). There must have been something very lovable about the fugitive slave, notwithstanding his blemished record; for the Apostle not only testifies to his faithfulness and helpfulness, but calls him a ‘beloved brother’ (Colossians 4:9), his other self (Philemon 1:17), ‘my very heart’ (lit. [Note: literally, literature.] ‘my own bowels,’ τὰ ἐμὰ σπλάγχνα, Philemon 1:12). As a Christian, Onesimus would realize more keenly his misdemeanour in absconding and perhaps stealing from Philemon; hence he appears to have readily acquiesced in St. Paul’s determination not to retain him, however ‘profitable,’ but to restore him to his lawful master. Onesimus, accordingly, returns to Colossae along with St. Paul’s colleague in the ministry, Tychicus (Colossians 4:8-9), who, as a native of the province of Asia, would probably be known to Philemon, and would be an appropriate personal intercessor for Onesimus with Philemon on the Apostle’s behalf. To render certain, however, the friendly reception of Onesimus, St. Paul sends with the slave a letter to Philemon commending him as one to be received and permanently possessed (αἰώνιον ἀπέχῃς) ‘no longer as a slave, but above a slave, a brother beloved.’

We have no reliable account of Onesimus’ subsequent history; but we may accept as in itself highly credible the tradition (Apost. Canons, 82) that Philemon not only forgave but emancipated his slave. More doubtful and also discordant are the records which represent Onesimus as attaining to the position of ‘bishop’ or presiding presbyter, in BerCEa, according to the Apost. Const. (vii. 46); in Ephesus, according to another tradition which identifies him with Onesimus, ‘bishop’ of Ephesus in the time of Ignatius (Ign. Ephesians 1; AS [Note: S Acta Sanctorum (Bollandus).] , under 16th Feb.). A tradition (also embodied in the AS [Note: S Acta Sanctorum (Bollandus).] ) represents him as journeying to Spain; and the apocryphal Acts of the Spanish Xanthippe and Polyxena are written in his name (see Texts and Studies ii. 3 [1893]). Nicephorus (9th cent.) transmits (Historia Ecclesiastica (Eusebius, etc.) iii. 11) a tradition that he was martyred at Rome; while another authority (Galesinius) describes that martyrdom as taking place at Puteoli (AS [Note: S Acta Sanctorum (Bollandus).] , loc. cit.). The commonness of the name deprives these accounts of any historical reliability. F. W. Farrar, in Darkness and Dawn, ed. 1892, p. 79 ff., and the author of Philochristos (E. A. Abbott) in his Onesimus, 1882, give interesting fictitious accounts of what might have been the life-story of this slave.

Literature.-See under Philemon, Epistle to.

Henry Cowan.

Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Onesimus'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. 1906-1918.

Search for…
Enter query in the box:
Choose a letter to browse:
A  B  C  D  E  F  G  H  I  J  K  L  M 
N  O  P  Q  R  S  T  U  V  W  Y  Z 

Prev Entry
Next Entry
To report dead links, typos, or html errors or suggestions about making these resources more useful use our convenient contact form
Powered by Lightspeed Technology